Christopher PRAMUK, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009. pp 322. $29.95 hardback. ISBN # 978-0-8146-5390-6.
Reviewed by Patrick COUSINS, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244.

I’ll just say it up front: I love this book. Although it made me realize how much of Thomas Merton’s corpus I have NOT read, I didn’t want to put it down; Pramuk’s writing is at once deeply insightful and beautifully poetic. While it might be more than most undergraduates could absorb in a course on Merton or Christology, it marks a fresh new insight into the depth of Merton’s theological vision. In brief, Pramuk looks to Merton’s writings on Sophia, in particular his prose poem “Hagia Sophia,” as the key to his mature Christology. He uncovers the influences upon Merton’s “sophiology,” particularly the Russian Orthodox theologians for whom Sophia was a much more accepted category than in the Christian West, and the capacity of that mode of theological thinking to face the crises of the world Merton faced: the world of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Vietnam. Where Thomas Merton has been dismissed as not a real theologian on the grounds that he is only writing spirituality or poetry, Pramuk argues that, far from being mere wordsmithing, the form of his writing is essentially linked to its content, that poetry is a means of avoiding the “prosing” of the world, which makes for a single, unquestionable Procrustean narrative into which all people are to be stuffed, whereas the poet knows that the elusive, allusive power of language opens up possibilities for “otherwise.” Rather than draw the ineffable down into fixed categories, the poet allows language to be unfixed by being drawn up into higher, more playful and unsettled meanings.

While it is more or less inevitable, given the workings of language, that those who are condemned to speak about God make God an object, an “out there,” Merton sees this as a tragedy that ends both in the death of God and in the death of the true self, that which we seek but which will never be found “out there” without being simultaneously being known as one’s inmost self, one’s “inscape.” Thus one angle on Merton’s understanding of mysticism as “the re-centering of subjectivity from the self to God.” (99) The problem, it seems (stepping a bit outside of Merton and Pramuk’s arguments for a moment) is that this lens, this atomizing mode of looking at the world is, in Merton’s terms, terrifyingly Promethean (a literary figure that, while never explicitly stated as such, I suspect would stand for Merton as the foil to his figure of Sophia): I must capture what I want from others and from God who are striving to keep it from me. I can have only what I can take, because nothing will be given freely.

While noting the theological influence that Russian Orthodoxy had on Merton, Pramuk connects Merton’s poetic/imaginative sensibilities with those of Abraham Heschel and Boris Pasternak, both of whom Merton admired and befriended: “‘In the face of our own almost hopeless alienation,’ Pasternak is proof that the poet can help us ‘get back to ourselves before it is too late.’ In him, poetry becomes one with prophecy.” (152) Merton’s repeated theme of the urgency (but nigh-impossibility) of simply being human in an age of mass inhumanity echoes Pasternak’s theme in his writings, “‘the protest of life itself, of humanity itself, of love’ against the ‘reign of numbers,’ against the alienation and anonymity of mass society.” (207)

In a strange way, this capacity for non-duplicity, for simplicity, for humanness, is Sophia, but less as a “thing” and more as a trajectory, a reality already present in each person but so buried under falsehood as to be invisible, that into which we are invited (quietly) to grow. The symbol itself for Merton jumps around, both in the poem and in his other sophianic writings: Sophia as Mary, as Logos, as the ousia of God, as the linkage of Logos and Spirit, who are together the presence of the Father (Mother) God in the world, as the “pivot” of nature playing alongside God from the beginning of creation. “Perhaps most of all, Merton’s Sophia is our ‘true self,’ when we allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ.” (207) This mysterious, “empty” placeholder, marked only by humility and kenosis, is obviously also connected to “le point vierge,” that meeting place of the divine reality with our own, endlessly humble and with nothing to hold on to by way of naming oneself, and hence both absolutely vulnerable and absolutely beyond insult and injury.

Lest this seem to float off into the ether, Pramuk asks what good it does to bring Sophia-language into the discourse of Western theology and especially the discourse of the post-Christian era. “[W]ith deepest respect for the theodicy question, it is at the point where the analogical imagination ruptures, as in Auschwitz, or present-day Darfur – where all analogy between God and the world is rendered horrific and absurd – that the irony of Christ and Christ crucified intervenes from within, as it were, to mediate and intensify (I do not say ‘answer’) faith’s most difficult question: whether we have eyes to see, the faith to shoulder, the contradictions of hope in a sinful, though still hallowed, world.” (268) Instead of being one more triumphalist theodicy, answering prose with prose, certitude with certitude and power with power, “Merton sets the poverty and humility of Christ, from nativity to the cross, against the Promethean climate of the times.” (262) This takes shape in what some would call “weak” categories: memory, imagination, hope, poetry, but as Merton says in the poem, “She [Sophia] crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.” (305)

Does this Sophia as dark ousia of God, as the weakness of God, the unpolluted self of humanity, work? Does it end up inscribing weakness into femininity, reinforcing artificial and harmful gender roles? That remains as yet for me an open question, but I suspect there is more to it than that: Sophia opens up imaginings of God that transcend the associations of power and masculinity that usually accompany Western God-images. There is still something within us that has not been corrupted by the need to defend itself, and the form of subversive imagery (God as Sophia) and subversive rhetoric (poetry, in this case) has the capacity to convey the mystical in a new key: the renewal of imagination, the un-prosing of the world. The very hiddenness of this sophianic vision is its strength – it is too weak to be brought to the center of a system of control, even a theological system, so it remains on the edge where it belongs, pushed out of the world, uncompromised by abstractions that lose sight of the real people who are chewed up by the machinery of power. This is the Christ (and, one can hope, the Christianity) of today: “Christ is Lord of history in the manner ‘of His entry into Jerusalem: in a concealed, kenotic matter (behind a veil of humility), which is imperceptible to the senses, but more than visible, and absolutely evident to faith’…the Christ of our times is ‘the Christ of the bombed city and of the concentration camp.’” (215)

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