A Divine, Flowing Light
Daily Office Readings for the feast of Mechtild of Magdeburg, Friday, May 28, 2021: Song of Songs 3:1–5
The healing of the blind man in today’s Gospel is the only recorded miracle in which Jesus has to make two tries at healing to be successful. Similarly, Mechtild of Magdeburg is one of those people in the history of the church that often requires a second look before being fully appreciated as a mystic.
At first glance, she falls into a genre of mysticism in the same vein of Hildegard of Bingen (who predated her by about a hundred years) and Julian of Norwich (who would come along a little over a hundred years later)–females who describe a passionate, ecstatic union between the human soul and God in visions, using language that resembles our reading today in the Song of Solomon. This genre of mysticism often captivates us because the element of eros in these visions is, at best, scantily camouflaged, and, in the case of Mechtild, at times in broad daylight. In one of her visions, she describes the soul being invited into the “hidden bedchamber of the pure Godhead” and being asked by Christ to undress. There’s no doubt what captivated the contemporary readers of her visions was the erotic nature of this union between the human soul and God. Wooing and being wooed, longing and being longed for, is the meat and potatoes of many a secular poem or ballad from the medieval period.
Mechtild’s visions, though, stem from a very paradoxical life in which wooing and longing weren’t part of the landscape. She even turned away from her one big chance at it. Mechtild was born into a noble Saxon family around 1207. She could have lived a life of nobility and privilege, being attended to, and yes, wooed. She began having her visions, though, at age 12, and by adulthood, she had left her family to join a community of Beguines in Magdeburg. Beguine communities led very unprotected lives. They were a loose amalgamation of pious women who didn’t take formal lifetime vows as monastic communities did, but took community vows of chastity and poverty that were only in effect as long as the woman lived in community. They survived by the skills they had in their various crafts and worldly enterprises, often being known for their skills in the fiber arts. Having renounced their families and worldly goods, they were unprotected by their family standing. By not taking formal vows, the church was happy to smile upon them, but not necessarily support them. Yet this milieu was the substrate where Mechtild’s visions picked up both strength and frequency. We see a woman whose own understanding of the allure of union with God transcended every object of human comfort and desire, who teaches us that life in Christ is not meant to be a dour, passionless journey–that we should be as desirous of it as we are of the most joyful human passions.
Eventually, she came to rely on the encouragement and aid of her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, to write down her visions, but even then, the story reveals her independent streak. Henry could have transcribed her book of visions, The Flowing Light of Divinity, into Latin, she chose to write it in the Middle Low German spoken in Magdeburg at the time. Mechtild was of the opinion that the learned people of the church had libraries full of books to learn to encounter God. Ordinary people like herself needed something else in order to fully understand.
Like Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild’s visions, although welcomed by the church at first, eventually faced threat of censure – not because of their erotic nature, but probably because some of her visions didn’t have very complementary things to say about the ecclesiastical power structure. As she aged and her eyesight began to fail, she took up residence in the Cistercian convent in Helfta, mentoring other mystics such as Mechtild of Hakeborn and Gertrude the Great.
Mechtild’s life serves as a reminder that we are to seek the unbridled joy of life in Christ by embracing the gifts of our own nature as windows to see it. As she says in her book of visions,
“A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
God doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?”
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.