Wisdom Sings the World


I might put the subject of this book this way:  it is a book about the way Wisdom works in the world.  And the way she works is that she sings.  She sings Beauty.  She sings Justice.  She sings Creation itself. 

 And this is how we dwell:   In Wisdom.





            There has been much fascination of late with the esoteric side of Christianity – witness the phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, as well as the attention paid to various Gnostic Gospels.

            I have no wish to add to this list.

            Nor will I vouch for the historical reality of Dan Brown’s books.  I do believe however that what lies behind all of this interest is a genuine quest.  We have numerous words for this – the Grail, the Golden Age, the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem — but one way of describing it is to call it the poetry in things.  It takes the form of both beauty and of justice, as is expressed in the dual meanings of words like fair, good, even the word just itself.  This is a “just-ness” we can feel: a sense of rightness, and thus of righteousness.   That sense is there in our common experience of the natural world – the patterns in a leaf, a shell, the movement of the tides along the shore — as it is in the greatest art. 

            I believe that what I’m calling the poetry in things is no different than the underlying laws that govern the cosmos, laws that increasingly are seen as including such concepts as chaos, complexity, symmetry, synchronicity.  Here too –whether it’s the theory of gravity or of strings — we find a kind of poetry.

            I would also call this quality Wisdom, but understanding this not simply as a concept.  It (or she) is something or someone known, a living quality that informs all things, meaning that she gives form, and that by giving form she gives meaning.  This is the deeper truth about information:  form is not just facts.  Rather, through form we come to understand and know.

            Wisdom is who we know through rhythm, pattern, measure –in short, through poetry, broadly defined as poesis, making.  She is who we know through the forms that she creates and inhabits, including, centrally, the physical world.  She is what makes coherence possible. 

            She is the one we dwell within.

            We meet her, as I will try to show, in Biblical texts as we read them through the lens of metaphor and poetry; in fact many of these texts teach us how to read this way, and thus how to see both creation and creator with new eyes.  Whether it’s the creation story of Genesis, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs, the Beloved in the Song of Solomon, or the Jesus we meet in Gospels and the letters of Paul, Dame Wisdom is present. 

She is there as Boethius’ Lady Philosophy and Dante’s Beatrice.  She’s the Grail that Arthur’s knights seek; she’s also what lies at the heart of the great medieval cathedrals, where the history of humanity (as narrated in The Bible) literally shines through the stained glass, suggesting that the individual standing within that space is illuminated by and contained by that story.

She’s found in (and as) Blake’s Jerusalem and in Dostoyevsky’s Sophianic devotion to the Russian soil.  And, closer to our own times, she’s manifested in the work of artists like the Native American writer Leslie Silko.

            She’s at the heart of the labyrinth and of the mandala.  She’s everywhere around us in the natural world: the spirals of shells and flowers, in the fractals of the ocean shore. 

            As physicist David Bohm writes, “what is is the process of becoming itself.”

            She is what we enter when we immerse ourselves in the poetry of things. 


I want to take us on a journey through some of these texts and images, in part for the sheer pleasure of their company (as I’ve found over the course of decades of teaching), but also to suggest where such work in fact takes us –and why books like The Da Vinci Code ultimately fail.  I believe that the fact that it’s an aesthetic failure matters, and that my concern that a great portion of American society is getting their art in this form –or through the film versions – is not simply a matter of intellectual snobbery.  It means that we are not getting Wisdom.  We are getting a story about Wisdom, or a story that uses Wisdom as a plot point in a mystery.

            We are getting mystery as a genre and not Mystery as the living reality that lies invisibly within everything around us.


            I do not pretend to an exhaustive study of these interrelated ideas, nor am I equipped for such a task.  Rather I hope in these pages to conjure up something of the power of these forms  and connect them to a process of transformation also described in both contemporary science and in the language of alchemy, the labyrinth, and other  spiritual practices. They all invite us to a new understanding of the relationship between literal and figurative by way of metaphor and symbol.  They all return us to the body, and through that body to an experience of the soul.  They get us in touch with Wisdom. 

            When that external work is true and necessary I do believe that through it this invisible internal work can also unfold.  We do the work, and in doing it we allow the work to be done upon us.  Such is the paradox of building the Kingdom (another metaphor forWisdom).  Through our daily labor, as Blake often said, we are building Jerusalem, by which he meant engaging in creative work, in relationship, in love.  In doing this we attend upon the spirit.  We suffer the light to be born through us.

            As one of my students wrote, describing her experience at a Scottish dance inEdinburghlate one April night, “I know it was simply a dance, but there is something inherently beautiful in following someone who knows the way.”



