Posts Tagged ‘Women Christian Mystics’

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.

For some women during the Medieval Age this included a mystical experience. Scholars agree that both the definition and the description of mysticism are difficult to explain. It is not magic or paranormal experience. It does not consist of a preoccupation with special revelations or visions. Religious mystics simply want to be closer to Christ and to experience Him in more than just an intellectual way.

The following four books are just a few of the books that give a general picture of some of the Mystical Saints of the Thirteenth Century. Try to place yourself in their century and imagine what it would have been like to be a Christian living during the time of the Crusades, the Black Plague and a very corrupt Church. Their lives were very different from ours.

I hope you enjoy these books. These women have pretty much been forgotten. It will be fun to meet and talk with them in Heaven!

(Reviews of Medieval mystics from later centuries will follow every few weeks.)


—  Perrin, David B., Editor, Women Christian Mystics Speak to Our Times, (Sheed & Ward, Franklin, Wisconsin, 2001).

This book is a collection of essays on Women Christian Mystics written byPerrin Book - Mystics various authors who are experts in the history of women and religion.

Part One helps us understand the lives of women in the Medieval Age. There is a very good explanation of mysticism and how it fits into the religion of women in the Middle Ages. Though they lived in a different time, we share the same concerns about following God, life, and our love for the Savior.

Part Two contains brief biographies of Catherine of Siena, Marie D’Oignies, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Therese of Lisieux, and Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The essays help us to understand the contributions the women saints of the Middle Ages made to the church. We have much to learn from them. Many of the issues they dealt with are still relevant today. We all need to know how to serve God best. Our practices today may be different, but our call to serve by loving God and others is the same.


—  Swan Laura., The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement,  (BlueBridge, Katonah, New York, 2014).

wisdom of the beguines bookThis was one of the most interesting books I have ever read. The Beguines were groups of devout women who began forming over 800 years ago (12th Century) in the Low Countries and spread across Europe. They were not nuns but groups of women committed to living and worshipping and working together to follow Christ by deepening their own faith and serving the poor. 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.

Beguines came from every social class – nobility and aristocrats, middle class and merchants, widows, daughters of knights, urban poor and rural poor. They spanned all ages, fourteen to eighties or beyond. They were self-supporting and independent.

If I wanted to devote my life to Christ by joining a service group of women, this would have been my ideal.

The Beguines left us a great legacy. We have preserved for us beautiful art work, songs, poetry, and writing. Most of all the Beguines gave us an example of serving Christ by helping the poor and marginalized. They showed wisdom, courage, and strength as they worshiped God as they felt called. They would have been great in any century!


—  Dreyer, Elizabeth A., Accidental Theologians: Four Women Who Shaped Christianity, (Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2014).

Not all of us are called to be “theologians”, yet as Christians we all doaccidental theologians book theology. Theology is just the study of God. We learn about God every time we read our Bibles. When we try to make sense of it or summarize it, we are doing theology.

Four women have been made “Doctors of the Church” by the Roman Catholic Church because they made significant contributions to the church. They are – Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux. The church has finally recognized these women for their work by given them the accreditation they deserve.

As Protestants we may have some differences of opinion regarding ecclesiology, but let us remember that these women were products of their cultures and circumstances. In the main, we can still learn much from them. I would submit though that even Protestants can appreciate the theology of these saintly women. The women based the greater part of their theology on the Scriptures.

One of the most important things is that they lived out their beliefs. They are good examples to us of how to love and serve Jesus by loving and serving others.

As I read this book I was glad that the church has finally decided to give credit where it is due, not matter the gender, and I hope more recognition of women will follow in the years to come.


—  Foligno, Angela., The Complete Works of Angela of Foligno, (Paulist Press, New York, New York, 1993).

angela-of-folignoWe do not have very many details of Angela’s life outside of her writings. We 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 decided to only work among the poor and she sought out a way to do that. 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.

This book published by the Paulist Press was translated into English by Paul LaChance, O.F.M. It contains a background study and brief biography of Angela in the fifty-page Introduction. The text follows of the two parts of the book and is very interesting to read.

Angela cared for the poor until her death in 1309.

