Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Mechthild of Magdeburg

A THIRTEENTH-CENTURY MYSTIC AND BEGUINE,
MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG

The triumphant ecclesiasticism of the thirteenth century, manifested in the forms of political power, material wealth, splendid architecture, and worldly positions sufficiently commanding to satisfy even the most ambitious, was, perhaps naturally, accompanied by a gross materialism. Against this the truly pious-minded revolted, thereby causing a reaction towards mysticism. Whilst before the eyes of some there floated, as the ideal, the material ladder leading to fame and power, before those of others there arose, as in a vision, the "Ladder of Perfection," each rung of which gained brought them nearer to the object of their quest—Divine Reality. These latter, whether of great, or lesser, or even of no renown, and amongst whom women played a great and very notable part, were scattered far and wide; but each one cultivated some little corner of the mystic garden. One such garden was the Cistercian convent of Helfta, near Eisleben, in Saxony, in the thirteenth century a centre of mystic tendencies. It was here that, harassed and ill, Mechthild of Magdeburg took refuge, and entered as a nun in 1270. But we are anticipating.

Mechthild, at first a beguine, and afterwards a nun, but a visionary from the days of her childhood, was born, most probably of noble parents, in the diocese of Magdeburg, in 1212. That she is perhaps better known to the general reader than are other contemplatives of her day is probably due to the suggestion that she may be the Matilda immortalised by Dante in the "Earthly Paradise" (Purg. xxviii. 22 seq.), rather than to her own writings. This may be partly because the personality of that supreme visionary and poet tended, as does all superlative genius, to cast a shadow over the lesser lights of both earlier and later times, and partly because, although Mechthild's works were early translated into Latin, she wrote in Low German. Though this original MS. has not yet been found, there exists one, translated into High German in 1345 at Basle (a centre of the "Friends of God") by the Dominican, Heinrich von Nördlingen, by which Mechthild's work has been made known to us, but the language even of this proves a very real stumbling-block to the most strenuous student. Still, by recording her thoughts and visions in the language of her country and her day, she gained a lay audience, a result which would have been hardly possible if she herself had been a classic. But though no classic—for she says Latin was difficult to her—she evidently, as her work shows, grew up under the influence of courtly life, and knew the language of minstrels. She tells us that her mind was turned to the spiritual life when she was but twelve years of age, and that from that time worldly glory and riches became distasteful to her. Like the visionary and Saint, Theresa of Avila, of 300 years later, she took into her confidence her younger brother, Baldwin, who later, perhaps under her influence, became a Dominican. What we know of her, we know from her writings, which exist in the above-mentioned unique MS. (No. 277) now in the monastery Library of Einsiedeln, a foundation south of the Lake of Zurich, and still one of the most famous of pilgrim resorts. In seeking to know more of the history of this MS. we get a most interesting and intimate glimpse of the methods in religious centres in bygone days, when MSS. were few. In quite early times—how early is not known—there dwelt in the valleys round about Einsiedeln certain devout women-recluses, who later lived, as a community, in four houses, and, ultimately, in a convent. They were called "Forest Sisters," a name which may well express the poetry and peace of their life and surroundings. Whilst they were still living in the detached houses, the MS. was, through Heinrich von Rumerschein of Basle, sent by Margaret of the Golden Ring, a beguine of that town, to the one called "The Front Meadow." Heinrich addresses the gift "To the Sisters in the Front Meadow." "You shall know that the book that is sent by her of the Golden Ring is called The Light of the Godhead, and to this you shall give good heed. It shall also serve in all the houses of the wood, and shall never leave the wood, and shall remain a month in each house. Also it shall go from one to another as required, and you shall take special care of it. Pray for me who was your Confessor, though, alas, unworthy."