            David Bohm, Wholeness and The Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002, 61.

            My thanks to Anne Kennedy for the insight about the dance. 






Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing!  Fearful because it’s indefinable, and it cannot be defined, because here God gave us only riddles.  Here the shores converge, here all contradictions live together.  . . . .  So terribly many mysteries!  . . . Solve them if you can without getting your feet wet. 

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


Chartres Cathedral rises above us, visible for miles, its twin spires flaming into the sky as we arrive out of the west and stand before the Royal Portal, the central door of three, where Christ as Judge is framed above us.  Around Him in the tympanum are the four apocalyptic animals symbolizing the four evangelists, and around them, in the archiviols, stand the angels and twenty four elders of the Apocalypse. 

Here we conclude our pilgrimage, reaching the end of things in order to enter the body of the Mother, Notre Dame, just as Christ himself had done before us.  You must be born again says Christ to Nicodemus; this is what cathedrals are for.    

Once in the nave, as our eyes adjust to the darkness, we discover the circular labyrinth, built into the stone floor eight centuries ago.  Forty two feet in diameter, it is placed at the same distance from the west wall as the great rose window above us is from the floor, so that if you could take the wall and lay it down, the window would rest precisely on top of the labyrinth. 

            A single path spirals into the center.  Unlike a maze, which has dead ends, the labyrinth has eleven continuous circuits weaving in and out through the four quadrants –forming a cross — until it arrives at the six-petalled rose in the center.  Often called the Chemin du Jerusalem, the road to Jerusalem, the labyrinth was seen as a microcosm of all pilgrimages.  Inside its path one circles in and out, approaching and leaving the center, facing and then turning one’s back, yet all the while moving through the cross – making  the cross in order to arrive at the rose that lies at the center.

            The air in the cathedral is cool, even in August; it smells of the dampness of stone.  One feels both the density of earth here and its power– a gravitas, a weight of time and eternity.  One feels it beneath one’s feet and hears it in the echoes of voices, or simply in the massive silence encouraged by the tree-like pillars that rise up on either side of the nave. 

            We know here the truth of Jesus’ proclamation: that if we did not give voice to this truth then the very stones would cry out.  Here the stones speak.  Matter itself sings, its weight taking wing through the geometry of its perfected form. 


            We come to Chartreson pilgrimage, meaning that we seek through a literal journey some spiritual transformation that we can’t seem to find in any other way.  And while we know that we can’t manufacture grace, we also believe that physical actions have some relationship to the psychological and the spiritual.    We believe that the body means.  While the signs may lie – Jesus warns of such hypocritical gestures — kneeling in prayer or the simple act of holding out one’s hands to receive bread during communion may also express a genuine spiritual hunger.  These are signs that we have come to the end of our road. 

            Through the body we may experience something sacred, a fact clearly felt even in contemporary ritual, whose language “derives from the incantatory chants and ecstatic exclamations of earlier religions,” as Gail Ramshaw says of Christian liturgy; “the very rhythmic power of the communal song transformed the consciousness of the participants.”  This means that “the speech of the liturgy is not primarily doctrinal speech.” Instead doctrine –like theology itself — derives from an immediate experience of the holy conveyed by rhythm and measure, whether in chant and song, poetry and dance, or by visual images:  the mandala, sand paintings, icons. 

Ritual reminds us that it is not logic we seek but communion. 


In a book called Work and the Life of the Spirit—an anthology of writings exploring the relationship of the title – I wrote of work as both the necessity of survival and our means of returning through that work into a sense of right relationship.  What matters is not primarily the end product; instead the very rhythm and pattern of our work is how we again experience homecoming.  It’s there in our attending to the work itself; as we do that the beauty of the work will in turn manifest this truth. 

            Wendell Berry describes this often – for example, in a passage I quote in the anthology.  He is describing here the labor that went into tearing down an old building and building another:

      The next afternoon I cleared the weeds and bushes off the building site, and with that my sadness at parting with the old house began to give way to the idea of the new.  I was going to build the new house several feet higher up the slope than the old one, and to place it so that it would look out between the two big sycamores.  Unlike a wild place, a human place gone wild can be strangely forbidding and even depressing.  But that afternoon’s work made me feel at home here again.  My plans suddenly took hold of me, and I began to visualize the new house as I needed it to be and as I thought it ought to look.  My work had made the place inhabitable, had set my imagination free in it.  I began again to belong to it. 

           Berryhere defines for us the human predicament.  If work results from alienation, at the same time it reminds us of home.  And it is not just the comfort but the beauty that matters, that which speaks of order and justice, of community and connection, not as abstractions but in the very rhythms of its own poetry and prose.

