Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Passion of the Loving Soul: Another Poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg

I'd like to introduce my readers to a longer poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg's mystical book The Flowing Light of the Godhead. First, though, I need to offer some theological "framing" to help us understand it.

One of the strange things about Mechthild's mysticism is that even as she uses romantic and erotic language to speak of her intimacy with God, she also embraces experiences of pain, suffering, and even estrangement from God as part and parcel of that intimacy. For Mechthild, in the mystical relationship between the Godhead and the soul, the pain and suffering that comes through bodiliness is a vital intermediary between the earthly and the divine. That is to say, Mechthild understands that fallen humanity is brought into intimate union with God through the mediating work of pain and suffering.

Some might suggest this exaltation of suffering is nothing more than veiled female masochism. But, I would say that this is seriously oversimplified. In my opinion, the reason for Mechthild's mystical perspective on pain is to be found in the centrality of the Passion of Christ for her theology, in which the crucifixion of the Son of God is the means by which the Godhead is reconciled with the world. In the framework of the Incarnation, pain is, literally, the crux of the matter--the center of God’s identification with humankind. And so, the soul in love with God eventually comes to embrace suffering and estrangement as a welcomed form of intimacy with God, for it was Christ’s own experience of both that brought about redemption.

One scholar of medieval mysticism, Barbara Newman, applies this to Mechthild’s mysticism in the following way: "Since a lover can take no joy except in her Beloved, the supreme sacrifice [to be made as an expression of love for the Beloved] must lie in the willed choice of absence over presence...God’s very absence, once bitterly lamented, now becomes a sign of union with the abandoned Christ...For Mechthild, the abjectly loving soul no longer seeks her Beloved because she is identified with him, imitating Christ’s passion so perfectly that she becomes herself a womanChrist."

Now, I know the "womanChrist" language might seem bizarre to some of my readers. But, I would like you to read the following poem and think about it a bit more. I think what you'll see is that Mechthild envisions the soul's identification with Christ in such an intimate fashion that she experiences the pains of his sufferings and, eventually, the joys of his triumphs in a tangible way. This may seem odd for us, because we're not used to speaking of women, especially women's bodies, as being identified with Christ this explicitly. But, for me, this puts Paul's conception of being crucified with Christ in a whole new light--one that is especially meaningful for women disciples of Jesus who read Mechthild of Magdeburg today. I'd love to read your thoughts, if you have any.

(Note: The poem is exceptionally long, so I have taken the liberty of abbreviating it for us. Also, notice how often she references the language of Christ's Passion week narratives from the New Testament Gospels. I think this is tremendously creative, even if a little strange for many of us.)

The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Book III, Chapter 10
The loving soul betrays her true love in sighing for God.
She is sold in holy grief for his love.
She is sought with the host of many tears for her dear Lord,
Whom she likes so well.
She is captured in the first experience
When God kisses her in sweet union.
She is assailed with many a holy thought
That she not waver when she mortifies her flesh.
She is bound by the power of the Holy Spirit,
And her bliss is indeed manifold.
She is slapped with the great powerlessness
Of not being able to enjoy without interruption eternal light.
She is brought to judgment trembling with shame
Because God so often avoids her
Because of the stains of her sins.
She responds to all things in a holy manner
And cannot bear to treat anyone shamefully.
She is beaten at her trial
When the devils try her spiritually...

She is stripped of all things
When God clothes her with the silk of fair love.
She is delightfully crowned with manifold faithfulness
When she desire that God no longer reward her for all her woes,
Except to promote in the highest God's honor.
She is ridiculed in holy simplicity
When she is completely dissolved into God
That she forgets all earthly wisdom.
One kneels before her in great shame
When in delicate humility she puts herself under the feet of all creatures...

She carries her cross on a sweet path
When she truly surrenders herself to God in all sufferings.
Her head is struck with a reed
When one compares her great holiness to a fool.
With the hammer of the chase of love she is nailed so fast to the cross
That all creatures are not able to call her back again.
She suffers terrible thirst on the cross of love as well...

Her body is killed in living love
When her spirit is raised aloft above all human senses...

She hangs on the cross of sublime love,
High in the air of the Holy Spirit,
Facing the eternal sun of the living Godhead,
So that she becomes completely dry and bare of all earthly things.
Then in a holy ending she is taken from the cross
And speaks: "Father, receive my spirit; now everything is perfect."
She is interred in a sealed grave of deep humility,
When becomes ever aware of being the most unworthy of all creatures.
She also rises joyfully on an Easter Day
After she has enjoyed a lament of love
With her Lover on the narrow bridal bed.
Then she consoles her disciples and Mary early in the morning
When she receives from God true assurance
That God has blotted out all her sins...

She also ascends into heaven
When God takes from her all earthly things in holy transformation.
She is received in a white cloud of holy protection
When she ascends in love and joyfully comes back again, free of all trouble.
Then the angels return and console the men of Galilee
When we call to mind God's chosen friends and their holy example.

This passion is suffered by every soul that in holy moderation of all her activity is truly permeated by genuine love of God.

(The above photo is of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Lorenzo Bernini, located in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)


Christiane said...


I'm thinking that the theme of passionate longing for union 'between the soul and the Godhead' has been a theme in Christian literature for a long, long time.
Mechthilde's yearning for union with God reminded me of these beautiful words of Augustine, written many centuries earlier, and filled with the same level of intensity.

"Late have I loved you, Oh Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things which you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me to break open my deafness and you sent forth your beams and you shone upon me and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me and I drew in my breath and do pant for you."
St. Augustine. City of God.

Jade said...


I think it is very interesting that she refers to herself in second person throughout the poem. Why do you think she does this instead of portraying the experience in first person where it can be more personal to the reader?

I also found these lines very interesting:
"She also rises joyfully on an Easter Day
After she has enjoyed a lament of love
With her Lover on the narrow bridal bed."

Mechthild seems very conscious of weaving this imagery of the erotic throughout her poem and I think she does so beautifully in these lines as well. It is a very interesting metaphor.

Her mysticism (even though I have not read any more on her than you have included in your blog postings) is very different from Julian's. I think it is very interesting that these women both yearned and prayed to become closer to Christ, but then wrote about them in such different ways, creating their own interpretations of their experiences.

Christiane said...

I found a site that mentions Mechthilde. It is very lengthy, but you might be able to use it in your research: