In the Jaws of the Bear: Journeys of Transformations by Women Mystics

by Ritamary Bradley



Mystic. The word scatters those who hear it into divisions and confusion.

Women. Often laughed at,sometimes feared, at times worshipped and revered. Who can ever know what they want?

Women mystics. Tools of evil forces, hysterics, deceived or, at their best, passive channels for divine messages. Who can sort them out?

So thick is the cloud of presuppositions about women mystics that even the best of them have had small chance of being understood.

Since this commentary is not about mysticism but about women who are mystics, let us settle at the outset on what mysticism is. Apart from such a view, a fairly standard one, what follows will not make much sense.

The mystical life is a growth process of transformation. At its fullness it embodies not only unity with a Trinitarian Godhead encountered in the soul’s centre but also includes an active, effective, compassionate awareness that the Trinity animates the created universe, that the divine is the ground of being, that the whole Christ is one with his members. To put this in the direct words of a woman mystic, Julian of Norwich, God is the maker, the keeper, the lover, active in all that is good, turning evil into good, working in us so that our contemplation of Christ overflows into abundant love for one’s Even -Christians. “Even-Christians” is Julian’s word. Though unfamiliar in modern English, it should become part of our usage and should not have to be translated.

But when mysticism is manifested in women, it has a specific character. This is so because such mysticism develops within a tradition primarily shaped by males who have had a warped view of women generally. A patriarchal society creates for woman a false self, a fragile second -hand notion of what she is and who she is.

In the face of that tradition, women have had a choice of conforming to what the patriarchy expects of them, rejecting it, or blending their own insights and experiences selectively with the theory and direction which men offer them. Even the record of what women do in this regard is obscure because the history of mysticism comes to us through that same patriarchal bias. Women mystics are seldom assessed on their own terms.


Are Women Mystics Different?

Patriarchal bias has tended to apply general stereotypes about women to those who engage themselves in the mystical quest. The result is a strange mixture of admiration and of underlying contempt for the woman as an inferior sex.

Example One: Women are passive by nature and therefore more adapted to mysticism. This is a misunderstanding not only of women but of “passivity.” God does not simply act on the mystic but enables or empowers the person to the exercise of a life otherwise latent. Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century and Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth speak of being led by Christ, but in the sense of his showing them which way to go, not of dragging them like reluctant dogs on a leash.

Again, women are said to be more apt for mysticism because mysticism is love and women are better able than men to use their affective powers. This too is to miss the point. The mystic does not claim to adhere to God with the affections or with any outward faculty but with the base or apex of the soul – some inner depth apt for communion with the divine. That such union integrates the affections into the divine life is true; but it also integrates the reason.

A pervasive variant on this bias stubbornly holds that because of the love component in mysticism, women can more easily see themselves as a female soul pursued by God as a male wooer or bridegroom. But this stance wrongly apprehends the divinity as male; and it erroneously identifies love between human spouses as a model for mystical union – a model to be surpassed, but still a model.

And women’s claims to mystical experience are always viewed with greater scepticism than those of males. This position animates Ronald Knox throughout Enthusiasm, his history of religious movements. He says, for example:

. . . . the sturdiest champion of women’s rights will hardly deny that the unfettered exercise of the prophetic ministry by the more devout sex can threaten the ordinary decencies of ecclesiastical order.1

The “devout sex” is a common phrase of contempt. It is blatantly biased to limit his charge of disturbance to women. In fact, his own book is given over primarily to accounts of the deviations of males. Still, Knox maintains that it is women who transmit heresies born of misguided religious enthusiasm. The very names given to such heresies confute him. Yet whatever be the facts, women must bear the blame.


Women Mystics are Different

To expose these biases is not to deny that woman’s situation, if not her inner dispositions, do have an effect on her mystical journey. Certainly women have a different starting point.

The beginning stages of the mystical journey demand, it is agreed, the dismantling of a false self so that the Christ -self can emerge and take over the centre of the new being. The end point of the journey enables the mystic to say with St. Paul, “I live – now not I – but Christ lives in me.”

Now woman’s false self comes for the most part from a society which tells her, not that she is the bearer of a superior power, but that she is weak, worthless, helpless, the cause of evil. This is not a false self limited to past ages. Etty Hillesum, a mystic of our own time, puts the case in clear terms:

We are not yet full human beings; we are the “weaker sex.” We are still tied down and enmeshed in centuries -old traditions. We still have to be born as human beings, that is the great task that lies before us.2

But it is also true that woman’s false self has protected her from certain aberrations that easily accrue to males. Their diffidence shelters them from bold errors springing from pride. Women mystics rarely, if ever, rail against the other sex, simply as man. True, they call to conversion corrupt and misguided clerics, even popes. But they do not ascribe the evil in such lives to maleness. On the other hand, even the best of the male ecclesiastical writers repeat one another in speaking ill of women as a class. Even their praise of the Virgin Mary is fraught with indirect slurs on her sex.

Nor do women mystics tend to get trapped in the dualist tradition that induces agonies over seeming conflicts between the active and contemplative lives. For women, human needs do not take us away from God; they take us to God by a different path. Contemplation is not simply a concentration of the reasoning powers, though silence is also valued as a help to awakening the slumbering inner self.

Women do not spearhead movements or generate rules that enforce absolute cloister on all who aspire to the contemplative way. Cloister is only an external, and it has its own dangers. Women do not develop irrational fears that animals will be a major obstacle along the mystical journey. Grudgingly men have allowed women recluses to have one cat – presumably to fend off mice and not for the sheer wonder of the creature itself. And music: even this creature which so readily evokes an ascent to God and seals peace of heart has frightened men counsellors. Stifling the talents of generations of nuns, church officials issue rules against learning music under threat of excommunication: “time is taken to learn the music, and whole days are taken away from prayer, to the detriment of the spiritual life of many of the nuns” one of these rulings declares.3 The Church Fathers, followed by ecclesiastics through the centuries, have also described in vivid detail the clothing which women contemplatives should not wear. Women’s writings too contain much description of clothing – but it is in the form of symbolic garments whose shapes, texture, and colours suggest an inner meaning. In sum, it has been the practice of men much more than of women to put trust in externals as shaping factors for the mystical life. Underlying this emphasis imposed on women is the belief that females, lacking in reason, must be trained, coaxed, and directed like small children into the paths that are best for them.


Contrasts: Male and Female Mystics

Augustine and Teresa of Avila: All these generalisations, of course, are risky. Exceptions can surface on every point. Today’s writers about women mystics have changed considerably in some ways.

What brings more light is to look at some examples of actual men and women concerned with mysticism. What do they say and do?

Women have been forcefully hindered in their speaking about divine matters. The primary weapon used to impose silence on women of mystical gifts was the Scriptures. Certain biblical texts were held out as barriers. The tactic of the bravest women was to turn the Scriptures back on the objector without seeming to exhibit pride in doing so.

The chief source of mystical prayer – the lectio divina – was in large part closed to women. Even if they could read, they were hindered from commenting on the Bible. They were blocked by general decrees from teaching what they learned from the Scriptures through divine inspiration.

How then could women become teachers of the way of mystical prayer?

The key was in the Scriptures. For example, there was the story of the Samaritan woman who had no husband to teach her and who nevertheless went forward to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. Why could she do so? Jesus was her teacher.

Augustine led the way in explicating this challenging Scripture story.4 He managed to do so without entirely relinquishing his usual anti-feminism. He could reconcile this event with the injunction in 1 Corinthians 14:35 that a woman who wished to learn should ask her husband. And then there was the example of Mary in the Mary and Martha story in which a woman was learning, not from a husband, but from Jesus. This event gave trouble to the exegetes who generally turned it into allegory, evading the literal meaning. Augustine mingled these two Gospel stories when he tried to understand the mission of the Samaritan woman. He also included a reference to Jesus as feminine, as the one who gathers her chickens under her wing:

He fashioned us by his strength, he sought us by his weakness. As weak . . . he nourishes the weak, as a hen her chickens; for he likeneth himself to a hen: “How often,” he saith to Jerusalem, “would I have gathered thy children under my wings, as a hen her chickens; but thou wouldst not.”

Slipping again into anti -feminism, Augustine refers to the “weaker sex,” woman – who was made from Adam’s bone rather than from his flesh, so that she would have a strength derived from the first man. So it is with Christ and the Church of which the Adam and Eve story is a type: his weakness is our strength, for he is made weak in the Church being taken from his side on the cross.

