Archive for August, 2016

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:8-11)

This summer we have looked at some amazing lives of the Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages. These women all sought to grow closer to God and to follow in the footsteps of the Savior by serving the poor. There were a number of ways they accomplished their goals of piety and charity.

Some women, such as Mary of Oignies and Hadewijch were Beguines. The Beguines did not take vows but made their own rules. They were all encouraged to read and study. They were expected to support themselves. Some came with rich inheritances that they shared with everyone. Others learned trades, especially in the cloth industry.

The independent lifestyle of the Beguines helped them to work with the poor and marginalized without having to be under the control of local bishops or noblemen. They did not want to be like the nuns who were often not allowed to leave the cloisters. The Beguines wanted the freedom to choose to work among the poor in their own way.

A few women became “anchoresses”. They took vows. They lived alone, usually in a cell attached to a church. They often had windows to use for light and business. One window faced the altar. Elizabeth of Spalbeek (see last week’s post) was an anchoress.

Many women, like Clare of Assisi (founder of the Poor Clares), wanted to attach themselves to a religious order that they admired. Clare joined the 3rd Order of the Franciscans. These “tertiaries” were not quite nuns, not quite lay people. They took vows of poverty. They had a little more independence than the nuns. They loved Christ enough to devote their whole lives to Him. They showed their love through acts of mercy. Their independence allowed them to travel while they ministered.

Other women sought the safety and protection of a cloister to serve Christ. The monastic movement had begun centuries earlier. It went through many changes. In the Middle Ages many monasteries followed the order of St. Benedict. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The nuns who lived in the monasteries sought to live a Gospel life. There was a loose style of democracy. The nuns often voted for their own abbess. Usually the cloister was under the authority of a priest or bishop.

Women sought a life of service in the church for various reasons. Some were widowed. Some had not found a marriage partner. Some were orphaned. Many just wanted to follow in Christ’s footsteps as their calling. Some joined a convent because they could get an education there. In the monastery/cloister women had access to the Scriptures and many other books. Art, drama, and music flourished in the cloisters.

One very famous cloister was the Helfta Convent. Three famous women lived at this convent – Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Gertude (The Great) of Helfta. This convent was located near Eiselben in Saxony. It became famous as an intellectual and spiritual center for women. The women were known for their scientific work, art, and music. It was a center of mysticism as well.

Young girls and orphans were accepted at Helfta for schooling. The sisters also were skilled in craftwork, especially the making of books. Their choir was also renowned.

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-c.1280)

Mechthild of MagdeburgMechthild was born into a noble family and most likely grew up at a small court. At the age of twelve she received the first of a series of “greetings” from the Holy Spirit. These divine encounters had a great effect on her and when she was nineteen she decided to devote her life to God. Mechthild became a Beguine and eventually became the abbess of her group. She was highly educated and had great writing abilities.

She continued to have visions but did not reveal them to anyone until she was in her forties. She had a friend and confessor, the Dominican Heinrich of Halle, who persuaded her to document them. Mechthild spent years writing down her love songs and visionary experiences, carefully shaping her words as God directed her. Her writings were quickly copied and circulated.

Mechthild wrote in a Low German dialect. Her masterpiece, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, was comprised of seven books that contain beautiful prose, poetry, visions, letters, parables, reflections, allegories, prayers, criticism, and advice. These books give a picture of Mechthild’s journey toward God. They are still widely read today. Mechthild wrote these books as a message to both lay believers and the clergy. She was concerned about the laxity in the church.

As an older woman, Mechthild’s life was fraught with difficulties. The church began to persecute the Beguines. She, as well as others, had been critical of the immorality of the local priests. In retaliation, the church tried to place restrictions on the Beguines. Mechthild may have decided to join a cloister rather than submit to a parish priest.  Around 1270 Mechthild joined the monastery at Helfta. The abbess, Gertrude was happy to welcome Mechthild into the Cistertian community of gifted and pious nuns.

Here Mechthild continued to write until her death.

Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241-c.1298)

Mechthild joined the convent when she was seven years old. She was very gifted Mechthild of Hackebornmusically. She became the choir director and the chantress and was called “the nightingale of Christ”.

