Medieval Mystics

views updated

Medieval Mystics













c. 1250

Mysticism flourished in many parts of Europe, including Germany, Italy, the Low Countries, and England, from the middle of the thirteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth. The greatest figures in Germany were Meister Eckhart, a Dominican friar of formidable intellectual gifts, and his pupils, also Dominicans, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso. In the Low Countries, John Ruusbroec developed a Trinitarian mysticism that owed much to Eckhart, despite his apparent disagreement with the earlier teacher. In Italy, the Franciscan scholar Bonaventure, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Catherine of Genoa upheld the mystical flame, and there was also a mystical outpouring in England, associated with the names Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Many of the continental mystics were members of the Friends of God, a movement that worked for the spiritual revival of people at a time when the worldliness of the Catholic Church, the ravages of the Black Death, and the cracks in the traditional social order created a desire in many to develop a deeper spirituality. Although some of the mystics were hermits, like Rolle, others combined their mysticism with practical concerns such as preaching, administrative duties, and caring for the poor and the sick.

The most enduring figures in medieval mysticism produced works of high spiritual and sometimes even literary quality. Although they were all loyal to the Church (including Eckhart, in spite of the fact that he was posthumously condemned for heresy), they expressed their mysticism in a wide variety of themes and tones. Eckhart's lofty statements from the standpoint of eternity are very different from Catherine of Genoa's intense dialogue between soul and body, for example. Similarly, the visions of Christ's passion granted to Julian of Norwich differ greatly from the down-to-earth advice given by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Taken as a whole, the writings of the medieval mystics provide a remarkable record of the vitality and variety of the spirituality of the period.


Bonaventure (1217-1274)

Bonaventure was born Giovanni di Fidanza in Bagnoregio, Italy, around the year 1217. He entered the Franciscan order and was later sent to Paris to complete his education. In Paris he became friends with Thomas Aquinas, one of the great philosophers in the Christian tradition. Bonaventure taught in Paris from 1248 to 1257, when he was elected minister general of the Franciscan Order. He held this position for sixteen years, during which time he wrote his major works, including Life of Francis, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and The Soul's Journey into God. Bonaventure was made a cardinal in 1273; he died the following year, on July 15, while attending the Second Council of Lyons. He was canonized in 1482 and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.

Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)

Catherine of Genoa was born in 1447 to an aristocratic family. She had a melancholy temperament, which was made more pronounced by an unhappy marriage. A powerful spiritual experience in 1473 transformed her life, and after a period of penance and prayer she began to work among the city's sick and poor. In 1477, she founded the first hospital in Genoa and was its director from 1490 to 1496. It was during this period, in the summer of 1493, that an outbreak of the plague killed nearly four out of five of those who remained in the city. Catherine herself contracted the disease but recovered. Catherine attracted many followers, and between 1499 and 1507, she discussed her spiritual experiences with them, including the times in which she had experienced union with God. Catherine died on September 15, 1510, and was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1733.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)

Catherine of Siena was born in Siena on March 25, 1347, the twenty-fourth child in a lower-class family. Even as a child she exhibited a longing for God, and she refused to marry. When she was about sixteen, she joined the Mantellate, a Dominican body that worked with the poor and the sick. In spite of her lack of formal education, Catherine also became known as a teacher. During her lifetime she attracted a large following, and she also founded a convent. Catherine was active in politics, acting as ambassador between the Papacy and the city-state of Florence. Throughout her life she had unusual spiritual experiences, including visions and ecstasies. In 1368, she experienced a "mystical marriage" to Christ, after which she felt totally given to Christ. She also received the stigmata (the marks of the wounds of Christ). All her life, Catherine practiced severe penance, and often she would eat very little. In 1380, she was unable to eat at all, which led to her death at the age of thirty-three on April 29 of that year, in Rome, Italy. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church.

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327)

Meister Johann Eckhart, who is widely considered to be the greatest of all the German medieval mystics, was born in the village of Hochheim, near Gotha, Germany in 1260. His father was the steward of a knight's castle in the Thuringian forest. When Eckhart was about fifteen, he entered the Dominican monastery at Erfurt and remained there for at least nine years. He then studied in Cologne before becoming prior of Erfurt and vicar of Thuringia. In about 1300, he was sent to Paris to teach, where he presented the Dominican theological positions against their rivals, the Franciscans. In 1302, the prestigious Studium Generale in Paris conferred a Master's degree on him, and since then he has been known as Meister Eckhart. In 1303, he became Provincial of the Dominican order in Saxony, and four years later, Vicar of Bohemia. In 1313, Eckhart, now widely known and respected, lived in Strasbourg, where he preached and was prior of a convent. At some later time, not earlier than 1322, he was invited to take up a professorship at the Studium Generale in Cologne, an extremely high honor. But the Archbishop of Cologne harbored a dislike of all mysticism, and in 1327, he formally charged Eckhart with heresy. Eckhart denied the charges and made a vigorous defense. He is believed to have died the following year. In 1329, Pope John XXII condemned many aspects of Eckhart's teaching as heretical.

Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416)

There is little information about the life of Julian of Norwich, who was one of the most important figures in medieval English mysticism. She reveals something of herself in her Revelations of Divine Love. She reports that she was given her revelations in 1373, when she was thirty and a half, which would mean she was born in 1342. Since she is named as a beneficiary in a will dated 1416, it appears that she was still living at that time as a recluse in Norwich, supported by the church of St. Julian and St. Edwards in Conisford. This church belonged to the Benedictine community. Julian's writings show her to be well read in many of the classic texts of Christian spirituality, and it is possible that she acquired her education by entering a religious order, although whether she was in fact a nun is not known.

Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440)

Margery Kempe was born in King's Lynn, Norfolk, England, around 1373. Her father was a prominent civic authority-wool merchant, mayor, and member of Parliament at various times. She married John Kempe around 1393 and they had 14 children together. Immediately after the birth of her first child, Kempe became ill and had a vision of Jesus Christ. Inspired, Kempe recovered and tried to live a more reverent life but for years was tempted by many sins. Resolved to turn her life to God, she undertook a series of pilgrimages to holy sites around Europe and the Middle East. The Book of Margery Kempe details her travels and conversations with God over a forty-year period. During her lifetime, Kempe was charged and cleared several times for violating rules such as preaching in public, which was forbidden to women, and wearing white, which was forbidden to married women. Kempe is last heard of in the historical record in 1438 and died sometime after this date.

Richard Rolle (c. 1300-1349)

Richard Rolle, who was born around 1300 in the Yorkshire region of England, has been called the father of English mysticism. Rolle was a prolific author in both English and Latin and was widely read and admired in his day. He was born at Thornton Dale, near Pickering, in Yorkshire. He studied at Oxford but appears to have abandoned his studies, since he did not receive a degree. Rolle then withdrew from the world and devoted himself to a contemplative life. He had a number of unusual psychic and spiritual experiences, feeling heat in his chest and hearing heavenly music. Some of his acquaintances thought him mad. He described these experiences in Incendium Amoris (c. 1340, trans. The Fire of Love). Rolle's works are characterized by a love of Christ and especially the power of the divine name Jesus. He emphasized love and a religion of the heart. Rolle died in 1349 at Hampole, near Doncaster. Legend has it that he died after tending to victims of the Black Death.

John Ruusbroec (1293-1381)

John Ruusbroec was born in 1293, in the village of Ruusbroec, near Brussels. He became a priest in 1317, when he was twenty-four. For the next twenty-six years he served as chaplain to the church of St. Gudule in Brussels. During this time he wrote treaties opposing the heretical teachings of a woman named Bloemardinne. In 1343, he retired to Groenendael in the forest a few miles from the city with two companions to lead a more solitary life. The small group acquired a few more members and became, with the blessings of the local bishop, an official religious community—canons regular of St. Augustine. Ruusbroec spent the remaining years of his life at Groenendael, where he wrote the most influential of his mystical works. He died December 2, 1381.

Henry Suso (1295-1366)

Henry Suso, who with Eckhart and Tauler was one of the three great figures in German medieval mysticism, was born on March 21, 1295, to a noble family. When he was thirteen his parents sent him to the Dominican friary in the town of Constance. After being a member of the Dominican order for five years, he underwent a conversion experience that became the basis for his later life. In 1322 or 1323, he was sent to pursue advanced studies in the Dominican house at Cologne, an honor given to only a few. There he expanded his knowledge of theology and scripture, and his teacher for some of this period was probably Meister Eckhart. Suso remained in Cologne until 1326 or 1327, when he returned to the friary at Constance as a director of studies for the students in the order. Around 1330, Suso was summoned to Maastricht to defend himself against charges of heresy, and he was dismissed from his position at the friary. But he must have emerged unscathed from the accusations, since later he was appointed prior or superior of the house at Constance. He also preached in the countryside and supervised the spiritual studies of Dominican nuns. In about 1348, Suso was transferred to the Dominican house in Ulm, where he lived for the rest of his life. During this time, he edited his works for publication, collecting them under the title Exemplar. Suso died in Ulm on January 25, 1366.

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361)

Johannes Tauler was born around 1300 to a well-to-do family in Strasbourg. He began training in the Dominican Order in 1314, and became a preacher and director. In 1339, he moved to Basle because that city sided with Pope John XXII in his dispute with Louis of Bavaria, whereas Strasbourg was loyal to Louis. Tauler remained in Basle for four or five years, where his influence in the spiritual movement known as the Friends of God increased. Tauler was a disciple of Eckhart and a friend of Suso. Tauler became widely known in the vicinity for his preaching, and his teaching has survived in modern times in the form of sermons. He died in 1361, in the monastery of Saint Nicholas in Undis, during an outbreak of the plague.


The Book of Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe was composed in the fifteenth century by an English woman who went on a series of pilgrimages following a sick-bed vision of Jesus Christ. Kempe traveled to holy sites in Jerusalem, Rome, Norway, and Santiago de Compostela, an autonomous community in northwest Spain. She also toured England to visit the religious dignitaries of her era, including Julian of Norwich and Henry Chichele, the Archbishop of Canterbury. She probably could not read; her book was composed by scribes to whom she dictated the text. The Book of Margery Kempe is controversial because Kempe was a middle-class married woman and not a member of a religious order like her revered contemporary female mystic, Julian of Norwich may have been. To this day, some do not consider Kempe's visions to be inspired by the Holy Spirit but, rather, the hallucinations of a mad woman. Her book was not discovered until 1934 and likely only survives because it was not available for destruction during England's Reformation in the early sixteenth century.

