Christian Mysticism

Love Burning in the Soul;

The Story of the Christian Mystics,

from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton,

by James Harpur

(New Seeds, 2005).

A Pseudo-Random Walk into Mysticism

using James Harpur's book as a guide.

As usual, this is an account of my reactions to parts of this book, not a "review" in the normal sense.

At times I have wondered if I should dive back into the history of Christian Mysticism to see who or what I have missed in my concentration on the Beguines, the Woman’s Movement of the Middle Ages. So when I spotted this book by Harpur, I decided to read it and see if there were others I should add into my discussion because of the profundity of their revelatory messages.

The short version: No.  My selection of mystics and their messages, a selection I made over 20 years ago, is still the selection I would make today.

Why? Since you asked the question, you have to read on.

Harpur does not convince me that either Jesus or Paul qualifies as a mystic in the sense I am looking for. Except in the book of John, of course, and especially where Jesus speaks of the oneness of his disciples and himself and God, but then the question has to be asked: “is this a description of a true mystical saying by Jesus, or is it instead a mystically reinterpreted Jesus by ‘John’?”

The descriptions of the mystics of Christianity’s earlier centuries, many laced with Platonic and Neoplatonic thought and wisdom, also don’t do much for me. There was a time I was fascinated with a little bit of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagyte and Bernard of Clairvaux. But it isn’t until Harpur gets to Hildegard of Bingen that he gets to the sort of mystic revelation that I find really intriguing, maybe even soul-satisfying,

I do, in my earlier survey linked above, discuss Francis, Suso and van Ruusbroec (Ruysbroeck in Harpur) as mystics. But my real passion has been, and still is, with the types of mysticism described in Harpur’s Chapter 7, where he discusses “The Beguines.” And even in that chapter I really like the “flavor” of Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechthild of Magdeburg more than I liked the way the writings of Marguerite Porete affect me.

Marguerite’s life and death at the stake is a compelling story, of course, and I tell it on this site. Harpur tells her story well, being both factual and thoughtful.

The mystics that come later in time, I am sorry to say, do less for me. With an exception to be discussed a little later.

So what is it that makes the Beguine mystics so compelling for me? The ‘flavor’ of their writings, as I like to describe the way their words taste inside me. Harpur explains something about that flavor. He explains that the Beguine mystics were infected by the courtly love tradition (his page 82):

. . . the “Christianization” of courtly love can be seen in the writings of the Beguines, a religious movement for women, for whom the suitor represented the soul seeking the love of God.

Harpur describes the essence of the courtly love tradition this way:

. . . the figure of the noble lady was central to the cult of courtly love, an idealized conception of love in which the woman was an object of unattainable desire and the cause of emotional pain to the frustrated suitor. In real life the honoring of women became part of the chivalric code of knights, and from the eleventh century this secular idealism was to some extent mirrored by the cult of the Virgin Mary.

Harpur surprises me on page 84 by citing a book by R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, (Penguin 1970) that says this about the Beguines:

. . . they were unusual in being “basically a women’s movement, not simply a feminine appendix to a movement that owed its impetus, direction, and main support to men.”

I had thought for many years that my calling it 'a women’s movement’ in the Middle Ages was an original thought, back when I wrote my article about them [linked above] in the mid-1980s. Not so, it turns out. Well, it is good to have company in thought, especially when the thought-companion is an expert.

Harpur also surprises me by catching the reader’s attention with a quote from Marguerite Porete to start this chapter on Beguines with “she,” meaning the soul which is feminine regardless of the sex of the person in the parlance employed at the time:

She feels no joy, for she herself is joy, and swims

and floats in joy without feeling any joy, for

she inhabits joy and joy inhabits her.

That is the ‘flavor’ I like. It has a different feel than the mystical expressions that are tainted with scholasticism and have an instructional flavor. Although I like Marguerite, and I like van Ruusbroec as well, since there are nuggets in their writings with this flavor, the rest is a loaf written as instruction and explanation, and that just doesn’t taste or smell the same when taken inside oneself. That is my personal opinion, of course, an opinion not shared widely.