Mechthild had experienced mystical visions since childhood but like our other Mechthild (of Magdeburg) she was reluctant to reveal them to anyone until she was nearly fifty years old. Even then she shied away from writing. Two members of the community (one of whom might possibly have been Gertrude, see below) compiled them, at first without her knowledge, into a work composed of five books – the Book of Special Grace. After her death another book was composed telling of her life and death. These books became very influential in their day.

Gertrude the Great of Helfta (1256-1302)

Mystikerin_Gertrud_von_HelftaGertrude joined the convent when she was only five years old. Unlike the two Mechthild’s she was not nobly born and was probably an orphan. At a very young age she showed great intellectually ability. She was educated by the gifted Mechthild of Hackeborn. Gertrude studied science, art, and theology. She spoke and wrote Latin and Greek fluently. She translated parts of the Bible into German.

Gertrude experienced her first vision when she was twenty-six years old. She later said that it was the most important day of her life. Gertrude had been living a life of pretense. When she had her vision she turned her life over to Christ, finding a new joy in her Christian life.

In her book, “The Herald of Divine Love” she says, “My God, you who are all truth, clearer than all light, yet hidden deeper in our heart than any secret, when you yourself resolved to disperse the darkness of my night, you began gently and tenderly by first calming my mind, which had been troubled for more than a month past. This trouble it seems to me served your purpose. You were striving to destroy the tower of vanity and worldliness which I had set up in my pride, although, alas, I was – in vain – bearing the name and wearing the habit of a religious. … From that hour, in a new spirit of joyful serenity I began to follow the way of the sweet odor of your perfumes (Song 1:3) and I found your yoke sweet and your burden light (Matt. 11:30) which a short time before I had thought to be unbearable.”

Gertrude’s important books are – “The Herald of Divine Love” and ‘The Spiritual Exercises”. These books teach the priority of service to the poor over the pleasure of private prayer. Glimpses of pious community life come through these writings.

The Helfta Convent was an outstanding place for women especially during thehelfta monastery Medieval age. Founded in 1229 in the grounds of Mansfeld castle, it moved to the village of Helfta in 1258. The buildings were destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1542 the land was secularized and fell into disrepair. In 1950 the land was returned to the people of the GDR and became a community fruit farm. In 1994 the “Friends of Helfta”, German Catholics, collected funds to purchase all of the buildings and 30 acres. In 1998 restoration work began. In 1999 Cistercian Nuns from Seligenthal, Bavaria moved into the convent.

Today the convent remains a place for women to live, pray, and work. The convent is considered a center of spirituality. You can actually visit. They host seminars, retreats, and spiritual exercises, short-stays, and guided tours.



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I urge you again and again to practice true love and to aspire to truth and perfection, that you may satisfy God, please Him, and do Him honor and justice, first in Himself (God’s Presence) and then in the good people He loves and who love Him, and may you give them all they need whatever their state may be. This I urge you to do unceasingly, and this I have done since I came among you, for it is the best and most becoming way to serve God.-   Hadewijch, 13th Century Beguine

We have been looking at the lives of Medieval Christian women. In previous weeks we saw that many women desired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by serving the poor. Many sought a life of contemplation as well. The women were more or less educated depending on their circumstances. The church was beginning to develop theology by this time and the women’s lives were affected by it.

There were three forms of Medieval theology, two main types and a variation. There was scholasticism, primarily the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. This theology was considered the more intellectual theology and we find these theologians in the universities. The second group of theologians includes St. Benedict and others who wrote biblical theology from their perspective as monastics.  They believed that their theology should come out of their fingertips and so we find them concerned with following Jesus by working among the poor. They were no less intelligent, they just expressed their theology in a different way.

There was another group of theologians during the thirteenth century who tried to make theology accessible to the people. This has been called vernacular theology. This theology is primarily distinguished from the others because it was written in the language of the common people. Anyone who could read could benefit from the writings of the pious men and women who put the Gospel and other instructions into their own tongue. The theological truths were the same; only accessibility changed.