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous devotional book written in England, probably in the East Midlands, in the latter part of the fourteenth century. It is one of the classics of the English mystical tradition. The author appears to have been a male priest, but nothing more is known of him. In seventy-five short chapters, the author offers guidance to the spiritual seeker in his quest to know God. He points out that God is calling the disciple to a higher spiritual life. This is an act of grace on the part of God, and the seeker must respond with a desire for God. He must empty his mind of all thoughts and images in order to penetrate the "cloud of unknowing" that stands between him and God. Thoughts must be pushed way in a "cloud of forgetting." Then the love of God may pierce the cloud. Although the process may be difficult, the seeker eventually loses all awareness of himself, and his soul becomes united with God.

The Exemplar

The Exemplar is the title given by Suso to the collection of his own works that he prepared for publication around the mid-fourteenth century. It includes an autobiography, The Life of a Servant, which for the modern reader is the most accessible of Suso's works. Suso describes the severe bodily penance he imposed on himself as well as the visions and mystical experiences that came to him on his spiritual journey. The Exemplar contains three other works. Little Book of Eternal Wisdom was written to rekindle the love for God in those who wish for it, through the examples of Christ's sufferings and the sorrows of the Virgin. Little Book of Truth is about how to live a detached life and touches on many of the most important themes in German mysticism: spiritual freedom, the nature of true discernment, and of union with God. Little Book of Letters consists of letters of instruction for practical life and worship sent by Suso to women under his spiritual direction.

The Fire of Love

The Fire of Love is a translation of a Latin work, Incendium Amoris, written by English mystic Richard Rolle in about 1340. Rolle's devotional text was inspired by the mystical experience he describes in the prologue and chapter fifteen. Sitting in a chapel one day, he felt his own heart burning with heat and heard heavenly music. The experience became the basis of Rolle's poetic exposition of a life lived in what he called the fire of everlasting love. He explains that divine illumination has three aspects: fervor(heat), dulce (sweetness), and canor (song). The heat in the heart he associates with the burning of divine love. Sweetness refers to the peace and joy that results when the heart burns in love and the presence of the divine beloved is felt. By song, Rolle seems to mean the harmony experienced in the individual mind when all its powers are wedded to God; every thought becomes like a melodious song. These three modes of functioning (heat, sweetness, and song) represent the highest perfection of the Christian religion, although Rolle continually warns that they are not easily attained.

Meister Eckhart's Sermons

Eckhart's sermons, especially those that he preached and wrote in Middle High German rather than in Latin, provide a representative view of his most important thoughts. Of the German sermons that survive, scholars consider about one hundred authentic, and about fifty more probably so. Eckhart's sermons focus on a few central themes, such as detachment or self-abandonment, the birth of Christ in the soul, the divine spark of the soul, the abyss of divine being, and the Godhead beyond even the Trinity. Eckhart's philosophy was based on mystical experience of the highest order, and his sermons and treatises were extremely controversial. In part this was because he had a gift for expressing himself in a striking way, using puns, word play, and paradox in the hope that his listeners would be startled into new understanding. In some respects also, the sermons express views that are on the margins of orthodoxy; Eckhart's teaching about the birth of Christ in the soul, for example, was condemned as being suspect of heresy.

Revelations of Divine Love

Revelations of Divine Love was written in the latter part of the fourteenth century by Julian of Norwich and is the first book published in English and written by a woman. It is organized around sixteen revelations, or "showings," as Julian called them, which she received from God. All but the last came during one five-hour period from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on May 8, 1373, when she was extremely ill and believed herself to be dying. The illness and the revelations came as an answer to an earlier threefold prayer, in which she had asked to more fully understand the passion of Christ, to suffer physically, and to be given three "wounds": contrition, compassion, and longing for God. The first twelve revelations are based on the crucifixion and suffering of Christ, which was a demonstration of God's love that redeemed mankind. The thirteenth revelation deals with the problem of sin, which will, Julian says, be turned into a blessing by Christ. The fourteenth revelation discusses the nature and purpose of prayer, and the fifteenth, the bliss of heaven. The final revelation (which was given to her that same night) acts as conclusion and confirmation of the others.

The Soul's Journey into God

The Soul's Journey into God is a seven-chapter treatise by Bonaventure. The first six describe the steps toward the soul's union with God. In the first two steps, the soul looks outside of itself to God's creation and the world of the senses. In steps three and four, the mind turns within and contemplates God through the use of its faculties of memory, understanding, and will, and is purified through the traditional virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In the last two stages, the mind rises above itself to consider first the essential attributes of God, and then the Trinity through its name, the Good. The last chapter describes the final goal, a mystical ecstasy in which the soul is entirely absorbed by God. In this chapter, Bonaventure is deeply indebted to a treatise by the sixth-century mystic Dionysius the Areopagite, who described the ultimate reality as a divine darkness, beyond all names, that can only be known by stripping away all concepts and all forms.

The Spiritual Dialogue

The Spiritual Dialogue was composed by friends of Catherine of Genoa to represent Catherine's teachings and her inner life. It had been written by about 1522, twelve years after Catherine's death. The Spiritual Dialogue is a spiritual autobiography cast in the form of a miracle play, in which different aspects of being conduct a dialogue as they go on their journey through earthly life. The main actors are Soul and Body. Body is joined by Self-Love and Human Frailty; Soul is supported by Spirit. The great enemy of the Soul is Self-Love, which is contrasted with the pure love that flows from God, which alone can lift the Soul from the murky waters of the material world in which it has become mired. When she has been granted a vision of the pure love of God, Catherine is sent more tests. She is sent to minister to the sick, where all traces of Self-Love and Human Frailty are burned out of her. The last part of the Dialogue drops the allegorical figures and describes Catherine's final illness and death.

The Spiritual Espousals

The Spiritual Espousals is usually regarded as Ruusbroec's masterpiece, and it was widely known and read in his lifetime. Each of the three sections of The Spiritual Espousals (published c. 1335) is organized around the parable of the virgins in Matthew's gospel, in particular the passage, "See, the bridegroom is coming. Go out to meet him." The virgin is the individual soul, which must go out and meet the bridegroom (Christ), and Ruusbroec explains in each section the process by which this may take place. The first section, the active life, is intended for beginners; the second section describes the interior life, which is cultivated through virtue and the grace of God; the third section explains the nature of the "superessential" contemplative life, which few are able to obtain. This highest state of being, in which the individual is made one with God, cannot be gained by any learning or spiritual exercises but only by the abandonment of all forms and attributes of material life.

Theologia Germanica

The Theologia Germanica is an anonymous devotional text written in southern Germany around 1350 by a man from Frankfurt. The author was a member of the Friends of God movement in which Suso and Tauler were prominent. Strongly influenced by Eckhart and Tauler, the Theologia Germanica focuses on the difference between self-will and God's will. Self-will is the prime obstacle to the spiritual life and must be overcome. Self-will belongs to the natural man, but the spiritual man possesses no will other than the will of God. Everything about the natural man must be transcended, including the activity of the senses, in order to know God. Like many mystics, the author of the Theologia Germanica emphasizes the eternal Christ within, rather than the historical Jesus. The Theologia Germanica was greatly admired by Martin Luther, who first discovered it and published it in 1516.



Many medieval mystics describe a dramatic personal experience in which they are first awakened to the full reality of the divine life. Once the experience has occurred, the mystic is never the


  • What relevance do the fourteenth-century mystics have in the early 2000s? Are they remote, inaccessible, and incomprehensible, or do they offer something of value? If the second, then what is of value and for whom? For everyone or just a select few? Does one have to be a Christian to appreciate them? Could one be a mystic without even believing in God? How would a modern psychologist explain the phenomenon of mystical experience?
  • Research the poetry and prose of the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne. Might Traherne be called a mystic? What elements in his poetry are mystical? What does he have in common with the medieval mystics that you have read and how does he differ from them? (You may apply the same questions to another poet or prose writer with whom you are familiar.)
  • What were the underlying assumptions that the medieval mystics made about existence? What did they believe about human nature, sin, and God, for example? In other words, what was their world view—the set of beliefs and assumptions that shaped their response to life? How does their world view differ from the world view underlying a literary movement such as Romanticism, or Absurdism, or any other literary movement with which you are familiar?

same again. He or she has been allowed to experience, as a matter of direct cognition rather than intellectual speculation, the ultimate reality of life, its spiritual essence. After this experience, the mystic can never go back to the old way of understanding, and the mystic may also find that the direction and purpose of his or her life is dramatically altered.

Sometimes the experience of awakening comes spontaneously and unsought; at other times it represents a deepening of a religious life already chosen. An example of the first category is Catherine of Genoa, who had no interest in the religious life until the age of twenty-six. At that time, as it is recorded in her biography, written by one of her followers:

Her heart was pierced by so sudden and immense a love of God, accompanied by so deep a sight of her miseries and sins and of His Goodness, that she was near falling to the ground; and in a transport of pure and all-purifying love she was drawn away from the miseries of the world.

As a result of this experience and others that followed in the ensuing days, Catherine embarked on her life of contemplation and service.

By contrast, Henry Suso had already entered the Dominican Order when he had his dramatic awakening. The experience happened when, as he puts it, he was still a beginner. One early afternoon after the midday meal, he was alone in the chapel. He was feeling sad and oppressed by suffering, when suddenly "his soul was caught up," and he experienced something that he later, writing of himself in the third person, struggles to describe:

It was without form or definite manner of being, yet it contained within itself the joyous, delightful wealth of all forms and manners. . . . He did nothing but stare into the bright effulgence, which made him forget himself and all else. Was it day or night? He did not know. It was a bursting forth of the delight of eternal life, present to his awareness, motionless calm.

The experience lasted for perhaps an hour. When Suso came to himself again, he felt as if he were coming back from a different world, and as he reflected on the experience it seemed as if he were floating in air. He knew intuitively that he could never forget what he had just known.

Descriptions of awakenings can be found also in Julian's Revelations, which is the record of one long experience of seeing into the divine essence and the divine plan. Rolle's The Fire of Love is another example, in which Rolle experienced, like Suso, a profound illumination while sitting one day in a chapel.

Purification and Penance

Having had a taste of the divine essence, the medieval Christian mystics undertook spiritual exercises involving purification and penance. The purposes of these practices were to make the mystics worthy vessels for further revelation of the divine, and to enable them to be of greater service to God. Some of the penance was through prayer, study of scripture, or solitude, in which the mystic turned away from the things of the world. The mystic also cultivated the traditional virtues of the religious life such as humility, obedience, and poverty. Sometimes penance involved bodily deprivation or self-inflicted physical pain. Some mystics took this to extreme lengths. Catherine of Siena regularly flagellated herself with an iron chain and fasted to the point where she was unable to eat. (She died of starvation.) Suso described in his autobiography how he would wear an undergarment to which were fastened a hundred and fifty pointed nails. He would tighten the garment until the nails pressed into his flesh. He also fastened to his back a wooden cross into which he had hammered thirty nails, and he wore this cross for eight years to praise the crucified Christ. This was by no means the most severe punishment that Suso inflicted on himself, and eventually, so Suso believed, God told him to cease such practices.