Then back to the story:

. . . . He speaks to the woman guardedly, and enters into her heart by degrees. It may be that he is now teaching her. For what can be sweeter and kinder than that exhortation? “If you knewest the gift of God . . . . ” [But the woman] has her mind on the flesh . . . and fancies that this [living water was promised to her by the Lord after a carnal sense. Perhaps a man could make it clear. At length, wishing her to understand, Jesus saith unto her, “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.” What means this “Call thy husband”? Perhaps it was as the apostle says concerning women, “If they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:34). But this the apostle says of that where there is no Jesus present to teach. It was said, in short, to women whom the apostle was forbidding to speak in Church.

Augustine has to admit that this event is not the only one in which a woman learns without the mediation of her husband – though he injects a note of jealousy among women, as he says,

Was it through her husband that he spoke to Mary, while sitting at his feet and receiving his word; while Martha, wholly occupied with much serving, murmured at the happiness of her sister?

If women would begin to take heart from this part of the commentary, they are quickly discouraged by what follows. What “husband” means in this account, says Augustine, is one’s “understanding”: for as the woman should be ruled by her husband, so the soul should be ruled by reason. But this woman instead has “five husbands:” she is governed by her five unruly senses. Later matters improve and the woman understands: “She called her husband; he is made the head of the woman, and Christ is made the head of the man.” When she proclaims the presence of Jesus to her people, she does so “step by step, lest those men should get angry and indignant, and should persecute her.” And for all the allegory which dilutes the meaning of the encounter with the woman, Augustine manages to say: “The woman first announced Him, and the Samaritans believed her testimony; and they besought him to stay with them . . . .”

But allegory holds final place and the woman dissolves into ambiguity:

So it is today with them . . . that are not yet Christians. Christ is made known to them by Christian friends; and just upon the report of that woman, that is the Church, they come to Christ, they believe through this report.

In her positive role the woman is an allegory for the Church which functions through males; in her negative aspects, she stands for the real woman in the flesh.

Hence, even faced with this Gospel narrative in which a woman appears as intelligent, enlightened, converted to Christ, and teacher of her people, the most influential of commentators overlays the text with a degrading image of woman and denies the Samaritan’s individual reality altogether. Even if the story is only symbolic, the woman as character deserves better treatment and should not be a hinge on which to hang warnings to women not to teach in Church.

Very different is the simple, direct reading Teresa of Avila gives to the same story:

I have just remembered [she writes] some thoughts which I have often had about that holy woman of Samaria . . . . So well had she understood the words of the Lord in her heart that she left the Lord himself so that she might profit and benefit the people of her village . . . . As a reward for this great charity of hers, she earned the credence of her neighbours and was able to witness the great good which our Lord did in that village . . . . This woman, in her divine inebriation, went crying aloud through the streets. To me the astonishing thing is that they should have believed a woman – and she cannot have been a woman of much consequence, as she was going to fetch water. Great humility she certainly had; for when the Lord told her of her sins, she was not annoyed (as people are nowadays – they find it difficult to stand home truths) but told him that he must be a prophet. In the end, her word was believed; and merely on account of what she had said, great crowds flocked from the city to the Lord.5

This comment is imbedded in Teresa’s exegesis on the Song of Songs. The chief contrast with Augustine is in the degree of confidence. Augustine proceeds boldly to teach in his own name, while Teresa speaks fearfully, always aware that men think no woman should be so brash as to write about the Scriptures. Teresa laments such restraint, saying,

For sometimes the Lord enables me to understand a great deal [about the Scriptures] that I should not like to forget though I have not dared to set any of it down in writing.6

One of the saddest parts of the history of spirituality and mysticism is encompassed in those words, spoken or thought by so many women: “I have not dared to set any of it down in writing.”

These words were spoken in Teresa’s case about the only piece of biblical exegesis she has left us. With what trepidation she approached the task of writing about the chief biblical font of mystical writing. True, any writings on the mystical life might come under attack from the Inquisition. But men’s writings were scrutinised for heresy; women’s might be condemned in advance, since it was judged heretical for women to write at all on such subjects. Had her confessors thought her visions about which she wrote unorthodox or demonically inspired, she would have faced excommunication or execution by the Inquisition.

There seemed to be no recourse. She herself offered her spiritual directors a norm for evaluating her reports: does what she experience conform to the Scriptures? But most male theologians of the day still clung to the precise meaning of the Pauline epistles as authority for excluding women from the teaching mission of the Church: let them keep silence in the churches. If they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.

Especially off -limits was the very book on which Teresa ventured to comment – the Song of Songs:

One of her confessors, thinking it a new and dangerous thing that a woman should write on the Songs, ordered this book to be burned, moved with zeal for Saint Paul’s instruction that “women should keep silence in the Church of God.” This he took to mean that they should not preach in churches, nor give lectures nor print books.7

Fortunately – whether by connivance or by chance – many of the copies that had been made were saved from the fire. Teresa thus became the first woman whose commentary on the Song of Songs has survived.

Teresa was not unaware of the tradition of commentary on this Scriptural text which included Hippolytus, Origen, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Leon (183 -185).8 She does little with the literal sense of the poems: the marriage of Solomon. The allegorical level of the marriage of Christ and the Church is not her major concern either. Rather, the poems for her resonate with the emotions of a powerful experience of friendship for God.9

Teresa conflates the images of spouse, friend, teacher, and mother. For those at the beginning of conversion, she counsels that they approach God as mother:

. . . . they are not yet weaned and for some time yet need to be fed with the mild of which I first spoke. Let them remain near those divine breasts; and, when they have sufficient strength, the Lord will take care to lead them on farther.10

Christ’s comfort can be compared to nothing better than “the caress of a mother who so dearly loves her child and feeds and caresses it.”11 Her conflation of images of love puts the erotic elements in perspective and leads her to say,

I confess that the words may be taken in many sense, but the soul that is afire with love is interested in none of them, but wishes only to repeat the words themselves.12

Allegory receives some attention – the bridegroom and bride may stand for Christ and the Church, for God and man in the Incarnation: Do the words reflect “a union as great as that of God being made man? For this was a friendship he contracted with mankind.”13 The kiss of the bridegroom for the bride is primarily a sign of friendship: “And if a kiss denotes peace and friendship, my Lord, why will not souls beg of thee to give it to them?”14

The key word in Teresa’s interpretation is friendship. It is clearly not excess of emotion or sentimentality that characterises this first treatise on the Song of Songs by a woman. She does, however, show scepticism about approaching it with too much learning, with an excess of philology, with too great dependence on reason. She speaks of

certain learned men who, not having been led in this way of prayer by the Lord and not having the beginnings of spirituality, try so hard to reduce everything to reason and to measure everything by their own understanding that it looks as if all their learning is going to enable them to succeed in comprehending all the wonders of God.15

Hers is not anti -intellectualism but a preference for integrating the way of prayer with what can be learned, and for placing wisdom above reason. For Christ is Mother Wisdom.

It is not irrelevant that Teresa brings the incident of the Samaritan woman into her commentary. She is able to circumvent the need of learning from a husband just as the biblical woman did. What need is there to ask of a husband when the Divine Teacher is present?

. . . . when his majesty is pleased to teach us anything, we shall find that we have learned it without any trouble or labour of our own.16

Hence, as a recent writer observes, Teresa “demonstrates, by implication rather than by confrontation, that the Song contradicts rather than completes Paul’s restriction of women’s experience and their ability to participate in the work of the Church.”17 Though she does not speak ill of men collectively, she has some sharp words which could only apply to male preachers:

A preacher delivers a sermon with the intention of profiting his hearers, but he is not so completely detached from human regard for his own profit as not to try to please them by his eloquent preaching, or to gain reputation or credit, or possibly to obtain a canonry.18

Thus Teresa, while admitting the weaknesses and sins she found in herself, cast off the false self the churchmen had urged on her. They would have had her so weak that she could not approach the Scriptures on her own: so much an inferior person that she could learn only from a male; so poor in intellect that she would have to mistrust whatever thoughts came to her about the Scriptures. She countered this image by plunging into one of the most difficult books of the Scriptures and creating her own exposition in all simplicity. She fought back by belittling, gently and under the guise of female incomprehension, the pretentious learning that stood in the way of those who taught about God for their own self -interest and without basis in prayer. She probably counted herself lucky that only her book and not her body was consigned to the inquisitorial fires. She may even have known whether it was chance or cunning which saved this priceless piece, a touchstone of feminine mysticism.


