The Advent of Hope in a Beast of a Year

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the most High, and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly, guiding creation with power and love and mercy. O Wisdom, come and teach us the way of Your knowledge and peace.           

from the O Antiphon for Advent

His rebellion is the rebellion of life against inertia, of mercy and love against tyranny, of humanity against cruelty and arbitrary violence. And he calls upon the feminine, the wordless, the timelessly moving elements to witness his sufferings. Earth hears him.

Thomas Merton, “Prometheus: A Meditation,” 1960

Some weeks ago, I gave a talk in the “Tuesdays with Merton” series, sponsored by the International Thomas Merton Society and the Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union, titled, “What Does God’s Gender Have to Do with It? Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine.” (The video can be viewed here.) As is often the case when I give a prepared talk, the question period with participants afterward was, for me, the most invigorating part of the event – where significant insights emerge in the dance of spiritual conversation that otherwise could not or would not have come to the surface, given limitations of time, format, etc.

The questions and promptings of others, in other words, serve as a kind of “midwife,” deepening the conversation in ways that give birth to something new, unexpected, and often beautiful. Indeed, one of the most delightful lines of inquiry during the Q and A had to with Merton himself as “midwife” and companion for countless spiritual seekers in their journey with God. 

As I emphasized in my prepared remarks, the breakthrough of Wisdom-Sophia, the divine feminine, into Merton’s consciousness was not a sudden “breakthrough” so much as it was a gradual remembrance, a rebirthing of something deep in the Jewish and Christian memory that has largely been forgotten. Theologian John Dadosky describes our collective amnesia for the feminine divine – and thus, our blindness to the imago Dei as embodied in the lives of women — as a “gaping wound” in the life of the church.[1] As feminist theologians have likewise observed, the healing of this wound of the religious imagination is not only to think differently about God, it is to experience God differently; and thus, by extension, to experience ourselves differently.

As I suggested in my talk, this is precisely the dynamic we behold in Merton’s awakening to the divine feminine. As he wrote to “Proverb” in March of 1958, after a dream in which she embraced him, “How grateful I am to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, I had long ago ceased to be.”

In Merton’s case, the gradual re-membering of Holy Wisdom, the recovery of “my Creator’s Thought and Art within me,” would find vivid expression not only in his dreams, journal entries, and poetry, as I detailed in the talk, but also, and quite strikingly, in his drawings. In what follows, I’d like to supplement my focus in the talk on Merton’s prose poem “Hagia Sophia” with her “advent” almost 10 years earlier, in a remarkable drawing that I came upon unexpectedly during my doctoral studies, one of hundreds of drawings of women and of women’s faces housed in the Merton archives at Bellarmine University.

When Paul Pearson, the director of the archives, showed me these files during a visit one day, I was astonished. And none struck me more than the one below. Merton rarely gave his drawings titles. This one he did, yet the title doesn’t “explain” so much as it “evokes” the mystery (and memory) which the drawing enigmatically points to – like a finger pointing to the moon. He called it, “Christ Unveils the Meaning of the Old Testament.”  

In her investigation of the image, a wonderful article published in Volume 13 of The Merton Annual, Margaret Bridget Betz dates it to around 1952, while noting that Merton’s secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, had placed its origin somewhere between the mid-1940-s and early 1950s.[2] Michael Mott, Merton’s biographer, had put the drawing much earlier, in 1941. While all the estimates locate it early in Merton’s monastic vocation, what most fascinates me is the conclusion that Betz draws from its early origin: namely, and here she cites theologian Romano Guardini, that “‘artistic imagination’ precedes theological reflection by a decade, even a generation.”

In other words, what Merton had intuitively grasped very early in his monastic vocation and in his long meditation on the biblical Wisdom tradition, and what he had expressed so provocatively in the drawing, would take nearly a decade to find more formal theological expression in his writings – and that, in part, prompted by his study of Russian Orthodox theology in the late 1950s. The drawing, Betz concludes, is expressive of “Merton’s intuitive grasp of a God more inclusive than the traditional patriarchal God, and, like the God of the Psalms, all-encompassing.” Can somebody please say “Amen!”?