In Harpur’s description of Hadewijch of Antwerp’s (or Brabant’s, same person) words, there is this simply marvelous proof of her being steeped in what some have called the Religion of Love, and others –like C.S. Lewis -- have called the heresy of Love (page 87):

Central to Hadewijch’s spirituality is love. It is clear that she had absorbed the prevalent ethos of courtly love; and she used the literary conventions of the genre in her own spiritual works. So the devoted lover becomes the ardent soul, and the beloved, the Lady, is not the divine love of God. . . . We must also practice virtuous works and be totally obedient to Lady Love if she is to penetrate us and take us out of ourselves into union with her.

AS already mentioned, the person that Harpur calls Hadewijch of Brabant is also called Hadewijch of Antwerp, as in the anthology by Bernard McGinn (The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Modern Library, 2006). McGinn has a Chapter 5 about her, and cites her Vision VII to some extent. McGinn praises her command of language and sound but unique understanding of theology, and then lumps her into the Beguine milieu with these words (pp. 102-103):

. . . The mystical piety of beguines and other women mystics of the thirteenth century fixed on the Eucharist, especially on the physical reception of Christ, the Bridegroom of the soul. Eucharistic visions and ecstasies experienced during the reception of the sacrament were staples of late-medieval female mysticism. Few of these accounts are more intriguing than Hadewijch’s “Vision VII.” As in many such narratives, the liturgical and sacramental setting introduces a highly personal and deeply erotic encounter. . . .

Although I have already cited this account elsewhere on this website the translation cited in McGinn’s book seems just a bit more clear to me, and I will cite a little bit of it here from McGinn’s page 104 (broken up with some ‘white space’ here, and leaving out Christ’s prior appearance to her as a young child, with the body and blood sacrament in a chalice in hand, who then, as he approached more closely, became adult):

Thereupon he came in the appearance and in the clothing of the man he was on that day when he first gave us his body, that appearance of a human being and a man, showing his sweet and sorrowful face, and approaching me with the humility of one who belongs entirely to another.

Then he gave himself to me in the form of the sacrament, in the manner to which people are accustomed. Then he gave me to drink from the chalice in the manner and taste to which people are accustomed.

Then he came to me himself and took me completely in his arms and pressed me to him. And all my limbs felt his limbs in the full satisfaction that my heart and my humanity desired. Then I was externally completely satisfied to the utmost satiation.

At that time I also had, for a short while, the strength to bear it.

But all too soon I lost external sight of the shape of that beautiful man, and I saw him disappear to nothing, so quickly melting away and fusing together that I could not see or observe him outside of me, nor discern him within me. It was to me at that moment as if we were one without distinction.

All of this was external, in sight, in taste, in touch, just as people may taste and see and touch receiving the external sacrament, just as a beloved may receive her lover in the full pleasure of seeing and hearing, with the one becoming one with the other.

After this I remained in a state of oneness with my Beloved so that I melted into him and ceased to be myself. And I was transformed and absorbed in the spirit, and I had a vision about the following hours.

So that is the consummation of her experience of becoming one with God. McGinn cites her explanation of the depth of her desire that led to this experience on his page 103 (‘white space’ added to break up the solid block of text in McGinn):

. . . I desired to consummate my Lover completely and to confess and to savor to the fullest extent—to fulfill his humanity blissfully with mine and to experience mine therein, and to be strong and perfect so that I in turn would satisfy him perfectly: to be purely and exclusively and completely virtuous in every virtue.

And to that end I wished, inside me, that he would satisfy me with his Godhead in one spirit (1 Cor. 6:17) and he be all he is without restraint.

For above all gifts I could choose, I choose that I may give satisfaction in all great sufferings. For that is what it means to satisfy completely: to grow to being god with God.

For it is suffering and pain, sorrow and being in great new grieving, and letting this all come and go without grief, and to taste nothing of it but sweet love and embraces and kisses. Thus I desired that God should be with me so that I should be fulfilled together with him.

And as we have already read: this, her desire, was fully satisfied.

There is just a tiny hint in the above words from Hadewijch that may, to some, suggest she had now achieved a spiritual state beyond that offered to normal people by partaking of the sacraments. Had she elaborated on that and suggested she was now no longer in need of her spiritual advisors or even the sacraments, she would have engaged in the heresy known as Quetism. But she did not carry it that far.

In reading Harpur beyond the chapter on the Beguines, I next was very surprised and pleased to find, in Chapter 14, a discussion of French Mystics and Quietism.  On page 172, mention is made of Louis the XIVth and his “second wife, Madame de Maintenon.” Having just visited the home of Madame de Maintenon, and told a bit of her life story, on this website, I had to look into what she did to become mentioned in a book on Christian mystics and mysticism.

