MYSTICISM: Hadewijch Of Antwerp by Harvey Egan

Hadewijch Of Antwerp by Harvey Egan

From An Anthology of Christian Mysticism

The Flemish Beguine, Hadewijch, is perhaps the most sublime exponent of love mysticism in the Western tradition.  Love mysticism contends that God allows himself to be experienced as Love by a person who ardently desires to love and to be united with God in this life. In addition, this love is usually deeply emotional, ecstatic, visionary, and bridal.  So traumatic is this madness at times that the visionary’s physical well-being and even life are endangered.

Hadewijch was a Beguine, that is, a woman who lived a semi-religious community life, but without vows.  The Beguines were pious women who seem to have rejected both a woman’s constructed life at court and the stricter obligations of the cloistered life.  Much like the primitive monastic tradition in which a spiritual father gathered disciples around him without ecclesiastical sanction, the early stages of the Beguine movement saw laywomen united in much the same way.  Embracing a loose form of community life, apostolic poverty, contemplation, and recitation of the hours, they also studied, taught, gave spiritual direction, and cared for the sick and the needy.

The name, “Beguine,” may be derived either from the name of Lambert le Bègue (d. 1177), a revivalist preacher at Liége, or from the gray cloth of their distinctive garb.  Perhaps because of their threatening independence, holiness of life, good works – and, occasionally, eccentricities and unorthodox beliefs – the Beguines were frequently the object of clerical and lay criticism.  Nonetheless, Pope Honorius III gave them full ecclesiastical authorization in 1216.

The Beguines’ spirituality was influenced by the Crusades.  Sharply focused on the mysteries of the humanity of Christ’s life, especially his childhood and passion, this spirituality was also strongly Eucharistic and Marian.

The main theme throughout Hadewijch’s writings is the tumultuous longing for the infinite joy of possessing a God who is love.  She had experienced this love so deeply that she learned in a vision: “The seraph who had lifted me up placed me upon it [a seat] and said to me: ‘Behold, this is love, whom you see in the midst of the countenance of God’s nature; she has never yet been shown here to a created being.'”  Hadewijch never sought or clung to her ecstatic experiences, but saw them as part of her need to “grow up” in the Lord.  She experienced that she became the brave knight of divine Love who knows “what love teaches with love and how love honors the loyal lover with love.”

The joys and sufferings encountered by the soul in its longing for God fill Hadewijch’s works.  Love is an abyss not only of joy, bliss, peace, and “unheard of songs,” but also of violent storms and terrifying, horrible, and awesome places.  For her, “to carry love means a propensity, a longing, a desire, a service, an incessant exercise of burning will.  But to feel love means the awareness of being in the liberty of love.  But to be love surpasses all.”

The Hadewijch corpus shows astonishing literary versatility, tremendous emotional and intellectual range, and profound spirituality and mysticism.  In some love mysticism, affective and religious emotions become an end in themselves and never take advantage of theological and doctrinal support.  This is definitely not the case with Hadewijch who had assimilated scripture, the church’s liturgy, Augustine, William of St. Thierry, and other church fathers.

Moreover, her theological exemplarism provides a solid foundation for her love mysticism.  According to this view, the human person is created in the image of God, but the image was sullied by Adam’s sin.  Because the soul is “Christ’s mother,” it must give birth to the divine infant.  In this way, it recovers its Trinitarian image and ascends to the Triune God.

One also finds elements of an “ontological” mysticism (Wesensmystik) in Hadewijch.  This speculative mysticism emphasizes the unity-in-difference between God as Being and the person as being.  It ponders the extreme “nakedness” (devoid of all concepts and images) of the divine-human intercourse in the soul’s “ground.”  It stresses that the whole spiritual life consists in a return to God by poverty, detachment, and nakedness.  Extreme forms of Wesensmystik emphasized that persons attained their goal by keeping themselves free from all works, save “pure love alone,” a love that eventually annihilates them in the abyss of the divine essence.  Through pure love, they become God.

However, Hadewijch never tires, for Christological reasons, of emphasizing the need to live a fully human ascetical-mystical life.  While maintaining that one is never absorbed into the divine, Hadewijch insists that one must “become God with God.”  For her, when plunged in love, one returns to the world with “impressionable senses” that are even more open to all worldly reality and a readiness to serve others.

Her 31 Letters illustrate her educated intelligence, the striking artistry of her prose writing, the importance of self-knowledge, and how the mystical life is the full flowering of the truths of faith.  Poems in Stanzas show, in 45 poems, her lyric and poetic genius that made full use of the themes, imagery, and techniques of the troubadours who sang the praises of courtly love.  In fact, Hadewijch fused the poetry of courtly love, the Latin sequence of the church’s liturgy, and a Christianized Minne (love) mysticism that created a new genre of medieval mystical poetry.