In 1235, at the age of twenty-three, Mechthild—not without many a heart-pang, and prompted to this determination by a troubled conscience, a determination doubtless brought about by the preaching of the Dominican friars, who were stirring all classes by their impassioned zeal—left her home and went to Magdeburg, where she entered a settlement of beguines. These settlements, semi-monastic in character, were provided to afford some protection, by living in community, for women who, whilst devoting themselves to a religious life, did not wish to separate themselves wholly from the world. It was at the time of the Crusades, when the land teemed with desolate women, that their numbers increased so greatly, and the first beguinage was founded about the beginning of the thirteenth century. The beguine took no vows, could return to the world and marry if she so desired, and did not renounce her property. If she was without means, she neither asked nor accepted alms, but supported herself by manual labour or by teaching the children of burghers, whilst those who were able to do so spent their time in taking care of the sick or in other charitable offices. Each community, with a "Grand-Mistress" at its head, was complete in itself, and regulated its own order of living, though, later, many of them adopted the rule of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Mechthild tells us that she knew but one person in Magdeburg, and that even from this one she kept away for fear lest she might waver in her determination. In this very human way she indicated that her spiritual adventure was no easy matter to her, as, indeed, it could not be so long as her temperament and ideals were at variance. But gradually, she says, she got so much joy from communion with God that she could dispense with the world. As has been well said, "La loi des lois c'est que tout morceau de l'univers venu de Dieu retourne à Dieu et veut retourner à lui."

The book of her writings, which, under divine direction as she opens by saying, she calls The Flowing Light of the Godhead,[1] is composed of seven parts, of which six appear to have been written down during the time she was a beguine at Magdeburg, and were collected and arranged by a Dominican friar, Heinrich von Halle, whilst the seventh, consisting of sundry visions and teachings during the last years of her life, was put together just before her death at Helfta in 1282, and, as she pathetically adds, "by strange eyes and hands." In all of these, whilst reflecting in them her inmost feelings, she expresses her entire dependence on spiritual help and inspiration. "The writing of this book," she says, "is seen and heard and felt in every limb. I see it with the eyes of my soul, and hear it with the ears of my eternal spirit, and feel in every part of my body the power of the Holy Ghost."

The general tenor of her writings is contemplative and prophetic. Whilst, as a contemplative, she reminds us of Suso, as a reformer, proclaiming her prophetic warnings, she recalls to us St. Hildegarde, though the latter was a more astute and powerful reasoner. It would seem as if, in general, there are two conflicting tendencies in minds such as Mechthild's, a tendency to tradition—in her case, of course, church tradition—and a tendency to definite self-expression. With Mechthild it was certainly that of self-expression which predominated, for whilst, with her, both co-operated to make a beautiful whole, it was in detail and ornament, so to speak, rather than in the design itself, that she showed her special qualities and gifts. Further, as a mystic, she may be classed with those "for whom mysticism is above all things an intimate and personal relation, the satisfaction of a deep desire," and who therefore fall back "upon imagery drawn largely from the language of earthly passion," as opposed to the mystic whose "longing is to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a better country," as well as to the one whose "craving is for inward purity and perfection."[2]

In order to enter into the spirit of her writings, and particularly the prophetic ones, it is necessary to consider how the character and style of her work was induced and affected, on the one hand by her environment and her time, and on the other by her saintly nature and poetic temperament, as well as by her intimate and personal attitude towards things touching the inner life.

The world, in Mechthild's day, was in a state of unrest and of looked-for change. Mankind was ever haunted by forebodings of the approaching happening of something momentous. Whole-hearted faith in the Church was waning, and although outward conformity still prevailed, there existed very diverse opinions, tolerated so long as they did not become too obtrusive. Prophetic writings, giving expression to the yearnings of the time—yearnings fomented and fostered by the prevailing misery caused, in no small degree, by the wars between Pope and Emperor—taught that the world was on the brink of a new era. One of the most influential of these writings, entitled The Eternal Gospel, and said to embody the revelations of Abbot Joachim of Flora (11301202), proclaimed that the dispensations of God the Father and God the Son—the first two eras of the Church—were past or passing, and that these would be succeeded by a third era—that of the Holy Ghost—when men's eyes would be opened by the Spirit, and when there would be a time of perfection and freedom, without the necessity of disciplinary institutions. In this fair age it was the hermits, monks, and nuns who, whilst not superseding the rulers of the Church, were to lead it into new paths, for to Joachim the visible Church could not, where all is moving, remain unchanged, and his counsel was, to keep pace with the advancing world. Naturally such sentiments aroused ecclesiastical alarm, and, later, were condemned by the fourth Lateran Council (1215), though Dante, withal a good son of the Church, made bold to see in Paradise the "Abbott Joachim, endowed with prophetic Spirit" (Par. xii. no).[3] When Mechthild wrote her predictions on the last days, Joachim's teachings, owing to the stir which their unorthodoxy had created—not only in the Church and amongst the preaching friars, but also in the University of Paris, whence all manner of polemical discussions freely circulated—were well known in Germany, and there can be but little doubt that Mechthild knew of them, probably from the Dominicans, who found special favour in her sight, and that they greatly influenced her own prophetic warnings to the Church.

