This image of Wisdom as seen in a mirror has an astonishing effect on me: when I look at it I see myself in these pages. As my Cherokee friend said when she saw it, “It’s the Grandmother!” The revolutionary thing about this image of an old woman, framed by phases of the moon, is that it appears in a Bible. She is illustrating Wisdom as a manifestation of the Divine Feminine, as She appears in parts of the Old Testament. I capitalize all of these words as a mark of respect, and could wish that the words Wisdom and She were also capitalized in the book as I have written them here, but they are not, because this book is a Catholic Bible.
The book is the Saint John’s Bible, which is shown in these photos taken from my own trade edition. Last week I went with some scribe friends to see the Heritage Edition in the special collections of Santa Clara University. That edition is reproduced at the actual size and uses foil stamping to represent the gilding that is on the original manuscript. Its size is quite impressive: two by three feet when opened. This volume is called Wisdom Books, and includes some books that at one time or another were considered Apocrypha, the “hidden away” books of the Bible.
You can read more about this project at the Saint John’s Bible website , and also at the Library of Congress online exhibition. Suffice to say, this has caused great excitement in the calligraphy community for the last ten years. I’ve been fortunate to see some of the original pages at a calligraphy conference, and to have studied with one of its illuminators, Suzanne Moore. So I have had a special interest in this manuscript.
My visit to this book was reverent, but not in the usual way. This holy book is not mine. My relationship with the religion of my fathers is problematic. The text is tough for me to read: there are heinous things written about women in this book, and I have stayed away from it for many years for exactly that reason. This religion has much to answer for: the pope’s recent statement on the ineffective use of condoms to halt the spread of AIDS in Africa; the priestly pedophile scandals, the utter exclusion of women from the priesthood. I do not have to read far in these books to find language denouncing woman as the source of all sin and death in the world, detailed instructions for how to control wives and daughters, how to whip children, and many many descriptions of God as dominator. Reading it can really make me feel ill.
But the images! Images open up the possibility of poetry in these texts and have drawn me into reading and discovering traces of the old Goddess worship woven throughout the pages. Wisdom is anciently referred to as feminine: in both Hebrew (Hokhmah) and Greek (Sophia) the gender of the noun is feminine. Historically Goddess is symbolized by the Tree of Life, which is beautifully shown in this book. And though the church fathers tried to reframe the Song of Solomon as a love story between God and his chosen people of Israel, I’m not fooled. This is a beautiful description of the Sacred Marriage, an ancient ritual going back to Egyptian and Babylonian times, when the king of the land and priestess of the Great Mother consecrated the fertility of the land with sacred sex. Yes, this really is erotic poetry!
In this, my favorite image, the moons (gilded in palladium on the original page) drift down diagonally across the page spread and become the communion chalice, abstractly seen from above. Surrounding it are fruits and bounteous symbols of earth’s abundance, and two ancient goddess images. These clay images have been found by the thousands in Old Europe, and many are incised with markings that can only be seen as a kind of writing. These figures are the source of the first writing that has continued to inspire my work for several years, and seeing them represented so lovingly in the Bible has made me feel . . . well, included. Apparently the directive to the illuminators was to make images that had never been seen in the Bible, and this certainly qualifies.
The Saint John’s Bible Committee on Illumination and Text was aiming for universal, cross-cultural and inclusive language and imagery, and the representation of many spiritual traditions, both ancient and modern. For this reason, perhaps this Bible will be about healing and reconciliation, rather than alienation, domination and power. It is a good first step in the right direction. When I see these images I have a very different feeling than I have when God is presented to me as a punishing Father.
The inclusiveness of the Saint John’s Bible is a radical thing in the Christian community. These Benedictine monks have been brave to allow such feminine images into the Bible. There is still vehement sentiment against feminine divinity in any way, shape or form, as shown last week by the sudden dismissal of Ruth Kolpack, a “pastoral associate,” who had devoted over thirty years of her life to a Catholic church in Madison, Wisconsin. She was summarily dismissed by the bishop who suddenly noticed that her master’s thesis asked the church to become more inclusive, and to “free God language from captivity.” Thanks to Carol Christ over at Alive Mind and Spirit for this news and links.
At times like this I want to invite all the women, and the men who love them, to come and dance in a circle under the full moon with us. I know that some of these people have been awakened and are trying to change the institutions of patriarchal religion from within. This is very difficult, for the punishment can be severe. If they leave their churches and synagogues and mosques, we will welcome them into our circles where they will find images of female divinity that are powerful and loving. As the dancing letters say on the last page of this book: “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of Her; those who hold Her fast are called happy.”
This post was picked up by the Friends of Calligraphy Alphabet journal and published in the summer of 2009, in San Francisco, California. You can download the complete article here. Another essay exploring “Sacred Script” is available here.
