Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg

The following poem was written by a medieval woman mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1208-c. 1282). I am in the middle of a research paper on her book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead for my historical theology seminar. I hope to post something more substantive in the future about her and her mystical theology. For now, its helpful to know that Mechthild (pronounced Meck-tild) was a German woman from a noble background who was a member of a lay community of women called beguines, who lived together to pursue the holy life outside of formal ecclesiastical structures (like convents).

Her book was in the vernacular German of her day, but translated into Latin by Dominican priests soon after her death. Apparently, despite Mechthild's status as a laywoman, The Flowing Light of the Godhead was revered as sacred theology for some time. Scholars have only recently re-discovered her text and begun to do extensive research on her life and work.

Mechthild's mystical writings are strange to most contemporary readers because she uses blatantly romantic and erotic language to describe her relationship to God (the following poem is very, very mild--I plan to share more interesting pieces later). She draws on the language of courtly love from her day to describe the soul as the bride and lover of the Godhead. Readers will recognize in her work the language of the Song of Solomon, as well, which was interpreted almost universally in Mechthild's day as an allegorical poem depicting God's love for the Church.

I would be interested to hear your reflections, if you have any, on the way this dialogue depicts the soul and God as lovers.

The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Book V, Chapters 17 & 18

Greetings to you, living God.
You are mine before all things.
I am endlessly glad
That I can speak to you without guile.
When my enemies pursue me,
I flee to your arms
Where I can complain about my suffering
While you incline yourself to me.
You well know how you can pluck
The strings of my soul.
Ah, begin at once
That you may be ever blessed.
I am a low-born bride;
And yet you are my lawful husband.
I shall ever rejoice about this.
Remember how well you can caress
The pure soul on your lap
And do it, Lord, to me now,
Even though I am not worthy of you.
Ah, Lord, draw me up to you.
Then I shall be pure and radiant.
If you abandon me to myself,
I shall remain dark and sluggish.

Thus does God answer:

I respond to your greeting with such a heavenly flood:
Were I to give myself to you in all my power,
You would not preserve your human life.
You well know I must hold back my might
And hide my splendor
To let you remain in earthly misery
Until all my sweetness rises up
To the heights of eternal glory,
And my strings shall play sweetly for you
In tune with the true value of your patient love.
Still, before I begin,
I want to tune my heavenly strings in your soul,
So that you might persevere even longer.
For well-born brides and noble knights
Must undergo a long and intensive preparation at great cost.


Gary Snowden said...

A couple of the lines jumped out at me as I read them. Her expression of being endlessly glad to be able to speak to God without guile is a powerful one. Even though God already knows our hearts and our thoughts and words before we express them (Ps. 139), it's interesting how many times we come to Him in prayer with flowery prose or familiar and well-worn phrases that may very well mask what we're really feeling. The notion of being able to come to God without hypocrisy is refreshing.

The other phrase I responded to more negatively I must admit. It's the last line that you cited, where God speaks of the long and intensive preparation at great cost that well-born brides and noble knights must undergo. I suspect that's reflective of the asceticism of a great majority of the monastic movements throughout Christian history. There's clearly something to be said about the virtue of engaging in spiritual disciplines to draw closer to God, but I think the temptation is to focus too much on the processes and less on the person of God Himself who eagerly awaits our drawing near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Tammie McAbee said...

Emily I did enjoy (lack for a better word, not an elegant writer!) her prayer. The Lord Jesus is my groom and fall into His arms often and sit and wait for His presence and the sweet caresses of my soul from Him. i would like to hear your thoughts as well. Thanks for all your insights.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Gary and Tammie, thanks for your thoughts!

Gary, your negative response is understandable, I think. You're absolutely right about the tendency to make the process of transformation more important than the God doing the transformation. Sometimes the spiritual disciplines "movement" (i.e., Dallas Willard and Richard Foster) can begin to sound like this among its less careful adherents (not its leaders, though, I think).

