Merton was fascinated with those passages in the Book of Proverbs in which “Wisdom is ‘playing in the world’ before the face of the Creator. In 1958 Merton had written to Boris Pasternak about his dream of Proverb, the Jewish girl whose passionate but virginal embrace had moved him so deeply. He realized that it was an encounter with Hagia Sophia – Holy Wisdom. He thanked her for loving in him …
“something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, had long ago ceased to be … I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity, and its secret.” (Journal, March 4th, 1958)In April 1959 Merton was visiting Victor Hammer in Lexington, and glimpsed Proverb, again, in a painting done by Hammer. As in his dream, she was a young Semitic woman. In the painting she was placing a crown on Christ’s head.
The poem, Hagia Sophia, is a celebration of the discovery of the feminine dimension of God. It is a prayer, really, divided into the “hours”: Dawn – the hour of Lauds, Early Morning – The Hour of Prime, High Morning – the hour of Tierce, Sunset – the Hour of Compline. Here are some excerpts:
“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. 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.
“I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.
“It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming forth from the primordial nothingness and standing in clarity, in Paradise.
“She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her they prosper. In her they glorify God. In her they rejoice to reflect Him. In her they are united with Him. She is the union between them. She is the love that unites them. She is life as communion, life as thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.
“Sophia 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 … she is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice and creative dynamism of the Father.
“… But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.”
[Note: Thomas Merton died before gender neutral language used to reference "God" became common.]
See also: hagia sophia tryptich by victor hammer