On the nature of minne in Mechthild’s fließendes licht der gottheit.”
Katholische Universität Eichstätt, Germany
Translated from the German by Susan Johnson
Research on Mechthild of Magdeburg which is still in its early stages has noted quite correctly that in her book Das Fließende Licht der Gottheit [“The Flowing Light of the Godhead”]1 the theophany has been expressed in the form of light, more specifically “in its quality of streaming.”2 This is already indicated in the title that Mechthild claims God himself gave the book: “It shall be called The Flowing Light of My Godhead into all hearts which dwell therein without falseness” (Prologue). God’s humbling of himself to be made man “becomes a phenomenon of the downward flowing light.”3 Haas has noted that all the metaphorical meanings of vliessen (flow) are explored. Elsewhere, I have shown that Mechthild’s use of the hapaxlegomenon spilende minnevluot surpasses in its intensity and motion even the word vliessend (flowing), which itself stems from the pseudo-Dionysian tradition.4 In Mechthild, the untranslatable word spilend which was taken, as is well known, from the courtly tradition, is heightened to a supreme spiritual significance to become an image of the perichoresis, the reciprocal penetration of the inner-trinitarian processions. Spilend is a more colourful word than vliessende (flowing) and Mechthild uses it in the phrase “flowing Trinity“ with reference to the same process of perichoresis. Like John, however, Mechthild considers that God is himself Love (1 Jn 4:8) and she has him say to the soul, “that I love thee intensely comes from my nature, for I am myself Love” (M 13:22 ff; I:24).
In order to express the interpenetration and the reciprocal existence of the three Divine Persons, Mechthild describes this God of Love as a drierleie spilunde vluot (M 42:21 ff; III:1: cf. M. 103:29 =IV:12), an image of an eternally blessed motion of love. The image of vluot (flood, torrent) as a symbol of strength points to the unceasingly unifying power of God, while the word spilende adds a completely new dimension: it expresses something which divinely inspires bliss, something which is invigorating, whose joy, splendour and glory nourish the reciprocal life of the three Persons within the Godhead; that is to say, the Trinity itself is subject to its own law of eros in loving, knowing and glorifying. Besides describing this law of eros in images of light, fire and flowing, Mechthild also uses different wine-motifs. In this way, the expression which Mechthild coined becomes a medium through which the mystery of the Trinity can be approached.
With the image of the drierleie spilunde vluot, Mechthild goes beyond her subjective, existential experience of God and communicates the insight that the Divine Trinity is the overwhelming, bliss-bringing primæval force of eros itself and hence the dynamic principle on which all being and activity, both divine and human, is founded. It is this trinitarian image of God as spilende minnevluot or as drierleie spilende vluot that determines Mechthild’s concept of minne. With visionary eyes she sees the life within the Godhead as a manifestation of God’s minne in a play of light and divine colour:
Within it, there played to and fro, fiery streams of gold in unspeakable minne (M 42:21 ff; II:21).
Here mystical experience of God and Christ is united into one.
Since minne is the principle of God’s being, it guarantees the unity of the three Divine Persons: in the activity proper to each (both within the Trinity and from without in the exchange between God and the soul), they are united in a single joyous choir as expressed in the sensory concepts of bliss and harmony contained in the verbs klingen (sound), singen (sing), spilen (play), to produce a heavenly picture of trinitarian love:
And as the Godhead resounds
And humanity sings
And the Holy Spirit plucks the harp of heaven
all the strings ring out
Which are strung in minne (M 28:40 ff; II:3).
In the vibrations of the cosmic music, the total concord of love between the creature and the Trinity rises to lyrical climaxes in their union. The musical image of the Holy Spirit plucking the strings of the heavenly harp expresses the symphonic unity between God and man. This mutual joy pervades the cosmic spheres and conveys a hint of a beatitiude linking heaven and earth which even a masterly use of language can never fully communicate, “for what the Spirit inwardly sings is beyond any earthly voice“(M 247:14 ff; VII:34).
