A Very Unruly Woman of God

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Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

She described herself as an unruly woman of God — Mechthild of Magdeburg. “I want also to circle higher still,” she wrote in one of her mystical poems. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve. As a young woman, she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She was an ascetic, a writer and a mystic who viewed God’s will in unorthodox ways. Her criticism of church dignitaries for religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. Her words seemed to have kept her in deep trouble!

Her story reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” a book that set me on a pilgrimage in 1996 that changed my life. This was a book that screamed out to me, “Find your own soul! Nourish it! Protect it! Bind it closer to God’s soul and, for the first time, live out God’s call to you!”

Sue Monk Kidd said this as she reflected on writing the book’s first edition:

“The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” sparked heated, sometimes scathing reactions, including public accusations of heresy, boycotts of my lectures, and a plethora of derisive letters in my mailbox. One of the more memorable began: Dear Whore of Babylon. It was the “Dear” part that made is so indelible.

This statement rings true when I contemplate the life of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Before we get back to her, though, let’s look for a moment at The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that left me with these nuggets of wisdom I will always hold close.

How many times have I denied my innermost wisdom and silenced this voice? How many times can a woman betray her soul before it gives up and ceases calling to her at all?

We must wake up, journey, name, challenge, shed, reclaim, ground, and heal.

When someone tries to put you back into a box from which you’ve already escaped, you might recall a line from the Indian poet Mirabai. She said, “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!}

As women we have a right to ask the hard questions. The only way I have ever understood, broken free, emerged, healed, forgiven, flourished, and grown powerful is by asking the hardest questions and then living into the answers through opening up to my own terror and transmuting it into creativity. I have gotten nowhere by retreating into hand-me-down sureties or resisting the tensions that truth ignited.

The main thing is to stop struggling and nourish yourself. When you nourish yourself, your creative energy is renewed. You are able to pick up your lyre again and sing.

— Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Yes! Sing, and even dance your dissident dance! Your song may sound to all those around you like a revolutionary song, discordant to their ears. Your dancing may scandalize your observers. Still — Sing! Dance! — to the stirrings of Spirit within you!

2869C069-C448-475D-87A3-447D55A041B6That’s exactly what Mechthild of Magdeburg did and the religious world labeled her unruly. In her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), she described her visions of God. She could not read and write in Latin, but she is known for being the first mystic to write in German. Her confessor, Heinrich von Halle, finally persuaded her in 1250 to write down her visions and spiritual experiences. She did this in her own hand, in the conviction that it was God’s will.

By 1270, six of the seven books of the “Flowing Light” were brought to parchment, collected and given chapter titles by Heinrich. Mechthild saw her book as a message to both believers and clergy, for she feared the church was in danger of being hollowed out from within; she called the powerful church officials, who often enjoyed worldly luxury, “stinking billy-goats.”

Thus, Mechthild was known as a very unruly woman of God — a defiant, dissident and radical rebel! “Stinking billy-goats!” No wonder she became known for her “rebelliousness and unorthodox ways.” The community she was a part of, the Beguine order, was known for the same kind of unorthodox rebelliousness. 

The Beguine order was a Christian religious movement active in Northern Europe during the 13th-16th centuries. The Beguines were women who lived as nuns in semi-monastic communities. Through their intense devotion to God and their somewhat ascetic lifestyle, they came to be known for their acts of rebellion and their unorthodox ways.

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Watercolor art: 2019; by Kathy Manis Findley

Mechthild of Magdeburg definitely danced to her own music!

With her order, she was part of a great spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was falling into disfavor. The Beguines sought to imitate the life Christ through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.

With advancing age, Mechthild was blind. She was alone, still the object of much criticism. With singing silenced and dancing impossible, she was left to sing songs in her heart and dance the dances of her imagination, always seeking Spirit promptings.

Some scholars have speculated that, due to increased persecution and failing health, Mechthild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne, Mechthild of Hackeborne, and Gertrude the Great. Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechthild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, Helfta had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.

Still, Mechthild portrayed herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director “my dear schoolmaster,” who taught her, “simple and stupid as I am, to write this book.” About the urging of God she said, “I cannot nor do I wish to write “unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit.” At one point, Mechthild wondered why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that “unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit.”

In spite of the fact that Mechthild was unable to read and write in Latin, these are some powerful quotes by the graceful mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), where she describes her visions of God.

The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.

If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help them both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God that causes the devils much distress.

From suffering I have learned this: that whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embraces the very same love which wounded her.

A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul. Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things, and recognized God’s unspeakable glory — that incomprehensible wonder — the tender caress between God and the soul . . . the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity as it now is and evermore shall be.


I cannot dance, Lord,
unless you lead me.

If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.

Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment
beyond all human sensations.

There I want to remain,
yet want also to circle higher still.

— Mechthild of Magdeburg

Like her, I want to “circle higher still.” I want to escape from chains that shackle the highest expression of my spirit. I want to sing the songs God placed in my heart! I want to dance to the Spirit’s rhythm hidden in my spirit!