Like many other Christian Mystics in her day she shared the common characteristic of love for the poor. Most 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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pentecost“And it shall be in the last days,” God says, “that I will pour forth My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  (Acts 2:17)

On this blog site I have covered women in church history throughout the ages. There are stories of women from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the early centuries, the Reformation, the great missionary age and more. I have not written many stories of women who lived during the Middle Ages. Even for the ones I have written about (such as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and Birgitta of Sweden), I have only touched on certain aspects of their lives. I emphasized their charitable works and their piety; I left out much about the mystical aspects of their lives including their dreams, visions, and ecstatic experiences.

The subject of dreams, visions, and other ecstatic experiences has been troublesome to me as I suppose it is for many other Christians. This summer I have decided to write the stories of Medieval women saints. Hildegard, Catherine, and Birgitta and many other godly women served Christ in amazing ways. They left their marks on church history. They deserve to have their stories told in spite of what may be considered their controversial experiences.

So, let’s deal with the subject of dreams and visions. They are real experiences. What do we make of them? Where do they come from? Are there still supernatural dreams and visions today?

Dreams, visions, and ecstatic experiences come from three places: God, ourselves, or the devil.

In the Bible we see the stories of many people who had dreams or visions. God gave these experiences to people to teach them something, save them from harm, or to provide a prophecy for them to give to His people. Some examples are:

  1. Jacob’s Ladder – This dream was very important because God was confirming His promise of the land that He would give to Abraham and his descendants. (Genesis 28:10-22)
  2. Joseph’s Interpretation of Pharaoh’s Dream – God gave Pharaoh this dream (Genesis 41:28) so that preparations could be made to save lives. Because he interpreted the dream, Joseph became the number two man in Egypt.
  3. Many prophets such as Daniel had dreams. Daniel’s interpretation of the king’s dream made him the number two man in Babylon, an experience similar to Joseph’s.
  4. Angels appeared to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph (3 times), the women at the tomb, and Philip in the New Testament.
  5. Peter had a dream while at Cornelius’ house. He was shown in no uncertain terms that the Gentiles were to be included in the family of God.
  6. Christ appeared to Saul on his way to Damascus. An angel appeared to Paul while he was in prison.
  7. Stephen was arrested by the Jewish leaders for teaching about the Way. They did not like what they heard and condemned him to death by stoning. As he was nearing death, God gave Stephen a vision of the “Son of Man” at the right hand of God in heaven. (Acts 7:56).john on patmos
  8. John had a vision while on the island of Patmos. While imprisoned there he wrote down the visions that he received from Jesus concerning the things “which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John” (Revelation 1:1, 9, 10).

The general principles that we can discern about dreams from God in the Scriptures are:

  1. God gave these dreams and visions at important times.
  2. God also gave the interpretation of the dreams.
  3. The dreams often confirmed promises that God had made.
  4. The dreams were often sent to protect His children.
  5. The dreams were sent to give instructions. The dreams center on God, Christ or important acts of God. Dreams such as John’s were prophetic.

The dreams in the Bible were supernatural experiences given by God. We take them by faith and learn from them.

The question now is: Did supernatural dreams cease with the end of the Apostolic Age? Does God still speak to people through dreams and visions?

As mentioned above, there are three sources of dreams or visions: God, ourselves, or Satan. We agree that the dreams in the Bible were given by God. What about today?

Many Christians believe that the supernatural experiences, such as healing, tongues, and prophecy ceased at the end of the Apostolic Age. Visions and ecstatic experiences would all fit in this category. So it will not come as a surprise that many would say that the visions experienced by Hildegard, Catherine, and Birgitta were either from themselves or from the devil.

There are many good books on dreams. For our purposes in this writing, let us just say that some dreams are the result of what we have been thinking about or experiencing. In the context of mysticism, we could say that the saints were meditating on Scripture or Bible stories or other spiritual topics so much that they dreamed about them when they slept. This would be a purely natural explanation. Those who say that God no longer gives supernatural dreams would be comfortable with the explanation that dreams come from ourselves.

