Posts Tagged ‘Christian women mystics’

(Chapter 1) Treats of the beauty and dignity of our souls; makes a comparison by the help of which this may be understood; describes the benefit which comes from understanding it and being aware of the favours which we receive from God; and shows how the door of this castle is prayer.*

teresaofavilamirrorTeresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain to mother Beatriz, a member of the nobility, and Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda who was a successful merchant. Don Alonso had two children from a previous marriage. He and Beatriz had ten more children. The children were all highly educated; Beatriz loved to read and Don Alonso had an extensive library that included many classics as well as theological books. Teresa took advantage of this library and became very learned.  In November, 1528, when Teresa was thirteen, her mother died.

By the late fifteenth century the Spanish Inquisition had started. Ferdinand and Isabella (the king and queen who later gave Christopher Columbus his ships) were trying to unite Spain on ethnic and religious purity of blood. Teresa’s paternal grandfather, Juan Sanchez, was a Jew who had been forced to convert to Christianity. In 1485 he was accused of backsliding and was forced to endure humiliating punishment. In order to get away from this conflict Teresa’s family moved to Avila. There they were very financially successful.

Teresa was a vivacious and precocious child. When she was seven years old she and her brother ran away to try to convert Muslims. This was quite dangerous but fortunately a relative saw them and returned them home. During her teen years she gave up her piety and turned to frivolity. She engaged in such flirtatious behavior that her father sent her to an Augustinian convent for eighteen months. When she became ill in 1532 she returned home to recover. Afterwards she decided to enter the Carmelite house of the Encarnation, taking the veil in 1536.

This convent was very popular with the daughters of the wealthy. Teresa was able to live there with family members and friends and servants. She lived in some of the best quarters and ate good food. She was free to come and go. She could return home to visit family or recuperate from illness. This is not our usual picture of convents with their solitude, silence and prayer. Later Teresa would question the laxness of her convent and become desirous of reform for Encarnation.

After another serious illness in 1538, Teresa’s spiritual life deepened. She spent her time reading spiritual books while convalescing at the uncle’s home. She began to take her relationship with God seriously. She thought of God now in terms of friendship and love. She would later say that the presence of God within the human person was as a taste of heaven on earth.

She returned to the convent but then experienced such a serious illness that she was in a coma. Everyone thought she was dying. She recovered gradually, living with partial paralysis for three years. Again Teresa used her time to grow deeper in her relationship with God. She then went home to nurse her father until his death in 1543.

For the next ten years Teresa experienced tremendous spiritual growth. She st-teresa-prayerbegan to have mystic visions. She tried to be cautious about telling others; some people assumed that all visions were demonic. But Teresa’s visions led her to do something about reforming the Encarnation. She desired to turn the convent into a place of piety, prayer, and community. Teresa’s visions also led to love for the poor and a willingness to serve others in Christian service.

Teresa’s first reformed convent, St. Joseph’s, opened up in 1562. The same year Teresa started writing “The Book of Her Life”. She also completed a Constitution to be used by the reformed convents.

Another problem that Teresa had to surmount was the fact that she was a woman. The Jesuit men confiscated her book during the Inquisition and held onto it until after her death, where it eventually found its way into the library of Philip II. Many people who loved her made copies and circulated them.

Like Catherine of Siena for Italy, Bridgett of Sweden, and Julian of Norwich, Teresa was an innovator for Spain. She was one of the first to write modern Spanish literature. She was a creative theologian; beatified by Pope Paul V in 1614; canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622; and made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970, the first woman to be given that honor in the Roman Catholic Church.

Teresa’s works include: “The Book of Her Life”; “Spiritual Testimonies and Soliloquies”; “Constitutions and On Making the Visitation”; “The Way of Perfection”; “The Interior Castle”; “Meditations on the Song of Songs”; and ”The Book of Her Foundations”.

Teresa wrote “The Interior Castle” in 1577. This book is well regarded by Protestants and Catholics alike as one of the most celebrated books on mystical theology in existence. It is considered to be Teresa’s most mature work and expresses the depth of her experience in guiding souls to a deeper relationship with God through prayer.