Because university education was denied to women, very few could write in Latin, the official language of church and scholars. Some, like Hildegard of Bingen, taught themselves anyway. But most of the female religious taught or wrote in their own tongue. The people were glad to have something they could understand and so many of the mystics had large followings. This could create a problem for the jealous clerics. We should not be surprised to find that the church persecuted the Beguines and other female religious. Many Christian women were arrested and exiled or forced into cloisters. At least one (Marguerite Porete) was burned at the stake. Hadewijch, a very intelligent, self-taught woman wrote in the vernacular. One unique Beguine, Elizabeth of Spalbeek, related the Gospel in the form of live performances. The stories of these three women follows.

Hadewijch – (13th Century)

Historians have been unable to discover exact dates for Hadewijch’s birth andHadewijch death. We do know that her writings were circulating between 1220 and 1240 so it seems reasonable to place her in mid-thirteenth century. Most of what we know has been deduced from Hadewijch’s writings.

Hadewijch wrote in Middle Dutch, so perhaps she came from somewhere around Antwerp. She knew French, Latin, and Provençal, in addition to Dutch. Her knowledge of the Scriptures was formidable. She was also familiar with writers such as Saint Augustine, William of Saint Thierry, Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux and others of the mystical tradition. This education suggests that Hadewijch came from an aristocratic background.

She appears to have been a Beguine (see post July 27, 2016) and was perhaps the head mistress in a beguinage. She wrote extensively producing at least thirty-one letters, forty-five poems in stanzas, fourteen visions, and sixteen poems in couplets. Hadewijch is considered one of the most exquisite crafters of poems of “courtly love”. The “courtly love” literature was popular in the Middle Ages. One of the themes involved placing one’s love on a pedestal and striving to obtain the seemingly unreachable. Hadewijch used the themes but wrote hers as an expression of her longing for God.

Besides writing, Hadewijch spent most of her life helping the poor, the elderly, the ill and the neglected. Her writings exhort her sister Beguines to follow her example by engaging in prayer, contemplation and charitable works. (See quote at top of this post.) Her writing also reveals her strong belief in the importance of community and relationships in the community. Through it all is expressed a belief in the Trinity and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scholars surmise that toward the end of her life Hadewijch was evicted from her beguinage and forced into exile. Reasons are unclear, but in one of her letters she expresses her longing to be with her sisters again. It is sad, but we do not know any more of Hadewijch’s life or death. I look forward to finding out more in Heaven!

Today, Hadewijch’s writings are considered to be among the masterpieces of literature from the Low Countries. You can find many of her beautiful poems online.

Marguerite Porete (1250-1310)

Like Hadewijch, most of what we know of Marguerite of Porete comes from hermarguerite-porete-928 writing. It seems that she was a Beguine and was either a solitary itinerant or belonged to a small community.

By the late thirteenth century the church was persecuting the Beguines because of their independent attitude. Unfortunately for Marguerite, the church made an extreme example of her, condemning her and burning her at the stake.

Marguerite had written a book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, that the church banned and burned. Some of Marguerite’s mystical views seem very far out (such as her ‘mystical union of our will with the will of God’). We have seen that the mystics had a wide range of views from very unbiblical to very Scriptural. Yes, some of Marguerite’s views seem strange to us, but other mystics were even stranger and they did not get burned at the stake. Why did Marguerite get treated so severely?

There were several reasons. For one thing, Marguerite was the victim of politics. It seems that Marguerite was an easy target for Philip IV who was busy trying to prove to the pope that he was a defender of the Catholic faith. The French king Philip the “Fair” held an inquisition against heretics and Marguerite was the first one to be condemned to death by burning at the stake.

Secondly, it seems that Marguerite’s real crime was in writing The Mirror of Simple Souls in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and it had a popular following. Religious authorities did not like it when someone claimed that their authority to write or teach came directly from God and not the church hierarchy; the theological elite wanted control over all teaching and told Marguerite to stop. Marguerite continued to teach so she was arrested in 1309, put on trial and burned at the stake on June 1, 1310.

Though church officials tried to destroy every copy, The Mirror of Simple Souls did not get completely incinerated at the hands of Marguerite’s inquisitors. It is hard to see why a mystical story written in a popular literary style should be such a threat to the church. The book is an allegory in which characters have conversations about love and theology. Marguerite ‘s surrender to Christ and her piety come through. Thankfully, seven hundred years later Christians can still read this poetical masterpiece.