As the principle governing God’s being and activity, minne in its fruitful quality of forcing an egression from self, becomes the principle of creation and thus the principle governing man’s life as well as his being. At the act of creation, the special task of the Holy Spirit as the giver of gifts is to break open the Holy Trinity
whose ineffable bliss had not yet flowed to anyone. … The Holy Spirit played to the Father in blissful exuberance and plucked at the [harp of the] Holy Trinity and sang, ‘Lord, dear Father, I will give Thee of Thyself a gentle counsel: We will no longer live so unfruitfully’“(III:9).
The essence of divine love, of eros in general, genuinely lies in the creative act, the whole of whose dynamic force Mechthild here again brings to life by using the sensory concepts of light, bliss and sound. God the Father responds to the overture of the Holy Spirit:
I, too, have great longing
In my divine breast
And I resound with minne.
We will become fruitful,
So that we receive minne in return
And our great glory
be in some measure recognised. (III:9)
Minne and divine glory are one. The spilende minnevluot of the Trinity gives rise to the bridal relationship between God and the soul, to the union between God and man. God, says Mechthild,
has poured so much of his divine nature into the soul that it can say nothing save that he, in intimate union with it, is more than a Father to it (M 205:30 ff; VI: 31).
From this she derives a general rule:
The same nature still compels God to greet us here with recogniton and holy fervour (M 108:28 ff; IV:14).
In the famous dialogue between the senses and the soul (I:44), the senses point out that the divine presence brings death since its trinitarian fire is an element belonging only to heaven and thus a mortal peril for earth-dwellers. The soul is unmoved by the argument and dismisses it, corroborating its own point by comparing it, in ascending order, to examples of other creatures whose natural elements are water, air and fire:
Soul:The fish cannot drown in water,
The bird cannot sink in the air,
Gold has never perished in fire,
For there it will receive clarity and lustre.
God has given it to all creatures
To live according to their nature.
How then can I withstand my nature?
I must forsake all things and go to God
Who is my Father by nature,
My Brother in his humanity,
My Bridegroom through love,
And I am his from all time.
Think ye I do not feel this nature?
God can both fiercely scorch and soothingly cool. (M 21:27 ff; I:44)
The soul insists on its natural, divine, trinitarian descent, from which the original relationship between man and God is bound to spring as a natural relationship. This relationship, however, is marked by a strange, almost unbearable tension between heaven and earth, leading it to ask:
Whereof art thou created, O Soul,
That thou soarest so high over all creatures,
Mingling with the Holy Trinity,
And yet remainest completely in thyself?
Thou hast spoken of my beginning.
Now I tell truly, I was created by minne
In its own stead.
Hence there is no creature save Love alone
That can console and open my noble nature. (M 11:32 ff; I:22)
The soul, therefore, requests that
the spilende vluot [swirling flood] be unlocked
That flows in the Holy Trinity,
From which alone the soul liveth. (M 104:5 ff; IV:12)
In its urge to love (minnen), the soul becomes a likeness of God. Just as, at the beginning of creation, the Holy Spirit breaks open the Trinity with his “playing“ (spil) and allows it to pour forth of itself, he also unfolds in man the power to tear himself away from her own personal experience:
The sweet desire of the Holy Spirit …
Has taken everything from me
That dwells below the Godhead.
I relish nothing save God alone;
I am wondrously dead to the world. (M 104:12 ff; IV:12)
What happens in the union between God and man is described in terms of an analogy with motions within the Trinity: a sudden, incomprehensible event taking place in the inmost depths of the individual quite independently of his personal behaviour. This conquering, inscrutable spiritual force of love which, as it were, forcibly invades the individual soul and is experienced through the senses, is described by Mechthild in trinitarian terms:
The rays of the Godhead shoot through it
With incomprehensible light;
The loving humanity [of the Son] greets it
In brotherly friendship;
The Holy Spirit touches it
With his flowing flood. …
The undivided Spirit nourishes it
With the glory of his noble countenance
And fills it with the blessed breath
Flowing from his mouth. (M 28:23 ff; I:3)
The attraction of trinitarian love, consuming all things in a mighty fire in which the soul will “burn inextinguishably like a living spark in the great fire of exalted majesty” (M 15:6–8; I:28) is, as Balthasar rightly points out, not an image drawn from physics but is, rather, an erotic one.5 The whole idea of creation out of the Spirit and the flowing back of this idea is taken up by Mechthild and recast in a Christian, trinitarian image of God. She portrays ecstasy as an intoxicating living of trinitarian love in which
the heavenly Father is the blessed cup-bearer, God the Son is the chalice, and the Holy Spirit is the pure wine, while the whole of the Trinity is the full chalice and minne holds sway as mighty cellaress (M 46:30 ff; II:24).