For other blog posts that expand on some of the ideas presented here:
Sophia’s Breasts of Wisdom
She is Not Submissive
Writing Magic on the Body
I want to encourage any and all thoughtful comments on this post. It’s taken many years for this well-brought up Ohio girl to learn to say what’s on my mind and in my heart, but I am learning to be brave. If any of you have seen the movie “Milk” the scene that affected me the most was when he told a roomful of his followers, “You have to come out!” So I am. I didn’t want to be a God-fearing woman, so I became a Goddess-loving one. No matter where you are on your spiritual path, I’d like to hear from you too.
Beautifully written, Cari. I think you speak for many of us. There are those who would deny it, but religion has always evolved as society evolved. When I read the Bible, I sense the heavy hand of the Church, editing the text to suit the purposes of the (male) clergy. It’s a natural human instinct to interpret in favor of ourselves, so I believe it was natural to edit here and there to make the text serve the purposes of the Church or whomever was paying for the reproduction of it.I am a graphic designer working with editors. I see daily examples of how one tiny word removed or changed can alter the meaning and tone of a text subtly or dramatically. We do our jobs professionally, but like scribes in the past, naturally it is to our benefit to please the client. I cannot read the Bible without seeing evidence of the Church’s editorial marks.I’ve heard (of course!) of the Saint John’s Bible, and I hope to one day see some of the manuscript. My main interest was in the incredible art, calligraphy and scope of the project. But on reading in your post that “inclusiveness” was part of the goal of the project, my interest grows. Could this be a Bible that deserves to be studied? That offers hope and love and something more than dogma? Exciting to think so!
Dearest Cari, Your posts always leave me almost breathless to contemplate all you bring up for discussion, and I spend much time mulling over your thoughts. My journey from a Protestant Christian family to my own visions of Divinity (and feeling that Female Leaders make so much more sense sometimes) follows yours, but you put it into words and art so much better than I can at the present! As ever, thanks so much for sharing.
Oh Cari, I love that image of Wisdom. It feels like I am looking into my future and the image gives me courage to march toward it. The church has been a place of pain for me as well. I know there was a time that it fulfilled my needs but it’s hard to remember that me from where I am today. To be honest, I am searching for a spiritual home but am easily frightened. These days I tend to go at it from the cerebral point of view. But there is no denying that there is a vacuum waiting to be filled. This girl from Iowa understands completely the hesitancy to put ourselves out there. It is getting easier as I age. Evidently, I have arrived at the age of opinions. Thank you for sharing yourself so openly and allowing others to do the same.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us. These are lovely images. They enrich the heart. I wish I had known about Sophia when I was a girl. It makes me sad to think of little girls growing up, still thinking they are “less than”. We just finished celebrating Ostara in my home and Sophia was a part of our celebrations, as was Ostara herself, Freya, Kuan Yin and Brigid; strong, sacred female figures, every one. I will share your post with some Christian women friends as they prepare for Easter. As these ladies remind me, it was the women who stayed at the cross when everyone else had fled. For me it comes down to this: we are all sisters and equals in any spiritual teaching with love as it’s core. If that respect and love are lacking, then we will continue to seek it because it leaves a hole in our soul. For some of us that is a painful journey and my thoughts this week are with all those who are brave enough to question what they have been taught, no matter their faith or tradition. You might like this book: The Circle of Life: Thirteen Archetypes for Every Woman by Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard. It illuminates the stages of life wisdom in some wonderful ways.
”The Saint John’s Bible Committee on Illumination & Text was aiming for universal, cross-cultural, inclusive language, & imagery, and the representation of many spiritual traditions, both ancient and modern. The inclusiveness of the Saint John’s Bible is a radical thing in the Christian community. These Benedictine monks have been brave to allow such feminine images into the Bible.” Looking at what you post above, Cari, what can be said? Learning that the Benedictine Monks have already made a move to an inclusive Universal manner by the creation of this New Version of the Bible Text has given us all hope that a positive relearning may actually be taking place. Times have changed, and so must our minds, hearts and spirits. Men learning from Wise Women, walking hand in hand through the daily challenges of this time in History with mutual respect, love and kindness is what the world needs more of NOW. So Mote it BE!
Beautiful piece of writing on your blog about the St. John’s Bible and Sophia/Wisdom, Cari. Just an aside, in case you might not be aware of it … the word “fear” as used in Christian/Hebrew Scripture is akin to our present “awe” rather than “scared” or “frighten.” Maybe that will take the sting out of that phrase ‘fear of the Lord/God’? I know only too well from personal experience, the pain brought about by the institutional / patriarchal church and feel profound sadness and deep grief at the exclusivity, abuse, disrespect of women etc. which continues in this world in the name of religion. Gratefully, the evolution of “Soulistry” has been gift to me, humbly bringing me full circle to the Ground and Centre of my being, encouraging me to celebrate all that is good and holy, and bringing joy to my life. I figure that God/Holy Other/By Whatever Name/Creator smiles as I seek to evolve, create and become the person I’m in the process of becoming. So I continue on my spiritual path with hope in my heart.