The mystics' desire to endure bodily deprivation or practice self-torture was explained in two ways. First, it showed identification with the sufferings of Christ. Second, it rested on the dualism in Christian theology between body and soul, flesh and spirit. The body, as the site of sin and self-will, must be purged and made subservient to the higher faculties of soul.

However, not all mystics embraced this form of bodily penance, and even Suso later advised his students to take a more moderate course. Eckhart, in his "Talks of Instruction," wrote that "true penitence" required none of those things. The most effective penitence was simply a turning around of the will so that all the energies of the self were directed toward God.


Many of the medieval mystics were subject to visions. The entire revelations of Julian of Norwich, for example, were based on a series of visions of divine love. Catherine of Genoa also experienced visions frequently, as recorded in the Spiritual Dialogue. She saw angels and laughed with them; she saw Christ crucified, with his body covered from head to foot with blood; she had visions of love, of joy, and of sin. Ill and dying, she had a vision of a ladder of flame (representing divine love) that drew her upwards, to her great joy. That vision lasted for four hours.

Suso also had visions through which he acquired a sense of what heaven, hell, and purgatory are like. He also claimed that the souls of deceased people appeared to him and told him about their situation in the afterlife. These included Suso's father and even Meister Eckhart.

Other mystics, such as Eckhart, Tauler, Ruusbroec, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, hardly mention visions. In fact, The Cloud of Unknowing is openly suspicious of them. The author states that the spiritual seeker will never have an unclouded vision of God in this life. He is also wary of the power of imagination to conjure images that have nothing to do with the divine, and he even pokes fun at the foolishness of some young disciples who gaze upward and form mental pictures of what heaven is like.

The Dark Night of the Soul

After a period of living in awareness of the presence of God, it is common for medieval mystics to experience a time of spiritual aridity and personal adversity. It is as if they have been abandoned by God. The phrase "dark night of the soul" was coined by St. John of the Cross, a later mystic, but the same idea had been expressed many times before. Tauler, for example, refers to it as "spiritual poverty" and states that it is the second of three stages in the mystical life. And Suso tells a vivid story in chapter twenty-two in his autobiography of how he was overwhelmed with sickness and with attacks on his teachings by religious authorities. He complained bitterly to God about his situation.

Ruusbroec wrote of the dark night of the soul in Book Two, parts two and three of The Spiritual Espousals. In such a situation, the disciple feels abandoned, poor, wretched, and forsaken. He asks, Where has all the joy gone? He may lose friends, family, and earthly goods. Ruusbroec writes as if this feeling of abandonment is to be expected at some point. It is simply the path that spiritual progress follows. If the person has the right attitude, the dark night can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. All that is necessary is for the person to abandon himself to the will of God. This sentiment is echoed by Tauler: The state of "spiritual poverty" is the prelude to an even deeper and richer awakening.


Contemplation is a broad term that encompasses the various stages of the process by which the mystic grows closer to union with God. Contemplation involves an ingathering of the mystic's faculties, so that the mind and the senses are turned away from the external world. In the process often called recollection or quiet, the mystic experiences a state of silence within; the surface activity of the mind is stilled. In order to achieve this, The Cloud of Unknowing advises the repetition of a simple, one-syllable word in prayer, such as Love, or God, which will lead the mind to quietness. In the state of quietness, the Cloud states, there is a paradox. The individual mind is "nothing" and "nowhere," and yet that empty state of consciousness is also "all" and "everywhere," because it partakes of the boundless divine nature.

Eckhart and his disciple Tauler spoke frequently of this "emptying" process, whereby the individual mind passes beyond itself to the "ground of the soul." Tauler, for example, said in Sermon 1, "If you go out of yourself, you may be certain that God will enter and fill you wholly: the greater the void, the greater the divine influx."

The goal of contemplation, attainable only through the grace of God, is the state of mystical union between the soul and God, sometimes called spiritual marriage, or deification. As Tauler puts it, "[God] raises [man] from a human to a divine mode of being, from sorrow into a divine peace, in which man becomes so divinized that everything which he is and does, God is and does in him."



The mystical experience is inherently paradoxical. A paradox is a statement that appears to be contradictory but which may also be true. Tauler, for example, writes of the Trinity as an "imageless image." Perhaps the most common paradox in mysticism describes the coexistence of rest and motion, or stillness and activity. The paradox describes the nature of the divine reality, which is at rest within itself but also actively contemplates itself and ceaselessly flows out from itself into the world. The person who is in union with the divine partakes of this paradoxical divine nature. Eckhart, Ruusbroec, and Tauler give the clearest descriptions of the paradox, even as they state that words cannot really capture it. As Ruusbroec puts it:

Every lover [of God] is one with God in rest and is like God in the works of love, for God in his sublime nature, of which we bear a likeness, subsists blissfully in eternal rest in accordance with the essential Unity of his being and also subsists actively in eternal activity in accordance with the Trinity. Each of these is the perfection of the other, for rest abides in the Unity and activity abides in the Trinity, and the two remain thus for all eternity.

Similarly, Tauler writes of the ground of the soul that God Himself inhabits:

For it is an unfathomable abyss, poised in itself, unplumbed, ebbing and flowing like the sea. As one is immersed in it, it seems still and void; yet in an instant it wells up as if it would engulf all things.

There are other paradoxes in mystical theology, many of them echoing the statement of Christ in the New Testament that "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39, Revised Standard Edition). The mystics interpreted this saying in terms of the need to transcend in contemplation all activity of the senses and of the individual mind. By "emptying" themselves in this way, they would allow the fullness of the divine to take possession of them. By making themselves poor (to the external world of the senses), they would become rich (in God); by renouncing everything, they would gain everything. As Eckhart puts it, again paradoxically, "those who are equal to nothing, they alone are equal to God." A similar paradox underlies the entire Cloud of Unknowing: since God is beyond thought, he cannot be grasped by the mind, therefore the way to "knowing" is by "unknowing."

Related to the device of paradox is the oxy-moron, in which two contradictory terms are yoked together. Eckhart refers to the "splendent darkness" of the Godhead (splendent means shining). Bonaventure uses the same phrase; he and Eckhart are both quoting Dionysius the Areopagite, the sixth century writer of The Mystical Theology who exerted a powerful influence on medieval mysticism.

Oxymora are also used or implied in reference to the life of the person who has fully submitted to God's will. In such cases, joy and sorrow become of equal value because they are both expressions of God's will. It is this that enables Eckhart to say of the enlightened man, "all pain is a joy to him"; and Suso to declare that his "severe sufferings . . . were like the sweet dew of springtime." It is only a short linguistic hop from these expressions to an oxymoronic "joyful pain" and "sweet sufferings."

Figurative Language

It is commonplace in mystical writing that the experience of union with God is ineffable. Because it cannot be described in words, mystics frequently resort to figurative language, particularly simile and metaphor. Ruusbroec, for example, uses an elaborate simile that compares the coming of God into the life of the believer to the passage of the sun across the heavens from the period in late spring to early autumn, as it passes through the zodiacal signs of Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, and Libra. Ruusbroec also makes use of a number of extended similes intended for instructional purposes. The seeker, when Christ's light shines on him, should be like the bee that works for the good of its colony; at certain other times, he should follow the example of the ant.

Many of the similes and metaphors used by the mystics have their origins in the Bible—Christ as the shepherd or bridegroom, for example. Catherine of Siena, who in general is quite conventional in this regard, appears to have invented her own extended metaphor of Christ as a bridge. She writes in The Dialogue that this bridge stretches from heaven to earth and has three stairs, which correspond to three spiritual stages and to three parts of Christ's body. The first stair is the feet, which symbolize the qualities of the individual mind; the second, the heart, which is love; the third, the mouth, which symbolizes peace.

God as light and God as fire are also biblical images used frequently by the mystics, but their usage presents questions of interpretation. In some cases, the phrase "God is light" or similar is used in a figurative sense, but in other cases a literal light seems to be implied. The mystic describes what he sees and experiences. It is not always possible to tell the difference between these two usages, but when Eckhart writes of the "uncreated light" that exists in the ground of the soul, and Ruusbroec of the "incomprehensible light" that shines in the "simple being of [a person's] spirit," they are likely referring to a direct cognition and not speaking metaphorically.

The same problem occurs with the metaphor of God as a fire. When Rolle used the phrase the "fire of love," he intended a literal as well as a metaphorical meaning. He insisted that he felt a real, physical warmth, or heat, around his heart, and this formed the basis for his entire metaphysics of fire or heat as one of the modes by which the divine can be experienced. Other English mystics were not so ready to accept this literal meaning of divine fire. For Walter Hilton, a fourteenth-century English mystic who wrote The Scale of Perfection, the phrase "God is fire" is a metaphor, meaning simply that God is "love and charity."


An allegory is a narrative that has two levels of meaning. One is literal, in which the characters act out their story; the other allegorical, in which the characters and actions symbolize something else—a set of concepts or ideas, for example. In general, the medieval mystics did not write much extended allegory, although they would frequently expound on the parables of Jesus. (A parable is a kind of short allegory.) However, Julian of Norwich does include in chapter fifty-one of her Revelations of Divine Love a long allegory about a lord and his servant. She supplies to the story her own double-level allegorical interpretation, in which the lord is God in his totality and also God the Father, and the servant is both Everyman and God's son.


Christian mysticism is often divided into the two categories of via negativa (also known as apophatic theology) and via affirmativa (also known as kataphatic theology). The first emphasizes that God is not to be found in any image, name, or attribute, because these would be a limitation on him. On the one hand, the God of the via negativa is utterly beyond all concepts and all language, existing in an infinite darkness and eternal silence. In order to know him, the seeker must cast off everything that pertains to the individual self and lose himself in this infinity beyond being. The via affirmativa, on the other hand, affirms that words and images can convey something of the divine essence. God can be spoken of and known through contemplation of his attributes, such as goodness, love, wisdom, and power; through emulation of his son Christ; and through the revelations of scriptures.

Many mystics combine aspects of both approaches, and the categories should not be too rigidly applied. For example, in The Soul's Journey into God, Bonaventure describes the first six stages on the path in terms of the via affirmativa. Only in the last stage does he switch to the language of the via negativa.

Of the medieval mystics, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, the Theologia Germanica, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Ruusbroec embrace to a greater or lesser degree the via negativa. But there are differences between them. The most towering figure in this respect is Eckhart. In almost all of his German sermons he repeats his central idea of the "simple ground," the "quiet desert" which is beyond form or image, beyond even the Trinity, and that there is an uncreated "spark of the soul" that belongs to this divine ground. Tauler echoes this with his concept of the "ground of the soul." The difference between Eckhart and his two pupils is that Tauler and Suso do not have Eckhart's intellectual power or his gift for exploring abstract subtleties, but they make up for that in their ability to translate Eckhartian concepts into practical spiritual advice.