Besides the mystical content, Teresa writes an abundance of good advice on how to live as a human being in relation to God and others. She encourages the spiritual traits of self-examination, humility, progress in virtue, and grace. She aspired to evermore closeness to the Father and Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit, and longs for her sisters to know the same joy.

The central motif of “The Interior Castle” is that of a “castle made of a single diamond … in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.”

The door by which one enters the castle is prayer and meditation. Once inside, the seeker is called to cultivate self-knowledge and humility before entering the rooms. It is the only way to spiritual progress. Pride will keep the soul from experiencing deeper fellowship with God.

The first set of mansions begins with a meditation on the excellence and dignity of the human soul, because it is made in the image and likeness of God. The souls are encouraged to spend as long as needed here in the Mansions of Humility.

In the second set of mansions, the soul matures as it seeks every opportunity to grow spiritually. Sermons, edifying conversation and good company are resources for maturing. Much time should be spent in the Mansion of Prayer.

In the third set of mansions, the Mansions of Exemplary Life, the soul learns to trust more in God and not to lean on their own strength and the virtues they have already acquired. Discipline, penance and charitable works are enjoined on the seekers.

In the fourth set of mansions, the soul learns to make God’s part increase more and more in their lives. Their soul is like a fountain built near a source of water. God gives the water of life.

In the fifth set of mansions the soul is able to reach a new level of prayer and contemplation. In the sixth set of mansions, a deep intimacy with the Lord is developed. In the seventh mansion, the soul reaches the “Spiritual Marriage” with the King. There is complete transformation and perfect peace. No higher state is conceivable until one reaches Heaven.

Teresa invited her sisters to enter the Interior Castle to move toward a life of prayer and contemplation, love and closeness to the Savior. Today we are invited to be in awe of the truth that God can make His presence real to us. We are in this castle together and as we become transformed by a life of prayer and love for God it should lead to works of charity and social action.

“May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.”         (Teresa of Avila)

*St. Teresa of Avila applied the figure of a castle to the life of prayer, which is also the life of virtue. She illustrates this in her “Interior Castle” (Written in 1577). This quote is the heading to chapter 1, “First Mansions”.





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That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10,11)

st-julian-of-norwich-churchJulian of Norwich (1342-1416) is the fourth in our series on 14th Century Christian Women Mystics. We do not know much about Julian’s early life. In fact, we are not even sure of her name. She is called Julian because she was attached to St. Julian’s Church. Our knowledge of her comes mainly through her writings. It’s possible that she was born to a wealthy family near Norwich. She may have received her education from the Benedictine nuns in the area. Her writings reflect a knowledge of theology, rhetoric, Latin, and the Classics.

Since there were plague epidemics in the 14th century, Julian may have lost her family in the plagues and/or become a widow. As a young woman, Julian became an anchorite (sometimes called anchoress) at St. Julian’s church. When she was 30 years old she experienced a series of visions that she wrote down in a book called, Revelations of Divine Love.

We can deduce more about how Julian lived her life from a study of religious life during the Middle Ages, especially that of those who devoted their lives to God. While there may have been fewer women than men who dedicated themselves to God during the Medieval Age, they were not less influential.

The women lived in two kinds of communities – as part of a convent (nuns) or in a private community (anchorites). Some women lived alone in hermitages. There were over 130 communities in the 14th and 15th centuries in England with over half of them having fewer than 10 members.

There were seven to eight hundred anchorites in England. These women lived in a room attached to a church. The room was not more than 12 x 12 and contained sparse furniture. There were often only two or three small windows and a door. One window was in the wall that was shared with the church. This way the anchorite could participate in religious services and receive communion. There was at least one window through which she could communicate with the outside and receive sustenance. The door was usually closed and locked after the priest said a prayer of dedication for the woman’s life of contemplation. Many anchorites remained in that room for the rest of their lives.

No matter which type of community the women lived in, convent, anchorhold, or hermitage, they were chiefly characterized by their desire to be alone with God. Yet, even the women who lived alone had an impact on the neighboring community because they began to be known for their piety and love. They not only spent time in contemplation but served others who came to visit them through prayer, counseling, reconciling, settling political conflicts, and teaching. Like Julian, Catherine, Birgitta, and Margery the anchorites were asked to share their spiritual insights and wisdom orally and in writing.