From these objective conditions which, whilst influencing Mechthild's own thoughts and works, might and did, however differently, influence the work of others as well, we turn to the consideration of her work as the expression of her own poetic soul, welling up from depths filled with love for the highest and most divine things. Before all else we recognise how richly endowed she was with visionary powers and poetic feeling. She revels in beautiful fantasies, as, for instance, when she says, "If I were to speak one little word of the choirs of heaven, it would be no more than the honey that a bee can carry away on its feet from a full-blown flower." With rapture she touches upon the deepest questions of the soul's life, and the highest truths and mysteries of belief, so that in her flights of contemplation her prose becomes poetry, impelled, like some torrent, by the rush of her emotion.

O thou God, out-pouring in thy gift!
O thou God, o'erflowing in thy love!
O thou God, all burning in thy desire!
O thou God, melting in union with thy body!
O thou God, reposing on my breast!
Without Thee, never could I live.

But even so, she does not lose the sense of form or of the picturesque. Some of her writings are clothed in language recalling the Song of Songs, and are, perhaps, echoes of St. Bernard's sermons on that wondrous allegory of the Spiritual Bridegroom and Bride, as when, in a transport, and attempting to express how God comes to the Soul, she exclaims—

I come to my Beloved
Like dew upon the flowers.

Others suggest reflections of courtly life and poetry, and at the same time seem to anticipate pictures of the Celestial Garden, bright and blossoming, where Saints tread in measured unison, symbolic of their spiritual felicity and harmony. So with her didactic writings, or with her predictions concerning the decay and corruption in the Church, in which, like some prophet of old, she declaims against such evils in no sparing terms, all alike are fraught with a special grace. In them all the most intimate and the most sublime meet in one expression—the expression of a soul which sees God in all things, and all things in God.

During the thirty years which Mechthild spent as a beguine at Magdeburg, she lived an austere life, and one beset with difficulties, largely created by the fearless way in which she warned and denounced those in high places in the Church. In such denunciations she was not alone, or without good example, for—to name two only of those who stand out preeminently on account of their positions and personalities—St. Bernard and St. Hildegarde had both sternly denounced the evils in the Church. "The insolence of the Clergy," says St. Bernard, "troubles the earth, and molests the Church. The Bishops give what is holy to the dogs, and pearls to swine." But the poor beguine, Mechthild, was not in the same powerful position to stay, or even to modify, the resentment which her attacks occasioned. " or more than twenty years was I bound with thee on a hideous gridiron," she writes, likening her anguish to that of St. Lawrence. Nevertheless solace came to her troubled spirit, for, having been warned that it had been said of her writings that they deserved to be burnt, she tells how she prayed to God, as had been her wont when in trouble, and that He told her not to mistrust her powers, since they were from Him, and that no one can burn the Truth.

In many passages Mechthild dwells on the clergy, and her reflections—some very practical, others, to those not versed in symbolism, very quaint—seem to suggest how grievously lacking she considered them to be. Writing in God's name to a canon, she begins by saying that we should, in common with all men, give thanks to our Heavenly Father for the Divine gift which day by day, and without ceasing, pours forth from the Holy Trinity into sinful hearts, and then she quaintly adds, "For that it soars so high, the Eagle owes no thanks to the Owl." Furthermore, she calls upon the priest to pray more, to pay his debts in full, and to live simply, and thus, with humble heart, to set a good example, and, with many other admonitions, she also counsels him to have two rods by his bedside, so that he may chastise himself when he awakes. Mechthild adds that she asked of God how such an one could keep himself without sin in this earthly state, and that God made answer: "He shall keep himself always in fear, like a mouse that sits in a trap and awaits its death. When he eats, he shall be frugal and meek, and when he sleeps, he shall be chaste, and alone with Me."

Touching upon some of the duties of a prior—and here she shows herself eminently practical—she writes: "Thou shalt go every day to the infirmary, and soothe the sick with the solace of God's word, and comfort them bounteously with earthly things, for God is rich beyond all richness. Thou shalt keep the sick cleanly, and be merry with them in a godly manner. Thou shalt also go into the kitchen, and see that the needs of the brethren are well cared for, and that thy parsimony, and the cook's laziness, rob not our Lord of the sweet song of the choir, for never did starving priest sing well. Moreover, a hungry man can do no deep study, and thus must God, through such default, lose the best prayers." From advice to the priesthood, Mechthild turns to warning, and pours forth her reproaches and forebodings with poetic intensity. "Alas, O thou Crown of Holy Christendom, how greatly hast thou lost lustre! Thy jewels are fallen out, since thou dost outrage and bring dishonour on the holy Christian vows. Thy gold has become tarnished in the morass of unchastity, for thou art become degenerate, and art lacking in true love. Thy abstinence is consumed by the ravenous fire of gluttony, thy humility is drowned in the slough of the flesh, thy word no longer avails against the lies of the world, the flowers of all the virtues have fallen from thee. Alas, O thou Crown of the holy Priesthood, how diminished thou art, and verily thou now possessest naught but priestly power, with the which thou fightest against God and His elect. For this will God humble thee, ere thou learnest wisdom. For thus saith the Lord: 'My shepherds of Jerusalem have become murderers and wolves, for that they slay before My very eyes the white lambs, and the sheep are all sickly for that they may not eat of the wholesome pasture that grows on the high mountains, the which is godly love and holy doctrine.' He who knows not the way that leads to Hell, let him give heed to the unholy clergy, who, with wives and children and many heinous sins, go straightway thither."

Whilst condemning the priesthood, Mechthild eulogises nunnery life in an allegory entitled "The Ghostly Cloister," in which she pictures the virtues as dwelling. "Charity" is the abbess, who with zeal takes care of the congregation in both body and soul; "Godly Humility" is the chaplain; "The Holy Peace of God" is the prioress; and "Loving Kindness" is the sub-prioress. "Hope" is the chantress, filled with holy, humble devotion, that the heart's feebleness may sound beautiful in song before God, so that God may love the notes that sing in the heart; "Wisdom" is the schoolmistress, who with all good-will teaches the ignorant, so that the convent is held holy and honoured; "Bounty" is the cellaress; "Mercy" the stewardess; and "Pity" the sick-nurse. The provost, or priest, is "Godly Obedience," to whom all these virtues are subject. "Thus does the convent abide in God, and happy are they who dwell therein."

From this spiritual abode of the virtues we turn to one of Mechthild's earliest recorded visions—that of Hell, with its flame and flare. Whilst Death was perhaps man's first mystery, the Hereafter has been his endless pre-occupation. Whatever his country or his time, he has ever sought to lift the veil which hides the future, portraying his vain efforts in symbol. In Mechthild's time her world was engrossed with thoughts and speculations concerning the Hereafter, for Death, which at the end of the next century was to take dramatic and pictorial form in the weird and all-embracing "Dance of Death," although its earliest known poetic form is of 1160, ever hovered near in pestilence, war, and tumult. Whilst some expressed themselves in carved stone, or on painted wall, others, as did Mechthild, realised their visions and ideas in a wealth of word-pictures. Such visions and ideas had accumulated adown the ages, varying but slightly one from another, and Mechthild, in making use of this stereotyped material, only took from, or added to, the general sum. Yet even so, she contrives to make her personality felt. She begins: "I have seen a place whose name is Eternal Hatred." Lucifer, farthest removed from the source of Light, forms the foundation-stone, and around him are arranged the deadly sins. Above him are the Christians, then the Jews, and, farthest removed from Hell's dire depths, the Heathen. Horror upon horror follows, like those pictured a hundred years before by Herrad von Landsperg, abbess at Hohenburg, in Alsace, and, fifty years later, by Dante, and when she concludes by saying that, after seeing the terrors of Hell, all her five senses were paralysed for three days, as if struck by lightning, it is significant that Dante tells that, overwhelmed with sorrow for the lovers, doomed for ever to be borne upon the winds, he "fainted with pity … and fell, as a dead body falls."

It is with a sense of relief that we leave such sad scenes, to glance at her vision of Paradise, although it does not follow in this sequence in her recorded revelations, for, as seems fitting, it is one of the very latest. Calling it "a glimpse of Paradise," she says that "of the length and breadth of Paradise there is no end." Then she continues—and this is especially interesting because it is in this opening that some commentators have seen the connecting link with Dante[4]—that between this world and it, she came to a spot—the Earthly Paradise—where she saw trees and fresh grass and no weeds. Some of the trees bore apples, but most of them sweetly scented leaves. Swift streams flowed through it, and warm winds were wafted from the north. The air was sweeter than words can tell. Here, she adds, there were no animals or birds, for God has reserved it for mankind alone, so that he may dwell there undisturbed. This seems to strike a strange note coming from the poetess Mechthild. How different is her sentiment from that of her brother-mystic, St. Francis, to whom the birds were his "little sisters," and who "loved above all other birds a certain little bird which is called the lark." But though, with apparent satisfaction, Mechthild saw no birds, she did see Enoch and Elias, and greeted the former by questioning him as to how he came there. Holy Writ has supplied the only answer, "He walked with God, and he was not, for God took him." Having spoken thus of the Earthly Paradise, Mechthild goes on to tell of the Heavenly, where she sees, "floating in rapture, as the air floats in the sunshine," the souls which, though not deserving of Purgatory, are not yet come into God's kingdom, and to whom rewards and crowns come not until they enter that kingdom. She then concludes by saying that "all the kingdoms of this world shall perish, and the earthly and the heavenly Paradise shall pass away, and all shall dwell together in God"—the Empyrean of Dante, where he "saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe; substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, after such fashion that what I tell of is one simple flame."

In her very varied writings many beautiful and suggestive thoughts are to be found, as, for instance, when "Understanding" converses with "Conscience," and accuses Conscience of being at the same time both proud and humble, and Conscience explains that she is proud because she is in touch with God, and humble because she has done so few good works. And again, when "Understanding" and "the Soul" hold converse. Understanding, desirous of knowing everything, asks the Soul why such brilliant light radiates from her, and the Soul replies by inquiring why Understanding asks this, seeing that she is so much wiser than the Soul. When Understanding would still penetrate the unspeakable secrecy between God and the Soul, the Soul refuses to answer, since, as she explains, to her alone is given union with God, to which Understanding can never attain. Or, again, when Mechthild, telling how the Soul, no longer led by the Senses, but leading them to the desired goal, says, "It is a wondrous journey along which the true soul progresses, and leads with it the senses, as a man with sight leads one who is blind. On this journey the soul is free and without sorrow, since it desires naught but to serve its Lord, who orders all things for the best."

Of Prayer, which to her was "naught else but yearning of soul," she says, "It makes a sour heart sweet, a sad heart merry, a poor heart rich, a dull heart wise, a timid heart bold, a weak heart strong, a blind heart seeing, a cold heart burning. It draws the great God down into the small heart, it drives the hungry soul out to the full God, it brings together the two lovers, God and the soul, into a blissful place, where they speak much of love."

Again, in a spirit of self- examination, she writes: "What most of all hinders the spiritually-minded from full perfection is, that they pay so little heed to small sins. I tell you, of a truth, that when I abstain from a laugh that would hurt no one, or hide some soreness of heart, or feel a little impatience at my own pain, my soul becomes so dark, and my mind so dull, and my heart so cold, that I am constrained to pray heartily and long, and humbly to make confession of all my faults. Then grace comes again to wretched me, and I creep back like a beaten dog into the kitchen."

But all these and kindred thoughts pale before her discourses on love. Love was the keynote of her life. She was born a poetess; she became a saint. How sorely she strove towards this end, and spent herself in conflict between self-control and ecstasy, no words can tell. It was only when Purgation's way was partly trod, and she had "found in Pain the grave but kindly teacher of immortal secrets," that she could say, "Lord, I bring Thee my treasure, which is greater than the mountains, wider than the world, deeper than the sea, higher than the clouds, more beautiful than the sun, more manifold than the stars, and which outweighs all the earth." Then asks the voice of God: "How is this thy treasure called, oh Image of my Divinity?"

"Lord, it is called my heart's desire. I have withdrawn it from the world, kept it to myself, and denied it to all creatures. Now no longer would I carry it. Lord, where shall I lay it?"

"Nowhere shalt thou lay thy heart's desire save in My own Divine heart. There only wilt thou find comfort."