The differences between Ruusbroec and Eckhart are more marked. Although Ruusbroec's mysticism contains all the Eckhartian (and Dionysian) elements of negation and stillness in the ineffable "essential bareness" of the divine being, he is often also referred to as a "Trinitarian" mystic. According to Louis Dupré,inthepreface to The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works, Ruusbroec's God is always dynamic, never at rest: "Ruusbroec overcame the ultimate negation by refusing to posit a unity beyond the Trinity, as Eckhart had done." Moreover, some scholars claim that when Ruusbroec wrote treatises late in his life attacking the notion that the individual could in the fullest sense become God, he may have had Eckhart or one of Eckhart's disciples in mind. It seems likely that at the very least, Ruusbroec had concerns about this aspect of Eckhart's teachings, since during Ruusbroec's lifetime his disciple John van Leeuwen wrote a treatise that directly attacked Eckhart.

Of the other major mystics of the period, Julian of Norwich, Rolle, Catherine of Siena, and Catherine of Genoa belong more to the via affirmativa. Julian's entire Revelations of Divine Love consists of her meditations on her visions of Christ. The idea of her anonymous fellow English mystic (that God can be found only in a cloud of unknowing) would have been alien to her way of thinking. Her work is full of images and metaphors designed to lead the reader to a fuller understanding of the love of God. Mystics of this type often tend to be Christ-centered and to emphasize in particular (as Julian does) the passion of Christ. This is not something to be found in the pages of Eckhart. Nor could one imagine a mystic of Eckhart's type receiving the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, as did Catherine of Siena as a result of her intense meditations upon Christ's sufferings.

Rolle too is Christ-centered and places great value on the name of Jesus. His central concern is to reveal God as love. Although Rolle was himself a recluse, this type of Christ-centered mysticism often emphasizes the importance of the active life. It does not rest ultimately in quiet contemplation. Catherine of Siena's mysticism, for example, has been called "missionary"; as Ray Petry puts it, "For her the love of Christ and neighbor is inseparable from the love of God." The same might be said of Catherine of Genoa. Both these saints distinguished themselves for their active work in ministering to the poor and the sick.


The Black Death

The fourteenth century in Europe was an extremely turbulent age for all levels of society. To begin with, there were more than the usual number of natural disasters. Famine, flood, and earthquakes caused misery and death for thousands, and the outbreak of the plague (Black Death) in 1348 was the most devastating public health crisis humanity has known. It began in Sicily in October 1347 and reached France in January 1348; it continued to ravage Paris until 1349. It reached England in August 1348, where it continued until early 1350. There were recurrences in 1360 and 1369. No one knows for certain what the death toll was, but it could have been one-fourth or even one-third of the entire population of Europe, which would have been about twenty million deaths. Paris lost half its population; London, one-third; Siena and Venice, two-thirds. (Catherine of Siena grew up during the period of the Black Death, and when there was another outbreak in 1374, she cared for some of the victims, as did Tauler when the plague hit Strasbourg.)

The devastation caused by the Black Death was so severe that many people thought the end of the world was coming. It also had social and economic consequences, leading to inflation and a shortage of labor. The resulting social disruption produced peasant rebellions in France in 1358 and England in 1381, where peasants for a time captured London. These rebellions were suppressed with great brutality. In France, over thirty thousand died.

The Black Death also produced changes in the way people behaved. Many people considered the disease to be God's punishment for sin, and some took to practicing extreme forms of penance. One example of this was the Order of the Flagellants, who marched through towns beating themselves with whips. Other people sought a scapegoat and blamed the Jews for the Black Death, claiming that the Jews had poisoned the wells. There were many massacres in which hundreds of Jews were killed.

The Church

The fourteenth century was a period of turmoil in the Catholic Church. Faced with political instability in Italy, the pope moved to Avignon, France, in 1309. This diminished the Church's authority, since Rome had been the traditional place where the pope reigned, and a pope in France was considered to be the tool of the French king.

During the Avignon period (which is known as the Babylonian captivity and lasted until 1377), the papacy also lost much respect because of its luxury and extravagance and the way it centralized the administration of the Church. High papal income taxes were imposed on the clergy, who passed them on to local parish priests and laity. There was also widespread corruption, with religious offices open to the highest bidder and preferments of all kinds available in exchange for money. Many clergy neglected their religious duties, being more concerned with wealth and property. Catherine of Siena, as well as another mystic, Birgitta (1303-1373), were two of many voices bemoaning the decadence of the Church. Catherine had direct audiences with the pope in Avignon, urging him to return to Rome and initiate church reform.

This period of the papacy also includes the Great Schism, which began in 1378 and lasted


  • Fourteenth Century: The fourteenth century is an age of faith. Although there is dissatisfaction with the worldliness of the Church, few people in Christendom doubt the essential truths of the Christian religion. They believe that Christ offers salvation to all who believe, and that heaven, hell, or purgatory await the soul after death.

    Today: Although many thousands of evangelical Protestant Christians still believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and Catholics still accept the authority of the pope and of Catholic doctrine, the modern Western world is predominantly secular. Christianity is no longer the common language of Western civilization. People identify more with political ideas such as freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity than with theological concepts. In the United States, because of the separation of church and state, religion is more a private than a public matter.

  • Fourteenth Century: Before the development of the technology of printing, important manuscripts are copied and circulated by hand. For example, hundreds of copies are made of Rolle's The Fire of Love.

    Today: Anyone wishing to read Rolle's The Fire of Love simply has to access the Internet by computer. The electronic publication of texts revolutionizes the dissemination of knowledge as completely as the first printing press did.

  • Fourteenth Century: The Black Death rages unchecked and kills perhaps twenty million people from Iceland to India. The disease is borne by rats and fleas, but this is not known at the time so no prevention is possible.

    Today: The plague of AIDS reaches public attention in the 1980s, and, although in the early 2000s diminishing in the United States and Europe, it is spreading rapidly in other parts of the world. In 2000, there are three million deaths worldwide from AIDS. Most of the deaths occur in developing countries, which cannot afford the expensive new drug treatments that are prolonging the lives of AIDS sufferers in the West. The total number of deaths from AIDS is estimated to be 21.8 million.

thirty years. During the schism there were two rival popes, one elected in Avignon (by the French cardinals) and the other in Rome. Each man claimed to be the leader of the Church.


With resentment growing against the Church, the time was ripe for heretical ideas to flourish. In late-fourteenth-century England, John Wyclif, an Oxford theologian and preacher, attacked the abuses of the Church and denied the authority of the pope. He claimed that priests were not necessary for salvation, denied the validity of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and encouraged the translation of the Bible into English. For Wyclif, following scripture was more important than accepting the received doctrines of the Church. Wyclif accumulated many followers in England, who were known as Lollards.

On the European continent, a movement known as the Spiritual Franciscans sprang up, who protested against the wealth that the Franciscan order had accumulated. They said that since Christ lived without possessions, that was the only true Christian life. In 1315, the Church denounced the Spiritual Franciscan movement as a pernicious heresy. In Marseille in 1318, some Spiritual Franciscans were tried by the Inquisition and burned at the stake.

One of the most persistent heresies was that of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, which began in the thirteenth century and spread across vast areas of Europe. The most important surviving text of the movement is A Mirror for Simple Souls, written around the beginning of the fourteenth century by Marguerite Porete, who was burned as a heretic in 1310.

Adherents of the Free Spirit believed in a mystical doctrine far more extreme than that of orthodox mysticism. They claimed that they had been so transformed by their spiritual experiences that they had become permanently identical with God. Now made perfect, they were incapable of sin. This meant that in their view they were not bound by moral laws; they could simply do as they wished and take whatever they wanted (sexual liberties included) without being troubled by their consciences. Such beliefs involved a rejection of the need for the sacraments of the Church, and the Free Spirits saw no need to observe events in the Church calendar such as fast days and feasts, or to participate in confession or prayer.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit movement was condemned by the pope, and in the fourteenth century and beyond, the Church made extensive efforts to defeat the heresy. Some Free Spirits were burned at the stake. Many of the medieval mystics, including Ruusbroec, Tauler, and the author of the Theologia Germanica also tried to combat the movement. Ruusbroec in particular wrote treatises against it. He had firsthand knowledge of the Brethren of the Free Spirit because the movement flourished in the Low Countries during his lifetime, where in Brussels a woman named Bloemardinne had a large and devoted following.


The medieval Christian mystics have exerted a powerful influence on Christian spirituality, both Catholic and Protestant, that continues in the early 2000s. Perhaps the most interesting example is that of Eckhart. Seventeen propositions in Eckhart's teaching were condemned as heretical by Pope John XXII in 1329, but this did not destroy his influence. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, his writings continued to be copied and read in the Dominican and Carthusian Orders. He was known to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and his pupils Suso and Tauler continued to interpret his teachings in practical ways for the Christian life.

However, Eckhart's condemnation ensured that for several centuries his influence was far less than it might otherwise have been. In the early nineteenth century, interest in his writings was revived and scholarly German editions of his work were published. The twentieth century saw a remarkable flowering of interest in Eck-hart. Part of this coincided with a growth of interest in Eastern mysticism, and Eckhart's philosophy has often been compared to Zen Buddhism. The influential Catholic monk Thomas Merton acknowledged his debt to Eckhart, as did psychologist Carl Jung. There is also a consensus amongst scholars today that Eckhart was unjustly convicted of heresy. It is believed that those who examined him were influenced by politics and also had a more shallow understanding of the roots of Christian spirituality than he did.

Eckhart's disciple Tauler has had a consistently favorable reputation. There appear to be only a couple of exceptions to this, when his works were banned in 1518 by the Jesuits and in 1590 by the Belgian Capuchins for advocating Quietism, the idea that the spiritual life consisted of passively resting in a state of mental quietness (a complete misreading of Tauler). But these attacks did not prevent Tauler from having a continuous influence during the Reformation, continuing into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The other fourteenth-century mystic who in the early 2000s occupies a place of honor only slightly less than Eckhart's is Ruusbroec. Like Eckhart's, Ruusbroec's writings concerning the union of the soul with God were daring, and he was aware that he might be in danger of being thought heretical. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the last book of his, The Spiritual Espousals, was attacked by the theologian John Gerson, and this temporarily harmed Ruusbroec's reputation. But during the early years of the Reformation (beginning in the early sixteenth century) and Counter-Reformation (mid-sixteenth century), Latin translations of Ruusbroec's works were made, and these were intended to encourage people to remain in the Catholic fold. They had the effect of making Ruusbroec well known throughout the continent.

