Voices of Spiritual Power
from Women and Spirituality, Ursula King, Macmillan 1989, ch. 4, pp. 91-115.
'For too many women, unfortunately, the myth of a divided spirituality survives, and too often it is equated with that antisexuality rampant in the ancient world . . .
We can counter the myth of a divided spirituality by reclaiming a history of women's experience and emphasizing a theology that centers on ourselves and God as beings who relate one with another ... If the self-concept is the single most important component of our behaviour, including our spiritual lives, then women, with centuries of conditioning about inferior spiritual capabilities, now must fight back and liberate ourselves from the mythology and inadequate theology that deprive God of meaning and ourselves of expectations of sanctity.
In reclaiming our own experience, we see clearly that authentic spirituality must be eminently social . . .
History has shown us women whose mystic experience in what I call the 'mystic circle' moved from contemplative prayer as learning love into intensive social involvement . . .
Valid mystical feminism reaches out, then, to our neighbor; it is social, rooted in love and ablaze with concern.' - Dody H. Donnelly, 'The Sexual Mystic: Embodied Spirituality', p. 125f.
Reading this quotation one can immediately ask whether there is something like 'mystical feminism' and 'feminist spirituality' and what are its main characteristics. The emphasis lies undoubtedly on a new self-concept and new relationships, on a breakthrough in consciousness and on a spirituality which is embodied and undivided, that is to say integral and holistic. Traditionally, spirituality is so often conceived as apart from the world and apart from the body, especially the female body. If one examines the literature on spirituality in different religions, spiritual advice seems often to be given irrespective of gender, addressed to seemingly asexual beings. In practice, however, most spiritual advice available from the past is addressed to men and often implies explicitly negative evaluations of women. Manuals of asceticism have much to answer for, as male models of holiness and perfection are often built around the rejection of and utter contempt for female bodies and their natural biological functions. In many, though not all, religions of the world women are considered as spiritually inferior and incapable of the same spiritual attainment as men. Supported by the institutional structure and power of office men have seen and acknowledged spiritual authority as primarily invested in themselves.
Unfortunately this has little changed today. And yet we know of many women of great spiritual authority and power who have provided spiritual leadership and inspiration for others, but often in an informal, non-hierarchical and non-institutional sense. Women have found spiritual empowerment in small groups or through literary and artistic creations which have given them a sense of their own worth, a sense of mastery and achievement. Yet it is quite extraordinary that in spite of the patriarchal cast of all religions and the male dominance and pride in spiritual matters, powerful women of the spirit, women saints and mystics have emerged in all faith communities known to us. Women around the globe possess a rich spiritual heritage of which they can truly be proud and feminists must help all women to become more aware of this. With rising spiritual awareness it is important to ask what spiritual resources can women draw on and enlist in meeting the crying needs of our contemporary world?
Spiritual resources within women themselves
In answering our question we must emphasise first of all the rich resources which women possess within themselves and which they have manifested frequently enough throughout history. These are resources primarily linked to women's biological, emotional and psychic attributes and abilities. There is perhaps first and foremost the immense resource of suffering as a source of strength to overcome adversity and affliction. There are the pain, the tears, the agony, the immense labour in bringing new life into the world and attending with equally immense patience to its slow and imperceptible growth. These are the roots for women's resources of compassion, of insight, and ultimately of wisdom.
There is also women's attention to detail, to the minutiae of life, the faithfulness to the daily round of duties which ensure personal and social wellbeing and make the smooth running of ever so many activities in the world possible and bearable. Then there is women's power of listening, of pacifying, of soothing and healing many a wound and settling many a quarrel and dispute. There is the strength of an encouraging smile and the gentle touch of love, the experience of generous selfless giving, of comfort, warmth, patient encouragement and recognition, the adaptability to people and their personal needs, the caring concern and understanding of others.
Peace, love, joy and harmony are all fruits of the spirit found in people of spiritual power and presence. They are not qualities unique to women but women, by the very nature of their traditional tasks and experience and by the social pressures and constraints put upon them, have often developed and embodied these qualities to an unusual degree. It is perhaps for this reason that the French religious thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) expressed the view that on women 'life has laid the charge of advancing to the highest possible degree the spiritualization of the earth' (1975, p. 84). Others have said similar things before. For example the famous Islamic mystic Ibn Arabi (13th century ce) engaged in wide-ranging speculation about the role of women for the spiritual life of humankind (Schimmel, 1975, 1982). Our world would certainly become radically transformed if the spiritual qualities which have often been seen as specifically 'female' or 'feminine' would be accepted and practised as a general human norm.
Today many women in the feminist movement experiment with new ways of understanding and practising spirituality. They thereby seek to evolve a new pattern of behaviour and relationships, not only for themselves but for all people. One of the most critical and agonising issues of our times is that of peace, and no spirituality can evade it and remain convincing. Women have been traditional peace-makers in the personal and private sphere but today they have taken their peace-making capacity into the public domain by struggling and campaigning for peace and justice in an entirely new way. This is evident from women's deep involvement in the peace and ecology movement to which we shall return later.
To put into practice the spirit of peace, of friendship and love, humankind must become fully aware of all the potentials of our global spiritual and moral resources, an essential part of which is represented by the spiritual heritage and resources of women. More than anything else this heritage of women consists in the celebration and affirmation of all life - the life that flows in our veins, the force that lives in nature all around us, the life that animates us within, and the life of the spirit which continually renews us. This is a most precious heritage for the renewal of our world and the life of all people, but women in particular can draw great strength not only from the spiritual resources within themselves and their sisters, but also from a rich and diverse heritage of symbols, beliefs and exemplary lives in the cultures and religions of the past.