Many of the Medieval church men spent their time in scholarly works. Their disputations are largely forgotten today, read only by a few students in seminaries. But the works of the Medieval female mystics continue to be transcribed, translated, and published in many languages throughout the world. Many of their works are considered masterpieces.

Julian has the honor of being the first published author in all of English literature.st-julian-statue She follows Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, blog post 10-20-16). Catherine was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Birgitta of Sweden (1303 -1373, blog post 9-12-16) is also an acclaimed author of many books. Margery Kempe (1373-1440, blog post 10-10-16) is the earliest known English autobiographer. All of these women were influential in their day.

What all of these women had in common was a spiritual experience that led to a strong devotional life. Their contemplations had strong theological and practical outcomes. They all had “revelations” or “dreams” or “visions” which did not add to official doctrine, but worked alongside the teachings of the church or the Bible to explain to the people in lay terms how to live a life of prayer and service. Because these teachers were women they were able to fill an emotional void left by the dry teaching of the men. They were able to help the everyday person approach God.

Julian became famous for her mystical visions. A mystical experience is a very real experience. We have all had spiritual experiences that we know are real, but cannot prove. We have all felt the special nearness of God during stressful times. Many of us have heard “that still small voice” on occasion during life-changing situations. We cannot discount the work of the Holy Spirit. The result of a genuine experience is peace.

(For more insight into mysticism see my post on July 20, 2016. There you will find examples from the Bible and history, and guidelines on how to judge whether or not a dream or vision is genuine.)

While at the anchorage Julian became deathly ill. When she was receiving the last rites an amazing thing happened – she received fifteen “showings” or revelations. She saw Jesus in heaven. She was also comforted with the words of Jesus, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” At this time Julian received compassion, joy, a sense of the awfulness of sin, and the comfort of the grace of God. The following night she received her sixteenth and vision.

Julian’s sixteen visions were written down in a book, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English written by a woman. Julian referred to her book as “Showings”.  In it she talks about God the Father, Jesus Christ’s love for the world and the Holy Spirit.

An example of her writing is in the following passage that explains how Jesus Christ the Son of God became a man like us in order to save us.

For the same virtues which we have received from our substance, given to us in nature by the goodness of God, the same virtues by the operation of mercy are given to us in grace, renewed through the Holy Spirit; and these virtues and gifts are treasured for us in Jesus Christ…. In this union he was perfect man, for Christ, having joined in himself every man who will be saved, is perfect man. (p. 292)

Though Julian lived in an anchorhold her influence spread far and wide. Even Margery Kempe sought Julian out for her blessing. People were able to visit Julian and talk to her through her window receiving counsel and wisdom. All of the time the Julian had alone allowed her to write her book. She wrote a shorter version at first. Then after years of prayer and contemplation she wrote a longer version including the many teachings that God had given her.

Julian lived for thirty-three years after her recovery from her illness. She often wrestled with the meaning of her visions. She wrote her “Showings” in an attempt to share God’s message to her with her fellow Christians. Her writings show the depth and breadth of God’s love and are still powerful and gripping reading today. On the last page of her writing is this prayer:

Thanks be to God. Here ends the book of Julian the anchorite of Norwich, on whose soul may God have mercy. May Jesus grant us this. Amen. So ends the revelation of love of the Blessed Trinity, shown by our savior Jesus Christ for our endless comfort and solace, and also that we may rejoice in him in the passing journey of this life. Amen. Jesus. Amen. (p. 343)


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catherine_of_sienaCatherine of Siena (1347-1380), fourteenth century Christian mystic and writer, lived during a time of decline in the world. There were plagues, economic disasters, and political corruption. The Church was in turmoil. There were two popes in Catherine’s time, one in Avignon and one in Rome. Catherine was called by God to mediate conflicts in the Church and Society. Catherine became an advisor to political leaders and popes.

Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. She was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Her writings are still published and read by many in many languages. How did this come about?

Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, the twenty-fourth child of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Giacomo was a prosperous dyer and they had a very large home. At age six, Catherine had a remarkable experience. On the way home from visiting a sister she had a vision of heaven. At age seven she took a vow to devote her life to Christ. She refused all of her mother’s marriage plans for her and devoted her life to solitude and prayer. At age sixteen she joined the third order of the Dominican laywomen called the Mantellate. These women went throughout the streets in their familiar black and white robes serving the poor. They also maintained a highly contemplative life.