Elizabeth of Spalbeek (1246-1304)

Elizabeth of SpalbeekDuring the Middle Ages dramatic performances were used to educate and to entertain. Miracle plays, morality plays, and stories from the Bible were very popular. One favorite was a re-enactment of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion.

Since women were forbidden to preach from a pulpit they looked for other ways to share the Gospel. Many turned to drama as the medium to share the story of Jesus. One of the most well-known was Elizabeth of Spalbeek.

Some of what is known about Elizabeth comes from a “vitae” (life story) written by one Philip of Clairvaux, an abbot at a Cistercian monastery. Philip wrote a report on Elizabeth’s reported miracles and her stigmata. Hers was the first documented case of a stigmata after Francis of Assisi. Though this phenomenon was and is still questionable, it was a part of Elizabeth’s story.

Elizabeth was born into a noble family in the village of Spalbeek in Belgium. She lived most of her life in a cell in a local chapel with a large window looking out to the altar. Her performances of the Passion of Christ became very popular. She attracted audiences from far and wide. Besides her gift of performing, Elizabeth was also known for her ability to discern people’s problems and give spiritual counsel.

The goal of Elizabeth’s teaching was the reform of the clergy. As mentioned before in other stories on tis blog site, the clergy had become lazy and indulgent. Elizabeth challenged her audience, especially the priests, to try and understand what Jesus suffered for them. She advocated for more gratitude in the priests’ preaching. Abbot Philip understood her. He said, “she teaches faith in the Passion; in her joy and cheerfulness after pain, she teaches faith in the Resurrection; … faith in the mission of the Holy Ghost… her desire for the salvation of all and … her sorrow over humanity’s ingratitude and loss of absolution.” The audience should be moved to “strength of faith and to love of charity and to practice of devotion!”

These three women, Hadewijch, Marguerite, and Elizabeth were Beguines and lived their lives in service to Christ and to those around them. They all strived to communicate Christ’s love, two by writing and one by performing plays. They all taught in the language of the people so many thousands were touched by their ministries.

These mystics lived during a time period that is very unfamiliar. I encourage readers to look up their stories and their writings to enrich their own knowledge of history. You will be blessed!

But a little warning – These women, especially Marguerite had “visions” and “dreams” that were questionable. I believe that we should take the good part from their lives of service as our example. Whether their visions were from God, their own imaginations, or the devil, I prefer to be cautious but considerate.




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Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:8-11)

Medieval Christian women spent their lives using their gifts in service to one another as commanded by Peter in this Scripture. They believed that following Christ meant sharing the Gospel and ministering to the poor as Jesus did. To help us understand why they served others in this way, let us look at what religion was like in the Middle Ages.

During the twelfth century the Church began to allow various religious movements to open up under their authority. We are very familiar with St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). Another popular order was the Benedictines under St. Benedict. These were called “mendicant” orders because they took vows of poverty. The men and women who joined the mendicant groups were not part of the hierarchical priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. These groups were separate and were recognized as legitimate religious orders by the pope as long as they did not depart from the Roman Catholic doctrines. They chose to serve in monasteries or other Christian communities rather than in a formal way in the church.

One of the main reasons that these mendicant groups were forming was because the Roman Catholic clergy during the Middle Ages were living a far too rich and decadent lifestyle. Many were involved in licentiousness and ignorance of the Word of God. They did not look anything like our Jesus Who was poor and “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The mendicants wanted to call the Church back to the Gospel and true holiness. They wanted to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Francis of Assisi turned away a wealthy inheritance and went to live among the poor. He took a vow of poverty. He also strove to reform the church. He and his followers spent their time caring for the poor and sick. He believed that he was following more faithfully in Jesus’ footsteps. A time-honored saying that is attributed to him goes, “Preach the Gospel always, and if you must, use words.” His message of reform spread all across Europe and the East. St. Francis is still honored today for his example of love and care to even the lowest, most forgotten people.

Many religious women, including the Beguines (see post July 27, 2016) were followers of Francis of Assisi. St. Clare founded the Poor Clares in the hope of renewing the Church and society while working among the poor. Two other women whose lives were influenced by Francis of Assisi were St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Blessed Angela of Foligno.