When it comes to visions, many believe that any supernatural vision comes from Satan. As a child I was told a popular story about Martin Luther. (I don’t know if it was true or not, but it illustrates the point.) Apparently Luther had a vision of Christ and was reported as saying, “Get thee behind me Satan!” In other words, the Reformers believed that the visions of Jesus or Mary that many Roman Catholics were receiving were from Satan. They did not believe that God spoke to people in this way. They believed that we must turn to the Scriptures alone for knowledge of God.

So we are back to the question – what are we to think of the visions and dreams experienced by the women mystics during the Middle Ages?

Before we make a judgment, here are some things to consider:

  1. Not everyone during the Middle Ages had a Bible to read. For many centuries the Scriptures were inaccessible to most people.
  2. During the Middle Ages piety was seen more as something you do, not just what you believe. Emphasis was placed on good works as proof of your faith (James 2:24-26).
  3. Women during the Middle Ages were not allowed to attend seminary or to become teachers of the Scriptures. It was thought that women were too stupid or sinful to understand the Bible. Many women sought spiritual experiences as a fulfillment of their desire to grow closer to God. The church tolerated mysticism during the Medieval Age.
  4. During the Middle Ages dreams and visions were more a part of the everyday practice of religion than today.
  5. In fact, there were women such as Hildegard of Bingen who lived such a pious life, full of wisdom and good works, that when they had a dream or vision it was given credibility by the people.
  6. No matter how strange it may seem to twentieth century western materialistic Christians, do the dreams fit the principles stated above? Do they confirm the Word of God? Do they result in godly characteristics or actions?

Even during the Middle Ages people had differing opinions about dreams and visions. Contemporary attitudes toward Margery Kempe (1373-1438) are a good example. Margery had many followers who believed every word she said. There were also skeptics who felt that she was just a fake. Some went so far as to say that she had a demon. We see that there has always been a question about dreams and people were trying to discern the legitimate ones from the false ones.

If God gives dreams and visions at various times in history, then we would expect to see Him doing that today. In fact, I believe that we do see this.

DreamsAndVisionsIn his book, “Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World?”, Tom Doyle recounts the testimonies of Muslims who were introduced to the Christian faith through a vision or dream about Jesus which he calls “visitations”. I have no doubt that these experiences are real since the Muslim converts risk their lives by converting to Christianity. No one would act on a dream to that extent unless it was real.

Rev. Doyle gives us some guidelines on how to recognize legitimate dreams/visitations from Jesus that I believe can help us as we consider the dreams of the Medieval Mystics.

  1. Is there anything in the dream that goes against Scripture? Is a true picture of Jesus given in the dream? If not, then the dream is false. We must be careful because Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14).
  2. Is the person consistent about the specifics of the dream even for a long time afterward? Naturally occurring dreams are easily forgotten: details from supernatural dreams stay with a person.
  3. Is there a purpose to this dream or is it just a stand-alone event? Does the dream move the person to seek to know more about God?
  4. Does this dream draw the person closer to God? In the case of the Muslims, the dreams result in real repentance and committing their lives to Christ. For the Medieval Mystic, does the dream result in more piety or fruit in her life?
  5. For the Muslims, the dream brings definition to their lives. It is part of them and cannot be shaken off. It becomes a part of their testimony. For the mystic in the Middle Ages, does the dream become part of her testimony of God’s greatness and glory?

In the coming weeks we will have the opportunity to look at the dreams and visions of the women Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. Let us keep open minds and consider the times in which they lived. Are their dreams consistent with the principles that we drew from the Scriptures? As we look at these women’s lives, let us not just write them off as frauds or fools. Let us see what we can learn from them.




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third heavenBoasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man in not permitted to speak. (2 Corinthians 12:1-4)

This passage of Scripture is a key verse for Christians mystics. Christian mystics seek a closer experience of union with God. For mystics this is a very real, non-abstract experience just as the “man in Christ” experienced.

Scholars agree that both the definition and the description of mysticism are difficult to explain. It is not magic or paranormal experience. It does not consist of a preoccupation with special revelations or visions. Religious mystics simply want to be closer to Christ and to experience Him in more than just an intellectual way.

There are still mystics today but mysticism was especially popular in the Middle Ages. Why did so many late Medieval women turn to mysticism? It was mostly because of changes that occurred in the Church right after the turn of the new Millennium. (1000 AD) Monasteries for men and women had been popular in the early Middle Ages. Women were able to study the Scriptures and participate in the intellectual environment the same as men. In their cloisters they preached to other women and even served communion at their services.