Very thoughtful post. Reminds me of a mini-series from several years ago about King Arthur. Juliana Margulies played Morgana. While looking at a statue of the Virgin Mary, Morgana came to realize that the “old” Goddess ways hadn’t disappeared, they were just taking a new form.
Well done Cari for such a wonderful post! I’ve also ‘come out’ on my blog and hopefully we will start a revolution! lol. Expertly put and a wonderful read. I’m proud of you for being so open and honest. Love and brightest of Blessings, Sue xxx
Oh Earth Goddess Incarnate/Mate, Dear Cari, Your words are so full of love and, therefore, power. This kind of power never corrupts but can set off great concern among those who you seek to change. We need to ask all those Goddess loving men to engage their brothers with this same feminine creative energy. Let the compost happen, as it will in the circle of life.
Excellent post. I think there are many Christians trying to reconnect with the Goddess, and so are many Jews – see for example the < HREF="http://www.telshemesh.org" REL="nofollow">Tel Shemesh website<>. Me, I can’t live without Her.
What a beautiful post, and amazing artwork. I was especially pleased to see the image of the old woman. Frequently in Goddess art (especially pagan art created by men) the Goddess is imaged exclusively as young and sexually appealing. The young Goddess is a valid image, but wisdom, I think, should be depicted as an older woman. Peace, Rebecca http://www.thesustainablesoul.blogspot.com
Oh wise and brave husband of mine, I love you for going Where No Man Has Gone Before. I love all the comments, I do. It is not surprising that they are all from women. Few are the men who can approach this without feeling extremely threatened. I understand. It does strike at the foundation of our religions, our governments, our households. But think a minute. What if women were empowered, and not in a way that takes away men’s power, but shares it and adds our power and wisdom to the mix? We need to sit at the table and contribute our women’s wisdom to solving the world’s problems. We are so out of balance! Every time I open the newspaper and see another report of some guy shooting up his family or co-workers, I feel despair at how wounded men are too. Reaction and comment outside of this blog has been very interesting. I heard from one woman who wanted to post anonymously because she feared being ostracized by members of her family. Many women have expressed gratitude for this post privately to me. But nearly every man I have tried to engage in this conversation has flat out refused to talk to me at all. So, I will continue in my small way to bring the “good news” to women, that they are beautiful, powerful, creative daughters of Goddess, and as a wise (male) counselor taught me, to speak truth to power.
I literally feel lightheaded after spending time on your beautiful blog this morning. Every time I encounter another person with an deep affinity for Sophia, it makes me smile a soul smile and marvel at the fact that I’m not the only one!
I have written a book, Sophia Rising: Awakening Your Sacred Wisdom Through Yoga, that explores recovery of the feminine face of God through the contemplative practice of yoga. I would be honored if you would review it on your blog. Let me know if you’re interested, and I will have my publisher forward you a copy.
Big thanks to my friend and kindred spirit Trista Hendren (author of The Girl God) for introducing me to your work.
In Sophia’s Light,
Oh Cari, i am so glad i found your website through Susan Gaylord’s.
That said, while i understand a lot of where you are coming from, i agree with very little of it.
Life is complex – yeah NOT news to you! We live in a broken world. People with power, often men, take advantage of it.
i see God as neither male nor female. i refer to Him as male because that’s what i’m used to, and to refer to God as It, well, that has connotations of lesser being in English, and that’s not what i want to convey.
The Bible was edited by men, but nevertheless i believe it is God’s word. We don’t get the whole story, but we get what we need. Sometimes we have to dig. If it were extremely detailed, it couldn’t be a book for the ages.
Have you seen Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories? i’ve found it helpful; maybe you will too.
Thanks for visiting, Valerie. Referring to God as male also connotes that females are lesser beings. What we are “used to” often just continues patterns that are destructive, so the language bears examination. Here is Carol Christ again: “Theologians frequently assert that God has no body, no gender, no race and no age. Most people state that God is neither male nor female. Yet most people become flustered, upset or even angry when it is suggested that the God they know as Lord and Father might also be God the Mother, or Goddess.” You might try this at your church and see what happens. At the very least, girls who learn about Goddess see that there might be another way for them to relate to divinity, and feel less excluded. Since I wrote this post six years ago, God the Father has been invoked in some pretty terrible ways to take away basic human rights from women. Until that stops happening, I will not be too interested in stepping into a church.