The young man speaks: ‘Young lady, you have done very well in this dance of praise. You shall have your way with the Son of the virgin, for you are delightfully weary. Come at noontime to the shade of the spring, into the bed of love. There in the coolness you shall refresh yourself with him.’
—Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead
I was twenty-five years old before I finally realized my birth in 1964 had been the result of an unplanned pregnancy. If I’d been more observant, I probably could have figured it out earlier My childhood home was a haunted house of shame and secrets, especially around the topic of sex. When I began asking questions, my parents handed me a book—a book—called The Parents’ Answer Book.
Anything I asked about family history, sex, or relatives I didn’t know was met with responses ranging from awkward reticence to shouting that it was ‘none of your business.’ My parents never celebrated their wedding anniversary, and when I came home from graduate school to find a silver candelabrum on the dining room table and asked where it had come from, they told me in an elaborately offhand way that their friends had given it to them as a silver wedding anniversary present. For the first time in my life, I counted the months from October (their anniversary) to May (my birthday). Oops.
Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1207 – c. 1282/1294) was a Beguine—a laywoman and mystic who lived a life of voluntary poverty and service without belonging to any recognized order or following any formal rule of life. Though her writing shows the influence of a courtly upbringing, as well as a familiarity with several great spiritual writers, she lacked any formal education. She wrote her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead) in Low German—that is, the dialect associated with the Low Countries, which were the heartland of the Beguine movement.
At twelve, Mechthild experienced her first vision of the Holy Spirit. She later referred to these visionary experiences as ‘greetings’. In her early twenties, she joined a Beguine community at Magdeburg that was under increasing pressure from church authorities. Lay women acting like Sisters without any direct ecclesiastical control made the authorities skittish. Mechthild, like many others, became a Dominican tertiary. It seems to have been a fruitful association, as she evidently read many Dominican writers, and it was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged Mechthild to write about her mystical experiences with God.
Mechthild wrote about these greetings, as well as the current corruption of Christianity. Her writing was widely circulated, despite calls from some in the church hierarchy to have them burned. Apparently, a woman with little formal education, daring to criticize the clergy and church dignitaries, whilst claiming to have visionary experiences and theological insight, got some beneficed backs up. In her old age—isolated, widely criticized, and ultimately blind—she joined a Cistercian convent in 1272. The highly educated nuns offered her protection and support, and Mechthild, uneasy at first because of her lack of formal education, was surprised to find them often coming to her for advice and counsel. She dictated the final chapters of her book here in this convent.
But it is probably her use of erotic imagery for which she is best known. She would have been familiar with both the secular love-songs and the Marian devotional songs of the Minnesingers—the German counterparts of the Provençal trouvéres and the Spanish troubadors—and would, like practically everyone of her time, have heard how almost indistinguishable the two genres could be in their blending of erotic and religious language and imagery.
Mechthild, however, took things to another level, as in this extract from a poem on the Virgin Mary:
Both his wounds and her breasts were open.
The wounds poured forth.
The breasts flowed.
The soul was invigorated and completely restored
As he poured the sparkling red wine
Into her red mouth.
As jarringly graphic as this language is, her erotic language was equally forthright:
“Stay, Lady Soul.”
“What do you bid me, Lord?”
“Take off your clothes.”
“Lord, what will happen to me then?”
“Lady Soul, you are so utterly formed to my nature,
That not the slightest thing can be between you and me.
Never was an angel so glorious
That to him was granted for one hour
What is given to you for eternity.
And so you must cast off from you
Both fear and shame and all external virtues.
Rather, those alone that you carry within yourself
Shall you foster forever
With my limitless lavishness.”
It is important to note that, well into twentieth century, the soul, either of man or woman, was portrayed as feminine. No soul is free, in theory and prevailing cultural attitudes notwithstanding, of this longing for union with Christ on the ‘bed of love.’ Mechthild depicts both the Son and the Soul as ‘submitting’ and ‘surrendering’ to each other in their mutual passion. In this passage, she takes the idea of eroticized submission, and adds a touch of what almost sounds like sadomasochism:
All holy Christian virtues are the handmaids of the soul. The sweet listlessness of the soul complains to Love of her troubles.
“Well, then, dearest Maiden, for a long time now you have been my chambermaid. Now tell me, where is all this leading? You have hunted me, trapped me, bound me, and wounded me so deeply that I shall never be healthy again. You have meted out to me many a cudgel blow.
Tell me, am I ever going to recover from you? If I were not going to be killed by your hand, I would be better for me never to have known you.”
Love: “That I hunted you was my fancy.
That I captured you was my desire.
That I bound you made me happy.
When I wounded you, you were joined to me.
When I cudgel you, I take you into my power.
I drove God the almighty from heaven,
Took his human life,
And restored him to his Father in honor.
How do you, vile worm, expect to survive before me?”
Brother Heinrich, the Dominican brother who wrote the first Preface to The Flowing Light of the Godhead, wrote, “This writing must be read in a pious spirit…It must be understood, as is the case with other holy writings, in a wholesome manner and in good faith. In this way, the reader will find nothing scandalous or offensive in it…”
Well, duh; it isn’t pornography, and couldn’t be mistaken for it. But far from reading such works in a ‘pious spirit,’ most of us aren’t ever exposed to such writing, at least until seminary or particularly adventurous church book clubs. What if I had read Mechthild during my adolescence? If sex isn’t something kids assume their elders at church never think or talk about—if, in fact, their Christian educators made it clear that God made and loves all of each of us, including our sexuality–how then could sex be thought ‘dirty’? How could it be thought of as forbidden fruit, to be stolen and enjoyed furtively in the shadows? How could our sexuality—gay or straight, fixed or fluid, kinky or vanilla—be anything to be ashamed of? God made us sexual beings; why can’t we bring all of who we are
into our relationship with God?
For Mechthild, as for a number of women mystics, sexuality was the love language of her soul, as surely as Lady Poverty was to Francis and suffering to Julian. By not being honest with our children, we drive them to think of some things as churchy and uncool, and other things as dirty, alluring, and outside of God’s purview.
I was in my forties the first time I heard the expression ‘sex positivity’—and I heard from an Episcopal priest. What if I had heard it much earlier? What if, instead of either ‘entertaining’ or trying vainly to suppress ‘impure thoughts,’ we could bring them into the sunlight? (They do say it’s the best disinfectant.) What if the ghosts of shame and secrecy had been exorcized years ago by mystics and lovers like Mechthild?
[Author’s Note: All quotations are from Frank Tobin’s translation of The Flowing Light of the Godhead. The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1998.]