Christian men dominated the medieval period with outstanding theological and philosophical writings. Women’s writings in theology and philosophy were scarce as it was not customary for women to teach and receive theological training. Regardless, nothing can prevent the ambition of the heart and mind from serving God through action, pen, and paper. Women like Mechthild of Magdeburg received mystical encounters with God similar to their male counterparts. These visions opened the door for women to inspire not only men but the entire world of whoever read their writings and teachings. In this short essay, I will expound on the life and works of Mechthild of Magdeburg.
The Medieval Women
In the circles of religion, women were considered weaker than men and susceptible to heresy. Men were considered the authority of biblical interpretation and guidance for all men and women. Women were discouraged from leading religious and teaching roles. It was not until the medieval time period when Christian philosophy and Christian mysticism flourished when women began to play a noticeable role in theological and philosophical writings and visions. With these noticeable writings and visions, the roles of women began to change the societal normal bias and prejudice of the age. For example; men began to ask women to pray for them because the prayers of women were considered more effective than the prayers of men (dickens). Mystics were held in high regard and the mystical visions from Christian women became a warrant for men to listen in a time when women were silenced. The mystic visions were considered a divine channel allowing women to break through church hierarchy. The intention of the woman mystics was not to disrupt the church but to bring reformation; although, they were oftentimes considered suspicious. In modernity, if someone seeks women practicing theology in history more than likely they will encounter women mystics.
Woman medieval theological writings are not considered theological in the same sense as Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas but are closer to the category of medieval literature. Women at this time were not considered deep logical or theological thinkers, and their writings may, in fact, reveal such a suggestion. Within the women’s mystic literature were a wide variety of spiritual works. In relation to visionary writings, the writings involve the person receiving divine revelations and prophecy from God or spiritual beings through graphic images or audible speech. There are several woman medieval mystics worth reading; one, in particular, was Mechthild of Magdeburg a member of the Dominican Order and author of her mystical book The Flowing Light of the Godhead.
The Dominican Order
The commitment to God from Mechthild (Matilda) is unquestionable. The action of becoming a Dominican Tertiary in the third-order speaks volumes regarding her love for God and service hood. Members of the Dominican Orders were followers of Saint Dominic who coincidental to the theme of woman mystics, Saint Dominic’s grandmother had a vision of Dominic having a bright star shimmering on his forehead on the day of his baptism (O’Conner). One of the principles of the Dominicans was to rid themselves of all wealth and live by faith under God in poverty. The purpose was to humble themselves away from any materialistic distractions in order to focus entirely on a committed life of study, preaching, loving and serving God. Chastity and poverty were believed to be a standard and necessary practice to exemplify the life of Christ. It is believed that Matilda was influenced by the preaching of the Dominican friars, that Matilda left her home for Magdeburg. She entered the settlement of Beguines where she began to serve at the age of 23 (Welch). She knew only one person in the town who was a friend of the family. Matilda made every intent to avoid this friend in the case her friend may try to discourage Matilda from her godly ambition as a Beguine. The Beguines existed as a semi-monastic community for women who wanted to live a religious life without having to completely give up their worldly interests. This meant that they could serve but leave the community if they later chose to start a family or pursue other worldly endeavors. As a Beguine, she was under the direct guidance of the Dominicans and lived a life of prayer and spiritual mortification. Life as a Beguine for Matilda did not come without its sorrows. In her youth, she had little to no encounters with false converts. As a Beguine she was exposed to the corrupt version of Christendom and was treated unfairly by the other ladies of Beguine; a fact made evident in her greatest writing “The Flowing Light of the Godhead.”
Life and Works
Moving to Magdeburg to serve must have been a fulfilling and easy decision. This is indicated by the fact that Matilda had to partly separate from her worldly desires and fair-style life until her later years when she became a nun at the convent of Hellfde. Matilda grew up under the influence of court life. Her speech was of a higher class and she was accustomed to the manners of noble ladies (Bevan). This was not the average status for someone who desires to become a part of any religious order. Her decision to stay in the Beguines for some time was wise until she felt she was truly called to sacrifice everything for the sake of Christ.