She also had numerous visions “in the spirit” and “out of the spirit.”  Her 14 recorded visions emphasize the necessity of becoming “one with God in fruition.”  Poems in Couplets illustrates her aphoristic and improvising mastery in underscoring God’s love for us and our love for God.  Some of these poems are deeply Eucharistic.  They teach that when we eat Christ, he eats us, for the “heart of each devours the other’s heart.”

Hadewijch’s love, or “seraphic,” mysticism is deeply Trinitarian and Christological.  Like the great Eastern church fathers before her, Hadewijch sees the Father as the source without source of the divine life and fecundity.  The human person “lives the Trinity” by emulating the Trinitarian inhalation into unity and exhalation into Trinity by turning inward in contemplation and outward in virtue and apostolic service, an idea that Ruusbroec was to develop.

If one is to “grow up in order to God with God,” one must “live God and man.”  Said Christologically, “We all indeed wish to be God with God, but God knows there are few of us who want to live as men with his humanity, or want to carry his cross with him, or want to hand on the cross with him and pray humanity’s debt to the full.”  Hadewijch’s Christology points out the human paradox: to be divine, one must be fully human, as Christ was.  Her “to live God and Man” became a sharp sword against the Brethren of the Free Spirit who wanted to be God without remaining human.

The first selected text is perhaps the most beautiful description in the Christian mystical tradition of the soul’s greatness.  Only the soul can reach God’s abyss; only God can reach and satisfy the soul’s abyss.

The second selection illustrates Hadewijch’s poetic and literary genius.  One senses her passionate love of Love and her willingness to allow Love to conquer her so that she may conquer Love.  In the agony and ecstasy of love, “love, by Love, sees to the depths of the Beloved,” and attains true freedom.  Love also enlightens the soul’s darker half to make the soul one in divine light.

The third text was selected to illustrate Hadewijch’s ecstatic visionary love mysticism.  She is so full of desire to satisfy and be satisfied by her Beloved that she is mad with love.  This madness affects her heart, veins, and even threatens to break her bodily.  Hadewijch ardently longs to be conformed fully to “his Humanity” and “to grow up to God with God.”

In ecstatic vision, she sees an eagle (common in her writings), a Child at the altar, and the “Man.”  This vision brings out her eucharistic mysticism: the Christ Child comes from the altar to give her the sacrament.  However, it is the “Man” who actually gives her the “Sacrament,” the chalice, and then takes her into his arms.  As she melts into her Beloved, they are “one without a difference.”

This medieval woman possesses an astonishing subtlety of feeling in her ability to teach us how to grow in Trinitarian love by living Christ both in his divinity and humanity.

The Texts


Greatness of the Soul

63. Now understand the deepest essence of your soul, what “soul” is.  Soul is a being that can be beheld by God and by which, again, God can be beheld.  Soul is also a being that wishes to content God; it maintains a worthy state of being as long as it has not fallen beneath anything that is alien to it and less than the soul’s own dignity.  If it maintains this worthy state, the soul is a bottomless abyss in which God suffices to himself; and his own self-sufficiency ever finds fruition to the full in this soul, as the soul, for its part, ever does in him.  Soul is a new way for the passage of God from his depths into his liberty; and God is a way for the passage of the soul into its liberty, that is, into his inmost depths, which cannot be touched except by the soul’s abyss.  And as long as God does not belong to the soul in his totality, he does not truly satisfy it.


To Have Nothing But God

God be with you and give you
True knowledge of the methods of Love;
May he enable you to understand
What the Bride says in the Song of Songs:
I to my Beloved, and my Beloved to me!
If anyone allowed Love to conquer him,
He would then conquer Love completely.
I hope this will be your experience;
And although we are waiting long for the event,
Let us thank Love for everything.
He who wishes to taste veritable Love,
Whether by random quest or sure attainment,
Must keep to neither path nor way.
He must wander in search of victory over Love,
Both on the mountains and in the valleys,
Devoid of consolation, in pain, in trouble;
Beyond all the ways men can think of,
That strong steed of Love bears him.
For reason cannot understand
How love, by Love, sees to the depths of the Beloved,
Perceiving how Love lives freely in all things.
Yes, when the soul has come to this liberty,
The liberty that Love can give,
It fears neither death nor life.
The soul wants the whole of Love and wants nothing else.
—I leave rhyme: What mind can say eludes me.

27. For with nothing the mind says can one put into words the theme of Love, which I desire and want for you.  I say no more; here we are obliged to speak with our soul.  Our theme is boundless; for this theme – Love – which we take, is God himself by nature (cf. 1 John 4:16).  Veritable Love never had the restrictions of matter but is free in the rich liberty of God, always giving in richness, and working with pride, and growing in nobleness.