The Ancrene Riwle and Julian of Norwich

Teresa had been opposed in her teaching function by the tradition of male commentary on the Scripture. Four centuries earlier, women had been offered an anti -feminist profile of themselves, imbedded in the anonymous Ancrene Riwle, a handbook written by a priest for women recluses. The anchoress here portrayed was the type of the “ideal” anchoress available to Julian of Norwich, even before her acceptance of the anchoretic life, but Julian transformed the Riwle’s expectations for women in her own original way.

Julian, too, had been faced with the affront that no woman should be a teacher. She too had countered with the argument that Christ was her teacher and that she was therefore in turn entitled to teach what she had learned from divine Wisdom. A tone of protest surfaces in a passage from the Short Text where she makes her point. She takes the tactic of not countering the charge that women are inferior, but instead lays claim to having been taught by God:

But God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher, for that is not and never was my intention; for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know very well that what I am saying. I have received by the revelation of him who is sovereign teacher. But it is truly love which moves me to tell it to you, for I want God to be known and my even-Christians to prosper, as I hope to prosper myself, by hating sin more and loving God more. But because I am a woman, ought I therefore to believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it is his will that it be known (ST 6.135)?19

Julian belabours the point, for she must often have been reminded of the Corinthian text silencing every woman who wished to speak on matters of faith: “. . . . you will soon forget me who am a wretch . . . and you will contemplate Jesus who is every man’s teacher . . . in everything I believe as Holy Church teaches” (ST 6.135).

This tone of protest and her self -image as a “wretch” fades from the Long Text written in the course of some twenty years. There, instead, she weaves into the whole treatise the motif of Christ as teacher, rising to proclaim, “He is the teacher, he is the teaching, he is the taught” (LT 34).

Generally this is the path Julian chooses – to transform rather than to accept or dispute about the false persona created by a patriarchal culture for women. How she does this shows in the differences in symbolic language as it appears in the Ancrene Riwle and in her own text. This twelfth -century guide, designed to shape the minds and lives of anchoresses, remained well -known in the fourteenth century. Julian turned its imagery– not notably unique – upside down.


The Spousal Metaphor:

Presented, for example, with the pervasive metaphor of Christ as the spouse– or wife – of the female soul, Julian makes sparse use of the similitude. When she does allude to it, she adapts it shrewdly to the shape of her own mystical vision.

The most blatant of the instances of sexist imagery in the Ancrene Riwle occurs in the chapter on temptations. Here God is likened to a “wise man [who], when he has newly brought home a wife, takes note of her behaviour with gentle tolerance.” At first he is pleasant towards her, hoping to make her love him inwardly. His next step, when he feels sure of her devotion – won under pretext – is to pretend to be very stern and to put on “a fierce expression in order to try whether he might still remove her love from him.” Finally when he sees that she has been well disciplined, “then he shows that he loves her dearly, and carries out all her wishes.” “Do not be surprised,” the author of the Riwle cautions,

if Jesus Christ, your Spouse, does the same thing with you . . . . At the beginning, it is all courtship, so that you are drawn into love. But as soon as he feels that you are accustomed to him, he will be less patient with you. At last, after this trial, comes great joy.20

Julian’s approach is directly contrary to this image of the dependent wife. As to suffering, she takes the initiative, though moved by grace, to embrace the experience of sickness and dying so that she might live more virtuously. In her maturity, she sees the gradual revelation of one’s sinfulness as the gentle discipline of a mother or the loving admonition of a friend.

All children, male and female, relate to the mother dependently. Hence the mother who develops self -discipline in the child while maintaining her love does not degrade another human being, but passes on the experience of growth:

The kind, loving mother who knows and sees the need of her child guards it very tenderly, as the nature and condition of motherhood will have. And always as the child grows in age and in stature, she acts differently, but she does not change her love. And when it is even older, she allows it to be chastised to destroy its faults, so as to make the child receive virtues and grace. This work . . . our Lord performs in those by whom it is done. So he is our Mother in nature by the operation of the lower part, for love of the higher part (LT 60.299).

It is an act of “supreme friendship” for God to reveal our sins to us: “And this is a supreme friendship of our courteous Lord that he . . . shows us our sins by the sweet light of mercy and grace“ (LT 40.246).

In the chapter on “Love” in the Ancrene Riwle, God is depicted as a romantic courtly lover laying siege to a castle where the soul -maiden is held captive.21 The divine wooer sends her “many fair jewels”:

He let her see the beauty of his face, the face of one who of all men was fairest to behold. [He] told her of his kingdom and asked that he might make her queen of all he possessed [and as a warrior knight, he] delivered her from all her enemies and was himself outrageously tortured and finally slain.22

By contrast, in Julian’s parable, the Lord, while having gentle, courtly manner, comes in the guise of a servant -friend, a teacher and, by implication, a mother in the tradition of the wisdom of God. The Servant in his dual character of Christ and Christ -Adam is not a knight but a gardener, wearing the clothes of a worker and he prepares fruits fit for the Lord of heaven. This similitude embodies overtones from the Song of Songs 6:1: “Let my beloved come into his garden, let him taste its rarest fruits.” Christ is not a romantic lover attracting his beloved with gifts. Rather, he is that essential charity which teaches us to do good against evil and to exercise unbroken love towards ourselves and one another. There is no castle, but only the prison that is this life or, perhaps for Julian, the anchorage.

In fact, if we follow the Sloane version of the Showings, it would seem to be not the singular human beloved who is visited, but Christ. The contemplative goes to Jesus as revealed in others. Christ in Julian’s treatise says to her when she is heavy of heart,“My darling, I am glad that you have come to me,” and then he shows himself as full of glad cheer and with such friendly welcoming as if he had been in pain and in prison.23

This reading echoes the Gospel text, “I was in prison and you visited me, hungry, thirsty, naked and you ministered to me in pain.”

Christ offers no jewels, none of the symbolic worldly enticements which the author of the Ancrene Riwle mistakenly thought would appeal to the female mystic. Rather, he gently manifests our sin to us and when we see ourselves “so foul,” we think God must be wrathful towards us because of our sin. This approach lays the groundwork for a later chapter where we turn to Christ as mother, fearing no wrath, and say, “My kind, gracious, dear mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself foul and unlike to you, and I cannot amend matters without your help and your grace” (LT 61:301). Throughout a lifetime marked by sin and repentance, Julian shows that each time we regret our sins, we are “worshipfully received in joy, like to how it will be when we come to heaven” (LT 40: 346).

In the rare instances when Julian does refer to God as spouse, it is not in the sense of a romantic encounter with a courtly lover. Instead, she returns to the Hebrew tradition, transmitted through Gregory the Great, wherein the people of God or the Church stand in covenant union with divinity. Such is the sense of Julian’s words, “Now is the spouse, God’s son, in peace with his beloved wife, who is the fair maiden of endless joy” (LT 51:278). Since the “fair maiden” is also “his city,” she is not the individual but collective humanity responding to God’s love. This is consistent with the imagery in the parable of the Lord and the Servant in which the Father -Lord sits on the earth waiting for humanity: waiting until his “dearworthy son has bought again his city into the noble fairhood with his hard travail” (LT 51:272). In Song of Songs 6:3, it will be recalled that the beloved is “beautiful . . . sweet and comely as Jerusalem.” The servant, though loving, is not one who woos as in romance, yet there are again overtones of the bridegroom of Solomon’s Song. Julian says, “The brownness of his face, with the charming blackness of his eyes was most suited to his serious intent” (LT 51:271). In Song of Songs 1:5, the colour symbolism is the same: “Take no notice that I am brown. It is the sun that has burnt me. My mother’s sons turned their anger on me; they made me look after their vineyards.” This reference is clearly to the Bride, but in Julian’s parable the Christ is also the Christ -Adam, the Church, and hence stands in relation to God as the bride.

Julian’s allegory is a weaving together of multiple symbols of God’s love for the Church, with the spousal metaphor functioning on an equal plane with other relationships. Such a method suggests the mystery of God by refraining from pursuing any one image as if it somehow were adequate to express what God is. In this vein Julian ends her story saying,

And then I saw that God rejoices that he is our father, God rejoices that he is our mother, and God rejoices that he is our true spouse, and our soul his beloved wife. And Christ rejoices that he is our brother; and Jesus rejoices that he is our saviour (LT 52:279).

This “soul” is each of us united to Christ with his full humanity, and that is why we are so greatly loved:

And for the great endless love that God hath to all mankind, he makes no division in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least soul that will be saved (LT 54:285).