South of Paris, a girl was born in about 1648 named Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte. She was religiously inclined but at 16 was married off to a man 22 years her senior, an invalid named Jacques Guyon. She bore five children, three lived. Her miserable marriage ended when Jacques died and she finally turned to satisfy her spiritual longings and was helped by a priest. Madame Guyon wrote a popular book on prayer, and moved with her priest to Paris where they began to teach her idea of what spiritual prayer was and did for a person. They were accused of the Quietist heresy, which suggested that having reached some unifying relationship with God, being one with God in spirit, erased all desire and will, it having become one with God’s desire and will. This meant no further need for spiritual instruction or even the Church’s sacraments.

Both Madame Guyon and her priest were thrown into the Bastille prison, where her priest remained for twelve years although he had confessed his sins and promised to remain orthodox. Louis XIV, having just dissolved and massacred the Pope’s own Templars, needed to show he was vigilant in fighting heresy and assuring orthodoxy in his kingdom. Somehow, Madame Guyon’s story and plight came to Madam de Maintenon’s attention and she prevailed on her husband to let her go.

She was in the Bastille for two months is all, and after being taken under the wing of Madame de Maintenon's circle of friends became close with another Quietist mystic/almost-heretic, François Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, who understood and admired her spirituality and her writing.

Fénelon understood and appreciated her writings, but not the way she expressed herself in those writings, sensing she was going displease the very persons she would submit them to for approval. He was right, her writings were found heretical and this time she went to jail for 8 years and after was exiled to live with her son.

Fénelon was accused of heresy for defending her but escaped prison by agreeing to never leave Cambrai. [The above was extracted from Harpur’s pages 172-174, and Harpur is not guilty of any errors I may have introduced in making this extraction.]

On page 173, Harpur tells of the Franciscan friar whom Madame Guyon consulted during the first years of her miserable marriage:

. . . she had tried to find solace in God, but in vain. The turning point came when she went to see a visiting Franciscan friar, who told her she was “seeking without that which you hold within” and that she would find God in her heart. His words had an almost instant effect: “They were to me like the stroke of a dart, which penetrated through my heart. I felt a very deep wound, a wound so delightful that I desired not to be cured.”

It was a long journey of much painful personal experience that led her from this place of being delightfully wounded to her state of being so fully possessed by and one with God that she was indifferent to all else in the world, including salvation (the Church and its demands). Heresy? Sure.

Finding this brief, but meaningful, historical connection between Madame Guyon and Madame the Maintenon in Harpur’s book was a delightful surprise to me.

But there is yet another delightful coincidence around the corner: Madame Guyon makes use of the same imagery as my favorite Islamic/Sufi mystic, Rumi, at one point, in what I believe to be a comparable context!

For this we go to pages 44-45 of McGinn’s book because he cited Madame Guyon’s commentary on the Song of Songs, in a section discussing the "spiritual marriage” between the soul and God [some ‘white space’ added for emphasis]:

The distinction I now refer to is that between God and the soul. Here the soul cannot and ought not any longer to make such a distinction; God is she and she is God, since by the consummation of the marriage she is absorbed into God and lost in him without power to distinguish or find herself again.

The true consummation of the marriage causes an admixture of the soul with God so great and so intimate that she can distinguish and see herself no longer;

and it is this fusion that divinizes, so to speak, the actions of the creature arrived at this lofty and sublime position, for they emanate from a principle which is wholly divine in consequence of the unity which has been effected between God and the soul melted and absorbed in him,

God becoming the principle of her actions and words, though they are spoken and manifested externally through her.

The marriage of the body whereby two persons are rendered one flesh (Gen 2:24) is but a faint image of this, by which, in the words of St. Paul, God and the soul become one spirit (1 Cor. 6:17).

Many are exceedingly anxious to know when the spiritual marriage takes place. It is easy to ascertain this from what has been said. The betrothal, or the mutual engagement, is made in the union of the powers when the soul surrenders herself wholly to God and God gives himself wholly to the soul with the intention of admitting her to union.

This is an agreement and mutual promise. But ah!, what a distance is yet to be traveled and what sufferings to be undergone before this eagerly desired union can be granted or consummated!

