What are mystics good for? If you follow prevailing wisdom, the answer is clear: not much. To really get things done in the world, we’re told, we need men and women of action.
Modern Christianity has bought into this idea. Much of medieval Christianity, too, affirmed the dichotomy between “contemplation” and “service”; it just valued the former over the latter. Religious orders that had a charism of “contemplation” were thought to be following the example of Mary over Martha, choosing “the better part” (Luke 10:38–42).
But there are clues that this polarized way of understanding the Christian life is wrong. Some of those clues lie in the text of the New Testament itself. The Lord withdrew to pray before his great works: before the calling of the disciples and the Sermon on the Mount, before walking on the sea, before his Passion. Other clues lie in the lives of those who took Christ as their template, who sought to follow him with their whole selves.
Where, after all, have many of those who have been most effective in the world gotten their ability to carry on? What is the source of the stubborn grace with which these people have persisted in doing good? To answer this question, I’d like to look at three very different examples: the spirituality of the Beguines, the life and work of the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, and the mystical activism of Simone Weil.
During the thirteenth century, partially because the fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade the organization of any new religious orders, and partially because of the church’s new emphasis on preaching and the “cure of souls,” Christian Europe found itself with a better-catechized laity. Religious orders, however, expected a dowry to be paid for those entering the convent, so those without sufficient means to match their devotion were barred from the cloister.1 In addition, a “woman surplus” made marriage impossible for many young women.2
Enter the Beguines. Especially active in the Low Countries and France, the Beguines were a lay movement of women (their male counterparts, far less numerous, were known as Beghards) who joined in communities in order to develop a life of deep prayer combined with a commitment to serving the sick, the dying, and the poor.
Though they adopted uniform habits of dress similar to women in consecrated religious life, the Beguines didn’t make any formal vows and could come and go as they pleased – even maintaining their own households if they could afford to. The church exercised far less supervision over the spiritual lives of Beguines than over those in monastic life, and their confessors and spiritual directors were, often, in sympathy with the movement. Meister Eckhart, for example, was the spiritual director for a community of Beguines, and his mystical spirituality had much in common with theirs.
With a more tenuous relationship to authority came a greater degree of independence in their spiritual and practical lives. As a result, the Beguine way of life often confused contemporaries. “There are among us,” wrote Gilbert of Tournai (ca. 1200–1284), “women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.”3 Their otherness – not to mention their independence – led them into trouble with church authorities on occasion, and in 1310, it resulted in the fiercely courageous and uncompromising Beguine mystic Marguerite Porete being burned at the stake as a heretic.
Along with other thirteenth-century Beguines and former Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch of Antwerp,4 and Beatrice of Nazareth, Porete wrote in a variety of literary genres. These women developed a theological aesthetics grounded in love. Their mystical writings, like the Song of Songs, depict a spirituality of the bridal chamber. Theirs is a spirituality of complete abandonment: love serves as both their way of knowing and their way of acting. This love appears in the world as care for the poor. They understand God by forsaking understanding. They transcend the idea of ascent to God by degrees, instead uniting themselves to him directly through love. They take Augustine’s “Love God and do what you will” seriously – which is what alarmed the ecclesiastical authorities of their times. As Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, “Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them.”5 Unfortunately, the theologians of the medieval period did not tend to be big listeners, especially with regard to women.
While we possess a great store of the mystical literature of the Beguines, documentation of the service-oriented aspects of their lives is sparse. We know they set up hospitals and schools, took special care of lepers, did what we would now call hospice work, and served the poor. We know that their ministry was almost totally devoted to the care of women. We know that Beguines worked in farming and animal husbandry, and as weavers, tailors, embroiderers, and launderers, among other trades. Unlike their counterparts in the cloister, Beguines were free, as James of Vitry noted in 1216, to “live by the work of their own hand.”6 But they didn’t really like to write about it. Instead, they emphasized their encounters with God, for without these encounters, their lives would mean nothing.
The good works of the Beguines, they would say, were not their own but God’s. To draw attention to these works would be prideful. Their participation in these works was merely a product of their complete abandonment to God and his love. As Mechthild of Magdeburg prays, “Ah, dear Lord, have mercy on one who has been consumed here in the fire of your love and has been absorbed in your humility and has been annihilated in all things.”7 The Beguines were absorbed in humility. The only cause they had to promote was abandonment to God.
When the first English Civil War ended in summer of 1646, a Royalist lieutenant, Henry Vaughan, aged twenty-five, returned home to Brecon, Wales, to convalesce, having suffered imprisonment for his defense of King Charles I. Within a year, his dear younger brother William died. On January 30, 1649, the Parliamentarian government of Oliver Cromwell beheaded the king for whom he had fought. The young Welshman was ripe for a spiritual crisis.
And he got one.
But his reading of John Donne and, especially, George Herbert during his convalescence gave him a vocabulary for exploring his own encounter with God. In the two installations of his Silex Scintillans (“the sparking flint,” 1650 and 1655), he gives voice to this encounter. He also adds something unusual (in his time) to the language of poetry: the natural world. Critics have been fond of categorizing Vaughan as a harbinger of the nature mysticism often attributed to the Romantic poets, but this is a rather ham-handed association. Nature does not interest Vaughan in itself, as a thing to be observed and enjoyed. Rather, it is important because it reveals and participates in God. And, as he writes in the poem “Rules and Lessons,” the creation indeed speaks of the Creator:
To heighten thy Devotions, and keep low
All mutinous thoughts, what business e’r thou hast
Observe God in his works; here fountains flow,
Birds sing, Beasts feed, Fish leap, and th’ Earth stands fast;
Above are restless motions, running Lights,
Vast Circling Azure, giddy Clouds, days, nights.