With this diversity of symbols, Julian is preparing to explore the one most appropriate to her own mystical experience – that of Christ as Mother and the Wisdom of God.24

If Julian is adapting the Song of Songs at all, it is only in a fine theological sense. For this procedure she found quite the opposite example in such writings as the Ancrene Riwle. The priest -author of that treatise intersperses his rule with assorted lines from the Canticle, giving to them narrow, pietistic meaning, usually losing sight of the central bridal metaphor, diluting and destroying it. For example, he cites Song of Songs 2: 14 in which the Bridegroom says, “Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. Show me thy face. Let thy voice sound in mine ears.” Combining narrow rules for behaviour with the imagery of human wooing, the priest says this means “show your face to no man and do not let your voice be lightly heard, but turn both to Jesus Christ, to your dear Spouse.” For his overall theme, the author of the Ancrene Riwle selects his verse from the Canticle: “The righteous love thee, says the Bride to her Spouse.” To be righteous, he says, means not only to have a right conscience but also to follow his external rules for the body.25

The interpreter is particularly dishonest when he uses the female figure in the Canticle, with her uninhibited expression of love, to instruct his women hearers in their worthlessness and in their need to hide their feminine beauty. “I am black but beautiful,” says the bride in the Canticle (Cant. 1:5). This means, the Riwle says, that the curtain of the anchorage is black to show “that you yourselves are black and of no value in the eyes of the outside world and that the true sun has burnt you outwardly and made you thus uncomely without, through the shining of his grace.”26

By an even greater corruption of the biblical text, the Riwle author twists the tone of the Spouse of the Song of Songs from one of longing and love into one of anger. The text of the Canticle reads: “If thou knowest not thyself, O fairest among women, go forth and follow after the steps of the flocks and feed thy kids beside the herdsmen’s tents” (Cant. 1:7). With great self -confidence, the male commentator says of the passage: “Its meaning is wrapped up and concealed, but I will unfold it.” What then is its meaning? “This is a cruel saying and grim which our Lord utters in anger and scorn to prying, listening and gossiping anchoresses.” 27 Ironically, if we follow modern Biblical editors, this passage is not only inappropriate to the tone of the spouse, but is indeed not spoken by him at all, but by a chorus. Furthermore, it is an appeal meant to sustain the bride in her seeking, not to condemn or threaten her.

It is not that the author of the Riwle did not know the mystical import of the Canticle for, commenting on the line “My love kisses me with the kiss of his mouth,” he says, “This kiss, dear sisters, is a sweetness and a delight of heart so immeasurably sweet that every worldly savour is bitter in comparison.” But he follows this at once, chiding the women like children, by warning them that the kiss may be forfeited by breaking his rule: “. . . . if you go forth, He changes His song and speaks very harshly; remain in your rooms . . .”28 Small wonder that Julian stresses so emphatically that there is no wrath in God.

In another context, the priest-director suggests real physical intimacy with Christ Jesus as man. “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall,” says the Canticle. This means, says the Riwle, that the anchoress should see herself hiding within the wounded body of Christ crucified.29 Even more explicitly he advises, “Stretch out your love to Jesus Christ. You have won him. Touch him with as much love as you sometimes feel for a man.”30

The women recluses are also encouraged to exaggerated emotional expressions of their feelings in their spiritual quest – in fact, to scream like a child. The writer notes that the Bride in the Canticle says with passionate feeling, “I held him and I will not let him go.” Changing this into a mother -child analogy, the priest directs the women how to act when the Lord hides himself: “. . . . you should seek him as the little baby does after its mother.”31Julian is restrained when she deals with the mother -child analogy. She says it may be for our good at times “to mourn and to weep,” but this is so that, like a child, ”which always naturally trusts in its mother’s love” (LT 61:301), we may turn to our Mother, Holy Church, in faith.

Never in the Riwle is the Canticle presented as teaching a liberating love, even when that is its most evident message, as for example in the passage which reads, “The lady of the Book of Love says, ‘My beloved cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills.’” The anchoresses are called mountains, says the writer, not because they have any value or prominence, but because the Spouse “treads them underfoot, making them vile, allows them to be trodden on, to be outrageously chastised . . . .”32 Granted, it is suggested that such chastisement applies to both men and women, but the bride is always female. And there is a specific mention of disdain for these prayerful women by a young boy of little distinction:

You should be content that there be no talk of you at all, any more than there is of the dead, and if you incur disdain from Slurry, the cook’s boy, who washes and dries the dishes in the kitchen, you should be happy in your hearts. Then you will be mountains lifted up to heaven.33

Such realism suggests that in a real dialogue the anchoresses objected to these far -fetched interpretations of the Scriptures, especially of the Canticle. Some anchoresses may complain, the Riwle admits, that they do not feel any sweetness from God or within themselves. This is because they have failed to buy sweetness with exterior bitterness, such as submitting to the restrictions of their narrow room. They should recall that Jesus, too, was a recluse, having been confined to the narrow dwellings of the virgin’s womb and of the sepulchre. “‘Yes,’ you will answer me,’ but he went out of both.’” Unmoved by such appeals, the priest -director rejects all questions about this near -solitary existence, promising that they will go out sometime, too – when their spirit departs, leaving behind their body and their tomb, which is the wall of their present house.34 Death alone will bring them peace.

Despite the textual evidence that it is the male directors – especially the influential author of the Ancrene Riwle– who are chiefly responsible for the romantic and erotic interpretation of the Song of Songs, commentators even in our times do not see this. For example, J. Bugge generalises about women and their supposed abnormal attraction to the spousal metaphor, thus:

. . . . in the twelfth century, the sponsa Christi metaphor attracted to itself the suggestive dress of a thinly veiled eroticism which was to characterise the testimony of female mystics throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.35

Bugge also claims that the surprising revival of Dionysian mysticism in the male monasteries of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries came into being because the bridal metaphor was taken over “by the female sex,” though St. Bernard had intended it for males.36 Even if this opinion could be defended, it cannot be attributed, as Bugge does, to Helen Gardner in her article on Walter Hilton.36 >She says nothing of the sort. She only says that

like the English mystics generally, Hilton makes little use of the metaphor of the spiritual marriage . . . [and] uses mainly the language of an intimate friendship (p. 123).37

What is surprising is that the spousal metaphor is used so sparsely by the women, given the encouragement coming from better educated male writers.


The Three Hierarchies and Julian’s Even-Christians

Julian also bypasses traditional texts which linked degrees of perfection with woman’s states in society – marriage, widowhood and virginity. The Ancrene Riwle transmitted this tradition,38 but Julian asks her even -Christians to respond to God’s message of love according to their individual capacities. Related to this motif is the male obsession with how devout women should dress, since dress denotes social position.39 All should dress alike, to further loss of individuality. All should adopt plain, non-seductive garments, maintaining the myth that woman is the source of the Fall, especially thought of as sexual sin.

Julian has her even-Christians clothed – soul and body – in Christ, stressing equality, intimacy and adornment as well. Clothing is among those gifts which are “good and comforting for our help.”

He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love . . . . (LT 5:183).

For as the body is clad in the cloth . . . so are we, soul and body, enclosed in the goodness of God (Lt 6:186).

Furthermore, the Lord and the Servant are in the end lavishly adorned with rich, symbolic clothing – though the Servant initially wears the coarse, sweaty garment of the laborer.

The Ancrene Riwle also fosters class distinctions between the anchoresses and housewives, to the demeaning of the latter. “Housewifery is Martha’s part. Mary’s is quietness and exemption from the cares of the world.”40 An anchoress who keeps animals looks more like a housewife – as Martha was – and cannot easily have peace of heart and be Mary, Martha’s sister, for in such a case she has to think of the cow’s fodder and the herdsmen’s wages, say nice things to the hayward, call him names when he impounds the cow, and yet nevertheless pay damages.41

Underlying such advice is the implied premise that contemplation is thinking – which indeed does require quiet – and that whatever disturbs our line of thought is contrary to contemplation. For Julian life itself is our penance and, in the unfolding of life with its anxieties and comforts, a loving God is our partner. That God is revealed everywhere:

I it am whom you love . . . . I it am whom you serve . . . . I it am whom you desire . . . . It it am whom you intend” (LT 26).42

Woman the Tool of the Devil

One of the most threatening images of women woven into the male-authored tradition is that of the woman-teacher as the tool of the devil.