The spiritual heritage of women
Whilst the past can never provide a complete blueprint for the shaping of the present, it contains many spiritual treasures which can help us in living today. More and more people are becoming aware of the rich spiritual heritage of women which must be recovered from the past. This means we have to uncover much that has been hidden, left out or forgotten; it means we have to remake, rewrite and reinterpret much that has gone for the history of our religious traditions. Innumerable women throughout history have lived a life of faith and have been a source of strength and fortitude to their contemporaries and later generations. It would be impossible to list all the great 'women of faith', the 'women of wisdom' known and praised in different religions, but let us look at just a few examples from the rich storehouse of history which can provide sources of inspiration for women and men today.
What is, in brief, the spiritual heritage of women? There is first of all the amazing heritage of all the resources of the primal, the archaic and the tribal experiences with their diverse worldviews wherein the interdependent unity of earth and sky, of day and night, of the female and male halves of human existence are still intuited as an integral whole lost to us today, a harmony of interdependence, mutual relationship and complementarity we have to forge again in a new, but different way. There is, for example, the Babylonian and Maori myth of the birth of all living forms from world parents who, in their sexual embrace, represent primal completeness and unified totality lost through their separation, a loss which must be overcome in order to regain unity. Contemporary women can learn a great deal from the balance and coherence of the primal vision, not only as it existed in the distant past but as still found intact in some small-scale societies today. One can admire and feel inspired by the 'daughters of the dreaming' (Bell, 1984), the Australian Aboriginal women whom a recent women researcher encountered as:
a strong, articulate and knowledgeable group of women who were substantially independent of their menfolk in economic and ritual terms. Their lives were not ones of drudgery, deprivation, humiliation and exploitation . . . nor was their self-image and identity bound up solely with the child-bearing and child-rearing functions. Instead I found the women to be extremely serious in the upholding, observance and transmission of their religious heritage. Religion permeated every aspect of their lives. (Bell, 1984, p. 231).
Another important aspect of women's spiritual heritage is the widespread experience of mother earth, the matrix of all life, the Terra Mater or cosmic mother widely worshipped throughout the world, whether we think of traditional African religions, of aspects of early Indian and Greek religion, of Celtic religion or so many others. What does the widespread existence and worship of an earth and fertility goddess teach us today? We have the 40,000 years old statue of the Venus of Willendorf, the oldest sign of fertility in the western world and a key symbol of life and creativity. Yet today we are looking for a new kind of fertility, not so much a fertility at the physical than at the spiritual level. Many women and men are discovering today a new kind of spirituality through their realisation of the interdependence of all living forms on earth. They are developing a new 'spirituality of the earth', a 'creation spirituality' whereby they recognise and celebrate the gift of life animating the earth and they acknowledge and venerate its sacredness.
A still richer heritage of women is represented by the numerous goddess figures found in Northern Europe, Europe, Africa, India and the Far East. It is not only the earth-centred, nature-oriented worship of the mother goddess who creates and sustains all life which many contemporary women have rediscovered as a powerful inspiration for their spirituality, but especially the figure of the independent Great Goddess. Less linked to motherhood and female bodily existence, she above all expresses female independence and power in her own right. She is seen as a feminine symbol of Ultimate Reality and reflects the great metaphysical truth that all is one at a higher level of existence. In the ancient Near East this figure is also known as Sophia, the great Wisdom Goddess, a divine being different from that of the patriarchal Father God. She is not so much a symbol of life as a symbol of spiritual plenitude, fullness of insight and understanding, a source of spiritual rather than physical birth and generation.
In the Far East we have Kannon, a female image of the Bodhisattva of compassion and mercy whose figure has attracted widespread veneration through the ages. The gracefulness and serenity of Kannon is sometimes understood as transcending the sexual distinctions of male and female, but she is also a figure who has assumed within herself several aspects of other female divinities found in China and elsewhere.
The awareness of the differentiation between male and female as well as the search for a higher unity has led in many religions to the concept of an androgynous godhead as the ultimate symbol of the unification of all opposites. We find the image of the androgyne as a symbol of unity and completeness in Indian religion, in the classical religions of Europe, in early Christianity and elsewhere. For many feminists the androgynous model is of central importance for their spiritual and social life, as we shall observe in the next chapter.
Can one see in these developments a progressive spiritualisation of female experience from the physical level to aspects of the spiritual such as wisdom, truth, love and integration? At the level of symbol and myth, of story and thought about the creation of the world, the nature of life and of Ultimate Reality we find a wealth of female imagery which can inspire not only the newly found identity and awareness of women today, but of men too.
A further source of inspiration and strength can be found in the lives of women saints and mystics from East and West many of whom provide viable examples for a dynamic, world-oriented spirituality today. This does not require their slavish imitation, as we can no longer live under the same conditions as women in the past. Yet powerful past 'women of the spirit' can none the less provide rich resources for the psychic, intellectual and religious life of our own times. Who is not inspired by the ardent love of the Islamic mystic Rabi'a and the many women in Sufism who followed in her path? Who does not admire the singlemindedness of Akka Mahadevi, the great Shiva devotee, or Mira Bai, the famous poet-princess of Hinduism who worshipped Krishna above all else, or Bahinabai who combined her life for God with a life for the family? Closer to our own time there is Sarada Devi, the wife of the late nineteenth-century Hindu saint Ramakrishna, who became a guru in her own right and subsequently inspired the foundation of Hindu women convents (see Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre, Women Saints East and West, 1955). We also know of innumerable Buddhist and Christian nuns, of women founders of religious groups, sects and new religious movements in different parts of the world. How did all these women of the past experience their vocation and find their identity in responding to a call of the spirit? How did they pursue a life of intense religious devotion and deep spirituality, often against the most incredible odds of their social and cultural environments?
All the resources of our creative imagination are called upon to stretch far back into the past and rejoin the lives of women through the ages. In retracing the pattern of their struggles and choices we can begin to sense the vivid texture of their lives and breathe the strength of their spirit. Women today can rejoice in the many spiritual 'foremothers' we possess and can discover a great company of women who can inspire their own search for identity and freedom. This is a powerful connection, a web of universal sisterhood far stronger than just the experiences of today.
