In avoiding malls and present-buying in the days before Christmas, I discovered a great gift. Instead of finding bargains or new gadgets that I didn’t know existed, I encountered for the first time two poems: “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov and “Hagia Sophia” by Thomas Merton. Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and master teacher at the Living School, recommended students read the poems as part of an Advent meditation on the feminine aspects of the divine.
As Christians prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God in the world, we also celebrate Mary’s great yes. We celebrate her consent to the angel Gabriel to bear God’s child and bring his love into the world, where Jesus lived among us in our brokenness and showed us how to love. Pope Francis recently tweeted: “Let us learn from the Virgin Mary how to be bolder in obeying the word of God.”
Mary reveals how God is born in the soul, how a seed of divinity is planted in our humanity. Denise Levertov’s beautiful poem, “Annunciation,” begins with the familiar image of Mary greeting the angel, then shifts to the courage of her choice to accept God’s outrageous proposition:
“But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?”
What was my annunciation? Perhaps it came that dark afternoon after days of lying frozen on the couch. I was an agnostic who had left the Catholic Church more than 20 years earlier, hiding from a judgmental God. Yet that day I cried out to God for help, in despair and utter surrender. A few sleepless nights later a Spirit appeared within, filling me with peace and whispering of God’s love. I am a child of God, loved just as I am. The goodness and light that filled me for precious moments flows through all the world, beyond all time or human desire.
This Spirit of grace and gentleness opened me to an entirely new God, rediscovered when I returned to church and was welcomed by a warm pastor and congregation who prayed and comforted me in the long months of my husband’s recovery from a heart attack. I found God in the liturgy and prayer and Scriptures, in spiritual reading, meditation, and nature.
This is the God of love and mercy that Pope Francis embodies, the God who goes out to comfort the suffering and offer forgiveness and acceptance, only asking one thing in return – that we consent to allow his presence in our lives. That we turn to him, allowing him to fill us so that the love he offers us flows out to others, in an outpouring of love rather than the contagion of hate and fear.
Yet my desire to share the joy of the Gospel, as Pope Francis urges, has been partially blocked. My well-trained Catholic mind continues to think of God as masculine and to push aside a persistent call to preach God’s word, to encourage others to make space in their lives and become aware of how God is working in the world now. I am a Catholic woman, and only men are chosen as apostles.
But what of God’s healing, God’s tenderness, God’s mercy to sinners, the divine traits that are more quintessentially feminine? Don’t women, in their feminine nature, have something essential to give that the world desperately needs? Aren’t we just as much an image of the divine?
When I read Thomas Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” I felt the breath of the feminine divinity, gentle and joyful and freeing.
“There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.”
Later in the poem Merton writes,
“The feminine principle in the world is the inexhaustible source of creative realizations of the Father’s glory. She is His manifestation in radiant splendor! But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.
“Sophia [wisdom] in ourselves is the mercy of God in us. She is the tenderness with which the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace. She is the inexhaustible fountain of kindness, and would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy. So she does in us a greater work than that of Creation: the work of new being in grace, the work of pardon, the work of transformation from brightness to brightness tamquam a Domini Spiritu. She is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice and creative dynamism of the Father.”
Merton’s description of the feminine Sophia is the God I sense at those times when I am most present and most receptive. This is the God of whom I know I am an image. As a woman it’s difficult to identify with the God of power and judgment. What have we as a church, in pews filled mainly with women and served by women volunteers, lost in failing to acknowledge the feminine aspect of the divine?
At a time of great violence, of harsh polemics and reckless destructiveness that appears to imperil life on earth, I take comfort in the apprehension of the feminine qualities of the divine. I am inspired to bloom rather than hide in the shadows, to witness to the healing mercy of God.