In light, therefore, of the new reading proposed by Hans Neumann, the reading in the Morel/Einsiedeln manuscript must be corrected: not minne der gewaltige keller (minne the vast cellar) but minne, dú gewaltige kellerin. The reason for this correction, I suggest, is that “the vast cellar“ is impossible in MHG since gewaltig is the equivalent of MHG gewalthabend – “being in authority, being in charge, being authorised” – and can only be used with reference to persons and their qualities, not with reference to objects. The semantic shift to the contemporary meaning did not take place until the end of the fifteenth century. The Halle Dominicans rendered the phrase correctly in the earliest Latin translation as charitas est cellaria potentissima, thus retaining the image of cellaria, MHG kellerin (cellaress), a word used by Mechthild in a different context in VII:36.
Mechthild’s appropriation of the exegetical tradition of the Song of Songs – the allegorical interpretation of the consummation of minne in ecstasy as outlined above – christianises the Dionysian conception of bliss and introduces it into the trinitarian image of God. Its language is expressive of being carried away by ecstasy to God and acquires the unaccustomed radiance of heavenly bliss as an expression of the absolute power of minne. Here, personal experience, the salvific event and anagogical interpretation (i.e. the leading to a consummation of minne) blend into one. As the cup-bearer, God the Father, “the flowing fount, which no one can exhaust” (M 158:26f; V:26) symbolises the inexhaustible power and the eternity of the first Person of the Trinity. The image of downward flowing divine light is personified, and thus intensified, in the figure of the cup-bearer (Schenke). The Son’s chalice – as the cup of salvation and the cup of his passion – symbolises the descending, redeeming love of the Son and acquires a particularily existential significance for Mechthild as a passion of minne and as the eucharistic chalice which remains present until the end of time. Elsewhere, Mechthild goes into greater detail regarding the Son’s chalice. He lifts up two chalices in his hands, one which contains the red wine of suffering andthe other the white wine of sublime consolation:
Our Lord said, “Blessed are they who drink this wine; for although I offer both in Divine Love, the white wine is nobler in itself; but most noble are they who drink both, the white and the red (M 25:9ff; II:7).
In other words, the noblest are those who drink both divine love and suffering, as Christ did in the mystery of the Cross.
In the same vein, Origen writes in his commentary on Mt 19:
If the cup of salvation is a cup of martyrdom, we must be saved by this cup. We must drink it to the dregs – it is the cup of salvation! – and not a drop must be spilled. He who suffers as a witness, no matter to what he is subjected, drinks the whole cup. He who is led to martyrdom but denies his faith in order to avoid suffering spills the cup he had received.6
Acts 2:15 and Eph 5:18, however, see the “pure wine of the Holy Spirit“ as the symbol of the fiery ardour of the Holy Spirit in the full power of love, while “the whole cup of the Trinity“ expresses heavenly refreshment, whether it be here on earth in the Eucharist or in eternal bliss.