This connection with the past is a tissue covering all aspects of women's lives but it is of particular significance in the area of spirituality. Whilst numerous details of women's past religious beliefs and practices may have an intrinsic fascination for us, not all are of equal importance for women's spirituality today. More than anything else it is the figure of the woman mystic who provides an outstanding example of personal autonomy, deep commitment and spiritual power. As many feminist writers remain unaware of the importance of religion as a powerful source of identity and freedom and are unacquainted with the spiritual heritage of women, they tend to ignore the inspiration and strength that women can draw from the example of religiously committed women in the past. One only needs to look at Simone de Beauvoir's influential work The Second Sex (1972) to realise that her far-reaching analysis of women's role and subjection in society takes little account of the independence reached by some religious and lay women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, for example, who pursued the spiritual life with extraordinary singlemindedness and often gained positions of great moral and spiritual authority in their communities, and this is true of many women in other religious traditions too. Contemporary feminists would do well to listen to the powerful voices of the women mystics who provide us with a paradigm of female spirituality and authority of greatest interest for us today. Let us examine the reasons for this.
The paradigm of the woman saint and mystic
People interested in spirituality may object to looking at women mystics separately from male mystics. This may be taking gender differentiation too far, for surely what matters first and foremost is the mystical experience, the spiritual life, rather than the sex of the person who pursues a particular spiritual path. Thus might argue many a contemporary writer on spirituality. However, on closer enquiry some surprising perspectives emerge when one combines the current interest in mysticism as an important religious phenomenon with a feminist perspective (King, 1981b).
Before we look specifically at the woman mystic, a few words on the contemporary understanding of mysticism will be helpful. Whilst mysticism is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to define, it is clearly present in all religious traditions of past and present. It occurs inside and outside religion and can be seen as an integral part of the ongoing history of the human spirit. In fact, one can consider the recurrence of mystical experiences as a testimony to the continuing breakthrough and disclosure of the divine spirit within history, within the world and within ourselves. Whilst there is always a vision and apprehension of underlying or overarching unity, the different mystical experiences are very varied indeed and do not conform to an overall pattern, but fall into divergent types.
It is important to realise that the comparative study of mysticism in its different varieties is largely a modern development which, for reasons that cannot be discussed here, belongs mainly to the twentieth century (King 1982). The rediscovery of the life and work of many women mystics of the past has also occurred during this period. Although this recovery has by no means been the exclusive achievement of women, it is striking how many women scholars have made outstanding contribution to our present knowledge and understanding of mysticism in general and of women mystics in particular. To name only a few, there are Evelyn Underhill, Grace Warrack, Geraldine Hodgson, Phyllis Hodgson, Hope Emily Allen, Emily Herman, Hilda Graef, and for Islamic mysticism Margaret Smith and Annemarie Schimmel.
Mysticism is always embedded in a wider social, cultural and religious context. It cannot be accounted for purely in terms of individual experience nor in merely philosophical or scientific terms, but it invites above all a religious and theological interpretation, a unifying vision and exploration beyond analysis. The more we differentiate and analyse, the more we encounter that which cannot be grasped or got hold of but which we can only embrace in love and surrender. We meet here the ultimate mystery of life itself which has to be lived, loved and celebrated, and experienced as lodged in the womb of the spirit.
The challenge of mysticism is the challenge of the oneness of the spirit. This is an integral and most precious part of our global religious heritage. But this challenge has rarely been realised in terms of the sisterhood and brotherhood of all people, in the form of an actual, concrete unification and practical oneness of the human community. Ultimately, the challenge of the spirit is a trans-sexual one pointing to wider connections and greater sharing beyond all differences. But what can we especially learn from women mystics?
Mysticism can be seen as a path to a summit or centre, a journey with many stages and difficulties, a call to a supreme adventure. Many women of the past and present have taken up the challenge of this call. The adventure of following a call to the spiritual life, under whatever form and in whatever way, gave women in. the past a freedom from social ties which makes them stand out among their contemporaries. This freedom sometimes went so far that the distinction between women and men became obliterated. Women of great spiritual authority were recognised as persons in their own right who were given wide recognition, even by otherwise anti-feminist ascetics. This can be seen in the early Muslim reactions to the mystic Rabi'a who introduced the concept of pure love into Islamic mysticism (Smith, 1928) or in the attitudes of the contemporaries of Margery Kempe or St Teresa of Avila. The dominant androcentric perspective required, however, that women of such strength of spirit were likened to be 'as men' who had transcended what were perceived to be the innate limitations of womanhood.
In the Christian tradition this attitude goes as far back as St Jerome who maintained that a woman who does not follow the path of wife and motherhood but devotes herself to a life of virginity by serving Christ more than the world ceases to be a woman and 'will be called a man'. In the context of a very different religious tradition, namely late nineteenth-century Hinduism, Ramakrishna too is quoted as having said that if a woman follows the path of complete renunciation or sannyasa, she 'is really a man', not a woman. Similarly, Teresa of Avila appealed to her nuns to be 'courageous like men'. In Islam too, the great women mystics were said to have reached the lofty stage of 'Man of God' (Schimmel, 1982, p. 146). Many similar statements could be cited which provide evidence for the extraordinary limitations of the traditional understanding of women's roles and abilities. They highlight the sexist presuppositions in attributing certain roles, attributes or qualities to one sex rather than the other. Why should women not be courageous as women? Why should they not embody certain religious and spiritual ideals within all the conditions and potential of their own sex and on their own terms rather than be compared to and measured by an extraneous norm, that of men?