But in the twelfth century as the Roman Catholic Church began to change, women were denied these opportunities. The organization of the church became very hierarchical and took on a superstructure of male-only leadership. Also important is the fact that a clergy/laity split occurred. Only ordained male priests could do communion. Only they could change the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. (Doctrine of Transubstantiation)

The Roman Catholics put a lot of emphasis on the sacraments. Penance became a necessary sacrament; without it believers could not take communion. Again, only male priests could offer forgiveness in the confessional and give the people their “penance” for their sins. Penance was seen as a way to pay for your sins. Later, Martin Luther and the Protestants would object and stress that Christ’s atoning sacrifice paid for all sins. But during the Middle Ages (and even to today) the sacrament of Penance is required for Roman Catholics.

Since the clergy would not include women, women were no longer allowed to attend universities. Any intellectual studies for women would have to be done on their own. Women turned to other ways to express their piety since they could not participate in leadership positions or dispense the necessary sacraments of Communion and Penance. They developed new ways to express their spirituality. Mysticism became popular and although there were male mystics, many female mystics took on prominence.

It was during this time that the mendicant (begging) religious orders came intoMysticism - Catherine of Siena being. This was the time of Francis of Assisi and the Poor Clares (Founded by Clare Scefi, a follower of Francis of Assisi). The cult of the Virgin Mary began. There was trouble with the papacy. In the late fourteenth century there were two popes – one in Rome and one in Avignon. One mystic in particular, Catherine of Siena, had a part to play in the politics of the papacy.

There was a new emphasis on the humanity of Christ. The religious who wanted to be closer to Christ attempted to participate in His sufferings. With an emphasis on Penance as a way to pay for your sins, extreme fasting and self-flagellation became popular. We should not be surprised then to find that some women mystics expressed their piety in these forms.

The lives of these women will look very strange and sometimes repulsive to twenty-first century Christians. In the Middle Ages especially, self-sacrificing to the point of harming one’s own health was popular. It would be easy for us to judge these women and say that so much self-induced suffering brought on for the purpose of pleasing God was wrong. But we would be forgetting the times they lived in.

We must also take a good look at why we would criticize them. Our society is very indulgent. If these women could have foreseen our century they would be criticizing us! We would look very worldly to them. We should not castigate them without trying to understand the times in which they lived.

Though it is hard to pin down a good definition of mysticism, we can say that it was the attempt to combine thoughts and feelings with the goal of a closer union with God. Many of the thoughts were visions or dreams or contemplations that were often very hard to describe. Feelings were intense – some of sorrow or penitence – but mostly of joyful communion of oneness with God. This was what it was about for mystics; they were looking for religious experience. They wanted to go beyond dogma and actually “experience” God. This may seem strange to us today. We tend to emphasize intellectual knowledge over feelings.

386px-Julian_of_NorwichWhile many mystics certainly swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme of feelings over theology or dogma, most mystics wanted a balanced combination of the two. And above all, we should remember that they loved Jesus Christ, were grateful for their salvation, and wanted to show their gratitude in works of mercy.

It should also be remembered that a very important part of the mystical way was community living. Medieval mystics were not usually living entirely on their own following an individual path. Most were in some type of cloister sharing social obligations and relationships. Most were involved in charitable activities such as feeding the poor or caring for the sick.

In the late fourteenth through early fifteenth centuries many mystics were caring for the dying during the Black Plague. They saw suffering and death all around them as more than 40% of the population succumbed to the black death. Mystics dealt with the harder questions in life – Where is God in all of this? They did not lose their faith, but sought even harder to grow closer to the God Who is sovereign in life and death.

This seems very different to us today, but we can learn much from the women mystics. Some were poor; some were wealthy. Some were cloistered; some were lay persons. They came from many countries in Europe. It is true that some mystics went their own way and did things that even their contemporaries found objectionable. It is unfortunate that when the subject of mysticism comes up we mostly think of the extreme examples.

In the following weeks we will look at the experiences and writings of some Christian mystic women from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries. In examining their lives and teachings we will try to learn what they can teach us that is relevant for today.



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