The marriage takes place when the soul falls dead and senseless into the arms of the Bridegroom, who, beholding her more fitted for it, receives her into union.

But the consummation of the marriage does not come to pass until the soul is so melted, annihilated, and freed from self that it can unreservedly flow into God.

Then is accomplished that admirable fusion of the creature and the Creator which brings them into unity, so to speak, though with such an infinite disproportion as exists between a single drop of water and the ocean.

The drop has become ocean, but it forever remains a little drop, though it has become assimilated in character with the waters of the ocean and thus fit to be mingled with it and to make but one ocean with it.

It is the drop-and-ocean comparison between soul and God that attracted my attention. At the end of the Rumi poem I have adopted as my favorite, he uses the same imagery comparing the conscious essence of the individual with the Ocean of consciousness from whence we came:

[This taken from Star and Shiva's pp. 148-149 of their book of Rumi poems called A Garden Beyond Paradise properly referenced on this webpage on this site:

I can just hear you saying that this is not a compellingly similar use of the ocean/drop imagery. OK, let us take it just another step further.

Madame Guyon speaks of the soul in these words:

“God is she and she is God.”

Similarly, Hadewijch spoke of the soul’s journey to unity in these words:

“to grow to being god with God.”

Shifting to Rumi. Who speaks of the soul as the Beloved (of God), and who speaks of God as the Lover of the soul, challenges humans in these words [references on this page]:

Recall the words about the soul and God cited above, and then add in these words about the moment Madame Guyon found her spirituality: “seeking without that which you hold within,” and keeping this in mind, now read this excerpt from Rumi:

p. 59

The moment I heard of His love, I thought,
To find the Beloved
I must search with body, mind and soul.

But no--to find the Beloved
you must become the Beloved.

Recall all the talk about suffering in order to prepare us to become one with God?

To me this compares with Rumi in these next two quotes celebrating the creation of a new being by the Creator:

p. 63

O Beloved, today you want even more:
We're already mad
and yet you pull
at the last thread of our sanity.
You've torn away our veil,
You've torn away our clothes.
We're completely naked!

And still you are tearing!

The next Rumi quote additionally reminds me of this from Madame Guyon:

p. 69

In the waters of his love I melted like salt--
No good, no bad, no conviction, no doubt remains.

A star has exploded in my heart
And the seven skies are lost in it.

Recall Madame Guyon’s description of the sacred marriage between soul and God:

p. 80

Tonight we go to that place of eternity.
This is the wedding night--
a never-ending union
of lover and Beloved.

We whisper gentle secrets to each other
and the child of the universe
takes its first breath.

What is my point? You get very similar mystical insights from the Catholic mystics and Rumi, a Sufi mystic, a Muslim. I agree with Rumi when he says that your religious persuasion is not important, it is your relationship to Love that is important:

p. 29

Alas, don't tell me--
The Sufis are lost.
Don't tell me--
The Christians are lost,
The infidels are lost.
Alas my brother, you are lost!
That is why everyone else seems lost!

I can’t resist adding in this from Rumi as an almost-last thought: its last lines remind me of a quote from Marguerite Porete, cited above and used as a Chapter heading by Harpur (page 82):

She feels no joy, for she herself is joy, and swims

And floats in joy without feeling any joy, for she inhabits joy and joy inhabits her.


p. 31

You claim skill in every art
and knowledge of every science,
Yet you cannot even hear
what your own heart is telling you.

Until you can hear that simple voice
How can you be a keeper of secrets?
How can you be a traveller on this path?

How could sorrow approach the heart
of a true lover?
Sorrow belongs to those
who are dreary and alone.

The lover's heart
is filled with an ocean,
And in its rolling waves
the cosmos gently turn[s].

As a final-final thought I want to add a discussion from another book, one on Sufism by a scholar who is also a devotee of Sufism, calling it the 'mystical heart of Islam.' The author, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, according to the book’s jacket, is “university professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University. The preeminent Sufi scholar in the United States.” . . . .

The book is called The Garden of Truth, The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (Harper One, 2007).

I read through Nasr’s book looking for some discussion of the profound similarities between Sufic and Christian mysticism, especially where human love and Divine Love are concerned.

