What we can learn from medieval mystics

It can be hard to relate to mystics. We view them as far above us, with visions and experiences beyond anything we might hope to achieve in our relationship to God. And yet, we are all called to seek the mystical and have probably felt the tug of it in our lives at one point or another, even without labeling it by its rightful name. 

When we sense God’s presence in our lives at a particular moment, we, too, are mystic. When we suddenly know in our hearts the absolute answer to a difficult dilemma, we venture into territory we imagine belongs only to mystics. When we hold a baby or stand before the crashing ocean and experience that soul-shaking knowledge that we are seeing something touched by God, we dip our toes into mystical waters where the here and now meets eternity. 

Strong missions, faith 

Pope Benedict XVI used his Wednesday audiences — starting Sept. 1, and continuing with no end yet in sight — to focus on mystics, specifically medieval women mystics. Some of the women are recognizable, if not in detail certainly by name: Clare of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Hungary, Bridget of Sweden. Others are more obscure: Matilda of Hackeborn,Gertrude the Great, Blessed Angela of Foligno, Marguerite d’Oingt, Juliana of Liege. So, why these women at this time? 

“I can’t speak for the Holy Father, but you could fairly say that each of these saints was not only a strong woman of great faith, but also someone who surmounted enormous, sometimes overwhelming, difficulties in her life. So I think they speak profoundly not only to women everywhere but to men, too,” said Jesuit Father James Martin, author of “My Life with the Saints”(Loyola Press, $15.95). 

Father Martin told Our Sunday Visitor that mysticism is certainly not the only obvious characteristic the holy women share. “They are European saints, presented to us in a time when Europe is increasingly secularized. They pray for Europe,” he said. 

When we look at the group as a whole, it’s easy to see how they are similar, but the truth is that these women were unique individuals, with strong missions and even stronger faith. Each brings her own qualities to the table, offering us something that urges us forward on our own faith journeys. 

“At the most basic level, look at Clare and Elizabeth — one was a cloistered nun, the other a married queen! Each of them was born in different times, amidst different circumstances, and had different personalities, and each was able to follow Christ in her own particular way. Holiness means being who you are — no more, but, most importantly, no less,” said Father Martin. 

God-given gifts 

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author of “A Catholic Woman’s Book of Prayers” (OSV, $7.95) and “Catholic Saints Prayer Book” (OSV, $7.95), said that the pope’s intense focus on female mystics encourages women today to use their individual gifts to further the kingdom of God. 

“This means consecrated women and laywomen, too, following their personal call and mission from God, rediscovering Christ through a deep prayer life and bringing him to all they meet. There is much to be learned, pondered and explored, using the examples of these courageous women saints whom our Holy Father has graciously intro-duced to us,” she told OSV. 

O’Boyle noted that the pope introduced the series with a quote from Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (“On The Dignity and Vocation of Women”), thanking God for the “feminine genius” that has been evident throughout history. 

“What we may find connects these women together is their love for the Church, Sacred Scriptures and liturgical prayer,” said O’Boyle. “These women had a gift for bringing even the simplest elements of the liturgy to their daily life in the convent or their household. Additionally, they all seem to be deeply devoted to the passion and death of Jesus as well, and lived deep prayerful and penitential lives. ... Their wisdom was timeless and speaks to us even now.” 

Mystics among us 

Father Martin emphasized the fact that mysticism is not something reserved for the few or limited to a long-gone period of time; we are all called to the path of the mystic right here and now. 

“Mysticism, I would suggest, is not simply the province of the saints. Many people today — the faithful, the people in the pews, those who believe they are far from the experiences of the saints — speak of powerful and unmistakable experiences of God, which are sometimes beyond words. This is a form of everyday mysticism,” he said. “Sometimes a complete engagement in the stuff of your life — for example, a mother nursing her child — can be a form of mysticism.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York.

Feminine Genius (sidebar)

Here’s a brief look at the nine women who have (so far) been the focus of the papal audiences:  

Hildegarde of Bingen lived in 12th-century Germany. Born into a noble family, she was dedicated to God by her parents at birth and was sent, at age 8, to begin her training to become a religious. She later joined a cloistered Benedictine monastery and eventually became prioress. Hildegarde is probably best known not only for her mystical visions but for her musical, artistic and scientific genius. 

Clare of Assisi was born in Italy in 1193 into an aristocratic family. She renounced her noble status and followed St. Francis of Assisi, famously sneaking away during the night to have her hair shorn and consecrate herself to Christ. She eventually founded her own group of sisters — now known as the Poor Clares — who lived out the radical Gospel poverty as established by St. Francis. She was the first woman in Church history to compose her own Rule.  

Matilda of Hackeborn lived in the 13th century in Germany, and was the sister of St. Gertrude the Great. She entered the convent in Helfta at a young age, distinguishing herself, the pope said, by her “humility, her fervor, her friendliness, the clarity and the innocence of her life and by the familiarity and intensity with which she lived her relationship with God, the Virgin and the saints.” She had the gift of mystic contemplation and emphasized liturgical prayer — Liturgy of the Hours and Mass — in daily life.  

Gertrude the Great, who also lived at Helfta, was a mystic and theologian. She devoted herself to writing about the truths of the faith. The pope said she did so with “clarity and simplicity, with grace and persuasion, serving the Church faithfully and lovingly so as to be helpful to and appreciated by theologians and devout people.” 

Blessed Angela of Foligno was born in the 13th century near Assisi. She was married by age 20 and living a carefree life. A series of traumatic events led to her conversion, prompted by a vision of St. Francis of Assisi and sealed by the death of her mother, husband and children. She sold her possessions and joined the Third Order of St. Francis. Her writings provide deep insights into her journey. 

Born in 1207, Elizabeth of Hungary was married at age 14 to a prince and eventually became queen. Her arranged marriage became one of true love and faithful service to God. She was widowed by age 20 and died at 24, but she packed a lot into her brief life. After her husband’s death, she built hospitals, cared for the sick and became “a consecrated woman in the world,” the pope said. 

Bridget of Sweden was born in 1303. She was happily married to a powerful governor and had eight children. The pope said that her home was “a true domestic church.” She and her husband even adopted the Rule of the Franciscan Tertiaries. After her husband’s death, she distributed her possessions to the poor and lived near a Cistercian monastery, where she began to experience “divine revelations.” She traveled to Rome to get approval for the religious order she founded and remained in Italy — save for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — for the rest of her life. 

Marguerite d’Oingt was a 13th-century Carthusian prioress and mystic who “viewed life as a path of perfection leading to complete configuration to Christ,” Pope Benedict said. Her many writings invite readers to meditate on God’s life and Christ’s suffering. 

Juliana of Liege was born in the 12th century in what is now Belgium. She was known for her devotion to the Eucharist. In fact, she is the one who promoted the idea of a day set aside to honor the Eucharist. The first feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated in 1246, thanks to her efforts.