About this time the dreaded Black Plague had been killing thousands of people. Catherine fearlessly nursed the sickest people. While administering to the needs of her patients she also gave them spiritual advice. Her personal charm and down home wisdom won many friends for her.

Her piety convinced many that she was truly a woman of God to follow. Of course, this made enemies for her too. Some thought of her as just a fanatic. Later, when she had some influence among the church leaders she would be accused of just being a political manipulator. And many did not understand her mysticism.

But Catherine had the ability to discern the state of a soul and she witnessed to manycatherine-of-siena-body lost people and won many to Christ. People began to flock to her for advice. Word of her wisdom got to Avignon and the cardinals invited her to come and speak to them. Actually they were hoping to use her as an envoy to Rome to convince the people there to renounce the pope in Rome and to follow the pope in Avignon. But Catherine believed that the papacy belonged in Rome and worked to that end for the rest of her short life. She literally wore herself out and died at age 33 in Rome. (There are more details about this in my first post on Catherine of Siena, November 20, 2012.)

In this post let us look at another aspect of her life – her mysticism and her writing. Catherine led a very active life – full of travels, counseling, and writing. She kept several scribes busy writing letters and several longer works. One work is the “Dialogue”. This was a theological work written in 1377-1378 as a conversation between the “Eternal Father” (God the Father) and a “human soul” (Catherine). Using this method of dialogue, Catherine gives us her theology. The “Eternal Father” exhorts the soul to prayer, works of charity, virtue, and obedience. In the following passage Catherine explains our need for an atoning Savior:

Wherefore I have told you that I have made a Bridge of My Word, of My only-begotten Son, and this is the truth. I wish that you, My children, should know that the road was broken by the sin and disobedience of Adam, in such a way, that no one could arrive at Eternal Life. Wherefore men did not render Me glory in the way in which they ought to have, as they did not participate in that Good for which I had created them, and My truth was not fulfilled. This truth is that I have created man to My own image and similitude, in order that he might have Eternal Life, and might partake of Me, and taste My supreme and eternal sweetness and goodness. But, after sin had closed Heaven and bolted the doors of mercy, the soul of man produced thorns and prickly brambles, and My creature found in himself rebellion against himself.

And the flesh immediately began to war against the Spirit, and, losing the state of inno- cence, became a foul animal, and all created things rebelled against man, whereas they would have been obedient to him, had he remained in the state in which I had placed him. He, not remaining therein, transgressed My obedience, and merited eternal death in soul and body. And, as soon as he had sinned, a tempestuous flood arose, which ever buffets him with its waves, bringing him weariness and trouble from himself, the devil, and the world. Every one was drowned in the flood, because no one, with his own justice alone, could arrive at Eternal Life. And so, wishing to remedy your great evils, I have given you the Bridge of My Son, in order that, passing across the flood, you may not be drowned, which flood is the tempestuous sea of this dark life. See, therefore, under what obligations the creature is to Me, and how ignorant he is, not to take the remedy which I have offered, but to be willing to drown.

The “I” in the dialogue is God the Father explaining why man cannot reach Him without His provision. The provision is a “bridge” – the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul can only come back to God through Christ. It is interesting that Catherine also shows how sinful, ignorant men choose to go their own way and refuse God’s merciful provision. Only the humble soul will turn to God and accept God’s way for salvation.

There are many other theological themes covered – the Trinity, Humanity, Self-Knowledge, and Humility to name a few. Catherine’s use of imagery, metaphor, and everyday scenes from life make her works easy to read. We can appreciate her writing all the more when we realize that she suffered slander, ridicule, and violence throughout her life. She was often weak from fasting, yet she persevered. She did not teach her followers anything that she was not ready to live up to herself.

Catherine’s theology is still relevant today. She identified with Christ and this gave her the courage to persevere in her calling. Her theology is grounded in her denial of her self and total willingness to give God the glory for everything. We admire her for her courage, strong-willed determination, and obedience to God no matter what. Catherine calls us to lives of humility, grace, holiness, love and discipleship.



















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