In modern times, Ruusbroec was championed by Evelyn Underhill in her authoritative book, Mysticism (1911). She regarded Ruusbroec as "one of the greatest mystics the world has yet known. In Ruysbroeck's [sic] works the metaphysical and personal aspects of mystical truth are fused and attain their highest expression."

William Ralph Inge, author of another influential study, Christian Mysticism (1899), grouped Ruusbroec with Suso, Tauler, and the Theologia Germanica as "the crowning achievement of Christian Mysticism before the Reformation."

In English mystical literature, The Cloud of Unknowing has always been held in high esteem. It was well known in medieval times since there were many manuscripts in circulation, and this was also true for Hilton's The Scale of Perfection and many of the works of Rolle. The Cloud of Unknowing has held its reputation to the present day. Clifton Wolters, its most recent translator, describes it as perhaps the greatest devotional classic of the English church: "No one who reads it can fail to catch something of its splendour and charm."

In medieval times, Julian of Norwich was not so well known as the other English mystics. Until the mid-seventeenth century, her Revelations of Divine Love had only limited circulation. Today her reputation is secure, and she has been called the most approachable of the medieval English mystics. Medieval historian Jean Leclercq, in the preface to the Colledge and Walsh edition, comments that "her writings are now considered to have universal and permanent value. As a woman, she represents the feminine teacher and feminine insight that are less rare in the Western Christian tradition than many of our contemporaries might think." Petra Munro Hendry explores Julian of Norwich's rejection of gender duality in Revelations of Divine Love. Hendry stops short of the feminist argument, alleging that to do so oversimplifies Julian of Norwich's role within and reaction to the patriarchal religious institution of fourteenth-century England.

Julian has even had an influence on English literature. The lines, "All shall be well and / All manner of things shall be well," which bring T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets to an optimistic close, are taken from Julian's twenty-seventh chapter: "It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses different ways in which mystical experience has been defined and classified.

When the modern reader approaches medieval mysticism for the first time, he or she may be more than a little bewildered by the language and patterns of thought of the period, and particularly by the mystical experiences themselves. These by definition are not everyday experiences and do not come under the category of things that can be explained solely by the rational intellect. Many questions arise: What is mystical experience? Is it an objective or a subjective phenomenon? How is it to be evaluated?

The problem is compounded by the fact that one cannot duplicate a mystical experience by reading someone else's account of it. At best one might receive a certain aesthetic pleasure from the act of reading and reflecting on the mystic's writings, but that is more like the pleasure that might accrue from reading, say, a novel or a poem; it is not the experience itself, which cannot be transmitted in this way.

And yet mystical experience, if what the mystics say about it is true, is surely a vitally important dimension of human knowledge. There is a well-known story about the great medieval scholastic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Toward the end of his life he was granted mystical experience, and he declared that all his learned tomes were but straw compared to what he had just been permitted to


  • Thomas Merton (1915-1969) was one of the most influential religious writers of the twentieth century. His The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) is his spiritual autobiography, describing his early doubts, his conversion to Catholicism, and his decision to become a Trappist monk.
  • The Tao of Physics (1975), by Fritjof Capra, explores some of the striking parallels between modern theories of physics and the mystical traditions of the East.
  • Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was a shoemaker in Germany who had spontaneous experiences of divine illumination and became one of the greatest mystics in the Christian tradition. His The Way to Christ,originally written in 1622 and published by Paulist Press in 1978, presents the essence of his thought.
  • The Interior Castle was written by Teresa of Avila in 1577 and published in the Classics of Western Spirituality series in 1988. The Spanish saint describes the mystical life in terms of seven interior mansions that make up the classic stages of purgation, illumination, and union on the mystical path.
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), by Barbara Tuchman, is a bestselling history of the century in which almost all of the great medieval mystics lived. Tuchman sees those turbulent times as a mirror of the social and cultural upheavals of the twentieth century.
  • Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose (1992) is a selection from one of the most mystical poets in English literature, who lived from 1637 to 1674. Traherne's poetry has been described as a nature mysticism that sees the glories of God in the external world.

experience directly. Similarly, a later mystic, the unlettered Protestant Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), said that he had learned more in his fifteen


minutes of mystical illumination in 1600 than he would have learned had he studied many years at a university.

Many writers have attempted to define and classify the different kinds of mystical experience. In a pioneering effort, philosopher William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, identified four characteristics of mystical experience. The first is ineffability: the experience cannot be expressed in words. One consequence of this is that it must be directly experienced, since it cannot be passed on to another person by use of language. The second characteristic is noetic quality, by which James means that it is a state of consciousness that communicates real knowledge of some kind—"insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect." In other words, it is not illusory. The third characteristic is transiency. The mystical experience cannot be sustained for more than a brief period, perhaps up to one hour or two at the most. The final characteristic is passivity, in which the mystic feels as if his own will is suspended, and he is held by a superior power.

A later philosopher, W. T. Stace, in Mysticism and Philosophy, sheds further light on James's first two characteristics. Stace classifies mystical experience into two types: introvertive and extrovertive mysticism. Introvertive mysticism corresponds to the end result of the via negativa; it is an experience of the oneness beyond all thought and activity of the individual mind. When the mind has turned inward, away from the senses, and transcended all the ephemeral manifestations of life, it arrives at the one eternal, unchanging, silent reality, without form or limit. This state of being is beyond language because language deals only with the differentiated world of subject and object. In the introvertive experience, consciousness remains, but it is not consciousness of anything—there is no object of perception. It is, in a sense, the equivalent of the eye being able to see itself, an image that is used by Eckhart to convey his meaning (as translated by Blakney): "The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same—one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving."

Perhaps the best way to understand the introvertive mystical experience is by means of an analogy drawn from the modern world. Everyday perception is like seeing a succession of changing images projected on a blank screen, as with a movie. Normally, no one sees the blank screen on which all those images are projected. What the mystic does is free his mind of the images so that he experiences the blank screen, which is awareness itself, in all its simplicity—as it always is, was, and will be (although no such words of past and future can apply to it). Eck-hart called this experience "isness," in the sense that it is beyond "myness." It is neither an objective nor a subjective experience; it is simply beyond such categories, and it is this that makes is so difficult for the rational mind to comprehend and for the mystic to describe. When the mystic does describe it, he is in effect capturing only his memory of it, since in the timeless moment in which it took place, "he" was not present, the individual self being wholly immersed in a state of undifferentiated unity, rest, and stillness.

If one had to identify a core mystical experience, common to all times and cultures, it would have to be, as Stace argues, the introvertive experience. The description of the experience of consciousness devoid of an object is consistently found in the spiritual writings of the East as well as the West. The Mandukya Upanishad, one of the oldest texts in the Hindu tradition, for example, says of reality:

    It is not outer awareness,
    It is not inner awareness,
    Nor is it a suspension of awareness.
    It is not knowing,
    It is not unknowing,
    Nor is it knowingness itself.
    It can neither be seen nor understood,
    It cannot be given boundaries.
    It is ineffable and beyond thought.
    It is indefinable.
    It is known only through becoming it.

It would be hard to find a clearer description of the via negativa than this, and there is nothing in this quotation that Eckhart would have objected to. At this level of experience, differences between East and West tend to arise only when the mystic interprets his experience in the light of the doctrines of his own religious tradition. For the Hindu, the Mundakya Upanishad describes the essential Self that is identical by its very nature with Brahman, the universal consciousness.

The Christian mystic, on the other hand, is wary of how he describes this "unknowing" union of the soul with God. This is because in orthodox Christian doctrine, such "deification" is attained only through the grace of God, not by virtue of the intrinsic nature of the individual self, and the creature always retains its distinct identity even as it experiences its union with the divine. There is a certain tension between the theological position that mystics such as Eckhart and Ruusbroec felt the need to uphold and the introvertive experience itself, in which all distinctions of creature and creator, individual and universal, dissolve in the silent abyss of the divine ground.

Stace's second category, "extrovertive" mystical experience, occurs when the mystic perceives the underlying unity of all things in the multiplicity of the world of nature. This is often accompanied by a perception of glorification, in which everything is seen in the light of the divine. Evelyn Underhill, in her classic study Mysticism, described this as "the illuminated vision of the world." It is found in mystics such as Boehme and in mystically inclined poets such as Wordsworth, Blake, and Traherne. It is less common in the medieval mystics, who for the most part looked inward rather than outward.

But Eckhart, perhaps the most profound of all the medieval mystics, wrote numerous passages that allude in a subtle way to this extrovertive experience of seeing God in all things. Often his gnomic, paradoxical utterances must be unpacked before they yield his meaning. In his sermon on the passage in the Book of Acts, "Paul rose from the ground and with open eyes saw nothing" (as translated by Walshe), Eckhart gives a characteristic meaning to the word "nothing," as referring to God, for God is "nothing," existing in the abyss beyond all "somethings." So in Eckhart's exegesis of the passage, when Paul got up he saw "nothing but God"; "in all things he saw nothing but God," and when he saw God, "he saw all things as nothing." Eckhart's play on words makes his meaning clear: when a person is filled with God, like the apostle Paul, everywhere he looks, even at the meanest thing in creation, he sees God, for God is the nothing that underlies and is present within all the multiplicity of created "things."

For a less intellectual, more practical (and devotional) example of the extrovertive experience, one might turn to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), whose sense of union with all things was so refined that he preached to the birds, soothed captured turtledoves, and befriended pheasants, among other things. Underhill describes the reality that St. Francis lived not as an idea but as a direct experience: "every living creature was veritably and actually a 'theophany or appearance of God' . . . [he was] acutely conscious that he shared with these brothers and sisters of his the great and lovely life of the All." This kinship with all creatures, which is the practical fruit of mystical experience, is clear also in St. Francis's well-known "The Canticle of Brother Sun," in which he addresses the sun as "Sir Brother Sun" and the moon as "Sister Moon," as well as addressing "Brother Water" and "Brother Fire."

Given all these examples of introvertive and extrovertive mysticism, the question remains of the extent to which the mystical experience might be objectively evaluated. Does the mystic have genuine insight into the nature of reality? Does his experience add to our knowledge of human consciousness, or is it unverifiable in any meaningful sense? As William James pointed out, for the mystic, the experience by its very nature conveys a sense of truth. When the introvertive mystic sinks into a state of eternal peace and stillness, without boundaries of any kind, he finds it so immensely satisfying, so compelling, that he believes it to be self-evidently an experience of the ultimate truth, since it stands in such stark contrast to the transient, restless nature of everything that exists in the realm of time and space.