St. John Chrysostom represents the patriarchal position vividly in explicating 1 Timothy 2:11 -15:

The woman taught once and ruined all. On this account therefore he [the apostle] saith, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them, for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively. For he says not Eve, but “the woman,” which is the common name of the whole sex, not her proper name. Was then the whole sex included in the transgression for her fault? . . . Here the female sex transgressed and not the male.43

Woman does not present the human race, though she is in truth the mother of all. Instead, she is deceived by a mere animal, causing the error – only apparent – of the intelligent man:

The woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought out of ruin . . . . It is not the same thing to be deceived by a fellow creature, one of the same kind, as by an inferior and subordinate animal. This is truly to be deceived. Therefore compared with the woman, he is spoken of as “not deceived.”44

No less dramatically the Riwle author brings the fifth century patriarch up-to-date for his recluses:

Some anchoresses are so learned or can talk with such wisdom that they would like their visitors to know it, and when a priest comes to talk with them, they are always ready with a reply. In this way a woman who ought to be an anchoress sets up as a scholar, teaching those who have come to teach her . . . . At the very least when he [a priest] has gone, he will say, “This anchoress talks a great deal.” . . . In Paradise Eve talked a great deal to the serpent and told him all that God had taught her and Adam about the apple, and so the devil learned her weakness through her own words and found out how to destroy her.45

In a demeaning similitude, the anchoress is then advised not to cackle when she has laid an egg, for the devil “steals from cackling anchoresses.”46

Against such a background Julian comes to the end of her visionary experience, fearing what will happen if she teaches others and knowing that the showings were for her even-Christians. It is in this context that when she confided in a religious person, she said, “I raved all day.” She was on the verge of dismissing her precious experience as hallucinatory. She was especially vulnerable to such an error since a woman in her situation and in her times might be judged a witch and burned to death in public view. Such was the fate of Marguerite Porete. Margery Kempe barely escaped such an end. In an earlier time, Julian’s model in prayer, St. Cecilia, had been beheaded – though with belated success – for her witness to the truths of faith. Despite her cut throat, however, Cecilia went on proclaiming the Christian faith and when death finally overtook her, her teaching went on in her home, which was converted into a church. Whatever way Julian turned, the prospect for a woman teacher who claimed to have been instructed by Christ was not bright.

Fortunately, an enlightened and sympathetic priest took Julian seriously and she elected to follow the hard way of witness to her spiritual gifts. The course of the temptation which preceded this choice is revealed directly and indirectly in her report of a dream. She believed that the devil had attacked and threatened her but, with discernment, she says that confusion is the mark of the devil. All that is contrary to love and peace comes from the enmity of the fiend (LT 77:329). The devil disrupted the peace that flowed from her visions by telling her what ecclesiastical tradition had long insisted:

. . . . thou art a wretch, a sinner, and also untrue, for you do not keep your covenant (LT 76:324).

She acknowledges in the Short Text that to be a woman is to be a “wretch,” though she protests that she has a right to teach, even though she is a woman. Those who read what she has written should not be at all put off by the thought that she is a “wretch” – that is, a miserable, marginal person, indeed, a woman (ST 6).

Julian had noted that the fiend disrupts lives in collaboration with people in her remarks about “the fiend . . . and his party” (LT 77). Two centuries before, Hildegard of Bingen had observed this, adding that that is why the devil appears to have hands that look like the hands of persons: “. . . . it is because the devil performs his craftiness through the hands of people.”47 The fiend that seems to attack Julian also has hands – not comely ones, but more like claws. This fiend that Julian saw in the shape of a young man tried to choke her: “with his paws he held me by the throat” (LT 67:312).

“He wanted to stop my breath and kill me but he could not.” Julian’s underlying fear must have been that she would be unable to speak the message given to her for the sake of others. She must now think more realistically about that youthful prayer, to be more like St. Cecilia whose wounds in the neck she thought of allegorically but which, as she faces this strangling, are now all too real.

Julian next seems to smell smoke and feel fire which, if it were real, “should burn us all to death.” If, as a woman, Julian dares to speak theologically, she may indeed be burned alive. May it not be her own flesh that seems to give off a stench as if she were burning? May it not be the fire that could be lit under her own body that she fears?

If Julian can forget her experiences and go on as if it had not happened or put it all down to the raving of a sick woman, she will escape the witch burners and the scoffs of those who scorn women teachers. Why else except for fear should she be so gravely tempted to forget it all? The message had led her to rapture and bliss. But to speak of it to others was to risk death. She may have to face an ecclesiastical parliament, making discordant noises and sounding like those who say their prayers mindlessly. She hears sounds like that in her dream. She may be silenced – which is a kind of strangling – or she may be led to death.

Fortunately, after the discerning priest at her bedside took her seriously, God, radiantly present, asks why she fears suffering and also assures her that she did not rave. Her visions were of divine origin. The fiend will come to nothing, along with all who stand with him. Such is the blessed end style='mso-spacerun:yes'>  to Julian’s terrible temptation to accept the ecclesiastical judgement that a woman must be taught by men and not by God and must not presume to teach others. She resists this female stereotype. She is not overcome. Such seems to be the significance of Julian’s horrifying dream.


“We Will Not Be Silent:” Other Stories

Julian’s breakthrough – overcoming the stereotype that woman may not teach what she has learned from God – is truly a landmark. Yet she had been preceded by other women who sought union with God and found their way blocked by impossible suppositions about their own nature. Especially they were told they were not suited to teaching. Such, for example, was the twelfth-century woman of extraordinary gifts, Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard, too, was assured by God that she was being taught by a divine being. She was aware that her way was out of the ordinary. In a vision of emancipation from the old concepts, she represents God as saying:

. . . . the mighty books in which the excelling doctors had summed up knowledge with great care go unread from shameful apathy, and the food of life, which is the divine Scriptures, cools to tepidity. For this reason, I now speak through a person who is not eloquent in the Scriptures or taught by an earthly teacher; I Who Am speak through her of new secrets and mystical truths, heretofore hidden in books, like one who mixes clay and then shapes it to any form he wishes.48

Hildegard was also aware that prophets might be beheaded, literally or figuratively. As an example of the work of the devil performed through the craftiness of people, she cites “the beheading of John the Baptist who declared that the Son of God is the One Who heals the wounds of sin.”49

Hildegard herself feared to write what she saw in her visions – not, it seems, so much from not believing what she saw as from “other people’s words:”

But I had sensed in myself wonderfully the power and mystery of secret and admirable visions from my childhood . . . . This, however, I showed to no one except a few religious persons who were living in the same manner as I; but meanwhile, until the time when God by His grace wished it to be manifested, I concealed it in quiet silence.50

She says that as she “was gazing with great fear and trembling attention at a vision,”51 the divine voice urged her to explain what she heard like a good teacher – willingly, plainly, clearly – and like one who has herself first understood the words of a teacher.

Once Hildegard has begun to teach, she does not describe the woman as inferior to the man: in fact, a complete person may be thought of as female, in having the power to bring forth new life. The human (homo), she says:

contains in himself the likeness of heaven and earth. In what way? He has a circle, which contains his clarity, breath and reason, as the sky has its light, air and birds; and he has a receptacle containing humidity, germination and birth, as the earth contains fertility, fruition and animals. What is this? O human, you are wholly in every creature, and you forget your Creator.52

When Hildegard deals with the Song of Songs, as she does primarily in the Response section of “Answers to Thirty-Eight Questions,” she interprets it around the theme of charity and the virtues. She is far removed from the passionate language of her contemporary and advisor, Bernard of Clairvaux. But the comparisons between the two have not always been perceptive. For example, Henry Osborne Taylor gives a rather sympathetic survey in the chapter entitled “Visions of Ascetic Women” in The Medieval Mind, but he cannot refrain from asking if “the woman surviving in the nun took delight in contemplating the blissful things forbidden here below,”that is, clothing ornamented with gold and gems, belted with pearls, giving out aromatic odours.53 His thesis for the entire chapter is that nuns “are more prone to visions, and are occasionally subject to those passionate hallucinations which are prompted by the circumstance that the Christian God was incarnate in the likeness of a man.54 But, in fact, Bernard spoke the language of carnality far more vividly than Hildegard. Taylor does not attribute this to Bernard’s nature, but says that though his texts are “burning, sensuous, fleshly, intense,” in his sermons “flesh fades before the spirit’s whiter glow.”55 Taylor has no reservations about Bernard’s words in his sermon on the Song of Songs:

I deem the principal reason why the invisible God wished to be seen in the flesh and, as man, hold intercourse with men, was that he might draw the affections of carnal men, who could only love carnally, to a salutary love of his flesh, and then on to a spiritual love.56

Hildegard’s approach to the Song, on the other hand, is directly symbolic and allegorical.57 She relates her remarks to Canticle 2:12 – “The voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land” – and Canticle 3:7 -8 – “See it is the litter of Solomon. Around it are sixty champions, the flower of the warriors of Israel; all of them skilled swordsmen, veterans of Battle. Each man has his sword at his side, against alarms by night.” Since she is speaking to Guibert who is questioning her on behalf of the monks of the monastery of Villars, her imagery is appropriately connected to the role of soldiers:

Be an upright and beloved soldier of the true Solomon [Christ], whom one loves and crowns for his victory in the daily battle . . . . Manfully gird on the sword of the word of God after the example of those very brave soldiers who, keeping watch, guard the bed of the true Solomon.

