One Good Phrase: Ellen Painter Dollar (Sophia)

One Good Phrase: Ellen Painter Dollar (Sophia) July 31, 2013

Ellen Painter Dollar, a fellow Patheos blogger, is smart, brave, and her perspective always challenges me. I’m honored to have her join us here as we walk along (in her words) “the crooked way of grace.”


“Sophia” has become a popular girl’s name (the most popular girl’s name in 2012, in fact). But for me, it is the one word that leads me to authentic prayer.

I have always struggled with prayer, and do not have a regular daily practice. Instead, I have cobbled together an irregular prayer life using a variety of tools. I have a habit of active gratitude, offering frequent thanksgivings throughout the day. I get comfort and a sense of community by using prayers that others have written, in such resources as the Book of Common Prayer and Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours series. And when all else fails—when the words for thanksgiving or intercession don’t come, when the written prayers feel empty and rote rather than rich with shared history—I turn to my one word, “Sophia.”

In my 20s, I worshipped at a small coffee-house church in Washington, D.C., where we practiced centering prayer. Popularized by writers such as Thomas Keating, centering prayer is a meditative form meant to facilitate communion with God. Rather than uttering many words, silently or aloud, to offer praise, thanks, or petition, in centering prayer Christians focus on the breath or on a single repeated word. This simple (simple in theory…not so simple in practice!) focus on repetitive breath or sound helps the praying person let go of racing thoughts, jumbled words, and anxious requests, to rest in God’s presence. Many practitioners liken their active minds to a flowing river. Whenever a thought comes along—even an impressive or wise thought about God—they note its presence, as if it were a boat on the river, and then allow it to pass without jumping aboard. They then return their attention to either their breath or their meditative word.

At some point, I chose the word “Sophia” as my meditative focus. Sophia is the Greek word for the wisdom of God; it is a frequent word in Biblical texts that invoke wisdom, such as Proverbs and Psalms. But there is much more to Sophia than a straight translation to “wisdom.” Some Eastern Orthodox traditions equate Sophia with the divine creative “Word” or “logos,” invoked in the Gospel of John, who became incarnate in Jesus. Sophia has also been linked with the feminine aspects of God. I am intrigued by the notion of the Holy Spirit as an embodiment of God’s wisdom/Sophia and a feminine member of the Trinity—an idea that some theologians have explored, though plenty of uncertainty remains.

The bottom line is that when I feel a clear call to pray, but when words (my own or others’) fail, I turn to Sophia as my one-word meditative or centering prayer. I sit in silence, repeating Sophia’s name over and over silently. When my thoughts wander, I return to Sophia.

This one word embodies all that I long for when I pray—wisdom in my parenting and my work, that I may do both with sufficient grace and skill; wisdom in hard decisions I may face, that I may choose the better path; bodily wisdom, that I and others will know healing; interpersonal wisdom, that I may offer to those I love and to those in pain something that they need.

Clarity. Guidance. Understanding. Awareness. Aren’t these the things we so deeply desire when we turn to God in prayer? To me, all of these and more are caught up in God’s wisdom, in Sophia. When all other words fail me (and they often fail me) this one word, Sophia, calls my wandering, anxious self back to the source of all I need, the wisdom of God.


Ellen Painter Dollar blogs for Patheos on faith, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Learn more at her web site:

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