Women have been sidelined and marginalized in every established institutional religion in the world. Even in alternative spiritual movements, male teachers and leaders abuse their authority toward their female students and followers. This is why women’s circles and spiritual groups are as relevant and necessary in 2020 as they ever were. Those women who can’t find spiritual community often chose to go it alone on a solitary path. But they are not entirely alone–they follow in the footsteps of a long ancestral line of female seekers and mystics, who rejected a life of slavish obedience to male authority figures in order to contemplate the deep mysteries of the soul on a path of inner revelation.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines mysticism as the belief that there is hidden meaning in our existence, that every human being can unite with the divine. The American Dictionary states that mysticism is the belief that it is possible to directly receive truth or achieve communication with the divine through prayer and contemplation.
Some of the most famous mystics of the Western spiritual tradition have been women who plunged deep within their souls for spiritual guidance and emerged with ecstatic, prophetic, and radical insights.
Hildegard of Bingen, the visionary 12th abbess and polymath, whose feast is celebrated on September 17, received divine revelations that gave birth to an entire body of exquisite sacred music that is still being performed today. She also poured her visionary wisdom into nine books on topics as diverse as theology, cosmology, medicine, and human sexuality.
You can read my previous FAR blogs about Hildegard here:
- Voice of Wisdom: What Hildegard Means Now
- Hildegard: A Saint Eight Centuries in the Making
- Life Begins at 42: Hildegard’s Guide to Becoming a Midlife Powerfrau
- The Soul is Symphonic: Reclaiming Sacred Music
- Connecting Heaven and Earth: Singing Hildegard
- I have also written a novel drawn from Hildegard’s life, Illuminations.
Medieval Europe saw the rise of many female mystics, not all of them cloistered nuns. The beguines started a women’s spirituality movement based on women of diverse backgrounds living and working together without being under the auspices of a religious order or taking permanent vows–they could leave their all-female community whenever they wanted. But not all beguines lived in these communities–some embraced a wandering, mendicant life.
One of the most famous beguines was the mystic Marguerite Porete who wrote a mesmerizing book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Written not in ecclesiastical Latin but in her own vernacular Old French, her book describes how in deep contemplation we cease to exist as separate beings and merge with God. Her book was declared heretical and Porete was condemned to burn at the stake in 1310. Her Inquisitor denounced her as a pseudo-mulier, a fake woman, whose book was “filled with errors and heresies.” Yet she refused to recant her beliefs or withdraw her book. “They can burn me,” she said defiantly, “but they can never burn the truth.” A contemporary chronicle reported that the crowd was moved to tears to witness how calmly and courageously she faced her execution.
One of the most idiosyncratic mystics of the late middle ages was neither nun nor beguine, but a desperate housewife and failed business woman from Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk, England. Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) is the subject of my new novel Revelations, to be published in April 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
After her attempts to run her own brewery and horse mill failed, Margery had reached a crossroads in her life. The mother of fourteen children, she had endured many years of what we would now recognize as marital rape. Margery just wanted her husband to leave her alone, but canon law upheld his right to sexual congress without her consent. Solace came in the form of her visceral visions of the divine. Since divorce wasn’t an option, she traveled to nearby Norwich to seek spiritual counsel from the famed mystic anchoress, Julian of Norwich, who told her to trust her own inner guidance and not worry too much about what people thought about her. With Julian’s blessing, Margery set off on an extraordinary pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela, having many adventures on her way, including several heresy trials after she returned to England. This in an age where it was a perilous and rare thing for a woman to travel at all, let alone without her husband or male relatives. Little wonder the authorities assumed she was up to no good. She preserved her story for posterity in The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography written in English.
Margery offers plenty of inspiration for those of us today who live ordinary householder lives–Margery walked the mystic’s path in the full stream of worldly life with all its wonders and perils.
The mystic path is open to us all. All it takes is setting aside time each day for some form of meditation or contemplative practice. We might not emerge as visionaries like Hildegard, but this simple act will infuse our lives with a sense of divine presence, a numinosity that will radiate through our every seemingly mundane task so that each meal we prepare, each essay we write, each garden we plant becomes a prayer, an offering.
Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word,
Nor more than a honey bee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.
Categories: Feminism and Religion