Monday, November 23, 2009


Wisdom is the beginning of knowledge. This quote is from the opening of Proverbs, and also prominent in the Rule of Benedict. I like it because it reverses something I usually think: that wisdom is deeper (and thus comes after) knowledge. That only in reflecitng and probing knowledge do we get to wisdom. But really we need to have wisdom first, as our foundation.

I gave a talk last week on Wisdom and the Wisdom Books of The Saint John's Bible. I was really happy to go back and think about the illuminations in that volume again, and more particularly to think about Wisdom, a character in those books of the Bible, a female character, to be sought after and wooed and won. She is the architect of the universe, present with God at creation, the one who gave specific shape to everything. In this view, God is the big Creator, whose order is more abstract and large, but not penetrable by human beings (as suffering and death are not penetrable by human understanding). Wisdom made things visible. Wisdom is the breath God breathed into the earth-- which means she is the life-force itself, and an Old Testament version of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is at the heart of human creativity-- what joins us to God, what informs our vision of the world, what infuses art with its "transcendence."

It is interesting to think about what that means-- that maybe the part of God that we are made in the image of is Wisdom, a woman, or even moreso, the artist/creator. If that is the essential way we can be said to reflect God, to bear in ourselves the image of God, doesn't that turn conventional wisdom (and the foundation for priests being male) on its head?

There was a woman at the talk who was in tears a lot of the time. Afterward she said it was because she was sad that she'd never heard about Wisdom as an image of God before. As a friend says, she is in the hard process of "healing her God image." She's learning about God beyond what she experienced as a child, the Old Testament judge, that triad of men.

I recognized those tears. During the years spent in an Assembly of God church, I saw a lot of tears. I've shed my own, though not for the same reason as hers, but as I've struggled to reach God and in the process to love myself, understand what it means that God loves me. But many of the tears people shed in church  were joy at finally being given the "God image" of Jesus being presented there-- Jesus as personal savior, as friend and beloved, as God you could have a relationship with. It was not a good God concept for me, actually. I spent a lot of time trying to connect with that Jesus, and in some ways I found him, but that image was never very helpful and, it seemed, too easily diminished by the culture. In some ways, my earliest image of God-with-me (Emmanuel), Jesus, was the Eucharist at First Communion, and that image was real when I was seven and continued to be real (as odd and abstract as that seems even in saying it).

But I think going from the Catholic Church to the Assembly of God Church did a lot for me in terms of seeing that our images of God can be flexible. It seems like the opposite of what was intended, but I know it was there that I came to know a large God, much larger and more real than I had before. In metaphor, in images-- as many as my mind and heart could fathom-- I could find and continue to find, God. That is why, I think, Wisdom was an exciting revelation to me, and rather than displacing some other image of God, Wisdom adds to what I know of God and of myself and my place in the world. That I am a woman and an artist doesn't make me a god, but makes God here with me. If that makes sense. And this is for me the continuing joy of reading the Bible.

I'd like to direct folks to the Sisters' blog, which has a good entry on the 1919 influenza epidemic by Sister Dolores Super.

And if you'd like to read much more about what I have to say about Wisdom Books, here is the book I wrote, Art of The Saint John's Bible: A Reader's Guide to Wisdom Books and Prophets.

photo above of Wisdom by Cari Ferraro.


Cari said...

Susan, I was glad to find your blog through the St. John's Facebook page, and to read this post in particular. Your description of the woman at your talk who was in tears reminded me of a comment on my own blog post about the Wisdom books: "I wish I had known about Sophia when I was a girl. It makes me sad to think of little girls growing up, still thinking they are "less than." I know our spiritual paths are different, but I wonder if you might be interested in reading my thoughts on the Wisdom books, and especially the comments others made in response. This kind of dialogue can be so fruitful. The illuminations in the Wisdom books helped heal my relationship with Christianity, to a small degree. Here's the link:
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Cari Ferraro

thyrkas said...

Susan - I also found your blog through the St John's Bible Facebook page, and am so glad they included the link.
I grew up Catholic, and was helped to know of the wisdom that belonged to women through learning about the saint after whom I was named, St Teresa of Avila. She is, I was told, the only female Doctor of the Catholic Church. Whether or not that is correct, I was struck by the idea, instinctively knowing that where there is one woman of wisdom there must certainly be many more.
I am not Catholic today, but am attending a Reformed Church, Bethel, in Princeton, MN, which last year installed four St John's Bible prints in their worship space. I am struck every time I see them, not only by their beauty, but by the ecumenical spirit they represent. The framed prints have been placed two together on each side of the sanctuary. Between them are framed copies of your comments on the art - Christ's natvity, baptism, death and resurrection. Someone who helped with the installation of the prints saw that the wealth of imagery contained within them would probably be missed if we didn't offer some type of explanation alongside the art. I knew of your fine books, and offered to pull together some of your comments and have them printed and framed for placement between the prints, and that is where they are today. I suppose the proper procedure would have been to ask your permission before we used your comments, but it was a last minute, "they are going to be installed this weekend" situation. So, now I am asking your permission to use your comments and your forgiveness for not following proper channels. Sincerely, Teri Hyrkas

Susan Sink said...

Cari, thanks for the comment and link to your blog. I enjoyed your reflection and hope women and girls find their wisdom reflected in the pages of The Saint John's Bible.

Teri, I am so glad to know that the "glosses" I wrote on the illuminations are being used in this way. I do hope you put my name on the pieces so people know where they're from! I'm glad to know they're out there and people find them helpful. Thanks for recommending my books and your kind words... I learned most of what I know about the Bible through my years in an Assemlby of God Church (age 12-22), and have an appreciation of the Reformed tradition which cares so deeply for Scripture.

If you know of people who would like to have me come speak, I am available for talks about the individual volumes or the intro.