Although there is a great diversity among the women mystics of the past in most religions women's spiritual attainment was often, if not always, linked to a life of sexual abstinence and renunciation. In Christianity it was usually either virgins or widows free from family ties rather than married women who followed the spiritual path, and many did so as nuns. The history of women's asceticism and spirituality still needs to be written so that one can assess its precise importance for women today. Communities of nuns and religious sisterhoods have been important in the development of Buddhism and Christianity. Christian religious orders of women are found from the fourth century CE onwards whilst single women ascetics have a long tradition in Hinduism and Jainism (Shanta, 1985). However, women living in organised religious communities are rare and relatively recent in Hinduism (King, 1984b) whilst in Buddhism the number of nuns has never been large. In Christianity, by contrast, nuns have been very numerous and have made decisive contributions to its development and spread. The investigation of the contemporary diversity of activities and lifestyles found among Christian nuns provides a fascinating area of research (Bernstein, 1976). Less than twenty years ago, the number of Roman Catholic women religious alone was more than 1 million worldwide which was three times the number of all male religious and priests put together (Moorehouse, 1969, pp, 253f). The number of vocations has declined since then but more recent statistics still list a world total of 946,398 Roman Catholic nuns (Barrett, 1982, p. 836).
These figures indicate that religious sisterhoods wherein women follow a vocation by living in separate communities were by no means a phenomenon restricted to the Middle Ages, a time which produced so many outstanding women mystics. However, their achievements have often been obscured as in the transmission of the tradition more attention has been given to the works of male mystics who were less numerous in some periods than the women whose writings had to be 'rediscovered' in modern times.
Women mystics in medieval times
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE the phenomenon of women recluses developed in western Europe, a typical women's movement which seems to have had no parallels among men. Women from well-to-do families renounced marriage and devoted themselves to a solitary religious life in cities by living in a cell attached to a church. Such life of solitary confinement was taken up after several years' preparation which culminated in a religious ceremony conducted by the bishop of the town and attended by many people. It concluded with the words 'requiescat in pace' - 'rest in peace' - words normally uttered over someone who is being buried. From her cell the woman recluse could follow through a window all the services in the church and much of her day was devoted to prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. But there was time for other activities too, such as spinning, weaving, sewing and embroidery. The cell might have a small enclosed garden where herbs were grown for medicinal purposes and some recluses undertook the copying and illuminating of manuscripts. Although isolated, these women recluses were far from separated from the world as they enjoyed high esteem and were sought after for advice and counsel. They undertook spiritual direction, some even heard confessions and aroused the jealousy of the clergy, whilst others gave instruction to girls (Aarnink, 1983).
One still gets a feel for the kind of life that these women lived when one reads about Mother Julian living in her cell at Norwich. It is possible that the movement of Christian lay women represented by the medieval Beguine communities developed from the women recluses. Due to the death of thousands of men during the crusades and other wars, women far outnumbered men during the thirteenth century. The existing convents were overcrowded and would not accept new novices. Also, traditionally they were mainly open to women from aristocratic families who could bring a substantial dowry. Thus women were challenged to take their spiritual life into their own hands. Instead of living alone by being attached to a church or hospice women came together in small groups and formed communities of Christian lay women who showed great fervour in devoting themselves to a life inspired by the ideals of the gospel. They also accepted women from wider social strata than did the convents.
The beguines have been called feminists before their time but, unlike with the recluses, the idea of living Christian spirituality in lay communities also took root among men who are called 'beghards'. This movement of lay spirituality flourished during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE by spreading from the Low Countries along the Rhine valley to Germany and France. The women and men in this movement
sought the vita apostolica - the 'apostolic life' of poverty, mendicancy, and preaching. When this ideal was voiced and practiced in the twelfth century by unlicensed itinerant preachers who were dissatisfied with the laxities they found in the hierarchical Church it seemed heterodox . . .
Beghards and beguines organized themselves in a half-secular, half-religious fashion . . . The women called beguines vowed themselves to chastity and most lived in convents known as beguinages, earning their livelihood by manual labor or taking alms. Though females unquestionably predominated in the movement, it is a mistake to underestimate the role of males. (Lerner, 1972, p. 36)
Many contemporaries considered the beguines and beghards as the most devout Christians of their age. It is possible that the Dutch mystic Hadewijch (thirteenth century CE) was a beguine. But there were also charges of hypocrisy and heresy, not for reasons of laxity and indifference, but based on insubordinate religious zeal. The basic criticism was directed against their intense, unlicensed lay piety and some of their sharpest critics came from among the male friars. From the early fourteenth century CE onwards the beguinal movement was attacked for its unauthorised and excessive pursuit of the apostolic life and many members were accused of proclaiming the heresy of the Free Spirit (Lerner, 1972).
This heresy certainly seems to have found many adherents among women, not all of whom were necessarily beguines. It taught that men and women could attain perfection on earth through a direct personal relationship between God and the soul which made the mediation of the church unnecessary. Many beguines are also reported to have had visions of an impending third age in which the Holy Ghost would be incarnate in a woman. Women played a large part in a number of medieval heresies but the reasons for this are not always entirely clear. Some have been stated as follows:
Putting aside the male prejudice that females are particularly susceptible to religious enthusiasm . . . there were genuine sociological reasons for the attachment of women to the vita apostolica and psychological reasons for their leaning toward mysticism in the later Middle Ages. Because of the higher male death rate and the large number of unmarried clerics there was a surplus female population. To make matters worse, there was a scarcity of legitimate female vocations and comparatively few women could gain entrance into nunneries. The beguinal life was thus a perfect avenue for the unmarried to obtain occupation and a modicum of communal security. Many . . . wanted no more than that, but it is easy enough to understand why a good number of women, some of whom were not beguines, turned to radical mysticism. The medieval relegation of women to an inferior status was as severe as their material problems. Women could not become priests, but Free-Spirit doctrine offered them something better than that: full union with divinity. (Lerner, 1972, p. 230)
One can see the 'proto-feminism' of the late Middle Ages (1200-1500 CE) as one of the most startling developments in history (Clark and Richardson 1977, p. 102). Some of the highest flights of mystical poetry produced during that period came from the pens of women. They created a rich heritage of devotional and spiritual literature which made wide use of allegories and visions clothed in intense, dramatic and often erotic imagery. It expresses a profoundly affective spirituality, born out of and true to the experience of particular women. If one examines the wide range of mystical literature produced by women, often the only source of knowledge for us about their life and experience, a number of interesting differences are apparent when compared with the mystical literature written by men.
