MECHTHILD of Magdeburg (1207-82) combined an outrageous
bluntness with an overwhelmingly love-filled, mystical
spirituality. In her twenties, she joined a group of Beguines
(communities of women not bound by vows), and devoted herself to
prayer, writing, peripatetic preaching, and caring for the
She lambasted the ethical shortcomings of society with all the
punch of the Old Testament prophets. Greed, sexual immorality, and
gross idleness were endemic among the clergy, and she hit them
hard: "The reason that God calls the cathedral clergy goats is
because they reek of impurity regarding Eternal Truth before His
She was denounced as heretical, and her book, The Flowing
Light of the Godhead, escaped the bonfire by a whisker.
Undaunted, she rose to the attack. "I betook myself to prayer . . .
then God commandest me to write." Not only was this bordering on
blasphemy: it was a woman daring to thrust herself into the
male-dominated field of medieval theology. The final insult came
when she chose to write not in ecclesiastical Latin, but in the
common parlance of Middle German. With one swift blow, this denuded
the clergy of much of their mystique.
Mechthild's visions and unique relationship with God stirred up
jealousy in her sister Beguines. She told them that God spoke of
her tenderly, as "a light before my eyes, a lyre in my ears, a love
in my life". It did not go down well, and she was despised,
belittled, and excluded from the daily Offices and the celebration
of mass. For her, this was an "exile of soul". Stress made her ill,
and she went blind. The Cistercian nuns at Helfde took pity on
Mechthild and incorporated her into their Order, where she found
The Flowing Light of the Godhead is a compendium of
visions, letters, and mellifluous spiritual poetry. It brims over
with an ecstatic, reciprocal love of the Lord. She speaks of God as
flowing in love, burning with ardent desire, and longing for union
with her. He is the one who fills her heart, and to live without
him is unthinkably bleak. In his reply, God likens her to a rose
with thorns, and a bee seeking honey; and he promises that he will
never turn away from her.
She was no stranger to the dark night of the soul: "A day is as
a thousand years when you are absent." Time after time she fought
her way through this seeming desertion by God until blessed light
came again. God's love returned to her like a bird gliding through
the air, hovering on the currents.
Her ethical stance resonates today. Consumerism, sexual
exploitation, and a materialistic philosophy are not commensurate
with the message of Christ. Her championing of women's equality
echoes contemporary thinking in the Church. Mechthild's use of the
common tongue is a reminder that the gospel message is not
exclusively for the spiritual elite, but for all humanity. Today's
world cries out for her belief that prayerful love can disempower
evil and awaken us to the divine.
Perhaps what rings most in our ears after reading The
Flowing Light of the Godhead is her prayer that captures so
precisely the spirit of contemplation. "Wouldst thou know my
meaning? Lie down in the Fire, See and taste the Flowing Godhead
through thy being. Feel the Holy Spirit moving and compelling thee
within the Flowing Fire and light of God."
Now that really does have the potential to boost our spiritual
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in