Mechthild of Magdeburg
Mechthild of Magdeburg
A Visionary BÉguine.
Mechthild of Magdeburg was a German spiritual writer as well as a great mystic of the thirteenth century. She came from a noble Saxon family but rejected her heritage for an existence of simplicity and prayer. Mechthild joined a Béguine community at Magdeburg, devoting herself to a life filled with penance and humility. Like another of the great Béguine mystics, Hadewijch of Antwerp, she saw herself as a vessel of divine inspiration. Mechthild believed she had received the ability to speak, as inspired by God, directly from her visions of ecstasy, led by a charismatic spirit. One of her common themes was the notion that from weakness comes strength. Like other Béguines, she saw that a life lived in imitation of Christ was something open to all Christians, not just clerics and individuals in orders. Her prophetic calling was viewed as a transcendent communion with the love of God.
A Threat to Church Authority.
Like the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, Mechthild employed the image of bride and bridegroom from the Old Testament Song of Songs to convey her spiritual union. Because of her association with the secular world, it was also permissible for her to use the language of courtly love in her writings. Between 1250 and 1269 she produced a book about her visions entitled Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit (Outflowing Light of the Godhead). The work was written in bold poetic style and became quite influential on subsequent German medieval mystics. Mechthild, like Marie d'Oignies, was not afraid to point out the prevalent immoral activity of the clerics that she saw around her. She drew great criticism from the male-dominated church, both for her freedom of expression and for her claims to receive direct divine communication. The period in which the Béguines operated was clearly a time when clerics were threatened by the profound piety of holy secular women, particularly when they admitted to having mystical experiences or direct illuminations. Not only did they undermine the authority of the hierarchy, but also it was felt that their lack of formal theological training might lead them into some type of heresy. The anti-mendicant Parisian master William of Saint-Amour once wrote that the laity stood in constant need of perfection through the ministry of the clergy. Since the Béguines were not under the authority of a religious order or secular clerics, the direction of their spiritual leadership and influence was seen as unregulated, uninformed, and unprofessional. Eventually, as with many other outspoken Béguines of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Mechthild was pressured into retreating to a convent. At the age of 62, she entered the Cistercian house at Helfta, where she continued writing and added one more volume to her work.
Marie Conn, Noble Daughters (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000).
Saskia Murk-Jansen, Brides in the Desert: Spirituality of the Béguines (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998).