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Turning secular to spiritual

02 January 2015

Hadewijch was no medieval dust-gatherer, writes David Bryant


Medieval fortress: Het Steen, Antwerp, existed in Hadewijch's day

Medieval fortress: Het Steen, Antwerp, existed in Hadewijch's day

OUT of the mists of the past emerges a shadowy, enigmatic figure. In 1838, the long-lost writings of Hadewijch, a 13th-century Dutch mystic, were rediscovered in Brussels.

Details of her life are scarce. Born in Antwerp, she joined a group of Beguines (women who lived a common life outside the convents), and became their leader, or "mistress". The daughter of a highborn family, she was familiar with the Minnesingers - courtiers who sang, danced, and wrote love poems.

She was intensely devout, experiencing visions and an intimacy with God which left her body trembling. Trouble was in the offing. She was accused of Quietism, the belief that the human will can be annihilated in this life, so that oneness with God becomes a reality. This made Hadewijch, religiously speaking, a hot potato. She was accused of heresy, and ostracised from her community. She may have fled to a leprosarium, and become a nurse.

Her writings are radical, and at times shocking. Most of her love poems are in the form of courtly ballads. She introduces them with gentle reflections on the seasons of the year, before plunging into shrewd insights concerning the spiritual life. Hadewijch speaks of spring coming and the harsh winter vanishing, and then provocatively claims that, if we love God with enough devotion, we will quickly lose ourselves in his great love.

Another poem begins benignly: "Joyful now are the birds That winter has depressed." It ends dramatically: spiritual love is a madness and leads to delirium. Such is the paradoxical power of love that it weakens the self-assured, heals the broken, brings unity to those at loggerheads, and turns strangers into kinsfolk.

Her outrageous preaching reached new heights when she described her love affair with God as seduction, undressing, and playing flirtatious games.

This mystic's particular genius lay in her ability to seize on the secular, courtly love of the troubadours, and to transpose it into a spiritual pilgrimage. In one poem, she compares her voyage to God to a knight on horseback: "Then I ride my proud steed And consort with my Beloved in supreme joy."

Hadewijch was in no way naïve or idealistic. For her, the spiritual life was far from being a bed of roses. At times it was bitter, dark, and desolate. We can pour out praise and longing to God, and yet life comes back at us with blow after blow. But she always rides out the storm: "In serving Love, one cannot lose."

Then, with a resounding faith, she proclaims that what love has promised will remain, irrevocably, come what may. It is a flashback to St Paul's great passage on love in his letter to the Romans.

In a splendid championing of women's equality, she writes a prose-poem in which four Masters are asked what is the strongest thing in the world. Their responses are: wine, a king, truth, and a woman. The winner turns out to be a woman because, at the incarnation, God chose the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the source of his birth. It was a wry dig at the male-dominated society of her day.

Hadewijch does not come over as a remote mystic, collecting dust. She jolts us out of our equanimity. Prayer is not just a vapid recitation of words, but a heartfelt dialogue, an unwavering waiting in the darkness for a glimpse of divine glory. For those who feel an emptiness and existential anxiety, she has words of cheer: hang on in there, and love will ultimately triumph - "Love always rewards, even though she comes late."

In her poem "Love's Remoteness", she concludes with the line "People have forgotten Love's immensity." That is quite some challenge to today's Church.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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