While Merton employs brush strokes of ink on paper to express the mystery of an “inclusive, all-encompassing God,” biblical scholars have long discerned her presence in the act of scriptural interpretation itself, between the lines, as it were, of certain evocative passages. The renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann, for example, in his magisterial study, The Theology of the Old Testament, distinguishes what he calls Israel’s “core testimony” to God’s action in the world—“highly visible, evoking terror in the enemy and praise in the beneficiaries of that action”—from Israel’s “counter-testimony” to their memory and experience of God, characterized by hiddenness, instability, and ambiguity. This striking alternative to the dominant picture of YHWH in the Old Testament Brueggemann links with the Wisdom books, and especially with Proverbs 8:22-31, the text that most captivated Merton’s imagination. He writes:

Proverbs 8 imagines and articulates a way of God relating with the world that is not intrusive and occasional, but that is constant in its nurturing, sustaining propensity. It does indeed do ‘God-talk’ in a different tone, which witnesses to the mystery that can only be expressed as intuitive, playful, suggestive, doxological language, and which therefore necessarily opens the way for speculation about the precise relationship between the world and God.

In other words, the Wisdom tradition conveys Israel’s memory and experience of God not as a mighty Interventionist, as we so often picture the God of the Old Testament, but rather as a nurturing and sustaining Immanentist, an accompanying and animating Presence who co-inheres in all things. She manifests as a Wisdom-Child, dancing before God in the dawning of Creation (Prov. 8). She appears as a prophet, crying out from the crossroads of the city, beckoning to the way of peace and justice, galvanizing hope in the “simple,” the “little,” the “poor” (Prov. 1). She inheres in nature, “a breath of the might of God,” pervading all things (Wis. 7).

Returning to Merton’s drawing, notice it is the young woman, Proverb — paradoxically, she who is biblically “older” than Christ — who stands youthful and vibrant in the foreground. Thus the image reverses the more traditional arrangement of male and female figures in Christian art and iconography, where Mary, for example, appears behind the child or the boy Jesus. Just as Mary’s “Yes,” her consent to the promptings of Spirit, opens the way for God’s incarnation in the Child Jesus, so the elder Christ in Merton’s drawing opens the way for the youthful Sophia, the divine Child who is “prisoner in all the people.”

Merton’s drawing celebrates, if obscurely, the wholeness of God, the freedom and fullness of God, the imago Dei, realized in each of us when we, like Mary, like Jesus – or like the birds awakening to their dawn state (as referenced in my talk) — seek to be and become what we already are: fully human, fully alive, fully capable of incarnating God’s Love and Mercy “in the world of rapacious men.” The love of God unveiled by Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, knows no bounds.

But can we believe it? Are we really capable of enfleshing the freedom of God for love in the world, what Merton calls “the work of new being in grace”? Do the Scriptures think too highly of us? “All theology is a kind of birthday,” Merton wrote in an untitled poem. “Each one who is born / Comes into the world as a question / For which old answers / Are not sufficient.”

What is the question for which you and I have come into the world? What is the “new answer” that only we can give with our unique gifts, our yearnings, our freedom? Do we realize, as Merton wondered at Fourth and Walnut, that we are all walking around shining like the sun?

Like each of us in this paralyzing year of 2020, Merton was called to respond with faith, hope, and love in a period of convulsive violence, instability, and social fragmentation, an era he called a “season of fury.” In April of 1968, on news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he described that year as “a Beast of a year,” a biblical image portending apocalypse. That was April. Little could he know the upheavals yet to come.

In sum, the constellation of influences and events by which Sophia would dawn in Merton’s consciousness can teach us something beautiful, it seems to me, about how God works in each of us: by invitation and by stealth, never by coercion, drawing us with mercy and patience toward the way of peace, truth, and nonviolence. Moreover, given Merton’s artistic sensibilities, it is not surprising that the “birthday” of Hagia Sophia in Merton’s life would be marked again and again not through systematic theology, doctrinal speculation, or even heightened political-theological rhetoric, but much more quietly, through poetry, letters, and works of art.

“It is she who guides all true artists,” as Merton wrote to his friend Victor Hammer, “and without her they are nothing.” But with her, as Merton implies, the artist comes alive in each of us. “No one ever got born / All by himself: It takes more than one. / Every birthday / Has its own theology.”

