My second discovery that arose from following a meandering path through Youtube videos, websites, and other various internet resources, to a plethora of books was the numerous women mystics of medieval Christianity.
Years ago, when I was being shuttled to Sunday School and church, bible studies and youth groups, No One, I mean No One! ever once mentioned a single woman mystic. Crosses arms over chest, frowns, and stamps foot. Why not?
These women are fascinating. They were rebellious. Independent. And strong. But in very constructive ways. Being female, I find their stories inspiring; they leave me with a hundredth-monkey feeling.
You know the story about the monkeys washing their sweet potatoes? No? Well, monkeys didn’t always wash their sweet potatoes before they ate them, but when the hundredth monkey did, simultaneously all over the world, monkeys began washing their sweet potatoes!
Hmmm … not sure where I was going with that, but …
Long before Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, these women, who weren’t supposed to speak in church, comment on scripture, let alone seriously contemplate or develop theological ideas, sought, created, and discovered lifestyles in which they could spend time alone with the Divine. And out of this space they thought and wrote about their individual and direct experiences of God.
Hildegard von Bingen and St. Claire of Assisi birthed new religious orders. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, St. Therese of Avila, and Therese of Liseaux authored works describing their contemplative journey, their personal experience of uniting with God in their interior lives.
Innovative trailblazers, they lived detached from the normal relationships that shaped the lives of their mothers and sisters. For an independently spirited young girl or woman, perhaps the convent and a quiet “cell” of her own appeared like a haven.
Perhaps watching their mothers and/or older siblings become worn down—or even die—after multiple births, the domestic role did not appeal to them.
Adaptable, creative, committed, determined, and resolute reformers, 500, 1000, 1500 years ago they constructed theologies where God’s love was central, as was the perspective of the Divine as feminine and/or maternal.
Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings --
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings
Which are touched in Love
Must sound.—Mechthild of Magdeburg (English version by Jane Hirshfield, Original Language German)
“Excluded by church law from active ministry in the church, women were more likely to spend long hours in contemplative prayer and to have the kind of visionary experiences that can result.”
This contemplative prayer was a central aspect to their spiritual growth, a practice that transformed each woman, imbuing her not just with the inner strength to travel her own inner byways, but to do so in truly constructive and reformative ways.
“… remember that practitioners of mental prayer represented a marginal population within the church. They were regarded as subversive …. Contemplatives, who claimed to have direct, unmediated experience of God, and not necessarily during the Mass, constituted a distinct challenge to the church insofar as it was centered upon ritual and run by male priests.”
Each of these women had to carefully tread the path between their intuited truth, being called out as heretics, and reconciling their experience of the Divine with a corrupt and powerful Church. In Spain, home of Teresa of Avila, the Inquisition instigated by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand burned and imprisoned for life those who it judged strayed from the church’s doctrinal teachings.
One of the biggest obstacles to studying these women’s works is the mixture of orthodox language and sensationalism that often sounds unfamiliar and overwrought to the modern ear. However, “… the use of orthodox language to describe their experiences was a basic skill of survival” when faced with a world seeking to condemn the spiritually wayward. So be warned if you approach them: the religious verbiage is deep. But there are gems to be excavated, if you’re willing to take on the challenge of mining them.
“This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down.”—Teresa of Avila
The spiritual devotions of these women were often extreme: fasting, poverty, denial of all things worldly.
But there are also prescient intuitions of scientific discoveries to come.
At the same time the spirit showed me a tiny thing the size of a hazelnut, as round as a ball, and so small I could hold it in the palm of my hand. I looked at it in my mind’s eyes, and wondered, What is this? The answer came to me: “This is everything that has been made. This is all Creation.” It was so small that I marveled that it could endure; such a tiny thing seemed likely to simply fall into nothingness. Again the answer came to my thoughts: “It lasts, it will always last, because God loves it.” Everything — all that exists — draws its being from God’s love.—Julian of Norwich
Through the discovery of quantum mechanics we now know that: If you removed the empty space from the atoms of all people, the entire human race could fit in the volume of a sugar cube—The Institute of Physics.
If you’re curious about these women and would like to read an introduction to their lives and work, I recommend Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics by Carol Lee Flinders. Excerpts from her book are indicated by the use of quotes in this post.
On Friday, I’ll share my personal favorite of these women with you.