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Women Mystics

History

The later Middle Ages saw the rise of a new locus of authority in the Church: women mystics. Famous names such as Hildegard and Julian appear during this time and bring with them something of an alternative (though not an adversarial one) expression of Christianity that was seeing at this time the rise of scholastic theology and a refining of dogma. The later Middle Ages were a rich time for mysticism in many religions traditions. And the women mystics of Christianity have endured as some of the most beloved and enduring figures of that movement.

Hildegard of Bingen was born a sickly child at the turn of the 12th century in Germany. She began having visions at a very young age (around three years old) that may have been associated with migraines. She soon realized that these “luminous visions” were abnormal and so hid them for quite some time. At the age of 8 Hildegard was given over to the care of the Church to be raised and educated. She excelled. By the time the leader of her particular community died, Hildegard had achieved such status in the community that she was designated the group’s next superior—she was 38 by this time. Her visions persisted and two years later she was ordered by the Church to begin writing her visions down.

Hildegard was brilliant. At a time when women carried little official authority, Hildegard, by contrast, was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She was a composer and founded a community in which her musical plays were performed. She wrote treatises on the natural history and the medicinal uses of plants. Although not yet canonized, Hildegard is well known as St. Hildegard.

She also got into a bit of trouble. Hildegard had buried in the graveyard associated with her community a man who had been excommunicated from the Church. The Church hierarchy demanded she exhume his body and remove it from the holy ground. Hildegard refused. The young man had indeed been excommunicated, but had been readmitted and so Hildegard would not give his body up. She and her community was punished and denied access to the Eucharist. But Hildegard’s authority mainly stemming from her visionary gifts ended up being too much for the Church hierarchy and she was successful in reinstating the giving of the Sacrament to her community (without, apparently, giving up the body, by the way).  She was a visionary in more ways than one and carried a unique authority that the normal Church hierarchy simply did not have access to.

And then there was Julian. Julian was born in 1342 in England and would grow to become the most famous of the English mystics. Ultimately devout, Julian became an anchoress in the town of Norwich. What this meant was that she lived in a small room attached to a church with only one window that gave her access to the outside world. She lived in solitude, dedicated to the religious life.

At the age of 30, Julian became very ill and thought she was about to die. At this time she had a series of visions that she recorded soon after and then again in longer form 20 years later. Her book is called the Revelations of Divine Love orsometimes Showings and it appears to be the first book written in the English language by a woman. Throughout Julian’s vision, the wounded Jesus appears to her. His appearance is consistently pictured as both gruesome and lovely. Julian has visions of what she calls “copious” blood pouring from Jesus’ wounds, falling from his brow like rain pouring off eaves, she says. But throughout Jesus speaks of the blood as a deep and joyful sign of his unending and unconquerable love for humanity. In a particularly moving point in her narrative the bleeding Christ says that he only wishes he could suffer more, so deep is his divine love.

What is particularly wonderful, I believe, about the women mystics is the way in which they served to balance the Church in their time. Hildegard was born right at the beginning of the rise of scholasticism—a particularly academic and systematic form of reasoning in philosophy and theology. This mode of theological thought and instruction would dominate the Church for several centuries. It is into this high point of systematic reasoning that Hildegard steps with her overpowering spirituality and mystical authority.

Julian, a few centuries later, enters into Church history at another significant time. In the century before her birth, the Church had solidified its understanding of transubstantiation—the dogma that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ. These centuries saw in increase in interest in the blood and suffering of Jesus, and the dogma of transubstantiation can be seen as a sort of codification of that into the Church’s theology. And into this codification and theologizing Julian comes with her inescapable visions reminding the Church of that blood as a sign of inescapable love.

I don’t really know what to do with the mystics. It is hard, if not presumptuous (even dangerous), to make out of them a template for what we should be. I’m not quite sure what the lesson is. But I am sure that we can look on figures like Hildegard and Julian and gratefully smile at the way in which God works to keep his Church alive, relevant, and (as is especially the case with these towering figures) balanced.