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253)

st. clareClare was a beautiful Italian woman born into nobility. Even as a young girl she was known for her piety and her kindness. A story is told that she used to hide the food from her plate so that she could later give it to the poor.

When she was sixteen years old, Clare heard Francis of Assisi preach. She had been promised in marriage to a wealthy man but she refused a life of ease. Instead she put on sackcloth and went out to care for the poor.

Other women began to follow Clare including her mother and sister. Francis of Assisi built a little cloister for them near the Church of St. Damian. In 1215 Clare founded the order of Poor Clares. They devoted themselves to prayer, penance and service. The Poor Clares also took vows of poverty and renounced property ownership.

Clare never left her cloister but did maintain her friendship with Francis of Assisi and many others. In spite of being bedridden for the last twenty-eight years of her life (probably due to severe fasting) her influence was great. She and the group of women serving with her were responsible for extending the reforms started by St. Francis to the church and to society.

The Poor Clares spread beyond Assisi to other towns in Italy, England, Poor ClaresFrance, Germany, and Bohemia. Today the Poor Clares number over 20,000 sisters in 70 countries.

Clare died on August 11, 1253 of natural causes. In 1255 Clare was canonized as St. Clare by Pope Alexander IV.

Elizabeth of Hungary (1207 – 1231)

Elizabeth of HungaryElizabeth of Hungary (also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia) is remembered as the “Patroness of the Poor”. Born into wealth and luxury, Elizabeth spent most of her life giving it all away. Her beloved husband Ludwig, a ruler of Hungary, even encouraged her to give away their money. Elizabeth cared for lepers, built hospitals, and visited prisoners. She prayed with them and even purchased freedom for some.

Ludwig died when Elizabeth was barely twenty years old, leaving her with three children. Her cruel in-laws tried to get rid of her and steal her inheritance. Her own family came to her rescue. When she received her dower money she immediately gave a quarter of it to the poor. Elizabeth built a Franciscan hospital in Marburg.

Elizabeth had promised Ludwig that there would never be another man for her. She renounced the world and went to live at a Franciscan house in Eisenach. Her oldest son, Hermann ruled in Ludwig’s place with help from his uncle as his regent. Her daughter Sophia married Henry II, Duke of Brabant. Sophia was the ancestress of many of the branches of the house of Hesse. Gertrude eventually became the abbess of the convent of Altenberg.

Elizabeth became the first tertiary in Germany. A tertiary is like a nun, but does not take all of the vows of submission. Elizabeth of course lived a life of chastity and obedience, but kept her great wealth to help the poor. She tried to fill the third vow of poverty by living like a poor person even though she was very wealthy. She stayed in a very small house and wore plain clothes. She never purchased any luxuries. She labored at spinning wool to earn extra income to give to the poor. It was said that no one would have ever known that she was a princess.

Elizabeth literally wore herself out working among the poor. She died of exhaustion in 1231. She was only twenty-four years old. She was buried in the chapel attached to the hospital that she had founded. Many lepers, blind, lame, and poor came to her funeral.

The hospital that Elizabeth built at Wartburg no longer exists, but the little fountain that was attached to it is still there. At this fountain Elizabeth was known to have washed the clothes of the poor with her own hands. It is still called “the Fountain of Elizabeth”.

Angela of Foligno (1248 – 1309)

We do not have very many details of Angela’s life outside of her writings. WeAngela of Foligno know that she was born to a prominent family in Foligno, a few miles from Assisi. Her father died when she was young. She was rich, proud, beautiful, and educated. She lived for worldly pleasures until her conversion in 1285 when she was thirty-seven years old.

Angela says in her writings that she was convicted of her sins and feared going to hell. She wept and prayed constantly. One day she confessed her sins to a Franciscan chaplain, Brother Arnaldo who would become her confessor and the writer of her revelations. Angela felt great relief at the promise of God’s forgiveness for her sins and began a new life of penance and contemplation. She gave away her fine clothes and vowed to live a life of poverty.