In Mechthild’s imagery, the nature of the triune God is determined by minne as the “cellaress in charge.“ This allegorical image is taken from the exegesis of the Song of Songs 2:4 – “He took me into the wine cellar and the banner of love was over me” – and it seems to me that it contains Mechthild’s entire doctrine of minne in an extremely condensed and individual manner. In her book, she does not offer a connected description of the nature of minne but merely portrays aspects of it in dialogues, allegories, antithetical and paradoxical utterances which run through the record of her visions. This highly poetic presentation, however, crystallises her scattered teachings on minne to a central core and summarises everything she has to say elsewhere on the subject of minne. This collection of variations on the wine-motif also exemplifies perfectly how Mechthild takes up the exegetical tradition of the Song of Songs and, enriching it in a remarkable manner, develops it independently of the tradition. For instance, Bernard of Clairvaux interprets the “chalice which inebriates me“ (Ps 22:5) as the “love of Christ.”7 This is the same Christ who, in Mechthild’s revelations, drank the red and the white chalice as a symbol of a glorified love divested of self. The cup, therefore, is also meant for the soul as “God’s bride“ who was created after the image of the Son (M 69:7 ff; III:9). With Christ, the soul will “die of love” (M 69:18) but it also “ascends with him into heaven when God leads it into holy ecstasy and removes it from all earthly things” (M 73:20 ff; III:10). Commenting on Canticles 2:4 (“Lead me into the wine cellar”), Origen states,
The soul will be filled with the wine of joy, with the wine of the Holy Spirit, for wisdom … hath mingled her wine (Prov 9:1 f) which the perfect desire to savour.8
Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary is more elaborate:
So intense is the thirst [of the soul] that wisdom’s mingled cup no longer suffices for it. . . . The soul wants to be taken into the wine house itself and place its mouth on the very wine-presses from which the sweet wine gushes; it wants the very grape that is squeezed in the presses, and the very vine with its sweet, plump grapes …9
Since the commentaries on the Song of Songs by such influential persons as Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux are incomplete, this passage is not found in them. They do, however, provide a point of reference for an understanding of Mechthild’s imagery. For instance, in another passage she offers an explanation for the set of images in question:
Ye know not what I mean. Hinder me not, I would drink of the unmingled wine (M 20:39; I:44).
Elsewhere, she takes this image up again:
If you would drink the wine unmingled, you will always consume more than you have. It is for this reason that the host cannot fill your cup to the brim (M 63:30; III:3).
This reference to the “unmingled wine” recalls the earlier commentaries of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Origen speaks of “wisdom’s mingled wine for which the perfect long,“ but for Gregory, the “mingled cup of wisdom” no longer suffices. Mechthild, however, heightens and radicalises this image in her desire for the “unmingled wine.” This hitherto misunderstood image is a parallel to the “pure wine of the Holy Spirit” and symbolises unmediated experience or cognition of God in ecstasy. The sense of the nearness and presence of God arises from a preliminary tasting (gustus) and savouring (gebruchunge) and results in a more profound contemplation than that which consists of merely seeing “in the mirror of the soul” or in the works of creation. This form of knowledge is clearly a higher gift of grace.
Elsewhere I have discussed this aspect of gustus in Mechthild’s theory of cognition in more detail and have shown how it becomes the principle which shapes and develops the body and the spiritual senses.10 The experience of gustus, of divine sweetness or of “drinking the pure wine” is so overwhelming that the soul “desires the host’s wine which he himself has drunk” (III:3). Thus we are led to the idea of minne as the “cellaress in charge.” The figure of the cellaress implies the notion of the pressing of wine, a process which occurs in the gesture of “descending (sinkende) minne.” Created in the likeness of the Son, the soul now follows him into utmost humiliation and in order to become like him in salvific suffering will, if need be, follow him “right under Lucifer’s tail” (V:4). The image of the wine-press points to the active and passive purification of the spiritual and intellectual powers, a process of purgation which Mechthild describes impressively when she speaks of the different ways of suffering for minne. She compares her unquenched desire, her remoteness from God, with Christ’s Passion:
The hammer of the strong vows of minne so nails the soul to the Cross that all creation can no longer call it back (M 72:22 ff).
This hohe Minne of God and Mechthild’s remoteness from him effects an inner distancing and detachment from all earthly things is seen as a conformation to Christ’s Passion:
The soul hangs … on the Cross of high minne, aloft in the sweet breath of the Holy Spirit . . . so that it is withered for all earthly things (M 73:1–4; III:10).