In examining Medieval Women Writers on both secular and religious themes Katharina M. Wilson (1984) has stressed the pronounced difference between the writings of medieval men and women:
Both groups write from their respective but collective experiences: men often write of the physically heroic pursuits of men at war; women write of the spiritually heroic exploits of love and devotion. Moreover, women often depict women characters more frequently, more sympathetically, and more convincingly than do male authors. (Wilson, 1984, p.xx)
The same author maintains that 'With women mystics the presence of female consciousness is less pronounced, but they . . . tend to emphasize the female aspect of divinity (that is, Christ's role as mother) more than do their male contemporaries' (p. xxi). It is also interesting to note that in later reflections on texts of female mysticism medieval and Renaissance writers invariably seem to emphasise
the woman's talents for prophecy, inspiration, Christian devotion, and genuine religiosity, not her acuity, erudition, or literary gifts. She is depicted (and frequently depicts herself) as a vessel of divine inspiration, not as a creative genius, and the scriptural injunction that God often elects the weak to confound the strong is frequently invoked to explain the phenomenon of lay and female mystical inspiration, (p. 17)
All mystics see their role as passive before God, but with women this seems to be doubly so. Many mystics, whether male or female, made wide use of bridal and nuptial imagery to describe the soul's intimate relationship with God, the radical nature of their yearning and belonging, but the writings of women mystics are often expressed in a particularly strong emotional and sometimes even ecstatic tone. They reverberate with the intensity of an experience which is nothing less than an all-consuming love affair with God.
Specialists in the comparative study of mysticism have pointed out that mystics in different religions tend to emphasise either the objective reality of God's greatness and transcendence or the subjective element, their inner religious experience. Thus there is not only an element of sexual differentiation but also one of different emphasis in the different religious traditions. For example, mystics of the Jewish Kabbalah (always male rather than female) or of eastern orthodox Christianity emphasise the objective side by writing mostly about God rather than their personal experience of divine reality. The mystics of western Christianity, by contrast, have made wide use of the spiritual autobiography since the Middle Ages, and this is particularly true of women mystics. It is indicative that the first autobiography in the English language is The Book of Margery Kempe (Butler-Bowdon, 1936) wherein a fourteenth century illiterate lay woman from King's Lynn in Norfolk -mother of 14 children - describes her religious experiences, pilgrimages, thoughts, feelings and impressions with great vivacity and directness. From this book emerges a 'clear, vivid picture of an immensely vital, honest, and intense human being . . ., a woman who is at times reminiscent of Saint Paul and at others of the Wife of Bath' (Wilson, 1984, p. 300). Only discovered earlier this century, Margery Kempe's story also 'illustrates the new woman who assertively dominates her husband on the basis of her experience of being married not to him, but to God. (Margery actually experienced this marriage with God and wore, thereafter, a wedding ring inscribed "Jesus Christ is my love.")' (Clark and Richardson, 1977, p. 103). A rich resource for understanding the world of Margery Kempe and female sanctity in the late Middle Ages is Clarissa Atkinson's study Mystic and Pilgrim (1983).
That women mystics express greater subjectivity and stronger feelings in describing their experiences may have something to do with the fact that women were officially excluded from theological education and teaching. Not being schooled in objectifying modes of thought, they were freer in expressing their own feelings and cast their ideas in a subjective mode. It has also been observed that male mystics often describe the stages of the mystical path as the ascent of a mountain, as a path towards a summit or goal, whilst female mystics make more use of images of inwardness such as the cave or the rooms of a mansion or of a castle (as in Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle).
All these differences seem to indicate that women mystics stress subjectivity and personal experience more than external factors and objectivisation. Given the vivid directness of expression and the wide prevalence of love mysticism among women, one wonders whether women embody a more concrete, emotional and perhaps even romantic type of mysticism rather than the intellectual and abstract type found among men. The affective piety and devotion and the call to holiness and spiritual perfection open to medieval women in the Christian west gave many a woman an authority and empowerment rarely equalled in the history of womankind.
We still need to study the specific contributions and achievements of women mystics in much greater detail. There is much to be learnt from the very positive role women played in mystical Islam or Sufism (see 'The feminine element in Sufism' in Schimmel, 1975, pp. 426-35). Women are found in almost every avenue of Sufism. They have acted as patrons of Sufi orders, been in charge of certain Sufi convents, are venerated as saints and accepted as spiritual guides. As mothers, many mystically inclined women deeply influenced their sons in becoming Sufis who, unlike Christian monks and ascetics, did not have to remain unmarried. Women married to Sufis also exercised a strong influence on Sufism, especially during its formative period. Sufism offered women greater possibilities than Islamic orthodoxy to participate actively in religious and social life and many Sufi women teachers are known, especially in Turkey and Egypt, even in modern times. Annemarie Schimmel, an outstanding authority on this subject, has compared the Muslim and Christian woman mystic. Referring to Islam she writes:
It might be difficult to find many unmarried women who pursued the Path. For, contrary to the Christian ideal of the virgin saint, the nun or recluse who experienced the highest ecstasies in her lonely cell far away from the bonds of husbands and children, most of the Islamic women saints were married and usually had a family. It was thanks to them that their children grew up in the atmosphere of perfect trust in God and piety as we can still observe in the villages of Anatolia and Pakistan. (Schimmel, 1982, p. 150)
In some ways women mystics in Islam may provide a more suitable model for women today than the women religious of medieval Christianity but, unlike in Christianity, women in Islam did not excel as authors of works on mysticism. One reason for this may be the different attitude to learning and education and the lack of access to the language and thought of the Koran. But we know that the classics of mystical education in the Persian, Turkish and Urdu languages were read and taught in the women's quarters of pious families of the upper classes. The Muslim women of the Indian subcontinent in particular were also the addressees of mystical folk poets who were able
to explain the secrets of the mystical path in simple, easy verses which the women could sing while spinning or grinding grain so that their household chores were transformed into symbols of spiritual activities. Just as by unceasing spinning the thread becomes fine and so precious that it can be sold at a high price thus the heart becomes refined by the constant repetition of religious formulas or the names of God so that God will 'buy' it at Doomsday for a high price. (The relation between the constant murmuring of the sacred words and the humming sound of the spinning wheel makes this image particularly fitting). (Schimmel, 1982, p. 150)
Much more research is needed on particular women figures in the history of Islamic mysticism, but we can see from these few references that contemporary women can draw inspiration from the examples of the past which illuminate many different aspects of the spiritual quest among women. The awareness of women's importance in the global history of spirituality and mysticism is growing. So much so that a few years ago a male author who produced a fine anthology on mysticism (R. Woods, ed., Understanding Mysticism, 1981) found it necessary to apologise for the relative absence of female contributions to his work. Yet there is certainly no lack of material!
