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