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Honest to Goddess: Russia, Sophia and the Celtic Soul.
Geraint ap Iorweth. Crescent 1998.
Pb £12.99.  ISBN 1 84086 001 4.
Sophia-Maria: a holistic vision of creation.
Thomas Schipflinger.
Samuel Weiser 1998.  Pb $22.95 (available in some UK bookshops). ISBN 1 57863 022 3.

The title Honest to Goddess might suggest a book about goddesses or goddess thealogy. In fact it is meant to recall the title of Bishop John Robinson’s 1963 book Honest to God, which created such controversy in the Church of England. In particular, it pays no attention to feminism or feminist theology.

The author is a clergyman in Wales. Through his understanding of the natural world, and through various experiences of the Green Man and other figures, he has been led, not to paganism, but to a very personal view of Christianity.

This is based on a devotion to Sophia, Wisdom, who can be regarded as the female face of God (both in Christianity and Judaism). She has been almost lost in the Western Christian tradition, but has always been present in Eastern Christianity. The great church in Byzantium was named Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, and stood on the site of an earlier church of the same name. Some of the Western mystics knew of Her. But the major writings of sophiology come from Russian theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

These writings are not just formal theology, but are often mystical poems of praise. For instance, Vladimir Soloviev, in the nineteenth century, wrote

What is, what was, and whatever will be were here
Embraced within that one fixed gaze …
I saw all, and all of it was one,
One image there of Beauty Feminine
The immeasurable was confined within that image.
Before me, in me, you alone were there.
And, again,
Nature does not permit you to strip
The garment from Her beauty;
With machines you will not wrest from Her
What your Spirit cannot divine!

Geraint ap Iorweth relates strongly to these Russian authors, but has developed his own personal approach. His book tells us about the Russian sophiologists and their works, as well as about earlier writers. His book is not just theoretical, but tells us about his personal pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, he has been let down by his publisher. Very light type is used in the book, with wide spacing between lines. This makes a page which is dazzling in its whiteness. And the margins are very narrow, with a small typeface, which makes it impossible to take in a line with one look. I found it painful to read the book, and had to force myself to continue, not because of the content, but because of the unpleasant format.

Schipflinger, who is a Catholic priest, covers very similar material. He does not speak much of his personal journey. But, with a much larger book, he is able to go into much more detail than ap Iorweth about the writers. We read about Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century, of Jacob Boehme around 1600 and of Gottfried Arnold around 1700. He considers the place of Wisdom in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, quoting several texts. There are over twenty black-and-white images as well as more than thirty colour plates.

He also quotes a large number of poems. (I would like to look at a full collection of Soloviev’s poems. The selections quoted in the two books are very moving.) Some of Gottfried Arnold’s poems to Sophia seem close to biblical texts. The one below reminds me of the Song of Songs:

O Sister, O most lovely Bride, Thou art to me
A Fountain of Gardens, A Well of joys.
A Pond built on living waters.

To read ap Iorweth’s book one needs to be interested in how a female aspect of deity can present herself within Christianity. Much the same applies to Schipflinger’s book, but it can also be skimmed through for the poetry, much of which does not require a Christian context. Both books can be recommended as long as the reader can relate to the standpoint from which the authors write and is not expecting a feminist or goddess-centred approach.

Wood and Water 67, Summer 1999
© Daniel Cohen                     

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