“The soul,” she says, “does not flow with tears, but rather burns in the great heavenly fire” until it “is completely burnt up in the Holy Trinity” (M 109:28 ff; IV:16). This powerful image symbolises the complete consummation in the divine trinitarian state of eros and establishes, as it were, an identity between nature and divine revelation. Mechthild’s conception of God as fire, as burning and ardent minne, encompasses glory, strength and power, as well as the immense pain of having to suffer God and it accounts for her references to being inwardly overwhelmed. Her forceful images of fire, flame, burning minne result in being totally consumed. According to Laubner,11 the images themselves are being destroyed since she herself is rendered “imageless” by the wine-press. She is therefore able to receive the deity nakent (naked) and blos (bare), that is to say, without the mediation of images and symbols, now directly via gustus (die gebruchunge) and conceived of as drinking at an advanced stage of ecstasy.
Thus we discover that Mechthild does not merely make use of light imagery to express the theophany, but also uses the language of the Song of Songs to apply the theophany of minne and her own doctrine of minne in various wine motifs, developing it independently and in an extremely expressive manner. Two ideas can be seen to be contained in this image: 1) the nature of the triune God as minne, conferring on each of the Divine Persons his own individuality with respect to minne; and 2) the glory of minne in the Eternal Father as the principle which underlies creation. Through the Son, minne is the principle which governs man and is the cause for his salvation. Here minne exalts the aspect of divine divestment of self unto death in the Passion in a new way and becomes a model which inspires man to transcend mere minne of God and to extend it to the suffering of atonement for the salvation of others. Mechthild represents this lofty form of minne in her allegorical figure of the officiating cellaress who determines the nature of God and man. In the same way that minne drives the desire of the bridal soul “into the lofty wine cell[ar]” into ecstasy and where, “over-inebriated, it would drink of the host’s wine, the wine which he himself has drunk” (M 63:21 ff; III:3), minne, as the driving force behind creation, says, “I drove Almighty God from heaven” (M 6:19; I:30). The cellaress serves the white wine of glory in order to sing praises in ecstasy and also serves the red wine of love that has become “poor and naked.” In both cases, the “pure, unadulterated wine – as a gift of the Holy Spirit, the giver of all sweetness of minne – must first have been trodden in the wine-press so that the last drop of its purity is squeezed out, thus symbolising the active and passive purgation of human powers.
Within the framework of this allegory, minne cannot yet receive the stamp of approval until it has overcome suffering. As if to verify the idea which underlies her image, Mechthild says towards the end of her life, “No one possesses an entire Kingdom of Heaven in his heart save him alone who has divested himself of all the consolation and grace of this world” (VI:20). In the same context, she summarises the nature of minne, according to its three stages:
First minne flows in all its sweetness, then it acquires rich knowledge [i.e. through the experience of gustus, minne becomes the principle underlying cognition] and, at the third and highest level, it burns to be rejected [i.e. to attain conformation with the Son in this form of loving self-surrender, as well] (M 197:21–22 ff; VI:20).
The purpose of the ecstasy of minne is to reveal God’s glory, to make clear that the fleeting, temporary states of ecstatic minne give rise to an even greater desire. Thus does Mechthild indicate that a mere contemplation of God’s minne can never lead to a gratification of that longing experienced by man on earth, but that inward enjoyment lies precisely in permanently moving closer to God. For Mechthild there is no absolute negation or destruction; instead minne takes refuge in the blissful paradox expressed in the 1es addressed to the Bride of the Song of Songs:
Ah, Bride, I hunger for the heavenly Father so
That I forget all sorrow.
And I thirst so for his Son
That I lose all earthly pleasure.
And I yearn so for the Spirit of both
That it surpasseth the wisdom of the Father,
which I cannot comprehend,
The suffering of the Son,
which I cannot bear,
And the comfort of the Holy Spirit,
which I cannot receive.
Whosoever finds himself caught in these straits.
