The Beguinage, Bruques
The high gate keeps, it seems, nobody in
And the bridge leads contentedly out as well as within
And yet, it is certain that each and everyone
Is in the old Elm Court; they do not leave
Their houses, except to walk the short way
To church, in order that they may the better understand
Why there should be such love in them.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
Some women in the middle ages wanted to control their own lives. They neither wanted to be married off by their families, nor did they want to submit to the authority that was wielded by convents. Their hearts were filled with love for God, and, in what feels like a strange application, they took what was current in their culture — the idealism of chivalric romanticism — and applied it to their relationship with God.
Oddly, it was the soul who stood in the place of the knight, and God who was the lady pursued.
But love was their focus.
It seems to me that the commandment of love that God spoke to Moses is the weightiest I know in scripture, “You shall love your lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” These words you shall never forget, sleeping or waking. If you sleep, you must dream of them. If you are awake, you must think of them, and recite them, and carry them into effect. These words you shall write on the threshold, and on the lintel, and on the wall, and in all places where you shall be, that you may not forget what you must do there.
In other words, God commands that we nevermore forget love, either sleeping or waking, in any manner, with all that we are, with heart, with soul, with mind, with strength, and with our thoughts. Go gave this commandment to Moses and in the Gospels, that in this way we should live wholly for love. Woe, indeed! How dare we then give love short measure in anything? Alas, is it not fearful robbery that we spare anything for love, or hold back anything? Alas! Think about this, and work without neglect to promote love above all things.
(Hadewijch of Antwerp)
So these women formed their own communities. They professed vows of chastity and poverty, and they took as their especial reason for being an adoration of the Eucharist.
These woman had qualities, whether they came into their communities with them in hand or acquired them from their sisters once there, that made them stand out. One was their open disregard for institutional structures. In fact, they became the objects of fierce criticism because of their criticism of the church of their day, and, more specifically, the clergy.
The church came down on these communities and their members quite hard, eventually eradicating them. Marguerite Porete was even burned to death by the church for being, essentially, a traveling preacher.
A fish cannot drown in water
A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
God doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?
(Mechthild of Magdeburg)
Another quality that distinguished these ladies was their inclination towards mysticism. In fact, visions became central to their religious practice and writing. They even developed a system of stages in visionary activity: focusing the vision on the need to do penance, focusing on a concern for others, dialoguing with their confessors about the relationship of the content of their visions to church doctrine, and focusing their imaginations on the life of Christ and his mother.
How Love names the Soul by twelve names
The very marvelous one.
The Not Understood.
Most Innocent of the Daughters of Jerusalem.
She upon whom the Holy Church is founded.
Illuminated by Understanding.
Adorned by Love.
Living by Praise.
Annihilated in all things through Humility.
At peace in divine being through divine will.
She who wills nothing except the divine will.
Filled and satisfied without any lack of divine goodness through the work of the Trinity.
Her last name is: Oblivion, Forgotten.
In the middle ages, there are considered to be three types, or sources, of theology. First is the scholastic theology, writers like Thomas Aquinas. Second is the monastic theology, people such as Bernard of Clairvaux. The third and last form was what is called vernacular theology. Writing from ordinary people like these women.
The more that I write this blog, the more I turn away from my historically reactionary avoidance of mysticism, especially in public, in spite of my life and all my experiences, and begin to see how much mystics have contributed to the church and the world at large through their visions, their writings, and their actions.
The madness of love
The madness of love
Is a blessed fate;
And if we understood this
We would seek no other:
It brings into unity
What was divided,
And this is the truth:
Bitterness it makes sweet,
It makes the stranger a neighbor,
And what was lowly it raises on high.
(Hadewijch of Antwerp)