Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Comparing the Great Female Mystics of the Middle Ages
In many respects, I have always considered the Middle Ages to represent the apex of Christian mysticism. In journeying through this era, one aspect that jumps out immediately is the sheer volume of mystical writing from many female saints and mystics; this part of Christian mysticism seems to have garnered a new, if not distorted following these days, with many New Age adherents attempting to warp, co-opt, and twist the teachings and writings of the female mystics of this era into some kind of pseudo-pagan/Gnostic corpus of wisdom. Obviously, for anyone who has actually delved into their writings, this is most certainly not the case. But if one has not encountered their writings before, where does one start?
Certainly, the first encounter with the sheer number of female mystics of the Middle Ages can be intimidating: St. Christina of Markyate, Bl. Julian of Norwich, St. Hildegard of Bingen, countless beguines, and the list goes on. Therefore, here I will attempt to give a brief overview of the ones worth checking out.
St. Hildegard of Bingen is arguably the most prominent and obvious of the mystics. Recently proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, I would state that she is also the most complex and difficult to understand of the mystics of her age. At once a natural scientist, an enraptured mystic, a prophetic voice,, and a theologian, St. Hildegard's vast library of writings, from plays to visions, offers a veritable smorgasbord of wisdom to the seeking Christian. The central point from which to begin is, in my opinion, her major work entitled Scivias. Beware, however - St. Hildegard has become a massive touchstone, for one reason or another, for all kinds of heretical groups and New Age spiritualists, and translations of her work with all kinds of bizarre editorial extras in them abound.
If one finds St. Hildegard's writing too much of an undertaking at first, then I suggest St. Elisabeth of Schonau's. St. Elisabeth was a contemporary of St. Hildegard's, prone to ecstatic visions and prophetic writings as well. However, where St. Hildegard is mystical and deeply symbolic, St. Elisabeth's writings swirl around a simple core of questions-and-answers. Her visions of heaven, of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary are fascinating, not too mention her being told the fate of Origen, the greatest of the early Church theologians.
Next, we come to the world of the beguine mystics. Skipping over the dangerous quietism of Marguerite de Porete, one encounters the mystical poetics of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch. Few mystics have been able to write such beautiful poetry since - Hadewijch's especially is literally steeped in a supernatural love of Christ, and Mechthild's mirrors the enigmatic writings of the Sufi mystics within Islam. Of the two, Mechthild's combination of poetry and prose is the most rewarding, making her work The Flowing Light of the Godhead a classic of the era.
So far, other than St. Hildegard, most of the above mystics are not so well-known. In fact, most are overshadowed by a later one, Bl. Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress. Revelations of Divine Love is certainly the most approachable of all the female mystical writings of the Middle Ages, and easily one of the most consoling for a troubled soul.
One should also not pass up the writings and life of St. Gertrude the Great, quite possibly the most underrated of all of them. Her writings and visions were the first to really expound upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus, depicting in a vivid way the Saviour's love for us. Prophetics and apocalyptic visions are not to be found here, only deep revelations about the love of God for His creation.
And of course, we would be amiss to pass up on the brilliant genius and overflowing love of St. Catherine of Siena, one of my favorite saints of all time. Her Dialogue is considered a classic of Catholic mystical writing, but her various letters are her true masterpieces.
Other mystics one should definitely check out include St. Christina of Markyate, whose life is a popular read in studies on medieval literature, as well as the mystical writings of Beatrice of Nazareth, Bl. Mary of Oignies, St. Bridget of Sweden, Bl. Margaret Ebner, St. Catherine of Genoa and others.
Hopefully this list serves to provide a springboard into the world of the female mystics of medieval era - may their writings serve to deepen your relationship with Christ.