Henry Vaughan was the identical twin of Thomas Vaughan, the Anglican priest, and both were interested in the scientific and religious ideas then seeping into Britain from the Continent, particularly the idea that there is a synergy between the spiritual world, the human body, and the creation. Both Vaughans believed in the doctrine of signatures in medicine (the idea that herbs resemble the part of the body that they are able to cure) as they believed in biblical typology: the idea that God’s wisdom could reveal itself to the attentive reader of nature and scripture. These interests manifest in the writings of both brothers, but they also made their way into their working lives – they were physicians. In his poetry, Henry adopts the same ethos he held as a doctor: poetry as physic for the soul, leading readers into a relationship with God.
Vaughan’s interest in medicine was of a piece with his attention to the natural world, his love for God, and his care for others. He lived, that is, an integrated life. He did not have one brain for science and another for faith. Rather, science and faith, in his eyes, revealed the same essence.
However, very little about Vaughan’s life as a doctor is known to us. As with the Beguines, the inner life with God he describes in his poetry was the only thing he considered worth committing to posterity.
Simone Weil (1909–1943) is one of the most fascinating – and intimidating – religious figures of the twentieth century. Previously an atheist, philosopher, pacifist, activist, social critic, and teacher, Weil, in her search for truth, became a factory worker, farm laborer, soldier, and mystic – and her search very nearly made her a Catholic. During World War II, Weil worked for the French Resistance in England, refusing to permit herself more food than was available to those in occupied France. She contracted tuberculosis, but despite doctors’ instructions, she did not eat more. Finally, she died, causing the coroner to record that “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” In truth, she was anything but disturbed, as Albert Camus testified in calling her “the only great spirit of our times.” The times were disturbed. To be the only sane person in a mad world is to be considered mad.
Unlike the Beguines and Henry Vaughan, Weil was an activist before her mystical encounters with God. Yet, though she was ethnically Jewish, with parents who were atheists, Christianity had always seemed to be a part of her. “While the very name of God had no part in my thoughts,” she wrote, “with regard to the problems of this world and this life, I shared the Christian conception in an explicit and rigorous manner, with the most specific notions it involves.”8 This sensibility led her to seek solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the afflicted. And desire led to deeds. Initially, her social activism guided her to communism, but, though she was known in that milieu as “the Red Virgin,” she became disenchanted with radical politics. “It is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people,” she concluded.9 Only Christ possessed the truth she had intuited all her life.
Weil’s gradual journey to the cross was the product of an important tool of the mystics, and one that she employed from an early age: the ability to pay scrupulous attention to whatever or whoever was before her. “Attention,” she writes, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”10 And it was this attention that God began more and more to capture. In 1937, Weil visited Assisi. In the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Saint Francis had prayed, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”11 For the first time, she prayed. During Holy Week the following year, she attended liturgical services. “In the course of these services,” she wrote, “the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.” Later – like Vaughan – Weil discovered George Herbert’s poetry. Her attention to the poem “Love (III)” resulted in an experience in which, she said, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
For the rest of her short life, her activism and her writing were increasingly shot through with mystical and religious threads, permeated by her encounter with Christ.
Weil was painfully aware of the spiritual and psychological traps inherent to the ego’s involvement in activism, writing, “God is not present, even if we invoke him, where the afflicted are merely regarded as an occasion for doing good.” For Weil, it wasn’t enough to feel sympathy for factory workers, soldiers, or farm laborers. She needed to suffer alongside them, to help bear their burdens. Is this not what Christ did through the Incarnation? Nietzsche wrote, with some justification, that “in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Nietzsche is lucky he never met Simone Weil. She would have rattled him. She should rattle everyone.
Paul the Apostle, perhaps the prototype for both the mystic and the missionary, clearly saw no division between the two vocations. The man who “was snatched up to Paradise to hear words which no man may speak” (2 Cor. 12:4) was also shipwrecked, beaten, scourged, and eventually beheaded for spreading the gospel and founding churches throughout the Mediterranean. Others throughout history also lived rich inner lives of mystical union with God complemented by lives of service or mission, what we now might call activism. Among them are Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, the seventeenth-century leader of the Philadelphian Society Jane Lead (who modeled her mission on that of Paul), and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. As the Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Soloviev observed, Christ “did not send his apostles into the solitude of the desert, but into the world to conquer it and subject it to the kingdom which is not of this world.”12
Not everyone is called to the celibacy and service of the Beguines, not everyone is called to the poetic and medical vocation of Henry Vaughan, and not everyone is called to the uncompromising witness of Simone Weil. But everyone is called. What the Beguines, Vaughan, and Weil provide for us are models of the integrated life, a life whose inner reality is mirrored in the individual’s outer work in the world. Grounded in an experience of God’s own love, mystical activism is the quiet revolution that without force, compulsion, or shaming transforms the world into the kingdom.
- Emilie Zum Brunn and Georgette Epiney-Burgard, introduction to Women Mystics in the Middle Ages, (Paragon, 1989), xx–xxi.
- Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565 (University of Pennsylvania, 2001), 109.
- Quoted in Carol Neel, “The Origins of the Beguines,” Signs 14, no. 2, (Winter 1989): 321–341, at 323.
- There may have been either one or two women known by this name.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible , (Ignatius, 2004), 12.
- Quoted by Simons, Cities of Ladies, 68.
- Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead (Paulist, 1998), 252.
- Simone Weil, Waiting for God (Harper, 2009), 22.
- Simone Weil, An Anthology, ed. Sián Miles (Grove, 1986), 160.
- Simone Weil to Joë Bousquet, April 13, 1942. Correspondance (Éditions l’Âge d’Homme, 1982), 18.
- Weil, Waiting for God, 26. Subsequent quotes from Weil: ibid., 34, 27, 93.
- Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church (Geoffrey Bles, 1948), 39.