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Acrylic art by Kathy Manis Findley

Without fear! Without fear . . .

taking the journey set before me to follow Christ into places of poverty, fear, sickness, desperation. Breaking the rules if I must. Taking criticism if I must. Being persecuted if that is in the cards for me. I want to move forward into my calling with the Spirit of God upon me . . .


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

 — Luke 4:18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

May God make it so for us. Amen.

 

 

Uncreated Grace

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I have been reflecting on a phrase I read this morning in Father Richard Rohr’s meditation— Uncreated Grace. It is an intriguing phrase and makes me wonder why I received it at this particular time and place on my journey. I have had a very long journey — many miles of life —- and, in fact, there have been many other forks on the path that seem more sacred places to contemplate uncreated grace. But here it is, today, brought to me at this place on my journey.

As I did some processing on this phrase, I thought of one of my dear friends from ages past, seminary days to be exact. Often, he would share his favorite quotes. This was one of them, an intriguing and thought-provoking quote. This quote always stayed in his favorites file. It hints at a long journey we all must take . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

— T. S. Eliot

We were always left with the question “What do T.S Eliot’s words mean?” Sitting in small groups, the seminarians discussed but never reached an answer, to the question. I imagine that, like me, some of them took the words along with them on their journeys, hoping to discover the meaning at some place of enlightenment on their path.

On my journey, Eliot’s words came to mind many times. Never quite discovering a finite meaning, I did discover infinite applications that touched my life in ways simple and profound. Most always, I came away from reflecting on the words to a better place inside myself and a better space in my world. Still, I wonder why these T.S. Eliot words were brought to my mind today.

The power in these words, I think, is that they are not a directive, not a call to mission, not words of piety, not gleaned from scripture. They are words meant to be understood individually rather than offering a universal message. I identify these words as an invitation, and so today I am left alone with them to intentionally create space for reflection and understanding.

When I do that, I hear many, many other words from different places — from scripture, hymn, poetry, prose and from within myself. It feels like a Spirit encounter, the presence of “another comforter” who will be with us forever, who will, as Jesus promised, “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

Spirit teaches us and helps us remember. Spirit grounds us so that our circuitous journey will not frighten us. We are free to never “cease from exploration,” because we are comforted to know that we will “arrive where we started . . .”

9889AA3B-16BB-4F9F-9B56-D883A74A49AEAnd know the place for the first time . . .

When the journey leads us back to where we started, how is it that we “know the place for the first time?” I urge you to not take my interpretation as the correct one, because I believe that a “correct” interpretation comes from the soul of each person who chooses to explore. But here is an understanding based on my own musings . . . we can take what comes in our lives, or we can explore places on the journey — our encounters, our joys and sorrows, our events and calamities, our crises and emotions, our disappointments and betrayals, the chance and the wonder.

For me, there is no doubt that exploring all of these life events brings that sense of getting back to the beginning and truly knowing the place for the first time, not necessarily because the beginning place has changed, but that I have changed. The Spirit’s holy breath transformed me with gentleness again and again, transformed by the blowing of Spirit wind into my being.

Father Richard Rohr says that “the Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”

How I love those words . . . Uncreated Grace! Perhaps that’s what we all hope for in our explorations on the journey — that in us and through us, there is Uncreated Grace. If we present to the Spirit our selves as uncreated grace, I wonder if Spirit then creates grace within us again and again and again, all along the way. If we never cease from exploration, presenting ourselves as uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit will breathe on us and we will be transformed!

No wonder we know the place where we started for the first time! The place hasn’t changed, we have changed, transformed in our deepest places!

Thanks be to God and to the touch of Spirit breath. Amen

Come Now, Spirit of Power!

 

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Come now Spirit of power.
Come now quickly and seize this moment.
Come Spirit from all four sacred directions,
from every color and culture,
come and use this sorrowful moment for good.

Very often, the prayers of Bishop Steven Charleston become a part of my meditation time. His prayers have a way of calming my heart, comforting my spirit and inspiring me to greater works. His words are expressive and full of energy. He paints pictures of things as they are and things as they should be.

In response to the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, Bishop Charleston speaks of the deep divisions in our nation and the old wounds that have been opened. Indeed. He is right. But then he calls us to better things, to a time for love that has the power to heal.

So let us pray this prayer today, in this moment, as we long for healing.

Come now Spirit of power, come now quickly and seize this moment. The conscience of our nation teeters on the edge of change. Old wounds between us have opened. Deep divisions have been revealed. We are stunned by the cost of our own behavior. 

Now is the time. Now is an historic opportunity for love. 

Pull prejudice from us like a poison. 

Draw out the fear that breeds our racism. 

Open our eyes to behold our common humanity. 

Silence the justifications and the denials before they begin and keep our eyes fixed firmly on the prize, not on the politics. 

Come Spirit from all four sacred directions, from every color and culture, come and use this sorrowful moment for good. Heal our racism now.

May God make it so.  Amen.

 

Art: “Four Sacred Directions” by Drea Jensen, 2002