Mechthild of Magdeburg: Leaping into Love
MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG:
``Mystic, visionary, artist of transcendent word imagery, self-described “unruly woman of God” – Mechthild of Magdeburg has a voice that soars with radiance across the 800 years since she was alive.``
Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word,
Nor more than a honey bee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.
Mystic, visionary, artist of transcendent word imagery, self-described “unruly woman of God” – Mechthild of Magdeburg has a voice that soars with radiance across the 800 years since she was alive.
Mechthild lived in Germany in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 19th that seven books of her lost writings were discovered in a Swiss monastery. Together, the writings comprise The Flowing Light of the Godhead, a spiritual classic.
Filled with poetry, visions, reflections, and letters, The Flowing Light expresses an intense, passionate, ongoing longing for mystical union with the divine. These “love poems to God” often draw on the feminine and the unorthodox in their color and eroticism.
If Mechthild’s inner world was one of extraordinary inspiration, her outer life was one of acute challenge. She was a medieval woman who dared to criticize the church, insert herself into male domains, and tangle with religious authorities.
Compelled by her relationship with God, she daringly confronted those powerful church officials whom she called “stinking billy-goats.”
Her struggles with the church and even her religious community, along with self-imposed physical disciplines and privations, caused stress, suffering, and illness. Mechthild eventually went blind. Her work circulated for some years, then disappeared.
A Flowing Life
Mechthild was born around the year 1207 in northern Germany, possibly to a noble family. At the age of 12, she experienced an ecstatic vision in which she saw “all things in God and God in all things.” This was the beginning of a lifelong journey that sought “unity with the heart of God.”
Called to radical simplicity, service to the sick, and rigorous prayer, Mechthild traveled to the diocesan seat of Magdeburg in her twenties to join the Beguine sisterhood, renouncing “worldly honor and riches.”
As a communal lay order, the Beguines presented women with an alternative to marriage or the vows and enclosure of a convent, as well as freedom from official church supervision. This arrangement worked well for many women from a wide variety of backgrounds.
As a Beguine, Mechthild sought to emulate Christ by living austerely rather than enjoying the relative comforts of a convent. The independence of the Beguines also suited her. She preached publicly and criticized church corruption openly. Her defiance and spiritual devotion gained her a following.
All the while, Mechthild’s “visitations” from the Holy Spirit continued daily. In her forties, her confessor encouraged her to express her inner life and experiences in writing. She began setting down her revelations and mystical texts.
Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings –
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings
Which are touched in Love
She wrote in the common language of Low German rather than the customary ecclesiastical Latin – one of the first to do so. Mechthild did not consider herself a writer – only urged on by God and her confessor to continue this work. Most women of her time did not read or write at all, much less express themselves in a wide variety of genres and with such elevated poetic language.
I come to my Beloved
Like dew upon the flowers.
A Challenging Life
During these years of work and prayer, Mechthild struggled with “Lucifer’s disruptions” of her relationship with God, with her Beguine sisters who apparently were jealous of her, with the church and its excesses, the clergy and their laxity, and the illnesses brought on by her physical trials.
Her writings, claiming theological insights, were regarded with suspicion and came close to being burned. Women were not considered capable of “subtle thought.”
To live as a Beguine was to live on the edge of danger, and all the more so for someone as outspoken as Mechthild. How she avoided serious punishment isn’t clear. She had supporters, and perhaps her Dominican confessor had additional influence. Maybe she was lucky.
But whatever her reasons, Mechthild left the Beguines after 40 years. In her final years, blind and alone, she sought refuge with Cistercian nuns and was able to dictate her seventh book. She died around the year 1282.
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?
Her work was adapted into High German and translated into Latin in her lifetime, then largely forgotten by the 15th century and lost until 1860. That is when hundreds of parchment pages written in High German were found in Switzerland’s Einsiedeln Abbey, including a letter by a Dominican friar introducing the books. The friar may have been her confessor.
How and why Mechthild’s work made its way from Germany to a hiding place in a Swiss monastery during those intervening years would no doubt make a fascinating story in itself.
Mechthild herself could not have imagined that she would be remembered and her writings esteemed in the 21st century. The Episcopal Church honors her on May 28.
Vocation to prayer, women’s desire for independence and autonomy, vivid beauty of expression, appreciation of simplicity – all resonate today, especially within this sisterhood we call the Companionship.
I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.