Essay

Valentine’s PhiloSophie

Listen To Article

On this Valentine’s Day, please allow me the personal privilege of writing an ode to my wife of nearly 30 years.  Her name being Sophie means that I, for a long time now, have been practicing philosophy.    

There are many things I could say, of course, about my beloved.  But at this stage in life, what pops to my head as I think of Sophie is her ability to prepare delicious, nutritious, creative meals simply, quickly, in a matter of minutes, without a recipe.  And as I age, that her meals are so often also a delight to my eyes becomes ever more significant.  I may sound like a glutton, a boor, first commenting on my wife’s cooking. But her meals are really sort of illustrative of what she means to me and how she has shaped me over the years.  

From Sophie I have learned the wonders of self-discipline and healthy routines, and she still far outpaces me.  It is because of her that I generally go to bed early and rise early.  It is because of her gentle prodding that I began to exercise and then began even to appreciate it.  She introduced me to yoga.  She got us involved with a local farmer and our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  What I know and appreciate about the wisdom of the Benedictines, I have gained from Sophie.  She introduced me to the Enneagram, which has been for me a helpful tool in self-understanding.  I think of Calvin’s statement near the beginning of the Institutes where he says something to the effect that true knowledge of God and knowledge of self grow together.  My self-knowledge, any ability I have to reflect honestly on myself, I owe largely to Sophie.  So according to our old friend Jean, Sophie has greatly increased my knowledge of God.

After all these years of marriage we have noticed a common pattern.  Sophie has an idea (almost always a good idea).  She proposes it to me.  My immediate reaction is “Naaah.  Let’s not.  Do we have to?”  Then I agree, but participate under duress.  Afterward, almost always my comment is “That wasn’t so bad,” which coming from me is pretty effusive praise.

So is this anything more than a Valentine’s tribute?  I hope so.  Sophie is my source of practical wisdom.  (But her middle name is not Prudentia.) She has given me what I call “handles” with which to live life, ways to grab hold and move and embody my ethereal ideas.  Dangerously generalizing from only my individual experience, I wonder if Reformed theology in general has not lacked such “handles” and habits.  Perhaps fear of “works righteousness” has made us tend to veer toward either high-minded abstractions or legalistic vice lists.  And as much I may want to change the world, learning to change myself is equally arduous. 

As I young man, I always looked down on the wisdom tradition and wisdom literature—partly I think I was trained this way by my professors, and partly wisdom seemed so prosaic, so tame.  Little more than Ben Franklin in holy garb.  I’ve changed my mind.  I’ve been won over.  Sophie introduced me to the God of small things—God in the daily, the ordinary, God embodied among us.  I recall an old story where a dying man referred to his devoted nurse as “his sacrament.”  She was his visible sign of an invisible grace. 

But still, what of the eschatological energy that animates the Christian gospel?  What of the Kingdom of God is among you?  What of letting justice roll down like mighty waters?   Of course, all this still matters—very much.  Really, the beatitudes, the entire Sermon on the Mount, are of the wisdom tradition.  Practical wisdom is not nesting or narcissism.  My being able to participate in Christ’s making all things new, depends in large degree on how healthy and honest I am with myself.  This I have gained from Sophie.   When I am self-aware and grounded, I join Jesus much more eagerly and creatively and daringly, convinced and assured that I what I work for and long for is already a fait accompli.  Maranatha! 

Happy Valentines, my beloved Sophie.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply