Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Seeking Sophia: How a Christian Girl Found Her Spiritual Home on a Yoga Mat by Monette Chilson

She is the light that shines forth from everlasting light,
the flawless mirror of the dynamism of God
and the perfect image of the Holy One’s goodness.
Though alone of Her kind, She can do all things;
though unchanging, She renews all things;
generation after generation She enters into holy souls
and makes them friends of God and prophets,
for God loves the one
who finds a home in Wisdom [Sophia].
She is more beautiful than the sun
and more magnificent than all the stars in the sky.
When compared with daylight,
She excels in every way,
for the day always gives way to night,
but Wisdom [Sophia] never gives way to evil.
She stretches forth Her power
form one end of the earth to the other
and gently puts all things in their proper place.

(Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1, The Inclusive Bible)

I would have stopped doodling mermaids and fallen off the worn oak pew in awed wonder had someone read me these verses as a child growing up in a small town Southern Baptist Church. Especially if they had invoked the name of Sophia (Greek for Wisdom). Desperate to see myself reflected in my religion, I longed for someone to look beneath the patriarchal doctrine and dogma and show me that I was a part of the grand epic woven in the pages of the Bible. Someone to assure me that God wasn’t the exclusively masculine being described from every pulpit I’d encountered in my young life.

I stumbled through my formative years, grasping at the good in my faith tradition, while grappling with the parts that didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. I just didn’t know where to find it. Often, I found myself going back to the same dry well, looking for water. I faithfully played Mary every year in the church Christmas pageant, joined Girls in Action (like Baptist Girl Scouts), memorized famous women missionaries and studied their lives, looking for clues to what inspired their faith. My freshman year in college, I frequented the Baptist Student Union. I know now that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It was the only way I knew to live back then. I was searching for the spiritual essence of my faith, but I kept coming up empty-handed—or worse, disillusioned and dejected.

Luckily, God’s ways are always more expansive than mine. I was slowly drawn along a path that makes sense in retrospect, one that honored some inner wisdom regarding my physical and spiritual self. I was the oddball that asked for a juicer for Christmas one year in high school. Then I stopped eating meat after writing a paper on vegetarianism my sophomore year in college. I was always intrigued by yoga and finally began practicing a few years out of school. Through this progression, I learned to be true to myself—the person God was calling me to be—even when it went against the grain of my Southern upbringing.

I didn’t know that my yoga practice would be the antidote to the unrest I felt with my religious life. I had no idea the missing piece of practical spiritual wisdom I’d been seeking would appear as I sat on a mat in an incense-filled room listening to unfamiliar words chanted in Eastern tongues. How strange it felt to have finally found my spiritual home while simultaneously fearing I was betraying my faith tradition.

On my mat I felt the part of God that had eluded me for years. God flowed into me on my breath, moved through my limbs and settled into my heart center at the end of my practice. Suddenly God was free to be God, or rather I was freed to experience God without the inferences of maleness. It took me a while to recognize God in this new guise. There were no robes, crosses or religious icons to tip me off. I could see myself reflected in this new divine vision.

While today I intuitively interpret that feeling as God at work in me, back then I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew it felt spiritual, but I had no way to explain this newfound spirituality or to integrate it into my religious beliefs. For a while, it worked because I had put religion on hold during my post-college twenty-something years. I simply buried my fears about yoga being contrary to the Christianity of my youth. My yogic spirituality sustained me, while I pointedly avoided organized religion. When my husband and I became parents and decided to go back to church in our thirties, I began the process of reconciling the two.

First I tried making my yoga Christian. I thought it quite clever to find Bible verses to accompany my favorite poses. For example, I used Psalm 45:3-4, “Strap your sword to your side, warrior! Accept praise! Accept due honor! Ride majestically! Ride triumphantly! Ride on the side of truth! Ride for the righteous meek!” (The Message) to sanctify warrior pose. I had corresponding verses for bow pose, child’s pose, mountain pose and others. I convinced myself that if I read Bible verses with my poses, they would be redeemed. That my faith and my practice would become one. I was bridging the chasm with holy words.

I developed and taught a class using this approach. We opened by meditating to a folksy version of the classic Christian hymn Be Thou My Vision and ended by listening to my good friend Robbie Seay’s Breathe Peace in savasana (still a favorite of mine). In between, we did yoga poses to a litany of Bible verses I had carefully chosen as the soundtrack to our practice. While this Christianized yoga was a valuable stepping stone for me, it ultimately felt contrived—like I was trying to make both yoga and Christianity something they weren’t. I had yet to realize that the chasm I was attempting to bridge didn’t exist. The two weren’t as spiritually incompatible as I had been lead to believe.