A helpful introduction to the life of several women mystics of the Middle Ages is found in the essays and selected readings of Katharina M. Wilson's anthology Medieval Women Writers (1984) which has already been mentioned. It brings together the achievements of outstanding religious and secular women writers who lived between the ninth and fifteenth centuries CE. They include the great women mystics Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg from Germany, Hadewijch from the Netherlands, the politically active St Bridget from Sweden and St Catherina of Siena/Italy as well as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe from England, not to forget the 'French heretic beguine' and follower of the Free-Spirit Movement, Marguerite Porete, whose mystical treatise Mirror of Simple Souls enjoyed a high reputation through several centuries, in spite of Marguerite's being burnt at the stake. It was handed down anonymously and at one time even considered to be by the famous mystic Ruysbroeck. (See also Dronke, 1984, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310).) Full length editions of Christian women mystics can be found in the series The Classics of Western Spirituality, especially the text of Julian's Showings (1978) and The Complete works of Hadewijch (1981).
Medieval women were kept out of the universities; they could not become scholastic theologians, but many achieved distinction through becoming powerful writers on spirituality and mysticism, providing spiritual leadership and counsel to others. These were women of great independence and power, not so much in external terms, but in terms of moral authority and spiritual perfection. These were women strong enough to resist the pressures of family, society, and even the church at times, out of a deep commitment to a higher calling. This also often empowered them to enter into much freer relationships with men, some of whom publicly recognised the authority and spiritual power of their women contemporaries.
In her essay 'Women, Power and the Pursuit of Holiness' Eleanor McLaughlin shows through the lives and stories of medieval women how the pursuit of holiness seemed to empower them. She writes:
I hope to show how the spirituality of the women who were called holy by their friends, their neighbors and the Church was a source of wholeness, meaning, power and authority. The effectiveness of these women was rooted in their holiness. Power out of holiness.
A second theme suggested by the lives and work of some medieval saints, both men and women, is the possibility that the ideal of human nature they exemplified - or their biographers set forth - represent a range of human possibility, a richness of human expression, that has been particularly hospitable to women and to whatever is meant today by the 'feminine' . . .
This more 'feminized' human nature was not seen as 'feminine' by men and women of the pre-Reformation Church but rather as Christian, typical and in the image of God, who was Mother as well as Father, Love more than Intellect. Holiness called forth a Christian theology and an anthropology radically less androcentric than that which dominates Christian piety today.
And towards the end of her essay the same author concludes:
Yet it may still be possible for us today, seeking to discover meaning at the center of the self and the cosmos, to quicken the imagination and enrich our symbolic vocabulary by listening once more to the stories and the vision which lie readily at hand within the Western Christian tradition shaped by powerful, holy women . . . (Ruether and McLaughlin, 1979, pp. 102 and 126f.). . :
It is not only in Christianity, but also in other religions that we encounter the powerful voices of women saints and mystics. We have to rediscover the global heritage of women's spirituality and draw inspiration from the enabling power women possessed in the past. Yet this important task must be undertaken in a critical spirit not subject to false idealisation.
Mysticism and feminism: some questions for the feminist mystic
Having emphasised the importance of women mystics as a paradigm for contemporary women, it would be wrong to consider all saintly women of the past, whether in Christianity or elsewhere, as 'feminists' or 'proto-feminists' simply by virtue of their belonging to the female sex. On the contrary, when looking more closely at the life stories of some women saints from a contemporary feminist perspective, one realises the ambiguity of some women's example and also the ambivalence inherent in the pursuit of spirituality. 'What does one do today with obedience, passivity, contemplative enclosure as a flight from the world, and the apparent loss of self in the pilgrimage toward dependence on God?' How much can we really learn from these women saints and mystics when one realises 'that the female holy ones were not quite as equal as their brothers' (McLaughlin, 1979, p. 101) and when one becomes aware of the blatant fact that throughout the history of religions patriarchal male spiritual guidance remained the order of the day and that, exceptions apart, religious traditions have on the whole legitimated a rather restrictive spirituality for women, namely a spirituality of dependence, obedience, passivity and heteronomy. Whilst it would be falsifying historical evidence and perhaps even constitute sexism in disguise if one ascribed feminist modes of thought and behaviour to all women of the past solely because they were women following a path of self-realisation, one can none the less look at past instances of female mysticism from the critical perspective of feminist consciousness. One can then discover and accentuate the liberating qualities of mysticism which gave particular women not power over but power for, enabling power, to seek spiritual, personal and social freedom which entailed further power for advising, teaching, writing, counselling and helping others as well as power for building and transforming communities.
Female mystics thus exemplify to an extraordinary degree women's struggle for autonomy and self-affirmation, crowned by the liberating experience of self-transcendence. The multiple threads of their life's journeys and stories provide a rich tapestry of the spiritual life which above all is a proof of women's powers of radical love and self-surrender to a reality greater than themselves. Caroline Walker Bynum (1982) has emphasised the affective quality of the spirituality of the high Middle Ages typical of both women and men, but particularly found among women, especially in the thirteenth century when
women were more likely than men to be mystics, to gain reputations based on their mystical abilities, and to have para-mystical experiences (such as trances, levitations, stigmata, etc.). Moreover, these women mystics were primarily responsible for encouraging and propagating some of the most distinctive aspects of late medieval piety: devotion to the human, especially the infant, Christ and devotion to the eucharist (frequently focused on devotion to the wounds, blood, body, and the heart of Jesus). (pp.mf.)