Regarding her family and birthplace very little is known. Depending on conflicting sources she was born around the year 1207-1212 not far from Magdeburg. Biographical sources on her life are scarce if at all any exist. Most of the information about her life is gathered from Matilda’s own writings. It follows from her good upbringing that she received an as good education as her brother who was raised with good virtues and later became a Dominican friar. She received her first mystical encounter with the Holy Spirit at the age of 12 and began to record her visions after about the year 1250 (Madigan). According to Matilda her visitations from the Holy Spirit occurred daily. After becoming a Beguine at Magdeburg, “her heavenly inspirations and ecstatic visions became more frequent and were of such a nature that they dispelled from the mind of her confessor all doubt as to their Divine origin” (Ott). It was under the command of her confessor that she began to write down her visions.
Matilda’s last years were spent in physical pain, but in spiritual peace at Helfde when she was accepted at the age of 53 in the year 1265. At the convent of Helfde was a nine-year-old girl who was directly influenced by Matilda for the next 12 years. The young girl would grow to become a proclaimed Saint by the Catholic Church “Saint Gurtrude the Great of Helfta.” During Matilda’s last years she fell ill and was peacefully cared for by her sisters at Helfde who regarded Matilda as their teacher. Resulting from prayer she decided to finally cease from writing and labor as she penned what she considered to become her final books. Later, now visually blind and unable to use her hands, she felt compelled to continue writing about her one true love, Jesus Christ. By way of verbal dictation, her final books full of wisdom and a life of spiritual knowledge was written with her last breaths for the glory of God.
The Flowing Light of the Godhead
The Flowing Light of the Godhead also known as The Flowing Light of Divinity consists of seven books written by Matilda during the years of 1250 – 1280. The book was forgotten by the fifteenth century but was revived by the nineteenth century. The book is a divinely inspired work of poetic literature. It is difficult to discern the measure of what is actual visions of Matilda and how much is inspired devotion and poetry. This is evident as she gives descriptions of heaven and hell, levels of torment and the types of people found therein to include Lucifer. In addition, there is peacefull practical daily advice, revelations of the love of God and divine insight and vision for the reader. It was said from Matilda, that those who wish to understand this book, should read it nine times.
The mind is a substance prohibited by none. The essence of the mind is a continual motion until the point of death. The motion of the mind is affected by thinking and no religion, race, or gender can stop it. In an age when women were discouraged from theological aspirations. The mind of women was given the means to channel divine inspiration to a religious hierarchy through mystical revelations from God. Mechthild of Magdeburg was a Christian woman given a gift by mystical encounters with God. In return, she gave the world through her writings and self-service labor divine inspiration for daily practical living in a dark world; an illuminating flowing light of divinity.
Dickens, Andrea Janelle. The Female Mystic : Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages. 2009. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook?sid=a65f7141- 1f44-490e-b07d-a4bcf6e89147%40sessionmgr102&vid=0&format=EB. Web. Dec 22, 2019.
O’Connor, John Bonaventure. Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers. Rosary Press, 1916. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nnc1.cr60882891&view=1up&seq=93. Web. Dec 22, 2019.
Welch, Alice Kemp. Of Six Mediaeval Women; to Which Is Added A Note on Mediaeval Gardens. N.P. 1913. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/66481#page/7/mode/1up. Web. Dec 22, 2019.
Bevan, Frances A. Mechthild of Magdeburg. Matelda and the Cloister of Hellfde Extracts from the Book of Matilda of Magdeburg. Project Gutenberg, 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35811/35811-h/35811-h.htm. Dec 22, 2019.
Madigan, Shawn. Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Writings. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1998. http://www.gjlts.com/Church%20History/Medieval%20History/Mechthild%20of%20Magdeburg.pdf. Web. Dec 22, 2019.
Ott, Michael. Mechtild of Magdeburg. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 22 Dec. 2019 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10106a.htm. Web. Dec 22, 2019.