I knew that the sacred source I encountered on my yoga mat was not male. In fact, it felt distinctly feminine to me. Was it because I was finally seeing myself mirrored in God? Or was there, legitimately, a female side of God that existed in my faith tradition? How could this have been overlooked or ignored by so many? And why did I find her here in my yoga practice instead of in church? Did I dare to explore this unorthodox view I was beginning to espouse?

It was these questions that ultimately set in motion the research that culminated in this book. It was this quest that lead me to Sophia and enabled me to practice both yoga and Christianity without internal conflict or angst. The answers I found made me whole again. It is my fervent hope that my experience will light the way for others out there looking for their own answers, seeking to integrate their yogic and religious lives.

Though we may be on similar trajectories, each of our paths is our own. Sophia was the key to my spiritual reconciliation. Her role in your journey may be significant or peripheral. In either case, you owe it to yourself to meet her.

Greek for wisdom, Sophia surfaces repeatedly in both the Christian and Hebrew
[1] scriptures, yet her identity remains unclear. Some see Sophia as a deity in her own right, others see her as representing the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19), others as a feminine aspect of God representing wisdom (Proverbs 8 and 9), and still others as a theological concept regarding the wisdom of God. Sophia, by her very nature, defies definition, allowing us to revel in the mystery that surrounds her.

She is there within each and every one of us—male and female—whether we choose to embrace or deny her existence. She is the Holy Spirit. She is the breath we breathe. She is God-given, not something women dreamed up to make us feel better about being left out of all the starring roles in the Bible. The truth is, we weren’t left out. Sophia was there all along, beckoning to us—right along with Jesus. And it’s not just women who were short-changed in the masculinization of God. Men, too, long to be able to experience God holistically, to acknowledge and rest in the feminine side of God.

Most of us will pay lip service to the fact that God transcends gender, but our experience—because of the stigma associated with the feminine divine in Western religions—does not include prayers, images or words that let us express this truth. Whether the aversion to referring to God in feminine terms stems from patriarchal roots, a desire by early Christians to separate themselves from Goddess worship or to differentiate themselves from Gnostic communities, the result has been a severing of the sacred feminine that has silenced voices that would pray to God our Mother. Sophia embodies those missing pieces, giving us the prayers, images and words we need to complete our limited human perspective on who God is—and who God wants to be—in our lives.

Bringing that awareness of Sophia into focus is a function of being, rather than doing. It is passive, not active, and it requires us to back off and surrender to that voice that is whispering to us even when our internal dialog drowns it out. So how do we listen to a voice we can’t hear? There are many ways to attune ourselves to divine utterances. The commonality of all these paths lies in the contemplative stance they require and deep spiritual connection they illicit. In psychological parlance, an introverted practice is needed to balance the extroverted world in which we live.

Yoga, in its fullness (not just the poses), can provide spiritual seekers with the tools they need to start hearing that sacred song they’ve been missing. By providing a space devoid of any pre-programmed liturgy, sermons or psalms, they allow us to sit with God. To move with God. Even to chant melodious syllables full of life force to God. Finally, to discover God.

When we sit in a church pew (regardless of the religion), we are surrounded by others’ perceptions of God, both visual and spoken. When we sit on our yoga mat, we are carving out space for our own spiritual life to coalesce. Creating our inner sanctuaries and opening ourselves up to God’s presence untainted and unfiltered by religious precepts. Yoga doesn’t 
create the sacred. It merely reveals it in many beautiful ways.

Monette Chilson, Sophia Rising: Awakening Your Sacred Wisdom Through Yoga

Selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Celeste Gurevich, Whatever Works Contributor

Whatever Works is a unique collection of writing by feminists of diverse faiths from around the world. This anthology combines personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking conversations among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays a key role in defining and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself. This book shares the stories of highly diverse women with the hope that we can find collective solutions to the global problems that plague women and girls living under patriarchy.
Available late March - pre-order here.

Used with permission from Bright Sky Press (www.BrightSkyPress.com)

[1] The Jewish faith would, obviously, use the Hebrew translation of Wisdom rather than the Greek word Sophia. Because of its nuances, you might find Wisdom expressed as khokhma (wisdom) חכמה, bina (understanding) בינה, da'at (knowledge) דעת  or tvuna (another word for understanding) תבונה.

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