But in the scientific age in which we live, subjective claims of truth count for little. The introvertive mystical experience, in which consciousness remains awake but with no object of experience, falls outside the realm of what contemporary neuroscience, cognitive science, or rationalist philosophy can explain. This leaves the mystic in the position of a person trying to explain the taste of strawberries to someone who has never tasted one (and who also may doubt that such a thing as a strawberry really exists). No amount of description is going to help. The mystic says: taste for yourself, and only then will you know.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on the Medieval Mystics, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Petra Munro Hendry

In this essay, Hendry argues that Julian of Norwich, in addition to claiming the body as a site of knowing, saw the body as a hub of limitless possibilities that transcended biological fact. Julian, Hendry claims, put forth that distinctions of male/ female or body/soul did not indicate the basis of who is a knower and how a person comes to know.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1413) the medieval English mystic and anchoress was a profound and radical thinker. Her book the Divine Revelations of Love, written in 1373, refuses any linear or quick reading. Meanings are not in her text, but in the experience of reading; of circling through the words, of never finding a final resting place and of being reminded that understanding requires patience. Her narrative strategies are only one of the many areas of Julian's work that I could address. Julian is well known for her theological innovations in relation to the concepts of sin, love, the trinity, and prayer. She is perhaps best known for her thorough theology of God as Mother. As a curriculum theorist however, my own interest in Julian regards her theories of how one comes to know, what is knowable and who can be a knower. It is the exclusion of women religious thinkers from the history of curriculum theory that is the impetus for this research.


Julian wrote her life against and within St. Paul's dictate: "I suffer women not to teach." Despite this sanction, women religious were able to claim authority as knowers through having direct revelations from God, in other words, mystical experiences. For Julian, mysticism provided an avenue for authorizing herself as a knower through recuperating the body as a site of knowing. According to Leigh Gilmore (1994) "through their remapping of the body, mystics represented it as a network of possibilities and not simply as biological fact." How the body becomes a text for medieval mystics to authorize themselves as knowers is the focus of this research. Julian's negotiation of gender is a powerful reminder that who can be a knower and how we come to know is always inscribed in gender relations.


Mysticism has a long tradition both within Christianity and other world religions. Modern philosophers' preoccupation with the psychological states of consciousness of mystics is, according to Grace Jantzen (1995), a serious distortion of what the mystics themselves desired or held important. Within western Christian tradition the mystic is seen as having direct access to God. Historically, especially within the medieval period being a mystic conferred considerable authority on an individual. What was defined as mystical experience and who was considered a mystic was then of considerable import since a person who claimed direct knowledge of God was in a position to challenge any form of authority which he or she saw as incompatible with the divine will.

The 12th to 15th century saw an unprecedented number of female mystics. Although mysticism was not a new phenomenon, and not unique to women, the concentration of female mystics within this time period is significant. And yet, by the 15th century female mystics, previously revered for their wisdom were burned at the stake as heretics (One exception was Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine, who was burned as early as 1310 for insisting on teaching her ideas in public). What had been considered "natural" or normal female behavior, mystical visions, were considered in the 15th century the work of the devil. In the 20th century these same mystics (more likely defined as hysterics) were pathologized as suffering from psychological imbalances, primarily due to sexual repression.

However, within the historic context of the Middle Ages women mystics' claims to divine knowledge were taken very seriously. Their claims as knowers were legitimated not only because of their direct access to God, but because God in his divine wisdom spoke to them in profound ways. For example, it is perhaps inconceivable for us to imagine as conceivable the twelfth century mystic Hajwitch of Antwerp's vision of her bodily union with Christ as real. It is also difficult to imagine how she saw this union as a site for theorizing as she did in her "School of Love" poems in which she puts love before reason as the source of coming to know the divine. Contemporary, western perceptions of the universe as "controlled, atomistic and one-dimensional is in stark contrast to the chaotic, holistic and multidimensional reality" within which men and women of Julian's time lived (Flinders, 1993:84). As inheritors of the enlightenment project the Western cultural heritage is grounded in a Kantian notion of knowledge that maintains that "human knowledge can never extend to knowledge of things as they are in themselves, the best we can hope for is accurate knowledge of things as they appear to us. Knowledge of God, must therefore remain forever beyond human capability" (Jantzen 1995:7). On the other hand, mysticism, a tradition preceding Christianity, allowed for another mode of cognition. According to Lerner (1993),

mysticism asserted that transcendent knowledge came not as a product of rational thought, but as a result of a way of life, of individual inspiration and sudden revelatory insight. Mystics saw human beings, the world and the universe in a state of relatedness, open to understanding by intuitive and immediate perception.

God was accessible through unconditional love and concentrated dedication manifested through sincere prayer and religious devotion, not reason. Central to mystical experience was the profound, unexplainable ways in which God shared his knowledge through mind (reason), body (physical) and soul (spiritual). Thus, it was through mystical experience that women of the 12th to 15th century found the authority to speak, write, and teach. And, they were not merely content to claim their experience, they challenged deeply entrenched church doctrines that contested normative gender roles through actually reinscribing gender in more complex and destabilizing ways. Consequently, Julian's life story as a 14th century mystic provides a window into the ways in which women have struggled to authorize themselves as knowers. The shifting nature of who counts as a knower and how gender shapes this construction is one part of the tale Julian's story tells. To fully understand this story, I turn now to a historical contextualization of Julian's life.


From a contemporary perspective, the choice to give one's life to the church is hardly considered a radical or liberatory act and even less a feminist act. However, in the early middle ages when a young woman of Christian parents would have been expected to marry and produce children, the decision to embrace perpetual virginity could have been an act of resistance to cultural norms for women. In choosing religious life, a woman would not be bound to obedience to a husband, and she would not be repeatedly pregnant and giving birth. In the early Middle Ages formal learning could be acquired only through tutors or in religious institutions. For a woman with intellectual interests convents provided access to books, literacy, leadership opportunities and a "room of her own." Grace Jantzen (1995) suggests "the extent to which such women were asserting their freedom in a Christian alternative to oppressive cultural patterns should not be underestimated."

And yet, this Christian alternative to marriage must always be seen as existing within a deeply patriarchal institution. The church circumscribed women's lives in different ways. Essentially women were considered inferior. They could not be ordained, therefore they could not hear confession, or grant absolution and they could not preach, teach, or administer the sacraments. The Ancrene Riwle (Salu, 1955), which laid out the rules to be followed by anchoresses is quite clear in its reminder that St. Paul forbade women to preach: I suffer not women to teach. Women who felt themselves called to teach or write had to find a way to legitimate this forbidden act. It is within this context that mystical visions provided a source of authority for women. Consequently, despite severe restrictions some women religious were able to challenge the boundaries of gender norms and expectations.

In the seventh century more women entered monastic life than ever before primarily due to the conversion to Christianity of Anglo-Saxons and Franks. In Britain, Hilda of Whitby (-d.680) founded several convents, but is best known for becoming the abbess of Whitby, a double monastery (both men and women) famous for its learning. It hosted the Synod of Whitby in 664 which brought together the Celtic and Roman branches of the church of her time. All through the Middle ages, royal and noble women founded and endowed convents, in which the daughters of the nobility and some of the poor, received an education in religion, Latin, reading, writing, simple arithmetic and chants. Girls also received domestic training and instruction in needlework providing the skills required for nunneries to specialize in fine embroidery or in the transcription and illuminating of manuscripts. In the 10th and 11th centuries several famous canonical abbeys were founded in Saxony which developed a tradition of female scholarship, resulting in literary figures like Hrosvitha.

As the medieval period "progressed" changes occurred. The large double monastaries with powerful abbesses ceased to exist and the restrictions on women within the church increased. Julian was part of a growing resurgence of women choosing to take up a religious life in the late Middle Ages. Six categories of religious women existed in medieval East Anglia. They can be divided into two categories, those who lived in community and those who chose a solitary vocation. Women who chose to live communally had three choices: (a) to become a nun-living in a monastary; (b) a hospital sister-who took vows but tended to the sick and poor; or (c) a member of an informal religious community in which women took self-imposed vows (that is, they were not recognized by the church). These informal communities were unique to East Anglia. No other examples of this type of female religious community have been found in other parts of medieval England. Once again, it is important to note that although sisters lived under the dominance of the institutional church, they enjoyed a certain independence. They managed their busy households and complicated finances, associated with a self-sustaining community, without male supervision and interference, as well as decided the nature of their activities with the local lay communities.

For women choosing a solitary vocation, like Julian, two primary options existed, that of an anchoress, derived from the Greek verb to retire, or a vowess. Vowesses were widowed women who vowed to lead a chaste life, usually in their own homes. An anchoress, like Julian, took vows, but was further removed from society by being walled in—literally buried alive—in small cells or anchorages attached to a church. The anchoress was regularly referred to as dead to the world, shut up as with Christ in his tomb. This tradition of leading a solitary life has its roots in the desert fathers of the fourth century, who withdrew from city life. Medieval society placed a high value on these solitary aesthetics for the severity of their lifestyles and for the prayers they sang for the benefit of all. The sacrifice of possessions and contact with human society was meant to focus their devotion to God. Although they were sought out as healers and counselors, once they were enclosed in their cell they never went into the outside world again. Anchorites lived lives of solitary contemplation undertaken for the good of the souls of one's fellow Christians. (See Rotha Mary Clay, 1914, The Hermits and Anchorites of England, London, UK: Methuen). After Julian there was a flowering of anchorites. More anchorites and hermits are known to have lived in Norwich than in any other English town. By 1546, as a result of the dissolution of the Catholic Church, all anchorages had disappeared.

What prompted Julian to become an anchoress is unclear. Why she chose a solitary life rather than a monastic life can only be a matter of speculation. The turbulent world around Julian might have contributed to her wanting an escape, or perhaps a place from which to make sense of the chaos engulfing her. In 1349, seven years after Julian's birth, the black death appeared in Norwich. In 1381, East Anglia was again disrupted by agrarian, peasant uprisings. Unrest with social conditions also extended to a vigorous attack on the church by the Lollards, led by John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar and preacher who condemned clerical and religious corruption and abuse. Believing that the church should expose people to religion, not exclude them from it, the Lollards translated the whole bible into English. Making the word of Christ more readily accessible to the common person was reflective of a growing critique that charged that the church has lost its true mission of spreading the word of God. The increasing persecution of the Lollards was based at least in part on the fact that they translated the bible in English and allowed women to participate in the ministry and to preach. The Bishop of Norwich, Henry Despenser, had authorized the burning at the stake for convicted Lollards.