Love and knowledge, the two aspirations of the soul after ultimate truth, are her frequent theme. Sometimes she contrasts Love with the knowledge of the understanding: "Those who would know much, and love little, will ever remain at but the beginning of a godly life. So we must have a constant care how we may please God therein. Simple love, with but little knowledge, can do great things"; sometimes with the knowledge of the heart—"To the wise soul, love without knowledge seems darkness, knowledge without fruition, the very pain of Hell. Fruition can be reached only through Death." In one of her visions she, in an exquisite simile, describes how love flows from the Godhead to mankind, penetrating both body and soul. "It goes without effort," she says, "as does a bird in the air when it does not move its wings." In the same vision she sees the Holy Mother, with uncovered breasts, standing on God's left hand, and Christ on the right, showing his still-open wounds, both pleading for sinful humanity, and she adds that as long as sin endures on earth, so long will Christ's wounds remain open and bleeding, though painless, but that after the Day of Judgment they will heal, and it will be as though there was a rose-leaf instead of the wounds.[5]

Of Love, as she conceived it in relation to herself individually, she can never write enough. "I also may not suffer that any single comfort move me, save my love alone. I love my earthly friends in a heavenly fellowship, and I love my enemies with a holy longing for their salvation. God has enough of all good things, save of union with the soul."

But where Mechthild seems to strike an original note for her time is in her insistence on God's craving for the soul, as well as the soul's craving for God. We find the same insistence in Meister Eckhart, who followed her closely in time, and perhaps, in this respect, in thought also. "God needs man," says Eckhart, quite simply. And again, "God can do as little without us as we without Him." With Mechthild it is from ecstasy to ecstasy that "heart speaks to heart." Says the soul of Mechthild: "Lord, Thou art ever sick of love for me, and that hast Thou Thyself well proved. Thou hast written me in the Book of the Godhead. Thou hast fashioned me after Thine own image. Thou hast bound me hand and foot to Thy side. O grant it to me, Beloved, to anoint Thee."

"Where wilt thou get thine ointment, dear one?"

"Lord, I will tear my happy heart in twain, and lay Thee therein."

"It is the most precious ointment thou couldest give Me, that I should evermore hover in thy soul."

Further God says: "I longed for thee ere the world was. I long for thee, and thou longest for me. When two burning desires come together, then is love perfected."

Sometimes the loving soul traverses a dark way, and cries out in desolation and despair: "Lord, since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me that gift which every dog has by nature—that in my distress I may be true to Thee, without any ill-will. This do I truly desire more than all Thy heavenly kingdom."

And Divine Love makes answer: "Sweet Dove, now list to me. Thy secret seeking must needs find me, thy heart's distress must needs compel me, thy loving pursuit has so wearied me, that I long to cool myself in thy pure soul in the which I am imprisoned. The throbbing sighs of thy sore heart have driven my justice from thee. All is right between me and thee. I cannot be sundered from thee. However far we are parted, never can we be separated. I cause thee extreme pain of body. If I gave myself to thee as oft as thou wouldst, I should thus deprive myself of the sweet shelter I have in thee in this world."

Again the soul cries out—but now discomfited by the Divine Love from whose tireless quest there is no escape—"Thou hast pursued and captured and bound me, and hast wounded me so deeply that never shall I be healed. Thou hast given me many a hard blow. Tell me, shall I ever get whole from Thee? Shall I not be slain by Thee? Thus would it have been better for me if that I had never known Thee."

Then answers Love: "That I pursued thee gave me delight. That I made thee captive was my desire. That I bound thee was my joy. When I wounded thee, then did I become one with thee. Thus I give thee hard blows so that I may be possessed of thee. I drove Almighty God from His heavenly kingdom, and took from Him His mortal life, and have restored Him with honour to His Father. How canst thou, poor worm, save thyself from me?"

Of all Mechthild's visions, there is none that seems to reach a greater height of supreme beauty than that in which the loving soul learns the way to its Divine Lover. It is strangely reminiscent of courtly life and courtly poetry, translated into the ecstatic state, and etherealised into the very perfume of spirituality as the soul becomes one with God. Having passed the distress of repentance, the pain of confession, and the labour of penance, and having overcome the love of the World, the tempting of the Devil, and its own self-will, the soul, weary, and longing for her Divine Lover and God, cries out: "Beautiful Youth, I long for thee. Where shall I find thee?"

Then says the youth: "I hear a voice which speaks somewhat of love. Many days have I wooed her, but never have I heard her voice. Now I am moved. I must go to meet her. She it is who bears grief and love together. In the morning in the dew is the most intimate rapture which first penetrates the soul."

Then speak her Chamberlains, which are the five senses: "Lady, thou must adorn thyself. We have heard a whisper that the Prince comes to meet thee in the dew, and the sweet song of the birds. Tarry not, Lady."