She cautions them to build a spiritual life solidly on the virtues, not claiming the name of holiness without its reality, given in accord with one’s ability. She recommends that they learn, while among people of uneven virtues, “how the divine goodness tolerates all of us with long-suffering patience.” This and another passage anticipate Julian’s even-Christians: hermits, monks, female virgins should all “desire nothing else than to look on the face of God.”

Charity is the beam which sustains the four walls of a house. It is the garden in which virtues grow and on which the true Solomon feasts his eyes. More specifically, God is true charity – a garden which brought forth Mary, who in turn, bloomed with the noblest flower, Christ. From the heart of that flower the voice of the turtle dove is heard – Christ speaking words of creative love, informed by the Holy Spirit with the flame of love and persevering in love of his service, the monk may one day merit “to become a living stone of the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Despite the tone of this commentary, Taylor– who himself cites the work – does not modify his generalisations about the human passion that he thinks informs the woman’s love of God:

They had renounced the passionate love of man in order to devote themselves to the love of Christ; and as their thoughts leapt toward the Bridegroom, the Church’s Spouse and Lord, their visions sometimes kept at least the colour of the love for knight or husband which they had abjured.58

As evidence – following the usual pattern for such an argument – Taylor cites from the thirteenth century male author, Bruder Phillips, who created an imaginary lyric put into the mouth of a fictional young virgin. It is permeated with romantic expressions of love. This proves nothing, since a male author is imagining a woman’s relationship to God. What these passages in fact reveal is that a bevy of male authors, obsessed with the notion that the woman, inferior in intellect and the vessel of lust, is capable of no other approach to God than a slight glossing of natural instincts directed towards Jesus, the man.

Taylor takes further shaky evidence for this position from an introduction to the life of Marie d’Oignies in which the biographer describes the devout women living in the diocese of Liège: “Many of these women,” he writes, “had scorned carnal enticements for Christ, had despised the riches of this world for love of the heavenly kingdom and clung to their heavenly bridegroom in poverty and humility.” It is de Vitry who claims – not the women themselves – that they uttered continuously in ecstasy these lines from Canticle 2:5: “Stay me up with cakes of rains, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of Love.”59

We have the direct testimony of Hildegard, however, that when she became ill, it was not through swooning in love, but from the conflict between her divine directive to write down her visions and the humility engendered by other people’s derogatory words.60

But Taylor presses on. Turning his attention to Mechthild of Magdeburg,61 he does not even bother to examine the context of her utterances and summarises:

Jesus was a man, Mechtild a woman. Her love not only uses lovers’ speech, but actually holds affinity with a maid’s love for her betrothed.62

Reluctantly he concedes that there may be another form of love involved, but he takes pain to end on the note that it is woman’s passion which colours the whole: “If it is the Soul’s love of God, it is also the woman’s love of him who overhung her from the Cross.”63 Thus he closes his chapter on the theme with which he began – though the evidence is either irrelevant, actually supporting the opposite of his position and coming from male sources, or is imperfectly analysed for its symbolism or cultural context.

What is devastating to the woman mystic is that the portrait of the devout woman always assumes the the person is a very young girl – not a maturing person. It would be comparable to taking the effusions of the profligate young Augustine over his mistress and ignoring the wisdom of the older teacher and bishop. Coupled with the sparse education enjoyed by many of the women, this assessment is out of balance.

In Hildegard’s case, it is indeed straining the point to include her in an overview of romantically-inclined nuns and mystics. Perhaps because she was a woman in such an environment, Hildegard was able to reveal her experience of God – not in hard, intellectual absolutes and abstractions – but under the analogy of Sophia-Wisdom, “a personification of God’s own self in creative and saving involvement with the world.”64

The implications of Wisdom christology are only now being adequately explored.65 Present-day commentary conforms well to Hildegard’s perspective of God and Christ as Wisdom. “Whoever espouses a wisdom christology is asserting that Jesus is the human being Sophia became,” writes Elizabeth Johnson, “His very deity is the deity of Sophia, since Sophia is God’s gracious goodness reaching out to and active in the world.”66 Taylor, on the other hand, is representative of the position that woman’s nature is defined by her relation to the male. Hence he cannot help believing that nature will approach God as exclusively a man, though a divine one.In each case what the woman mystic has had to do is to counter this imagery and to find the hidden God in some other way.

It is worth noting that the more dependent women mystics have been on the counselling and direction of men, the more likely they are to use erotic imagery and to see themselves as weak females, scarcely worthy of being called human. As Caroline Bynum said, “Mechthild of Magdeburg’s identification is not, of course, with nuns, but with Dominicans who were her counsellors, confessors and defenders in Magdeburg.”67 It was the male tradition which imposed on women the paradigm of the female as the spouse of Christ. Lacking recourse to other ways of understanding themselves, some women adopted such language – though what the reality was we do not know.

It is not “natural” for men to visualise themselves as brides to Christ. The male tradition has developed this image and imposed it on women. St. Bernard is one of the principal sources of such a concept, yet Hildegard came through with surprisingly little of what her contemporary proposed. Women in a female community – or in relative solitude, as was Julian – tend to see themselves in another light.


Angela of Foligno (1248 -1309)

Angela is another woman mystic whose experiences do not correspond to the expectations of tradition, though they have been reported as if they did so. A penitent who moved through conversion to divine union, Angela also showed great reluctance to report her experiences of divine favour. When her friar-scribe asked her what she “saw” in her visions, she answered thus:

I saw something full, immense majesty, which I do not know how to describe. But it seemed to me that it was the sovereign good. And many words of sweetness he said to me when he departed, and with immense gentleness and with gentle delays he departed.68

After this profound meeting, she screamed. But her screams are not hysteria but a final bursting forth of words long suppressed through fear and shame – shame of daring to speak out:

And then after his departure I began to scream or shriek loudly, without any shame I screamed, crying, and I said these words: “Unknown love! Why have you left me? Why?” But I could not, or I was not, saying anything more except that without shame I was shouting these words – “Unknown love! Why?”69

Like Julian, Angela is choked in her struggle to resolve her doubt “that this was truly God:”

These words so suffocated my throat the words could not be understood and then I was left with certitude and without any doubt that this was surely God.70

Still oppressed – is there any doubt about it? – with the ruling that a woman should keep silent about the things of God, Angela describes her enduring anguish, her effort to say nothing:

And after this, I returned to Assisi with that greatest sweetness, as I came along the road home. And on the way I went speaking of God, and it was very painful for me to keep silent, but I tried to abstain from talking as much as I could because of the company.71

Angela was of the same spiritual tradition of Franciscanism as Clare of Assisi, founder of a woman’s division of the Order. At the age of fifteen – when she was scarcely more than a child – Clare had a vision of being espoused in mystical marriage to Christ. But later, growing beyond the limits of a male culture, she envisioned an order of women moving freely in society to serve the poor. Her ideas were promptly opposed by papal authority. Pope Honorius ended the self-supporting life of the Poor Clares – who had elected to live among the poor – and imposed rigid rules of cloister on them.72 The rules included silence and fasting – often on bread and water – and regulations on details of clothing and the standardisation of prayer. “The strict claustration also finally brought to an end any hope which the sisters might have entertained of being allowed to minister to the poor.”73 “It is no wonder,” Petroff remarks,

that St. Clare received this Rule with ‘amazement and affliction of soul.’ Yet, in spite of it, within her lifetime she is said to have gained ten thousand women followers, so hungry were women for an organized spiritual life.74

Angela’s own Testament is marked by subservience to male direction, yet she nevertheless expresses the hope that “with the help of God we may return with increase the talent he has given us.”75 Once again feminine mysticism is characterised by a struggle for human maturity – the use of God-given talents for others – with the persistent opposition of an authority that wants woman to consider herself always a child. Sometimes success is only half achieved. But with Angela the case was different. She had wide experience to draw on. She had followers who were both men and women. She developed a high degree of discernment so that she was able to evaluate the heretical sects which were influential in her environment in Umbria, such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit. In response to their teaching that God’s presence in the soul sets it above the law and frees it from responsibility, she wrote firmly:

Beware of those who say that they have the spirit of freedom but who openly oppose the life of Christ. God the Father wishes that his Son, who was not subject to the law but on the contrary was above it and its author, be made subject to the law; and though he was free, he became a slave to it. Consequently, it is necessary that those who wish to follow Christ, not in seeking freedom by dissolving the law and divine precepts, as many do, but by subjecting themselves to the law and divine precepts and even counsels.76

In decided contrast to the stereotype that the woman mystic leans more than do men on affectivity in union with God, Angela is said by a recent scholar to have found that even love, as we understand it, is in some way negated in the mystical quest:

. . . . Angela belongs to the mainstream of those who, while influenced by the Areopagite, departed from his intellectualism to see in affectivity the main mystical organ which enables entrance to the summits of mystical contemplation. William of St. Thierry, the Dionysian spiritual writers of the thirteenth century . . . Jacopone da Todi and especially Bonaventure determines that if the intellect falters as it comes into contact with the “dark” God, love enters in. The variant that Angela introduces to this insight is that even love must undergo negation. As she begins to see the fullness of God in the darkness, she says, “I was made non-love.” For Bonaventure, love had to be “transferred” and “transformed” to enter into the darkness.77

It is, alas, a woman writer who has most misunderstood Angela and made her typify pathology rather than genuine mysticism. The writer is Simone de Beauvoir who has, in other dimensions, made major contributions to the understanding of women in patriarchal culture. De Beauvoir selects Angela to exemplify narcissism, unregulated emotion, self-punishment:

. . . . in her burning, palpitating, love-inundated breast she [Angela] feels her soul created, redeemed, cherished, by the adorable Father; it is her double, it is herself she embraces, infinitely magnified through the mediation of God.78

And again,

Most women mystics are not content with abandoning themselves passively to God; they apply themselves actively to self-annihilation by the destruction of their flesh. No doubt asceticism has been practised by monks and priests, but the mad rage with which woman flouts her flesh assumes special and peculiar forms: through humiliation and suffering she transforms it into glory.79

In other words, De Beauvoir sees mysticism in women either as an outlet for frustrated carnal desire or as a form of sado-masochism:

Thus she [woman] satisfies her sado-masochistic fantasies. In the humiliation of God she sees with wonder the dethronement of Man; inert, passive, covered with wounds, the Crucified is the reversed image of the white, bloodstained martyr exposed to wild beasts, to daggers, to males, with whom the little girl so often identified herself; she is overwhelmed to see that Man, Man-God, has assumed her role.80

But, as Lachance shows, a mystic like Angela is not passive like someone who is dominated by another but, rather, is fully receptive to a movement which is accompanied by a blend of quiet and activity. Describing Angela’s recollection, he says:

Paradoxically, this cessation of activity is a supreme activity. It is a momentary reduction of the multiplicity of the acts of consciousness into a state of unity wherein the soul is invested by a movement which comes from the totally Other and in which it is totally concentrated – a most profound quiet and at the same time a most vital motion. Furthermore, in this state, as she has said before, Angela “sees nothing and everything.”81

Her centre of activity is no longer herself but in God.

This mystical growth was won with difficulty. No doubt because she was a woman, her first outburst struck her confessor, Brother Arnaldo, as bizarre. He:

strongly suspected an evil spirit had overtaken her . . . . He promised her . . . that he would reveal her secrets to no one except to some spiritual men . . . who would help him decide whether it was God or the devil at work in her.82

Only men were to be consulted, though only women truly understand the centuries-old oppression of being forbidden to speak of God’s mysteries. She remained vulnerable to his superior stance as he tried “to inspire fear and doubt as to the veracity of what Angela had experienced – which in fact he succeeded in doing.”83

The record of what Angela experienced was, even with Arnaldo’s best efforts, “truncated and weakened.”84 One part which is weakened is what she saw in her visions concerning the created world:

Arnaldo reports that she said “wonderful things about the world,” but her explanations “were not clear enough for him to grasp them and put them into writing.”85

Angela is a supreme example of the process by which the woman internalises the false self which patriarchy prepared for her – that she is apt to be a tool of demons. The particular coloring her experience of purgation and the dark night takes is to confront that degraded image as if it is indeed her true self. She says:

I see myself void of all virtue and grace . . . . [In it] I become so aware of the multitude of my sins and defects that I consider myself as the house of the devil, a worker and a servant of demons, their daughter even . . . and worthy only of the lowest parts of hell.86

True, male saints have also felt the experience of damnation, but the poignancy for the woman is that sermons and counsellors have been telling her through a lifetime that she is particularly subject to the devil’s wiles, and she has little defence against such illusions as those which Angela describes.

Though she is able to integrate her dark experiences with the abandonment of Christ on the cross, there is a great chasm between the two. Christ’s abandonment must have been a sense that the mission the Father had given him seemed only to stir up the forces of evil, not – it must be emphasised – that he was a tool of demons. His mission began with that deep religious experience of knowing that the Father was well-pleased with him, with the Son made human. That mission was one with the call to others to hear him. The same double shaped experience was manifested at the Transfiguration. It must have been some obscuring of this double experience that underlay Jesus’s mysterious cry of abandonment on the cross, followed by commending his spirit into the Father’s hands. The hand of God for the women mystics in particular has been the metaphor for Mother Wisdom, for that ordering power that directs all things to their end through love.87

The male hermits of the early centuries wrestled with demons. Angela, absorbing the Genesis myth, feels she is their tool. Yet Lachance writes with insight when he says of her:

In this great negation in which all rays of light and hope are extinguished and the false self is brought to naught, she reproduced in body and soul something of the agony and forsakenness which Christ endures on the cross.88

But standard commentary has been loath to admit that women may take such a route. De Beauvoir finds so-called religious aims among women generally spurious: a woman who thinks she has been charged with a mission “preaches vague doctrines; she often founds sects, and this enables her to effect, through members of the group she inspires, a thrilling multiplication of her personality.”89


Contemporary Insights

Later feminist writers, however, have been generally slow to follow De Beauvoir’s scepticism about the mystic quest among women. Let us take the word of Dorothea Soelle. Mindful, no doubt, of the ancient prescription to women to keep silent, she identifies such a practice as from the devil. To feel fear and speechlessness is to be “the devil’s martyr:”

By nature suffering hits us in such a way that it makes us “the devil’s martyrs.” Fear, speechlessness, aggression and blind hate are confirmed and spread through suffering. In Christ, that is, in humanity’s true possibility, suffering summons our self-confidence, or boldness, our strength. Our oneness with love is indissoluble. To learn to suffer without becoming the devil’s martyrs means to live conscious of our oneness with the whole of life. Nothing can separate them from the love of God.90

The mystical solution is to become “Christ’s brother.”91It has two phases:

We can change the social conditions under which people experience suffering. We can change ourselves and learn in suffering instead of becoming worse. We can gradually beat back and abolish the suffering that still today is produced for the profit of a few. But on all these paths we come up against boundaries that cannot be crossed. Death is not the only such barrier. There are also brutalization and insensibility, mutilation and injury that no longer can be crossed is by sharing the pain of the sufferers with them, not leaving them alone and making them cry louder.92

Paradoxically, this is a return to silence.

Women encounter suffering in a way parallel to the way Jesus met it: they make what seems to the world an impossible claim. They face crucifixion if they cling to their belief. They make the claim for all humanity, not for themselves alone. “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus. Women claim, against odds, that no barrier separates them from oneness with Jesus and the Father. They claim to be called to reflect Jesus Christ. At each form of death they place their spirit in divine hands, which to women seem feminine, the hands of Wisdom.

Soelle explains this well: “The cross is no theological invention but the world’s answer . . . . Only for that reason are we able to recognize ourselves in Jesus’ dying on the cross.”93 How are we to recognise the encounter with God? “If in the night of despair the soul does not cease loving ‘in the void,’ then the object of its love can rightly be called ‘God.’”94

Far from perpetuating the myth that women’s mysticism is somehow a love affair between her feminine nature and a male God, today’s writers project a contrary picture. The poet Ntozake Shange is not narcissistic when she says: “i found God in myself . . . and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.”95 The lower case “i” conveys that the woman is speaking of the person grounded in the godhead wherein is empowerment through love.

The Jewish mystic and victim of Nazi persecution, Etty Hillesum, hears in all life the heartbeat of Mother God:

I had the feeling I was resting against the naked breast of life; one could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat: I felt safe and protected.96

A twentieth-century short-story writer captures the experience of Christ-among-us when we truly share with one another in sacrificial love. Sarah Orne Jewett, in a story called “The Town Poor,” describes how some women of a small parish pay a visit timorously to two old women. They are sisters – former parishioners – whose worldly belongings were put up for auction and who then moved into cramped quarters in extreme poverty. But these two nearly-destitute women share with their visitors their last portion of peach preserves, held over from better days, and a few dry crackers. One of the sister invites the guests to “more” of the precious store before taking the last teaspoon of it herself. Then, writes Jewett, from the point of view of one of the visitors, Mrs. Trible:

. . . . There was a silence, and in the silence a wave of tender feeling rose high in the hearts of the four elderly women. At this moment the setting sun flooded the poor plain room with light; the unpainted wood was still of a golden-brown, and Ann Bray, with her gray hair and aged face, stood at the head of the table in a kind of aureole. Mrs. Trible’s face was all a-quiver as she looked at her; she thought of the text about two or three being gathered together, and was half-afraid.97

Mrs. Trible and her companion speak of the experience as “kind o’ bringin’ us to” and lament the time spent in the elaborate ritual installation of a new preacher. At the same time they shoulder their part of the blame for selfish blindness to the state they had allowed these two poor women to fall into. Jewett has suggested a religious experience – not a mere movement of pity – but a mingled sense of penitence, of compassion, a sentiment of awe at the presence of transcendent mystery when human beings draw together in love. It is a religious experience – like all that are genuine – rooted in the reality of everyday life.

Once touched by such an experience, women no longer tend to keep silent. This is why Mrs. Trible says: “I believe I’m going to preach next Sunday, ‘stead o’ the minister, an’ I’ll make the sparks fly.”98

But despite the witness of such literature, theological theory continues to distort the woman’s selfhood, even in material designed to lead her to the mystic life. Typical of this trend is an article on “Spiritual Direction of the Women” published in 1962 in the prestigious encyclopedia Dictionnaire de Spiritualité.99 >The author speaks of the “defects of the feminine temperament: imagination and sensibility.” On the premise that spiritual direction should help the person discover God’s intention for her life, the religious guide is urged to aid the woman to accept her condition as a woman – apparently referring to the restrictions of her world. What are women’s weaknesses? All spring from the affections: a possessive instinct regarding others; fear of being understood or forgotten; jealousy; sadness; a pathetic concentration on self. In the spiritual realm, these weaknesses include being enslaved to subjective impressions which make her risk missing authentic religious values: “she tends, more than a man, to confuse a sensible attraction with true generosity.” True, the writer admits, today’s educational opportunities help her curtail some of these illusions. But the patriarchal voice must prevail: “It is necessary to tell her firmly that to live in the obscurity of faith requires a rigorous ascesis which alone can establish her in peace.” Then the writer blames the woman for the guilt and the external observances that patriarchal laws have laid on her: she is often tempted to give in to guilt complexes, becomes too attached to the minutiæ of observances which can entrap her into servile fear, limiting her spiritual liberty.

Capping this poor analysis of the woman’s character in this life, the writer launches boldly into the condition of the sexes in heaven:

Trinitarian love breaks up into a variety of virtues. That is why, in the new life of those resurrected in Christ, we will be able to distinguish the charisms of men from those of women – charisms which now are manifest in the bosom of society and of the church.

For his survey of the place of woman in society he centres on the nineteenth century philosopher Nietzsche and cites Thus Spake Zarathustra (Paris, 1901). There is no mention of Galatians 3:26 -28: “For you are the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free. There is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In summary, the writer sees the direction of women in the spiritual life as being led from Eve to Mary.


* * *


Against the background of such discriminatory concepts of the woman, there emerges indeed a specific kind of feminine experience. Her experience of God will be more and more in the apophatic tradition, that form of mysticism which finds God when all attempts at describing the divine, even in metaphors, fail. The woman is led into this apophatic experience because all that is said of God is said in patriarchal terms. The Scriptures themselves in great part fail her. God is indeed mystery.100This experience – that all that is said of God is without meaning to her – grows for the woman as her sense of oppression and exclusion becomes more intense. God’s relationship to her has been falsely described.

Etty Hillesum is in this tradition when she says, “Only by recognizing and eventually dismantling the inauthentic self we have created for ourselves will we gain access to the divine ground.”101The only faith left her – that God is graciously present, like a mother, as the ground of human existence – keeps her from falling “into total despair in regard to humanity.”102

In another writer’s terms, “For women, conversion is not so much giving up egocentric notions of power as passing through an experience of nothingness finally to gain power over their own lives.”103Women’s religious experience indicates that “a struggle for self-affirmation, self-definition, and autonomous self-donation are intrinsic to their conversion and progress in holiness.”104 Citing Phyllis Trible, the same author affirms of the Song of Songs:

[in that work] there is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex . . . . [The woman] works, keeps vineyards and flocks . . . . She is independent and fully the man’s equal . . . . Never is she called a wife or required to bear children. Love for the sake of love is the Song’s message.”105

The least helpful portion of the Western heritage on mystical writing is that which flounders on polarities. Some contemporary women writers approach the question from a different perspective. Exemplary in this regard is an essay by Myriam Dardenne, closing the volume entitled Blessed Simplicity.106 Myriam is the founder of a small Cistercian community in California and hence dedicated to the contemplative life. In the collection to which she contributes, male voices have wrested with a so-called polarity – simplicity (the monastic archetype) and complexity (the fullness of the human). Myriam lightly “walks around” this construct: for her, life is an ever -moving point which includes cycles of life and rebirth along the spiral of consciousness. “Upon this integration depends our concept of person, God, community, and our world view.” Thus we “integrate good and evil.” And in this way we approach “the world’s resources, peace and violence, and people in need.”

An egg-shaped diagram serves to make graphic Myriam’s view that all life fits together, that conflict is not just polarity or dualism. Rather, life and rebirth cycles transform flower into fruit, with the barren stem standing desolate in each cyclic transition. The egg-shaped drawing shows the relationship of the human and the Christian, the conscious, the unconscious, the ego. Energy originates within and moves outward, and the dynamic is towards transformation:

We can [she says] only describe the phenomenon in as much as we have experienced it and brought the experience to consciousness.

She touches on the dominance of male-conditioned thinking as it has affected contemporary life:

The normal curriculum of education typical in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s was dominated by an over-intellectualized, masculine, linear type of thinking. Thus, much that was in us (the non-rational, the feelings, the imagination, the feminine) had no other exit than to slip back into the unconscious, rebel inwardly or outwardly, or else take another road.

To follow on Myriam’s suggestions, we can conclude that the ego of the woman must free itself on that journey of the psychic, mythical baggage it has received: baggage which binds the will, burdens the intellect, blocks the imagination. That same ego must pick up and transform and assimilate whatever helps it to emerge as an individual human being, despite the definitions of a half-being which church and society hold out to it. Perhaps nothing better can describe this liberating process than the words Julian heard in her twelfth showing:

Often times our Lord Jesus said: “I it am. I it am. I it am that is highest. I it am that you love. I it am that you like. I it am that you serve. I it am that you long for. I it am that you desire. I it am that you mean. I it am that is all. I it am that Holy Church preaches to you and teaches you” (LT 26).

In this is no dichotomy of immanence and transcendence.

Complementing this showing of God as goodness is the showing of God as goodness doing good against evil by mercy and grace. This is the property by which God is named mother: “Thus Jesus Christ, who does good against evil, is our true mother.” “I it am, the wisdom and kindness of motherhood.” Mother Wisdom is a giver of life and a nurturer; but fundamentally and comprehensively, she is God transforming sin into glory. To share in this is the greatest empowerment. We are called to partnership in this work of Mother Wisdom.

The true self, then, is Christ as Mother Wisdom acting in our total being: at times fully displacing self-concern with pure awareness. Thus does Myriam describe the divine-human components of this awareness: “we touch upon and mysteriously ‘know’ the inward mystical point, ignited by the Divine-human contact.”

This, then, is what is specific about the woman’s mystical journey. She is burdened in a special way with a false image of the self – the creation of society and church along with her own internalisation of this image. In a special way she is also called to reshape and renew our God images, divesting them of the idolatrous male content which deforms them. The journey’s end, where Mother Wisdom is unveiled, is not marked by gender differences. When the new self in its depths sees that it is rooted in the ground of being and knows its knotting with Mother Christ and humanity, gender differences disappear.