Thus both the drawing, “Christ Unveils the Meaning of the Old Testament,” dated around 1952, and the poem Hagia Sophia, published ten years later, represent two luminous “birthdays” of the divine feminine in the spiritual autobiography of Thomas Merton, and, by extension, her rebirthing into the Christian West, in an age of tremendous historical upheaval. (Not incidentally, the Russian mystical theologians called “sophiology” a “theology of crisis.”) Both works celebrate the remembrance of a God who brings hope to human beings and to the suffering Earth in a time of critical decision, an era “for which old answers are not sufficient.” Both celebrate the mystery of divine humanity, which hinges not only on God’s action in the world, but ours – our fiat, our participation, our “Yes.”

I want to give a concluding word to my friend the iconographer William Hart McNichols.[3] In his recent meditation on the First Sunday of Advent, Fr. Bill asked an important question that takes us to the heart of things: “Why Sophia in this year which has been so awfully distressful with so many violent divisions, sicknesses, deaths and for so many, extreme loneliness?” His answer, like Sophia herself, is suggestive, evocative, allusive.

Because of our more trained-logical nature and schooling in the West, we are not comfortable with concepts like Holy Sophia or Holy Shekhinah. We want exact definitions that we can understand. Yet definitions also evade us when we try to understand the Holy Spirit or the Holy Trinity. So, it’s frustrating to be told, you just have to wait patiently, while contemplating these mysteries and allow God to reveal something to you. And just know, it has been the same journey for me since I first encountered Sophia in 1990, when I began my iconographic apprenticeship.

Fr. Bill once told me that when Sophia first arose into his consciousness in the early 1990s, she came to him “much more as a flashing red light than as a pleasant apparition.” As he counsels here, the remembrance of Sophia in this holy season of Advent invites us to slow down, contemplate, and “allow God to reveal something to you.” What is that something? Thus Wisdom cries out to all who will hear and she cries out particularly to the little, to the ignorant and the helpless (see Prov. 1:20) . And passing into holy souls from age to age, she produces friends of God and prophets (Wis. 7:27).

In his poetry, journals, letters, and drawings, Thomas Merton witnesses to a wondrous mystery that “opens the way for speculation about the precise relationship between the world and God.” The Wisdom tradition “does indeed do ‘God-talk’ in a different tone.” And to the ears of my heart, so weary for a word of hope, I will lay myself down tonight, under the sweet stars of the world, and listen.  

Now the Wisdom of God, Sophia, comes forth, reaching from “end to end mightily.” She wills to be also the unseen pivot of all nature, the center and significance of all the light that is in all and for all. That which is poorest and humblest, that which is most hidden in all things is nevertheless most obvious in them, and quite manifest, for it is their own self that stands before us, naked and without care. . . . But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all. 

Thomas Merton, Hagia Sophia, 1961

Deep is the ocean, boundless sweetness, kindness, humility, silence of wisdom that is not abstract, disconnected, fleshless. Awakening us gently when we have exhausted ourselves to night and to sleep. O Dawn of Wisdom!

journal entry, July 2, 1960


Faith in Sophia, natura naturans, the great stabilizer today—for peace.

The basic hope that people have that man will somehow not be completely destroyed is hope in natura naturans.

—The dark face, the “night face” of Sophia—pain, trouble, pestilence.

journal entry, January 1961


[1] John Dadosky, Image to Insight: The Art of William Hart McNichols, with
art by William Hart McNichols and foreword by Mirabai Starr (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2018), 137.

[2] Margaret Bridget Betz, “Merton’s Images of Elias, Wisdom, and the Inclusive God,” The Merton Annual 13 (2000): 190-207.

[3] For the life and art of William Hart McNichols, including his “sophianic” or Wisdom icons, see Christopher Pramuk, “`What You Gaze Upon You Become’: The Iconography of William Hart McNichols,” ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies 31:1 (2019): 64-83). Link below:


Holy World Evangelist Thomas Merton, William Hart McNichols
“Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations,” William Hart McNichols
“Hagia Sophia Crowning the Youthful Christ,” William Hart McNichols
“The Advent of Hagia Sophia,” William Hart McNichols

“The Silence of St. Thomas Aquinas,” William Hart McNichols

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