Tragically, Angela’s mother died and then her husband and soon after that all of her children. Angela mourned for her family, but decided to take the opportunity to live among the poor, following in the footsteps of Christ. In 1291 the Franciscans of San Francesco’s in Foligno permitted her to take the habit and make her profession in the Third Order of St. Francis.

After a pilgrimage to Assisi, Angela returned home to begin her spiritual journey. This was described in Angela’s book. The first part of the book is the Memorial, Angela’s inner spiritual journey. The second part of her book, Instructions, gives us glimpses of her life as a spiritual mother.

In 1307 Angela visited the Poor Clares at the monastery of Valle Gloria in Spello. We do not know many more details of her life, but the events surrounding her death are recorded in detail in the Instructions.

Her sickness began a few days before Christmas, 1308 and lasted until January 4, 1309. She gave her followers a final blessing and then slipped away peacefully into the arms of her Beloved Lord. Angela’s body was laid to rest in the church in San Francesco in Foligno. Many people came from Spello and the surrounding areas to revere her body. Angela was given the title of “Blessed’ by Clement XI on July 11, 1701.

The common characteristic in all of these women is their love for the poor. All of these women were born into wealth but gave it all away. They were all touched by the life of St. Francis and desired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as Francis did. Truly they obeyed Jesus’ when He said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)



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‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17,18)

Many single Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages served Christ in cloisters or other religious communities. Due to wars, crusades, or explorations to the New World there was a shortage of men. Devout women then turned to a life of service to the poor. During this summer I will tell the stories of some of these amazing women. If you are unfamiliar with Mysticism, you might enjoy the information in two posts on this blog site. I would recommend reading them first or coming back to them after you read some of the women’s biographies:

  1. July 6, 2016 – “Women Christian Mystics” – Though Medieval mystics were very different from twenty-first century Christians, we share the same goals – deeper spiritual life, closeness to God, and joyful service.
  2. July 20, 2016 – “Medieval Christian Women Mystics – Visions and Dreams” – This controversial topic was explored since so many religious men and women during the Middle Ages claimed to have supernatural dreams as part of their religious experience. There are differing opinions about the validity of supernatural dreams and visions. No matter what our view might be, it was part of Medieval Christianity and we should at least try to understand it.

Several weeks ago (July 16), we started this series of biographies of Medieval Christian women with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was one of the most influential women of the Medieval period. Composer, writer, artist, poet, prophet, theologian, healer, teacher, and monastery abbess, Hildegard is one of the most amazing women in church history. She was able to integrate her thinking about theology, music, and teaching in a way that gives us a holistic picture of life.

Because Hildegard has been taken so seriously by the Church we cannot just discount her visions. Her visions helped her to understand and appreciate God. Hildegard was very “low key” about her visions. Some of the other women we will look at placed a lot of importance on their visionary experiences. Many were clearly unscriptural. I think it will become apparent as you read the stories which visions may have been genuine and which were just “dreams” or “daydreams”.

That is why I took time out to write a post on visions. It gives us a place to start our thinking. The women whose stories I will present over the next few weeks will be more or less controversial depending on your opinion about dreams and visions.

In spite of the debatable experiences for these devout women, I hope that we can lay aside some of our squeamishness and learn something from their lives of service to Christ. These religious women truly loved the Lord and helped countless sick and poor people. I believe that I will get a chance to share stories with them in Heaven!

Elizabeth of Schonau (1129 –  1165)

After Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Schonau is our next earliest Christian mystic. img-Saint-Elizabeth-of-SchonauElizabeth was born into a very religious family, probably of the minor nobility around 1129 AD. Many other members of her family served in the Church – an uncle who was a bishop, two brothers and a nephew who were abbots or priors, and several female relatives at convents.

Elizabeth entered the Benedictine monastery at Schonau at around age 12. She took her vows at age 17. Eventually she would rise to the position of “magistra”. That is the head prioress at a combination monastery (men and women) which is ruled by an abbot. She was a zealous observer of the Rule of St. Benedict. She was known for her piety from her youth and her practice of “mortification”. During the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for religious people to do penance in the form of bodily suffering, mostly severe fasting.