            This laboring is similar to the way Leslie Silko understands the Navaho andPueblostories of Emergence and Migration:  the literal path that Silko can trace between the site of the natural springs at Paguate and her childhood home a few miles away is to be understood ritually:

The eight miles . . . are actually a ritual circuit, or path, that marks the interior journey the Laguna people made: a journey of awareness and imagination in which they emerged from being within the earth and all-included in the earth to the culture and people they became, differentiating themselves for the first time from all that had surrounded them, always aware that interior distances cannot be reckoned in physical miles or in calendar years.

            I return again to the labyrinth, which is another “ritual circuit” or path that “marks the interior journey.”  In fact, as I’m coming to see, my explorations with the labyrinth are nothing but a continuation of my explorations around the subject of labor, of creation and creativity – which in turn is nothing but a continuation of my obsession with the poetry of Blake and George Herbert and others.  For Herbert – who titled his collected poems The Temple – all of the building he was doing in poetry was really a kind of un-building.  The Temple itself exists as a sign of continual surrender on the part of the poet.

            Blake too always understood that literal labor, even that of making and engraving poetry, is always a metaphor for an internal process – or rather, the physical work is simultaneously psychological and spiritual labor. This is what he means when he writes

I shall not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Til we have builtJerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

            So too with any genuine pilgrimage.  The literal journey is a vehicle for this internal, spiritual journey—which is, oddly enough, not so much a building up as it is a slow and steady letting go.  We walk, heading somewhere, but each step –if it is true — is also surrender, a sundering of an old way of being.  It may be circuitous, like the labyrinth; it may be full of digressions, but even the digressions become part of the final building – part of the beauty that we are called to be.

            It is the beauty that we are

            Because what the journey finally shows us is that there was nowhere we needed to go.  And yet we needed the journey to discover this.

            Somewhere in that work we find a different rhythm, and that rhythm awakens us to the awkwardness of our normal, self- absorbed lives.  The rhythms of the labyrinth or the mandala, working in the garden, on the painting, the poem —  or, simply, the rhythms of a walk, a run, a dance — quicken our sense of another way of moving and of living. 

If this is a form of revolution, as Blake certainly believed, it is revolution in its literal sense:  a turning or re-turning to our origins.

It is, as Blake also suggested, a kind of apocalypse. 


I’ve come to believe from my time at Chartres that many of us experience this revolution most deeply through what Charles Williams, following Dante, calls the way of affirmation:  “the approach to God through images.”    Even more specifically I’m convinced that this revolution is not so much a single event as a way of being that is rooted in pattern and rhythm: in what we might call a just measure.  It’s in our experience of poetry and dance, in music and visual arts, and in the natural world. It’s what we mean when we speak of an athlete’s grace, a word which describes physical ability, but which also registers a deeper dimension encompassing both the aesthetic and the spiritual.  And I think the word is right, however casually it’s used.  It is grace we experience in beautiful play, and it is an experience of grace that draws us to watch.  I suspect that for many of us such moments are as close as we get to tasting what we truly hunger for.

We delight in the graceful; in fact our delight is itself a grace – it comes unbidden and unearned, and in turn creates in us a sense of gratitude, which flows naturally and etymologically from grace.   It’s an infinite cycle of creation, grace leading to gratitude and gratitude being our gift back to that same grace.   Most deeply we call that cycle a sacrament, as in the liturgy of the Eucharist, which literally means thanks.  This is the work of human hands lifted up, literally and figuratively, and in doing so offering it up, offering it back to its source, knowing that only in this way does it spiritually become ‘food for our use.’ 

It is bread and wine from wheat and grapes.  In the offering it is also more: it embodies the love through which all things are made.  It is a kind of poetry. 


This sense of something grace-ful is what I experienced on the labyrinth at Chartres; without fully realizing it I felt it as well during my ten years as a competitive swimmer.  The discipline of that work formed me.  It in-formed me:  intuitively I knew something true about myself in the clarity and power of my own stroke.  There was beauty in it, and in that beauty I sensed that there was meaning.  If nowhere else in my life as a teenager I at least made sense in the water. 

And yet I didn’t know what I knew until 30 years later when I first experienced the simple movements of Chi Gung, movements which echoed exactly the butterfly stroke I’d perfected during endless workouts.  Chi Gung was like swimming in air.  It was the play and motion of which Bart Giammati speaks, “when pure energy and pure order create an instant of complete coherence” — a word meaning literally that something holds together.  In fact that holding together is what gives it meaning.  We know by experiencing pattern, by making connections.  It’s exactly what George Herbert calls prayer:  something understood.