One of the other problems I have with Mechthild's book is the sense that intimacy with God is only available to those in special religious orders or those devoted to special forms of religious life ("well-born brides" and "noble knights"). This is a product of her time, of course. Its not necessarily her fault. Even though she was a beguine, which meant that she was subverting the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy of her time, when she elevates the status of virginal religious women above that of "normal" women, she also buys right into the hierarchy.

That's also the issue with her use of "courtly love" language in her poetry. That was an artform relatively unavailable to the common folk.

All this is to say, there remains a tension in Mechthild's writing between questioning the Church's status quo of her day and being part and parcel of it.

Tammie, I'm glad you enjoyed (a perfectly good word!) Mechthild's prayer. I thought that some might be thrown off by the language of "caressing," especially in a sex-crazed culture like ours. I'll post some more another time about Mechthild's unabashed use of romantic language for God. I think she had a healthy view of human sexuality that allowed her to express her love for God in the language of kissing and caressing without being irreverent. But, more about that later!

Jade said...


I would be really interested in reading your paper when you are finished; it sounds fascinating! I researched Julian of Norwich, a fellow female mystic in the fourteenth century, who wrote about the Trinitarian relationship of the Godhead. She places God as the father, Jesus as the mother, and the Holy Spirit as "true spouse." Most know her for her well-known quote: "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all matter of thing shall be well."

During my research, I stumbled onto Mechtild as well, but was unable to fully delve into the other mystics.

I know you mentioned that Mechtild believed (as was the custom of her time) that only persons directly part of a religious order could fully experience an intimate relationship with God, but what I think is interesting and true of both Mechtild and Julian, is that they both wrote (at least a version of their work) in the vernacular of their day. It seems that through writing in the vernacular, they did not wish to limit their experiences to the readership of religious orders; rather, they sought to share their personal experiences with the lay community, as well.

What we know of Julian, she did not enter into a religious order until after her mystical experience. She prayed as a young girl for the three wounds of Christ and wished to experience Christ's Passion. She became extremely ill; so ill that she received her last rites. During her illness, she received 16 visions that she later told to a scribe; they would become the first version of her Revelations or Showings. Then after entering the Church of St. Julian and counseling visitors who met her through a small window, she wrote a second version of her visions. This second version is where we see her "Mother Theology," which I argued in my paper to contain early feminist ideas.

I had never heard of the female mystics until studying abroad one summer and that's why I chose Julian as my senior seminar research topic in my undergrad. Being an English major, I looked at her work through a literary lens, while focusing on her Mother Theology and ideas of the Trinity. I will be looking into Mechtild because I'm intrigued by the poetry you posted. I am interested in hearing more of what you learn about Mechtild and any other mystics along your research!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hi Jade!

So glad you stopped by and commented. I don't know much about Julian of Norwich, so thank you for the information. I know that a number of feminist theologians I've read reference her use of "mother" imagery and rhetoric to refer to God, but that's about it. I think you'll find Mechthild fun to read (how's that for a technical academic term?). She has a mixture of all sorts of things in her book: apocalyptic visions, poetry, allegorical dialogue, letters, and more.

Also, you make an important point about both Julian and Mechthild writing in the vernacular. Obviously, they would not have done so if they intended their audience to be made up of only elites. (As a side note, though, from what we can tell, Mechthild didn't know Latin. So, it may have been as much about that as anything else.) I think the Mechthild would have wanted to call others outside her community to the holy life, as well.

I guess the thing I keep getting caught on is the fact that Mechthild actually teaches that virgins attain a higher level of union with God than married people. Certainly, I think, she'd affirm all have access to intimacy with God, but for her, those who live the celibate life are favored more by God. Maybe its just my modern egalitarian sensibilities, but that bothers me! Its completely a product of her age, but I still trip over it in her text.

Anyway, thanks again for commenting. Feel free to do so any time. Maybe we'll actually get to hang out some over the summer.