Must remain ensnared forever
in God’s blessedness. (M 64:31 ff; III:3)
The paradox inherent here was already recognised by Gregory of Nyssa in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Discussing the beatific vision in the ascension of Moses, he had said:
But the thirst for more makes him insatiable so that he begs to see God’s countenance. … The contemplation of his countenance is a never-tiring movement towards him, which makes progress only when it follows in the footsteps of the word (who is Christ).12
Like Gregory of Nyssa, Mechthild also regards the yearning in itself as beatitude, since man cannot pass beyond it in this life. This means that yearning is an essential element of man’s love of God, as well as the driving force behind ecstasy. This insight is couched in graphic terms in the form of a request in the seventh and last book of Mechthild’s revelations, written in her old age: “Lord, envelop me in the mantle of great desire” (M 249:21 ff; VII:35). She reserves the full union in minne (i. e. perfect contemplation) for eternal bliss. This is expressed in the metaphorical language of the Song of Songs in conjunction with sacramental mysticism:
There I shall drink from thee
And thou shalt drink from me. (M 204:6 ff; VI:29)
Here the image of “unmingled wine” as a direct, unmediated union arrives at its goal. The transformation of the soul is understood from this last goal and Mechthild describes this final perfection when she says that “the greatness of the soul lies in minne.” This does not imply the destruction of the soul. It does not perish in ecstasy, but the very foundation of its being is touched in this most individual act. Again and again, the soul realises its highest possibility in its self-transcendence, even to the point of reaching its divinisation.
It is clear, therefore, that Mechthild’s idea of minne integrates a sustained and effective use of the value of the theory of cognition for religious experience in a way similar to the way of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, the latter two particularly important to mediæval thought. Despite the apparent spontaneity of Mechthild’s images and verses, they in fact show a high level of reflection and cohesion and indicate a familiarity with the exegetical tradition of the Song of Songs. In this way the interdependence of experience, education and the faith tradition becomes apparent, thus illustrating the fact that piety and stylistic expression are also a question of learning. We must therefore try to illuminate the background of Mechthild’s thought not least by analysing her literary style. Although her book was indeed based on personal revelations, it soon becomes clear that Mechthild does not rely purely on personal experience. As she herself says, “Wherever learning unites wisdom and minne, election [i. e. the state of being among the elect] bears fruit” (M 159:23 ff; V: 28).
For Mechthild there is no opposition between religion and learning. This is especially true in the field of mysticism where there is always a call for the illuminating light of reason (ratio). Although what she basically seeks is an integration of learning and minne, she nevertheless places great emphasis on the cognitive side of experience for without it, all religious learning, all theology would be anemic. In this respect, her thinking resembles that of Bernard of Clairvaux who, in one of his homilies on the Song of Song, says,
What would erudition do without love? Puff itself up. What would love do without a thorough education? Go astray. … The bride of the word cannot be allowed to be stupid.13
Unlike Bernard, however, who excludes the mysterium strictissimum of the Trinity from the scope of those things which can be experienced,14 Mechthild surprisingly introduces her own experience into the mystery. This is all the more remarkable, since although the trinitarian dogma cannot be classified in general experiential terms – unlike the Gospel narratives or the content of the Song of Songs – Mechthild’s statements regarding minne are highly graphic, sensual and original and emphasise both the similarity and dissimilarity in nature between man and God. Mechthild’s subjective experience is merged with the exegesis of the Song of Songs to convey both her own personal truths and the truths of salvation history. Her systematic style of writing aims at anchoring her personal experience in the wider context of salvation history, especially with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. The question of minne is posited firmly on this trinitarian doctrine and she couches it in terms of the image of God and the relationship of the human to God as a path of minne which must be followed. In so doing, the general insights regarding the metaphysical qualitites of minne gained by Mechthild go far beyond her subjective experiences. This is especially true in the anthropological dimension where she she says that, as a result of the existence and effect of minne, humans opens themselves to the infinite. As a weak reflection of the divine being, they are charged with the tasks of creative activity, education, welfare and salvation, all to be understood as an inspiring foretaste of eternal beatitude.