Sunday, May 10, 2020

Latin Medieval Women Mystics in the Service of Feminism

CLJ: Historiographic Sophistications: The Eclipse of Medieval Women Mystics by Cyril O'Regan

Discovering and Recovering Medieval Women Mystics

It is difficult to locate precisely the moment when scholarly reflection on medieval Christian women mystics went from by-the-way comment to being an established area of study within medieval studies, but perhaps also in religious and theological studies more broadly. In any event, it is of fairly recent vintage. While there were laborers in the vineyard before the 1980s, perhaps two happenings more than anything else have served to bring to light the enormous contributions that medieval women made to fashioning and refashioning Christian spirituality. The first of these is the publication in the Classics of Western Spirituality series of the works of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Hadewijch (1200-1248), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208-1282/1294), Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310).
The second is the ground-clearing work of such pioneering scholars as Caroline Walker Bynum, Barbara Newman, and the redoubtable Bernie McGinn who in his history of mysticism lavishes as much attention on these relative unknown women as he does on Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, Jan Ruusbroeck, and even his favorite mystic, Meister Eckhart. Of course, none of this recovery would have yielded fruit were there no real hunger to retrieve. If there was no latent sense that these fascinating women had been seriously neglected and needed to be read and heard, and that their study would illuminate the broader vocabulary of option in spirituality in the medieval period, and reveal how women who did not have a voice in the Church, nonetheless, found one in Flemish, German, French, and Italian vernaculars.
Going hand in hand with this historical rectification, and energizing it, was the exciting sense in which discourses and the lives that made them possible, but also the radical Christian lives that they call for, represent a challenge not only to our Christian theological and discursive conventions, but also to our modes of self-understanding. In short, whether one is explicitly a feminist or not, the patterns of thinking, feeling, and speaking disclosed by these medieval women mystics have come to be thought of as exemplary, as suggesting unimagined possibilities for ways of articulating Christian faith and of being Christian in the world.
Over the past three decades there are any number of fine studies on both individual medieval women mystics and groupings of these medieval women mystics on particular themes and topics. Perhaps Hildegard of Bingen has to be set off from these other women mystics by her earlier date, her general acceptance by the Church, and by her relative command of the theological tradition. But perhaps even more by the fact that she is not only original but originary in that her monumental Scivias. It is nothing less than a brief summa of the entirety of the Christian faith. Scivias established a pattern of writing in which there was significant appeal to personal vision and experience not only as proper modes of religious discourse, but as the favored means to uncover and recover radical forms of Christian life buried by the conventions of Christian discourse, repressed in the liturgical practices of the Church, and not sufficiently exhibited even in monastic forms of life. Hildegard, however, is an absolute singularity.
None of the other four women mystics mentioned above was the polyglot that the aristocratic Hildegard was, who made contributions to music as well as the visual arts, as she appealed to vision as an independent source of authority and availed of whatever literary forms were congruent with her desire to influence a Christian community that was lukewarm at best and in any event saddled with the illusion that true holiness and perfection was the prerogative of priests and monks. Which is not to say that the contribution of each of these women mystics is not significant and taken as a group not inestimable. As they wrote in the vernacular, a number of these women were able to exploit the genre of courtly romance to write of their unrestricted desire and fevered longing for Christ, the triune God, and the Godhead.
Although none of the texts of these religious women are autobiographical in the strict sense,  nonetheless, in each one finds accounts of visions and of ecstasies of illumination or union with a divine who is the focal object of desire, whether that object is more nearly to be identified with Christ, Trinity, or the pure Godhead or all of such. In line with most mystical texts of the Christian tradition, the fundamental goal of their texts is instructional. These intrepid women are teachers of Christian perfection. They show us would-be pilgrims the way not only to allay the passions and selfishness that express themselves in vice and alienation from God, but to draw a path to the literally pathless God through a critical vetting of the virtues which, as a group or singly, may in fact sabotage the union so passionately sought. Yet, if the link between instruction and vision and personal confession is a common feature of their writings, their mode of expression is not. It is highly varied, with each having a unique literary style.
One finds in Hadewijch a mystical poetry focused on the longing of the lover for union with the Beloved or Love, yet whose dominant theme is frustration personally endured and which for readers and hearers who have similar hopes should become ingredient in their expectation. To a lesser extent this is also the case in Mechthild’s diffuse Flowing Light of the Godhead in which instructional content regularly turns to poetic effusion. Such is also the case in Angela, but not in Marguerite, whose Mirror of the Simple Souls was burned in her lifetime. The text, which led to Marguerite being burned at the stake in 1310, is an instructional text that also prosecutes a definite argument about the scale of religious perfection and the condition of its realization. It is a text of radical exposure which, in the nakedness of its writing about the simple or annihilated soul, is itself similarly exposed.
In her extraordinarily severe text there is no poetical afflatus that could be adduced as defense were there a charge of theological impropriety. Nor is there any attempt to diminish the authority of the claims of experience by suggesting that their value is to be assigned by the institutional Church as happens later in Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Finally, there is a refusal to equivocate when it comes to the issue of whether the virtues are transcended, whether the Godhead rather than the Trinity or Christ is the ultimate object of Christian desire, and whether in consummated union the soul’s very createdness is annulled.
While one of the main beauties of this cache of Christian literature is the sheer variety in performance, it would only make sense that with scholars having provided a good deal of historical context and with a good amount of close reading serving as a baseline, interpretation would necessarily turn to broader questions such as whether there are any underlying elements in the texts of these women mystics outside the highly personal and self-referential nature of their discourse.
What are the ways in which these texts invest themselves with authority? What do the operative hyperboles of humility and union tell us about the group as a whole? What does their supercharged eroticism show us? What sense can we make of the seeming paradox in their work of the experience of almost domestic familiarity with a divine spouse and the recognition that this spouse is essentially unfathomable. And finally, and perhaps most revealingly, for those of us familiar with mystical life as a movement from purgation, through illumination to union, what sense can we make of the paradox of a call for union that indicates that the highest state of all is one of being absolutely abandoned by God?
Now with regard to the scholars already named, but also a host of others, it would not be unfair to say that, although animated by deep commitments to the plurality of expression in the Christian tradition, the literature that has been produced show very recognizable feminist concerns. It could hardly be otherwise, since with the exception perhaps of Hildegard these are voices that until recently were either forgotten, repressed or censured. As I indicated in my first historiographical essay, concern is not the same as theory. A concern may or may not be accompanied by theory and admits different levels of theory when it is so accompanied. A very telescopic view of the literature on medieval women mystics would, I believe, reveal a wide variety of theoretical aptitude and commitment to theory which gets expressed in a scholarship that runs the gamut from almost no application of theory to an application in which theory takes over and swamps the phenomena that provoked one’s historical, religious, and human interest. My interest here is in the latter.
Does such a perspective justify Bouyer's assessment or Bunge's on what happened in what could be called the patriarchate of Rome during the medieval period, or Western Christendom? For that matter, what about Podles' critique of the influence of bridal mysticism? As for union with the Godhead, what would that mean? Can there be an abstracted ousia without any Person? Or is it the Most Holy Trinity, but united?

It would be interesting to see how The Song of Songs has been interpreted in different ecclesial traditions and related not to the Church but to the lives of individual Christians.

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