So she puts on a shift of gentle humility, so humble that nothing could be more so, and over it a white robe of pure chastity, so pure that she cannot endure thoughts, words, or desires which might stain it. Then she wraps herself in a cloak of holy desire, which she has wrought in gold with all the virtues. So she goes into the wood, which is the company of holy people. The sweetest nightingales sing there, day and night, of the right union with God. She tries to join in the festal dance, that is, to imitate the example of the elect. Then comes the youth and says to her: "Thou shalt dance merrily even as my Elect." And she answers: "I cannot dance, Lord, if Thou dost not lead me. If Thou wilt that I leap joyfully, Thou must first Thyself sing. Then will I leap for love, from love to knowledge, from knowledge to fruition, from fruition to beyond all human senses. There will I remain, and circle evermore."[6]

Then speaks the youth: "Thy dance of praise is well done. Thou shalt have thy will, for thou art heartily wearied. Come at mid-day to the shady fountain, to the bed of love. There shalt thou be refreshed."

Then, weary of the dance, the soul says to her Chamberlains, the senses: "Withdraw from me, I must go where I may cool myself."

Then say the senses: "Lady, wilt thou be refreshed with the loving tears of St. Mary Magdalene? They may well suffice thee."

"Be silent, sirs; you know not what I mean. Hinder me not. I would drink for a space of the unmingled wine."

"Lady, in the Virgin's chastity the great love is reached."

"That may be. For me it is not the highest."

"Lady, thou mightst cool thyself in the martyrs' blood."

"I have been martyred many a day, so that I have no need to come to that now."

"Lady, bright are the angels, and lovely in love's hue. Wouldst thou cool thyself, be lifted up with them."

"The bliss of the angels brings me love's woe unless I see their Lord, my Bridegroom."

"Lady, if thou comest there, thou wilt be blinded quite, so fiery hot is the Godhead, as thou thyself well knowest, for the fire and the glow which make heaven and all the holy ones burn and shine, all flow from His divine breath, and from His human mouth, through the wisdom of the Holy Ghost. How couldest thou endure it for an hour?"

And the soul answers: "The fish cannot drown in the water, the bird cannot sink in the air, gold cannot perish in the fire, where it gains its clear and shining worth. God has granted to each creature to cherish its own nature. How can I withstand my nature? I must go from all things to God, who is my Father by Nature, my Brother through His Humanity, my Bridegroom through Love, and I am His for ever."

Silenced by this wondrous flight of holy passion, we bid farewell to Mechthild. She lived for her time, and she lives for us, as one of "humanity's pioneers on the only road to rest." "Out of the depths," she cried to Heaven. We leave her in the music of the spheres.


  1. P. Gall. Morel, Offenbarungen der Schwester Mechthild von Magdeburg, oder das fliessende Licht der Gottheit, Regensburg, 1869.
  2. For the suggestive elaboration of this threefold classification, see Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, chap. vi. p. 151 seq.
  3. Cf. Edmund G. Gardner, Joachim of Flora and the Everlasting Gospel. Franciscan Essays, Bri. Soc.of Fran. Studies, extra series, vol. i.
  4. The tendency of present-day Italian scholarship seems in favour of identifying Mechthild of Hackeborn, rather than Mechthild of Magdeburg, with Dante's Matelda.
  5. The first of these subjects—the Holy Mother and Christ pleading for sinners—is to be found in a miniature in King Henry VI.'s Psalter (Brit. Mus. Cotton MS. Domitian. A. xvii. circ. 1430, fol. 205), and the two intercessions separately form two of the subjects in the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (fourteenth century). Though the S.H.S. is of later date than the time of Mechthild the literary source of the subject appears to be a passage in the De laudibus B.M.V. of Arnaud of Chartres, abbot of Bonneval 1138-1156 (J. Lutz and P. Perdrizet, Spec. Hum. Sal. vol. i., Mulhouse, 1907), which might quite well have been known to her, especially if, as Messrs. Lutz and Perdrizet consider, the S.H.S. was written by a Dominican, who would naturally make use of Dominican teaching and tradition, and we know that Mechthild, even if not, as has been suggested, a tertiary of that Order, was in constant and close touch with it. The second subject, the reference to rose-leaves and Christ's wounds, seems to be a purely original thought, and one amongst the many fascinating ideas that have centred round the rose ever since Aphrodite anointed the dead body of Hector with rose-scented oil (Iliad, xxiii. 186).
  6. It may be recalled that Dante (Par. xxiv.) sees the Saints in Paradise as circling lights from whence issues divine song, and again (Par. xxv.) "wheeling round in such guise as their burning love befitted."