From her cell, where she was writing her Divine Revelations of Love, Julian would most likely have heard the cries of those burned in Lollard's pit—a clear reminder of the consequences for women who overstepped the boundaries of gender norms. That she wrote at all is what is astounding. This was considered a heretical act. It perhaps also helps to explain why her manuscript was not in circulation during her lifetime and why the first published copy does not appear until 1670. It seems that Julian was quite aware of the risk of writing in English and thus kept the manuscript concealed. It is within this context that we can appreciate the truly radical nature of Julian's thinking. I turn now to Julian's experience, and specifically her experience of the body as a site for claiming women's experience as a site of knowing.


In her youth Julian had prayed for three things:

  1. For an understanding of the passion of Christ.
  2. For a physical illness so severe that she herself and everyone around her would think that she was dying.
  3. For three wounds: true contrition, loving compassion and the longing of the will of God.

In her 31st year, Julian became violently ill. When her physical suffering ceased, a succession of sixteen visions began, the first fifteen lasting from early morning until mid afternoon, the last seen late that night. They varied in their matter and manner. She was vividly aware of the different levels of her visions. She writes: "All this blessed teaching of our Lord God was shewed in three ways: that is to say, by bodily sight, and by words formed in my understanding, and by spiritual sight." Teachings are thus conveyed through bodily, intellectual and spiritual means.

Throughout her sixteen visions there is a fine counterpoint between Julian's suffering of illness and the suffering of Jesus on the cross. She is not an active participant in the visions, however, she carries on an animated conversation with Christ on the cross, asking him questions, probing for clarification and as Grace Jantzen describes it, "expects good answers from him" (Jantzen, 1995:167). Julian also understood that these answers were not for her sole gratification. The visions were not given to her, but for all her fellow Christians. This was made clear in the first vision:

In all this I was greatly moved in love towards my fellow Christians, that they might all see and know the same as I saw, for I wished it to be a comfort to them, for this vision was shown for all men.

Julian's understanding is that her visions were for teaching others. Consequently, shortly after her unexpected recovery, at which point she became an anchoress, she wrote down her visions (first in a short text) and then in a second text what would become her book "Divine Revelations of Love." In the following sections I focus on her self-representations through and in the body as a site of knowing.


According to Elizabeth Spearing (2002), medieval piety saw a variety of developments in the Middle Ages. As far as women were concerned one of these was that bodiliness provided access to the sacred. This emerged, in part, according to Spearing (2002) as a result of a "general shift in emphasis towards Christ Humanity, God inhabiting a suffering human body, culminating in the mutilation of that body in the Passion and Crucifixion." Christ's pain, and the blood and water that flowed from his wounds, were the means by which it was possible for human beings to be saved. Given that medieval thought associated masculinity with mind and spirit and femininity with body, women for all their inferiority and subordination, could be felt to have a special connection with Jesus in his Passion, and through their bodies they could hope to have special access to the sacredness associated with his body.

Julian's life-changing spiritual experience, her knowing, began as illness, that is, as a disturbance in the body. Julian asks for bodily knowledge of Christ's suffering through her own bodily experience. She writes

In this illness I wanted to undergo all those spiritual and physical sufferings I should have were I really dying, and to know, moreover, the terror and assaults of the demons-everything, except death itself.

(Wolters, 1966: 63)

Julian becomes ill and it is during this time that she receives her sixteen revelations, visions. She recalls:

When I was half way through my thirty-first year God sent me an illness which prostrated me for three days and nights. On the fourth night I received the last rites of Holy Church as it was thought that I could not survive till day. After this I lingered two more days and nights, and on the third night I was quite convinced that I was passing away-as indeed were those about me.

(Wolters, 1966: 64)

Julian was administered her last rites by the parish priest and a cross was set before her eyes. She writes:

My sight began to fail, and the room became dark about me, as if it were night, except for the image of the cross which somehow was lighted up; but now was beyond my comprehension . .. then the rest of my body began to die, and I could hardly feel a thing. Suddenly all my pain was taken away, and I was as fit and well as I had ever been.

She continued:

Then it came suddenly to mind that I should ask for the second wound of our Lord's gracious gift, that I might in my own body fully experience and understand his blessed passion. I wanted his pain to be my pain: a true compassion producing longing for God.

When women hunger for Christ and long for union with him they desire a body capable of representing the experiences of women. Women's mystical self-representation insists upon the simultaneous presence of Christ's body in the mystic's and the mystic's body in Christ's. Julian's "knowings" evolved from the body in pain, through the body on the cross, to the ecstatic and risen body. According to Leigh Gilmore (1994), the body of Christ offers something other than the absence of "male or female." In its anatomical maleness and its semiotic femaleness (feeds us with body and blood), the desire of and for both the female and the male effectively undercuts the phallic mode of desiring (Gilmore, 140). Like Christ, her body is capable of miraculous transformation. It is a body that can resist the logic of gender and map a contradictory discourse of gender hierarchy into religious discourse

Her bodily changes, that she "could hardly feel a thing" are the result of her meditations on and vision of Christ as he undergoes the profound changes he underwent in the Passion and Resurrection (rebirth). It is at this point that she receives her first vision: Christ's (female) bodily experiences on the cross. There are graphic and poignant descriptions of his bodily sufferings.

Because of the pull of the nails and the weight of that blessed body it was a long time suffering. For I could see that the great, hard, hurtful nails in those dear and tender hands and feet caused the wounds to gape wide and the body to sag forward under its own weight, and because of the time that it hung there. His head was scarred and torn, and the crown was sticking to it, congealed with blood; his dear hair and his withered flesh was entangled with the thorns, and they with it.

(Wolters, 1966: 89)

According to Grace Jantzen (1995) no male medieval writer, not even Francis of Assisi, ever focused so lovingly or in anything like such detail on the physical body of Jesus on the cross. Julian revises the experience of being acted on by illness, of being a prisoner to a body that suffers; passivity turns to passion as her wounded body is conflated with Christ's. This union becomes the center of her autobiographical reflections in which she represents herself as an active agent in relation to the Divine.

Clearly, Julian claimed the body as a site of knowing. However, this signification operates in complex ways. On one level her narrative fits neatly within the orthodox religious discourses of identity and faith (Gilmore, 1994). According to Caroline Bynum (1991) behavior in which bodiliness provided access to the sacred seems to have increased dramatically in frequency in the twelfth century and to have been more characteristic of women than men. For medieval mystics the body is a recurrent theme. Late medieval piety emphasized the body as the locus of the sacred. Both male and female saints regularly engaged in what we would call torture-jumping into ovens or icy ponds, driving nails or knives into their flesh, whipping or hanging themselves as a means to pantomime the crucifixion. The discipline of the body is seen as synonymous with and essential to the discipline of the mind and full devotion to Christ. Taming the body is necessary to resist temptations of all kinds. Both men and women manipulated their bodies through flagellation and other forms of self-inflicted suffering as well as illness. To attribute this behavior solely to hatred of the body (or a form of self-regulation) is to neglect that the mystics emphasized the body as a theater of tremendous potential for self-representation. If we reduce their desire to control the body to masochism or self-regulation (both psychoanalytic and Foucaultian readings) we misread as passivity their passionate activity.

Because preachers, confessors, and spiritual directors assumed the person to be a psychosomatic unity, they not only read unusual bodily events as expressions of soul, but also expected the body itself to offer a means of access to the divine. On one level, this was concurrent with medieval theological thinking. During this time the Platonic and Augustine notion that the person is a soul, making use of the body was being modified. The concept of a person as both body and soul undergrided most scholastic discussions, thus persons were seen as their bodies (Relics, pieces of dead people were seen as the loci of the sacred). Because they associated the female with the fleshly, they expected somatic expressions to characterize women's spirituality. However, despite these bodily expectations, woman was inferior to man and women clearly internalized the negative value placed on them by the culture in which they lived. Moreover, for all its expressiveness, the body was inferior to the soul. The locus of fertility and mystical encounter, it was also the locus of temptation and decomposition (Bynum, 1992: 236). Whereas soul (male) was immortal, body rose only after decay and as a result of Christ's grace.

Simultaneously, the clergy encouraged somatic female behavior since it brought them under supervision of spiritual directors and was a way for men to learn the will of God (Bynum, 1992: 195). Thus, although bodily experiences legitimated women as knowers of divine will, the nature of what counted as legitimate bodily experience was defined by male clerics. It is within this politics of control that women mystics rewriting of the body as irreducibly plural in its capacity to signify different levels of experience occurs. The spiritualities of male and women religious were different and this difference had to do with the body. For Julian this difference had to do with "her resistance to the representation and interpretation of female gendered bodies and identities as unfailingly secondary" (Gilmore: 134). Cheryl Glenn (1997) maintains that Julian "unsexes the maleness of God, of Jesus, of Christianity, with a feminine and masculine Christology through which women and men could be liberated and redeemed-as women and men." This knowledge and Julian's theology is the result of her embodied knowing.

Thus, for Julian, her bodily illness which results in her revelations and union with Christ, become a site of transformation in which gender is reconceived. The body, that which signifies female, was not just a site within which revelations occurred. It was not a container or holder of experience, for this would ultimately render the body as passive. Instead, for women mystics knowledge was generated from within the body. These psychosomatic manipulations included: stigmata, mystical lactations and pregnancies, catatonic trances, ecstatic nosebleeds, miraculous anorexia, eating and drinking pus, visions of bleeding hosts and illness or recurrent pain. It is within this context that the extraordinary bodily qualities of women's piety between 1200 and 1500 must be understood. As Caroline Bynum (1992) suggests: "The body, and in particular the female body, seems to have begun to behave in new ways at a particular moment in the European past. I turn to Julian's symbolic association of women with blood (menstruation/childbirth) as a specific embodied site in which she recuperates female experience/disrupts it and thus creates her own unique understanding of knowing.


Julian's first revelation is the crowning of Christ:

At once I saw the red blood trickling down from under the garland, hot, fresh and plentiful . . .

In the medieval conception blood was the basic body fluid and female blood was the fundamental support of human life. Medical theory held that the shedding of blood purged or cleansed those who shed it. Bleeding was held to be necessary, so much so that physiologists sometimes spoke of males as "menstruating" (hemorrhoidal bleeding) and recommended bleeding with leeches if they did not do so. Thus, Christ's bleeding on the cross was associated with female bleeding and feeding. This similarity was however, according to Leigh Gilmore (1994) not interpreted by women as "lack but as a symbol of their power."

For women mystics the blood and wounding of Christ and the menstrual blood and blood of childbirth associated with women's sexuality linked his blood and their blood and signified their union. This longing for union (longing is a ongoing theme throughout Julian's narrative) is not reducible to the desire of the phallus, but "persists as desire for the whole body of Christ and especially for a body capable of representing the experiences of women" (Gilmore, 1994: 141).