This is a specific example from the Christian tradition which shows how women's spirituality is often linked to a concreteness, a directness, if not to say 'physicalness', of experience far removed from the abstract flights of theological speculations. Similarly one can find in Hinduism a rich spirituality and deep devotion to the divine child Krishna, often practised by women, The close relationship to children is so much part of women's experience that it is here transferred to a divine and symbolic level.
The same concrete physicality of women's spirituality appears in attitudes to food studied by Caroline Bynum in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987). Such spirituality can be nourishing for us today as it is an integral part of women's historical heritage and experience whose empowering aspects more and more people are beginning to discover. Whilst the women saints and mystics of the past were not necessarily 'feminists' in any contemporary sense of the word, women today can legitimately call for and undertake the feminist appropriation of female mystical experience and thereby discover resources for pride and praise as well as spiritual power.
Being more conscious of a web of interrelationships and connections, women are perhaps less tempted than men to see spirituality as something apart from life. If spirituality is considered an intrinsic dimension and potential of human consciousness, a path to a higher, fuller life which explores the furthest limits of being human, then it implies a horizon of transcendence which affects the very texture of life and provides it with its ultimate meaning and essence. Spirituality is thus the very leaven of human life. But in its traditional religious forms spirituality has often become rather stale, unable to act as a true leaven to transform life and make it rise. So many spiritualities of the past can no longer give us the energies and vision we need and feed our zest for life in a world clouded by danger and despair. Many individuals and movements today, not least contemporary feminism, are taking soundings for a new spirituality in a new season.
Given the pressing needs of the moment, there is a real need for the emergence of what has been called 'the feminist mystic'. If one understands the mystic as primarily someone withdrawn into inward experience, this would seem rather contradictory. But if there is a connection between inner and outer transformation, as there must be, if the inward transformation of self is linked to outward social transformation, then the conjunction of feminism and mysticism is not as contradictory as it might at first sound.
But the meaning and path of the feminist mystic is not always an easy one. Mary E. Giles prefaced several contributions on The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays on Women and Spirituality with the following words:
There are no sure voices to guide us ...
We are present, suspicious of the past, uncertain of the future. We are the women of solitude, being taught the art of living in and through the Spirit, and it is not easy.
It is not easy precisely because the assured voices of religious and social institutions and traditions which we believe instructed women in the past seem still. . . .
We may not yet hear . . . harmony, but it is there . . . Women who know the solitude of the solitary endeavor are open to it, this music of oneness to which mystics of all times and traditions attend and upon which they play, each one a unique variation.
Such women are not creations of pious fancy; they were women who laughed and loved, wept and despaired. Like us, they were women for whom living was a daily encounter with pettiness and bigotry. But they did not submit to discord; the harmony of love prevailed. (Giles, 1982, pp. 1, 2 and 3)
In Mary Giles' book the emphasis is very much on the personal journey required for spiritual transformation. But this journey has important implications for relationships with others and for the shaping of community. One of the recurrent themes in feminist spirituality is women's need to find their true self, a topic already touched upon in the previous chapter. Women are so accustomed to living for others, whether partners, husbands, children or ageing relatives, that they frequently subordinate their own identity and self to the needs and interests of other people. Their service to others, to their loved ones, which is so much needed for the maintenance of community, has in practice often developed into a caricature of true service by becoming excessive female subservience with the result of women's own spiritual deprivation. Such female subservience has often been encouraged by religious and spiritual authorities who have helped to condition women into what has been called a 'merger self rather than to foster and nourish a 'seeker self. But in order to grow to maturity women have to make their own journey along the spiritual path and undertake their own vision quest to answer the call of the spirit.
This need, so fully articulated, today raises the question which aspects of past female and feminine experience women wish to affirm or to reject. The many choices open to women today - the choice of gender role, the choice of work, the experience of relationship, of motherhood, of self affirmation and identity as well as the choice of an authentic existence empowered by a horizon of transcendence - require 'the courage to be alone' (see Giles 1982, pp, 84ff.). The experience of separateness can help women to enter into stronger relationships and to create new connections in their lives. For many women voluntary or involuntary separation from others can be a dark night marked by the mystery of suffering and pain which may contain within it a mystery of personal and spiritual transformation.
This requires the recognition and wrestling with what some feminist theologians have called the specifically 'female sin' of woman's underdevelopment of self, of her unconscious passivity and receptivity which can lead to aimlessness and drift and utter superficiality rather than the active shaping and direction of her own life. Such a sin is a much greater temptation for women than the sin of pride, hubris, ego aggrandisement and self-sufficiency more often found in men. Whilst women need to fight the 'sin of sexism' inherent in the structures of society, they must equally well fight this debilitating 'sin' within themselves. Shaking off one's shackles and being caught by the grace of anger can be a transformative experience leading to spiritual awakening.
Mysticism is often defined as an experimental knowledge of God, a knowledge based on experience rather than rational deduction and suffused with love. The German theologian Dorothee Soelle has explored the dynamic interrelationship between 'mysticism-liberation-feminism' (Soelle, 1984, pp. 79-105; also Soelle, 1981a), Although we do not yet have a feminist description of mystical theology, she argues that mysticism provides a greatly useful resource on the long road to liberation, especially for feminist Christians, but one can legitimately expand the argument to apply to mysticism in general, wherever it is found. She gives three reasons of this: '(1) Mystical theology is based on experience, not on authority. (2) Explicitly or implicitly, mystical theology speaks of a God whose essence is not independence, otherness, might and domination. (3) Mysticism helps us learn the great surrender' (Soelle, 1981, p. 179)
Like other theologians, Soelle argues that the traditional language about God is locked up and caught in a 'prison of symbols' which has to be opened for the power of the spirit to become effective. In this context it is worth noting that the language of the mystics often draws on symbols and experiences from nature rather than on abstract concepts, and this is particularly true of women mystics. It is thus closer to the rhythms and patterns of life as lived and experienced rather than thought.