In 1152 at age 23, Elizabeth began to have ecstasies and visions. This was one year after Hildegard of Bingen had published her book of visions, the Scivias. Hildegard’s work probably influenced Elizabeth. The two women exchanged letters of which we have about 15 surviving in which Elizabeth confided her visions to Hildegard. Elizabeth visited Hildegard at Rupertsberg in 1156.

Ekbert, Elizabeth’s brother joined the monastery as her secretary in 1155. Elizabeth had written down her visions on six wax tablets. Ekbert collected her visions, transcribed them into Latin and put them into six books. You can obtain a copy to read today.

At first Elizabeth was shy about relating her visions in public but, as she explained in a letter to Hildegard, an angel visited her and insisted that she reveal her visions. The angel told Elizabeth to preach about penance. This she did. Many people began to seek her out to hear her advice. She received affirmation from several important abbots at the time who confirmed that her wisdom helped them to lead a more devout life.

Elizabeth’s visions are subject to much controversy. Many of them seem genuinely concerned with repentance and piety. Other visions are full of fantastic exaggerations and things that are quite frankly not Biblical.

The Church has declined to pass official judgment on Elizabeth’s visions. She has never been canonized, however in 1584 her name was entered in the Roman Martyrology.

Elizabeth died around 1165. Her brother Ekbert became the abbot of Schonau in 1167.

What can we learn from Elizabeth? She lived during a time when emphasis was on penance and good works. Though we may have a different theology, there is no question of her love for the Lord and for the poor that she served.

Mary of Oignies (1177-1213)

Marie D’Oignies has been held in very regard by the Church and she is honored as the first Beguine. The Beguines (See post 7/27/16) were laywomen, not nuns, who lived independentlysaint_mary_of_oignies but practiced many of the same things as nuns – works of piety and charity.

Marie was born to wealthy parents in 1177 AD. She was pious at an early age, praying and fasting often. At age 14 Marie married Jean de Nivelles, the son of another wealthy family.

John and Marie moved to a religious community where they spent their time feeding and bathing lepers, and caring for other sick and destitute people. Marie studied, prayed, and gave children religious instruction. She became known as a “saint” with a reputation for efficacious prayer. People came from far and wide to meet her and speak with her. John and Marie lived as “brother and sister”. This was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages for couples who thought that refraining from marital relations was a more pious way of life.

Marie had many visions that she believed were from God. Her visions were focused on Christ and the cross. Marie, like some other Christian mystics had the “gift of tears”.  She would be emotionally overcome by sorrow at the thought of Christ’s suffering and dying for sins. At these times she felt compelled to preach penance to the community.

Some of Marie’s visions were about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Marie valued a gift of the Spirit called the Spirit of Wisdom because it enabled her to understand God more.

Marie continued to teach and serve among the poor until 1213. Like so many other religious during the Middle Ages, she had practiced severe fasting. She was terribly emaciated by the time she was thirty-six years old.

When it was evident that Marie was dying her companions moved her outdoors to fresh air. The theologian, Jacques de Vitry was a devoted follower of hers. While she was dying he recorded her deathbed sermon. This was commonly only done for prominent men. It was her life story. It was Jacques’ way of honoring Marie to compose a book for her, “Life of Marie d’Oignies”. In it he argued for the support of the Beguines. During his travels he had met many Beguines and regarded their way of life as the ideal example of the holy Christian life. He wanted others to be encouraged to follow their example of piety and charity.

Marie d’Oignies died in 1213. After her death many followers, friends, students, and other admirers spread the story of her holy life and teachings all over Europe. Even Francis of Assisi was one of her followers. He had reportedly hoped to travel across the Alps and meet this woman that he greatly admired, but was unable to fulfill this desire.

The story of Marie’s life, spread by word of mouth and Jacques de Vitry’s book inspired many other women to become Beguines. One generation later, in the town of Nivelles there were two thousand Beguines. Marie is still loved and honored.

Though some of the activities of the Christian women mystics seem strange to us today, we can learn from their examples of love for God and others. We must decide whether or not their visions were from God or an overactive imagination. Yet, we can certainly relate to the fact that a true life of faith involves both words and actions. Prayer, worship, giving, study of God’s Word, fellowship, and acts of charity are the elements of a godly Christian life in any century.




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