I found this compelling and illuminating (for me) discussion on his pages 64 and 65 under the heading: “The Spiritual Significance of Human Love” and will cite lines separated by ellipses, . . . where I have simply left material out. I also added a few blank lines for some extra white space.  To see the full discussion, please obtain the book:

To have truly loved is to have truly lived . . . . This belief of the Sufis points to the important truth that not only is love a part of life, it also plays a very significant spiritual role in our inner development. . . .

A human being can experience many forms of love . . . all leading to the love of God. All these forms of love involve going beyond one’s ego, performing sacrifice and suffering, giving and giving again. Also all forms of love are signs of a deep yearning in the soul for that love that is divine. . . .

Conjugal and romantic love is the testing ground for the growth of the soul emotionally and spiritually, and is related directly to the love and ultimate union between the soul and the Spirit. This assertion does not of course negate the possibility of detachment from such a love for the sake of God, as we see in the celibacy practiced in certain religions.

Real and authentic love in the romantic sense, and not merely sexual attraction, is a form of grace and a gift from Heaven. It rips through our soul like a powerful hurricane, uprooting our usual attachments and habits. It yanks the roots of our souls from the soil of complacency and self-centeredness. It causes joy as well as pain, ecstasy as well as longing.

It detaches the soul from other entanglements and attaches it to the object of one’s love, even overcoming the mind’s scattered thoughts and concentrating the mind on that single object. Something of the absoluteness of the love for God becomes reflected in such a human love that requires utter selflessness and unlimited giving . . . this love cannot in the deepest sense be separated from the love for God and God’s love for us. Hence the spiritual significance of human love.

The sexual dimension of love is itself impregnated with spiritual significance. Sexual union is an earthly reflection of a paradisal prototype. The male experiences the Infinite and the female the Absolute in this earthly union, which returns, albeit for a moment, the human being to his or her androgynic wholeness.

The bliss of the sexual union is also a foretaste of the bliss of the union of the soul with the Spirit, about which Christian Hermeticism as well as certain other schools of Christian mysticism speak.

As mentioned above, the soul can of course withdraw from this earthly attraction through asceticism to seek direct wedding to the Spirit, as we see in monasticism and many forms of Christian spirituality, but the sexual union remains spiritually significant, especially in Sufis, which like the rest of Islam sees sexuality as a sacred reality, hence to be governed by the Sacred Law, not as a sinful act simply resulting from the fall. . . .

From the Sufi point of view, the urge for sexual union, which is the most powerful sensuous urge within most human beings, is in reality the search of the soul for union with God, especially when human union is combined with love. Every beloved is ultimately a reflection of the Beloved . . . who is God in His inner reality, a reality to which Sufis often refer in the feminine. . . . Seen as the Beloved, the inner dimension of the Divine is that feminine Beauty for which the male soul yearns.

In His aspect of Creator and Sustainer of creation, however, God is seen as masculine. From the purely metaphysical point of view, the Divine is of course above the male-female distinction. . . .

I believe this is a very good discussion on many levels, and adds to the understanding of the words of the Christian mystics and of Rumi cited above, and explains in large part why the imagery used to describe the relationship of the human to the Divine is so often couched in sexual terms in both these religious traditions.

My take on the phenomenon is that the root experience of oneness with the Divine Essence, Love, is the same regardless of the tradition from which the mystic derives his or her belief system.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to celebrate the Divine Essence, Love, the reality of which is acknowledged in the mystical experience that supports these, as well as other, religious traditions? Maybe then the hatred and violence can stop.

It is crazy to have blood being spilled over the claim to exclusive ownership of the Divine, of Love, of God, by a specific religious tradition. As Rumi hints, the Beloved is above the distinctions assigned by religious traditions and their sometime warring, often competing, sects.

All humans can travel the road to the experience of being one with Love, through the recognition, seeking, and practice, of the purest, most noble love of which they are capable.

Zoroaster, was right long before either Christianity or Islam arose in the world: true religion is a daily striving, a personal jihad, to have good thoughts, to speak good words, and to perform good actions.

That is the way every person can approach the union of their soul with Love in this life. Heck of a nice way to live a life, really: allows you to wake up every day at peace with yourself; also allows you to bless others by unconsciously radiating Love to them, giving as freely as has been given you, expecting nothing in return.

[Thanks, James Harpur, for allowing me to use your book to send me back to some of my favorite people and sources on mysticism, and discovering a few new favorites too!]

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