“Wisdom will honour you if you embrace her – she will place on your head a fair garland – she will bestow on you a crown of glory.” (Proverbs 4: 8-9)
On one of Thomas Merton’s visits to the home of the artist Victor Hammer, he asked him to identify a painting he had done of a woman with a young boy standing in front of her, on whom she is placing a crown. Hammer answered that he did not know, even though he had intended a Madonna and child. Merton said, “I know who she is. I have always known her. She is Hagia Sophia”. He later elaborated on this in a letter to the artist written on 14th May 1959.
The first thing to be said is that Hagia Sophia is God Himself. God is not only a Father but a Mother. He is both at the same time, and it is the “feminine aspect” or “feminine principle” in the divinity that is the Hagia Sophia. But of course as soon as you say this the whole thing becomes misleading: a division of an “abstract” divinity into two abstract principles. Nevertheless, to ignore this distinction is to lose touch with the fullness of God. This is a very ancient intuition of reality which goes back to the oldest Oriental thought …For the “masculine/-feminine” relationship is basic in all reality – simply because all reality mirrors the reality of God. In its most primitive aspect, Hagia Sophia is the dark, nameless Ousia [Being] of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the incomprehensible, “primordial” darkness which is infinite light. The Three Divine Persons, each at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her. But where the Sophia of your picture comes in is this: the wisdom of God, “reaching from end to end mightily” is also the Tao, the nameless pivot of all being and nature, the centre and meaning of all, that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble in all: the “feminine child” playing before God the Creator in His universe, “playing before Him at all times, playing in the world” (Proverbs 8) . . . This feminine principle in the universe is the inexhaustible source of creative realisations of the Father’s glory in the world and is in fact the manifestation of His glory. Pushing it further, Sophia in ourselves is the mercy of God, the tenderness which by the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of God’s love. Hence, Sophia is the feminine, dark, yielding, tender counterpart of the power, justice, creative dynamism of the Father. Now the Blessed Virgin is the one created being who in herself realises perfectly all that is hidden in Sophia. She is a kind of personal manifestation of Sophia. She crowns the Second Person of the Trinity with His human nature (with what is weak, able to suffer, able to be defeated) and sends Him forth with His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for man on the cross, and this death, followed by the Resurrection, is the greatest expression of the “manifold wisdom of God” which unites us all in the mystery of Christ – the Church. Finally, it is the Church herself, properly understood as the great manifestation of the mercy of God, who is the revelation of Sophia in the sight of the angels. The key to the whole thing is, of course, mercy and love. In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness. He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself, ordained for this by the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin – the crowning in your picture), and if we receive the humility of God into our hearts, we become able to accept and embrace and love this very poverty, which is Himself and his Sophia. And then the darkness of Wisdom becomes to us inexpressible light. We pass through the centre of our own nothingness into the light of God. . . The beauty of all creation is a reflection of Sophia living and hidden in creation. But it is only our reflection. And the misleading thing about beauty, created beauty, is that we expect Sophia to be simply a more intense and more perfect and more brilliant; unspoiled, spiritual revelation of the same beauty. Whereas to arrive at her beauty we must pass through an apparent negation of created beauty, and to reach her light we must realise that in comparison with created light it is a darkness. But this is only because created beauty and light are ugliness and darkness compared with her. Again the whole thing is in the question of mercy, which cuts across the divisions and passes beyond every philosophical and religious ideal. For Sophia is not an ideal, not an abstraction, but the highest reality, and the highest reality must manifest herself to us not only in power but also in poverty, otherwise we never see it. Sophia is the Lady Poverty to whom St Francis was married. And of course she dwelt with the Desert Fathers in their solitude, for it was she who brought them there and she whom they knew there. It was with her that they conversed all the time in their silence. . .
Extracted from Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, Harper One, 2008