37. Oh, may you full grow up according to your dignity, to which you were called by God from all eternity!  How can you endure it that God has fruition of you in his Essence, and you do not have fruition of him?  How I feel about that is something I must be silent about; read what you have here; as you will, I shall keep silence.  God must work according to his pleasure.  I can say as Jeremiah said: You have deceived me, O Lord, and I am glad to have been deceived by you, (Jeremiah 20:7).

46. The soul who is most untouched is the most like to God.  Keep yourself untouched by all men in Heaven and on Earth, until the day when God is lifted up above the Earth and draws you and all things to himself, (John 12:32).  Some say that he meant by this, upon the cross on which he was lifted up.  But when God and the blessed soul are united he, together with the blessed soul, will be exalted from the Earth in all beauty.  For when the soul has nothing else but God, and when it retains no will but lives exclusively according to his will alone; and when the soul is brought to nought and with God’s will wills all that he wills, and is engulfed in him, and is brought to nought – then he is exalted above the Earth, and then he draws all things to him; and so the soul becomes with him all that he himself is.

62. The souls engulfed in God who are thus lost in him are illuminated on the side by the light of Love, as the moon receives its light from the sun.  The simple knowledge then received by them in this new light, from which they come and in which they dwell – this simple light then catches their darker half, so that the two halves of the soul become one; and then there is full light.

69. If you had demanded this light to choose your Beloved, you would be free.  For these souls are united and clothed with the same light with which God clothes himself, (Psalm 103:2).

73. How these two halves of the soul become one – there is much to say on this point.  I do not dare to say anything more about it, for my sad lot with regard to Love is too hard; and besides, I fear that the aliens may plant nettles where roses should stand.

77. Here we now drop the subject.  God is with you.


On a certain Pentecost Sunday a vision at dawn.  Matins were being sung in the church,  and I was present.  My heart and my veins and all my limbs trembled and quivered with eager desire and, as often occurred with me, such madness and fear beset my mind that it seemed to me I did not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfill my desire, so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must die.  On that day my mind was beset so fearfully and so painfully by desirous love that all my separate limbs threatened to break, and all my separate veins were in travail.

14. The longing in which I then was cannot be expressed by any language or any person I know; and everything I can say about it would be unheard-of to all those who never apprehended Love as something to work for with desire, and whom love had never acknowledged as hers.  I can say this about it: I desire to have full fruition of my beloved, and to understand and taste him to the full.  I desire that his humanity should to the fullest extent be one in fruition with my humanity, and that mine then should hold its stand and be strong enough to enter into perfection until I content him, who is perfection itself, by purity and unity, and in all things to content him fully in every virtue.  To that end I wished he might content me interiorly with his God-head, in one spirit, and that for me he should be all that he is, without withholding anything from me.  For above all the gifts that I ever longed for, I chose this gift: that I should give satisfaction in all great sufferings.  For that is the most perfect satisfaction: to grow up in order to be God with God.  For this demands suffering, pain, and misery, and living in great new grief of soul: but to let everything come and go without grief, and in this way to experience nothing else but sweet love, embraces, and kisses.  In this sense I desired that God give himself to me, so that I might content him.

42. As my mind was beset with fear, I saw a great eagle flying toward me from the altar, and he said to me: “If you wish to attain oneness, make yourself ready!”

45. I fell on my knees and my heart beat fearfully, to worship the beloved with oneness, according to his true dignity; that indeed was impossible to me, as I know well, and as God knows, always to my woe and to my grief.

50. But the eagle turned back and spoke: “Just and mighty Lord, now show your great power to unite your oneness in the manner of union with full possession!”

53. Then the eagle turned around again and said to me: “He who has come, comes again; and to whatever place he never came, he comes not.”

57. Then he came to the altar, showing himself as a child; and that child was in the same form as he was in his first three years.  He turned toward me, in his right hand took from the ciborium his body, and in his left hand took a chalice, which seemed to come from the altar, but I do not know where it came from.

64. With that he came in the form and clothing of a man, as he was on the day when he gave us his body for the first time; looking like a human being and a man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who actually belongs to another.  Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is.  After that he came himself, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity.  So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported.  Also then, for a short while, I had the strength to bear this; but soon, after a short time, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form.  I saw him completely come to nought and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me.  Then it was to me as if we were one without difference.  It was thus: outwardly, to see, taste, and feel, as one can outwardly taste, see, and feel in the reception of the outward sacrament.  So can the beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one in the other.

94. After that I remained in a passing away in my beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself; and I was changed and taken up in the spirit, and there it was shown me concerning such hours.

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