Wisdom is one of the ancient names for God. In the bible, Wisdom is feminine, “She.” In the Hebrew bible the word is “Chokmah.” In the Greek New Testament it is “Sophia.” Last weekend in churches around the globe we read this text:
“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Proverbs 9: 1-6
There is an entire body of material in the Hebrew bible called “Wisdom literature.” It includes Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. Many of the Apocryphal books (books written in between the Old and New Testaments, considered to be part of the bible by Roman Catholics, but not by Protestants) are also considered Wisdom literature. Wisdom, therefore, opens us to the feminine side of God.
So I began my sermon last weekend by doing a prayer exercise with people. I asked them to pray to God the deepest desire of their heart. I then asked them to name God, using the name with which they call upon God in prayer. Many said, “God” or “Holy Father,” or Lord. I then asked them to visualize this God we pray to with a visual image. Many said Shepherd, Father, Rock, Strength, Light.
Of course we know in our minds that God is bigger than all of our names and images. Many people also say we know that God is beyond gender, neither male nor female. But how important it is for us to realize, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola always said, that God is always “More.”
About five years ago during Lent our whole community of faith did what is called a “God survey.” It is a survey developed by the psychiatrist Ana-Maria Rizzuto, in her book, “The Birth of the Living God.” Rizzuto wrote this book because she noticed that the vast majority of her psychiatric patients talked to her about God, and the vast majority of them had a very problematic image or understanding of God. Many of them conceived of God as violent, abusive, or so distant as beyond their reach. In working with these patients Rizzuto discovered that for most people our image or understanding of God comes from our earliest, most primary human relationship(s), in other words, usually our mother or father, or sometimes a grandparent or primary caregiver. If our mother or father was wonderful and loving, that can be a good thing.
But if, as for so many people I counsel, our parent is abusive, or abandoned us when we were young, our God image fares similarly. I used this God survey with about forty people in our community of faith, and our conversations yielded results very similar to Rizzuto’s. So, I invite you to think about your own image of God, and then to think about your earliest, most primary relationship(s), and to ask yourself if your image or understanding of God looks a lot like your parent(s).
That same Lent we also read the book “The Shack,” by William P. Young. This book is based on the true story of a father whose very young daughter is abducted. This is every parent’s worst nightmare. In this story, the father, named “Mack,” asks God all of the “Why” questions we all ask: “Why did this happen to me? Why, O God, did you allow this to happen?” In his rage against God this father cannot experience God in the usual ways, so the Triune (three- dimensional) God comes to him in many new and surprising ways. The Father/Creator God comes to him as “Papa,” but in The Shack “Papa” is a large black woman who loves to cook, and invites Mack to come and eat at her table. She is a variation of God as Wisdom (Chokmah/Sophia).
In “The Shack” Jesus, the second part of the Trinity, is depicted as a Jewish carpenter, which, of course, he was. The Holy Spirit, also feminine in the bible (Hebrew Ruach, Greek Pneuma) is depicted as an Asian woman gardener, wispy and shimmering, never able to be pinned down. There is also another depiction of Wisdom/Chokmah/Sophia as an Hispanic/Latino woman in a business suit, advocating for those who have been victimized. In other words, this little book challenges our previously conceived images of “God,” and invites us to explode the boxes we have put God in, to expand our images and understanding of God.
The Good News is that, no matter how warped, negative, or harmful our earliest relationships, and hence images of God may be, there is a Living God (hence the title of Rizzuto’s book, “The Birth of the Living God”), who is always trying to break through to us, always inviting, wooing us, saying, “No, I am bigger than THAT!” The second piece of Good News is that the bible teaches us that all of us are created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1) This “imago dei” is within all of us. So if Wisdom/Chokmah/Sophia is within all of us, then we all have Wisdom that is innate. If you spend any time with very young children, as I do, you know that they truly ARE wise beyond their years.
The third piece of Good News is that God IS ALWAYS MORE. So, especially for those of us who have difficulty with the masculine, patriarchal image or understanding of God, God invites us to explore the other side of God, the feminine face of God, in this case Wisdom/Chokmah/Sophia. I myself discovered Her when I began Divinity School at Harvard. Two weeks before I began Divinity School I was sexually assaulted for the second time as an adult (and had been twice as a child also). Harvard at that time was radically feminist. Thank God for me. It forced me to develop a relationship with the feminine aspect of God. But I confess, as much as I prayed to Mother/Ruach/Wisdom/Sophia, that old white guy with the beard from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was in my head. It’s difficult to get past Him. But I kept at it. Finally, after about six months of praying daily to Mother/Ruach/Wisdom/Sophia, She broke through to me. She and I have been in relationship now for over thirty years. In her I find Mother Strength, Comfort, Wisdom.
Photos: Artwork from the Women’s Restroom at Nepenthe, Big Sur, CA; ditto; ditto; Lighthouse, Florence, OR; Native American mother and child statue, Mount Hood, OR; my mom, Helen, with her first child, Leslie; Aunt Joyce, with Sylvie; Redwood tree, Jedediah Smith State Park, CA; Sylvie and I; Aunt Joyce and Sylvie, a glimpse of Wisdom/Ruach/Chokmah/Sophia