For a feminist reflection on mysticism the lesson of self-surrender can be liberating too. For the mystic the self yields completely to the higher power of the spirit, the dynamic presence of divine life. The medieval mystics often distinguished three stages in this process of self-surrender: leaving the world, leaving the self, leaving God. Soelle refers to numerous trends towards mysticism in contemporary counter-culture and youth movements where many have 'left the world' and seek alternatives to the existing social order, but only few perhaps have also left their own ego behind. There is a fine dividing line between self awakening and autonomous self-identity, so much needed in women, and the many manifestations of selfishness and egocentricity. Yet at the same time it is important to realise that one cannot surrender a sense of self one has never possessed.
Striving for a spiritual ideal and true holiness embodied in daily life requires that a person is God-centred rather than self-centred or, to use a more neutral terminology, that one is 'Reality-centred', that is to say oriented towards a greater reality than one's own life. Women as a group are on the whole known to be more other-centred than self-centred and whilst it is sometimes possible to detect a selfishness in inverted forms here, this other-centredness has often been seen as the main reason why women seem to possess a greater capacity for spirituality, self-surrender and sacrificial love. Many writers, not only in medieval times, have praised the special sanctity achieved by women. This other-centredness is perhaps women's greatest strength and at the same time the main reason for women's weakness, for their frequent lack of personal, emotional and spiritual autonomy. Women need to reflect critically on the inherent ambiguity of both self affirmation and self surrender in seeking to develop their own independence and identity.
To return to the last stage of surrender on the mystical path, to 'leave God' is the most difficult of all for the mystic as this implies abandoning the embrace of God, the solitude of the spirit, to return to the world and its burning concerns to help our sisters and brothers. Many mystics of the past have been socially very active and many writers today stress the important connection between mysticism and social action or even militancy (Curie, 1976). This connection between mysticism, social action and politics is an important issue for the spirituality of the women's movement today (Collins, 1974; Christ 1975; Spretnak, 1982). To be viable and convincing women's spirituality needs to be active, dynamic and forceful; it needs to be what some have called a spirituality of combat, a spirituality which is militant yet non-violent. But what are the necessary conditions for it to grow and develop?
Space for women's spirituality
Many women today can no longer find the inspiration for an active spirituality in traditional religious institutions but they frequently seek it through literature (Christ, 1986) and art, through free experimentation and new kinds of community. As Joan Wolski Conn has commented in her discussion of women's spirituality:
Because the spiritual tradition of women is often carried on in recent times outside the official context of religion, studies of women's fiction offer helpful resources for women's spirituality. This literature demonstrates how women's spiritual quest concerns women's awakening to forces of energy larger than the self, to powers of connection with nature and with other women, and to acceptance of body. For women, conversion is not so much giving up egocentric notions of power as passing through an experience of nothingness finally to gain power over their own lives, (Conn, 1980, p. 303)
Women's quest for spirituality includes the discovery that we have to shape spirituality for ourselves independently from male models and male spiritual guidance. Trusting their own experience and being attentive to the voice of the spirit within women can find the powers for healing, wholeness and love, for ministry to others. We do need women map makers of the interior country, as Sara Maitland (1983) has forcefully argued, but we need more than that. The problem is, how to connect inner and outer freedom, how to interrelate spiritual and social power? How can women find a truly creative balance in these matters?
Listening to powerful spiritual voices of the past one must ask oneself how far the spirituality and culture of women requires a place and space apart to flourish? Whether one thinks of the allegory of a separate 'city of ladies' created by the early fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan (1983; see also Wilson 1984 pp. 333-63) or the separation of the sexes among the Australian Aboriginals where women follow elaborate rituals of their own and find continued meaning for their self-image as independent and autonomous members of society (Bell 1984), whether one looks at the separate communities of religious and quasi-religious women of the Middle Ages or the women's groups today, one can always see that women gain self-affirmation, strength and spiritual power from within themselves and from each other by being on their own and in their own separate group. The question of physical and spatial separation, of a time and a space of their own - at least as a temporary and recurrent measure - is of the utmost importance for women's self-development and spirituality.
Women need room and space in their lives which gives them the freedom to develop their own gifts and follow their own calling. Olive Schreiner in one of her dreams lets a woman choose between 'Life's Gifts' of love and freedom, and the woman chooses freedom rather than love, a new calling rather than the traditional one which has so many ties attached to it. But in Schreiner's allegory woman is assured that one day life will give her both freedom and love, rather than love without freedom (Schreiner, 1895 pp. 115-6).
Women need the freedom to be alone. They need empowering space in their lives which often means time and silence for themselves to pursue a deep quest within themselves, to reflect on the sources and forces of their own lives and their own particular vocation. To gain liberation and find freedom requires detachment - detachment from immediate economic, social and emotional pressures; it requires the capacity for introspection and self-awareness as well as self-conscious choice. Such creative space is more than freedom in a personal and psychological sense as it can open up into a larger spiritual freedom which overcomes bondage and discloses a wide horizon which may range from joy and love to an awareness of divine splendour and glory. Women must create such space where there is room for friendship and celebration, for adoration and praise. Only then can individual people and communities find a sense of wholeness and integration.
This is where the mystics can help us, and women can learn from women mystics in particular. It has been said that the ecstatic religious experiences of women in the past, or of women of other societies and cultures, only existed in a total context which women today would find unbearably restricting (Bregman, 1977) and therefore cannot possibly provide suitable models for us. But I have tried to show that the powerful voices of past women saints and mystics, in spite of certain limitations, speak to women today with greater force and persuasion than they did to many of our ancestors.
This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.