This is significant for although the shedding of blood was seen as necessary, blood itself was seen to be impure, unclean, hence the association with pollution. Julian's revelation of the bleeding alternatively signals cleansing and healing:

. . . though God through his compassionate love has made an abundant supply of water on earth for our use and comfort, he wishes us to use quite simply his blessed blood to wash ourselves clean of sin. For there is no comparable fluid that he would so like to give us. Of all it is at once the most copious and most costly (because it is divine), and, because of his great love, it is the most suitable and gladdening we could want."

(Wolters, 1966: 82)

Julian's fourth revelation is "God prefers that we should be washed from our sin in his own blood rather than in water; his blood is most precious." His blood is Julian's blood and thus women's bodily experiences are reinscribed as precious. As a consequence both male and female experience is validated, the female body is reinscribed, or is it?

On one level this reading is comforting, and as a woman soothes the wounds of a culture that has a love/hate relationship with women's bodies. It is a seductive reading. Elevating the body over the soul as the primary site of knowing is a powerful epistemological standpoint within a culture that as Petroff (1994) describes needs to control and purify the female body—a "grotesque" as opposed to a "classical" body, to borrow Bakhtin's terminology. And yet, I am unsettled by this textualized "good" body since it infers that women's experiences can indeed be consolidated through the female body. Thus, it potentially functions to make the female body "natural" and persists in maintaining gender identity as either male or female as inevitable.

And yet, there is nothing "naturally" oppressive or libratory about the discourse of the body. What appeared to me initially as a subversion of gender, Julian's recuperation of the female body, functions on another level to keep binary concepts of gender intact which then reproduces the body as natural as opposed to a social construction. Judith Butler (1990) maintains that positing a strong or autonomous female subject leaves in tact gender bipolarities and institutional structures that support given gender positions. More importantly, it retains notions of power as a source of liberation. Thus, I am back to a heroines reading of history which reinforces duality and essentializes gender.

Another possible reading resists my desire for closure, for a tidy rereading of the female body. A second reading of Julian's use of the body is done within the context of Julian's experience in which knowledge of Christ was shown to her in three ways. At the end of the first revelation in which she is in union with Christ's bodily pain during the crucifixion she states: "All this was shown me in three ways, in actual vision (physical), in imaginative understanding (mind) and in spiritual sight (soul)." (Wolters, 1966: 76). Bodily experience is also spiritual and imaginative experience. The body does not become a mere conduit for experience, but bodily experience is spiritual experience and imaginative experience. Julian writes;

For just as the body is clothed in its garments, and the flesh in its skin, and the bones in their flesh, and the heart in its body, so too are we, soul and body, clothed from head to foot in the goodness of god.

(Wolters, 1966: 70)

Thus in reading gender, the body is textualized not as either male or female, but as both male and female. In this way, "mystical self-representation resists the duality and finality of gender" (Gilmore, 1994: 133). Julian is not privileging the body but on some level suggesting an integrated theory of body, soul and mind as an epistemological framework. To say that God— that which she has signified as female—is three entities in one is to insist that no single conceptualization can encompass the divine (Flinders, 1993: 95).

What was ultimately shown Julian through these mediums was that souls and bodies are clothed in the goodness, the love of God. Grace Jantzen (1995) maintains that "Julian's teaching concerning spiritual progress has everything to do with receiving and trusting the faithful love of God and nothing to do with standard themes of distrust of the body and especially sexuality." Julian reconceives the female body from the site of evil and temptation to one is which she has absolute conviction that the body is a site of goodness and the love of God. The body embodies goodness and thus control and repression of the female body (the normative Christian reading) are absent in Julian's text.

For women mystics, bodily experiences, like the union with Christ, in Julian's case through their mutual bleeding, is such a profound and sensual experience that it goes beyond the senses and words for describing them. I quote Julian, " . . . his suffering and self-abnegation so far surpasses anything we might experience that we shall never wholly understand it" (Wolters, 1966: 105). This is in contrast to male mystics (Eckhart or Walter Hilton) who write of being at a core or ground or inner point of understanding (Bynum, 1992: 192). Julian claims her bodily experience as a site of knowing and simultaneously suggests that we can never know. Her resistance to fixed, meaning claims, that knowing cannot be put into words functions to destabilize and keep in flux any unitary reading of gender and thus how we come to know. Julian exchanges normative secular practices of femininity for a lifelong attention to an eroticized body discourse that moves beyond gender. This positioning allows her to reread herself as a subject.

Julian's revelations are thus a profound reminder of the body as a contested terrain for knowing and the continuity of women's experience of the body as a site of regulation. When we are taught to hate our bodies, that they are never good enough so that we have to pluck them, tweeze them, shave them, suck them in, tighten them up, liposuction them, face lift them, silicone them, and starve them, Julian's message of self-love can not be treated as mere sentimentalizing. In this way Julian's narrative pushes us to continually ask "What makes it possible for us to think of the body as natural" who defines the limits and possibilities of our knowing and how is the body implicated in this inscription. Julian not only claims the female body as one site for knowing, but in becoming one with that body we can embody love.


Julian's spiritual experiences began as illnesses, that is as disturbances in the body. She produced a discourse evolving from the body in pain, through the body on the cross, to the ecstatic and risen body. Her body was enfolded by and enfolded the body of Christ. The body of Christ as the ground of mystical experience provided the occasion for what can be called a counterdiscourse of gender. That is, in the mystics self-representation of the relationship between Christ's body and her own, there is both male and female. Julian's text insists upon the interchangeability of male and female, gendered body tropes within a single, reconceived body. In this way, mystical self-representation of the body resists the duality and finality of gender. The mystics texts narrativize gender less as an inevitable identity than as a focus for self-representational agency. It is not that gender disappears in mystical self-representation focused on the body, but its ideological construction as "limitation" and "flaw" is escaped.

For Julian the bodily experiences of illness and consequent revelations authorize a new logic of gender that disrupts the unitary subject. Julian unsexes God/Jesus, thereby revising the logic of gender and mapping a contradictory discourse of gender. Not only does she claim the body (symbolic of women) as a site of knowing, she reconceives the body as an infinite network of possibilities not as biological fact. The dualism of male/female and soul/body no longer constitute the basis of who is a knower and how we come to know. In fact, Julian's theology does not position the body as the site of knowing. Knowledge is not conceptualized as reducible or something that can be contained, but as infinite and beyond our comprehension.

I do not want to construct Julian as a feminist heroine. To construct such a monolithic, unitary figure would be to disregard the powerful patriarchal discourses of identity within which women and men struggle to authorize themselves as knowers and construct a subject position. Julian's story provides a unique picture into one 14th century woman's ongoing negotiation of gender. Of a woman compelled to push at the male-defined ecclesiastical boundaries while simultaneously being subservient to them. It is a reminder of the ongoing struggle we each confront as we claim and name the meanings of our experiences within structures that impose meanings on us that are not of our own making.

Source: Petra Munro Hendry, "Disrupting the Subject: Julian of Norwich and Embodied Knowing," in Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 95-108.


Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, translated by Ewert Cousins, Paulist Press, 1978.

Catherine of Genoa, Purgation and Purgatory; The Spiritual Dialogue, translated by Serge Hughes, Paulist Press, 1979.

Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, Paulist Press, 1980.

Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and enl. ed., Temple Smith, 1970, pp. 148-86.

Dionysius the Areopagite, The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Clifton Wolters, Penguin, 1970.

Dupré, Louis, and James A. Wiseman, eds., Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, Paulist Press, 1988, pp. 133-51, 238-51.

Eckhart, Meister, Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation, translated by Matthew Fox, Image Books, 1980.

———, Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, translated by Raymond B. Blakney, Harper & Row, 1941, p. 206.

———, Meister Eckhart: German Sermons and Treatises, translated by M. O'C. Walshe, Vol. 1, 1979, pp. 153-61.

———, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense, translated by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, Paulist Press, 1981.

Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 1974, p. 223.

Fox, Michael, Handbook of Christian Spirituality, Harper & Row, 1985.

Fredell, Joel, "Margery Kempe: Spectacle and Spiritual Governance," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75,, No. 2, Spring 1996.

Furlong, Monica, Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics, Shambhala, 1996.

Hendry, Petra Munro, "Disrupting the Subject: Julian of Norwich and Emobodied Knowing," in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 95-108.

Inge, William Ralph, Christian Mysticism, Methuen, 1899.

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Collins, 1975, pp. 366-413.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, translated by Clifton Wolters, Penguin, 1982.

———, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, Paulist Press, 1978.

Kempe, Margery, The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt, Penguin, 1985.

McGinn, Bernard, ed., Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, Paulist Press, 1986.

Petry, Ray, ed., Late Medieval Mysticism, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 13, Westminster Press, 1957, pp. 116-41.

Powell, Raymond A., "Margery Kempe: An Exemplar of Late Medieval Piety," in Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 89,, No. 1, January 2001.

Roberts, J. M., A History of Europe, Allen Lane, 1996, pp. 129-44, 162-80.

Rolle, Richard, The Fire of Love and The Mending of Life, translated by M. L. del Mastro, Image Books, 1981.

Ruusbroec, John, The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works, translated by James A. Wiseman, Paulist Press, 1985.

Shearer, Alistair, and Peter Russell, trans., The Upanishads, Wildwood House, 1978, p. 19.

Stace, W. T., Mysticism and Philosophy, Macmillan, 1961.

Suso, Henry, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, edited and translated by Frank Tobin, Paulist Press, 1989.

Tauler, Johannes, Sermons, translated by Maria Shrady, Paulist Press, 1985.

Theologia Germanica, translated by Susanna Winkworth, Stuart & Watkins, 1966.

Underhill, Evelyn, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness, Methuen, 1957.


Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology, translated by C. E. Rolt, SPCK, 1979.

Dionysius the Areopagite was the sixth-century mystic who exerted such a powerful influence on many of the medieval mystics. These two short treatises are lucid expositions of his thought.

Hilton, Walter, The Scale or Ladder of Perfection, Kes-singer, 2004.

Water Hilton was a fourteenth-century Augustinian mystic. This book is his most famous work and details a soul's journey toward the perfect love of God. Hilton's writing is both compelling and easy to read.

Johnston, William, The Mysticism of "The Cloud of Unknowing": A Modern Interpretation, Abbey Press, 1975.

This analysis of the theology of The Cloud of Unknowing makes some very interesting comparisons to Zen Buddhism.

Jones, Rufus M., Studies in Mystical Religion, Macmillan, 1909.

This is an engaging, if somewhat opinionated, survey of mysticism from ancient times to the seventeenth century, including several chapters on that of the medieval period.

Wiethaus, Ulrike, Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics, Syracuse University Press, 1993.

This is a collection of nine scholarly essays that examine medieval women mystics from a variety of standpoints. The focus is on how religious women steered themselves through the patriarchal structure of late medieval society.

About this article

Medieval Mystics

Updated About content Print Article