In Praise of the Holy Women, and Men, of the Mystical Tradition

In so many ways, I am relentlessly male. I am out there, I want to engage the issues of the day, I rejoice in the Church-militant, and looked to the Church-triumphant! This is appropriate, and proper, for I am a Christian man and God has gifted me to engage the battle! Men, in their maleness are a gift to the Church.

That said, I have come also to realize my need, and my indebtedness to the holy women of God’s Church, those living, and profoundly, those who have gone before, who have set forth a glorious testimony of the feminine genius and mystique of deep, mystical prayer.

Ah, the Holy Women! There are to be sure, men, such as St. John of the Cross, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, just to mention two, who have set forth the great in mystical vision. But I must say, I am particularly indebted to the great women, to the mystics and Doctors of the Church, such as St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Rose of Lima, St. Therese of Lisieux, Sister Faustina, and other women, who ventured into deep, contemplative, and spousal union with the Lord.

How their deep love, and their intensity. Their union with God has inspired me in my own journey toward contemplative prayer. Though I cannot access their spousal love for the Lord, I am able to transpose their experiences to a deep spiritual experience of sonship with God the Father, for he is Abba, and I am the son!

Ah! The great Catherine of Sienna, her love for the Lord, her wisdom, rooted in both suffering and afflication, in  joy and ecstasy. She personally met the Lord! What a witness! What a glory, what a testimony that the mystics give us. St. Teresa of Avila.  she to who encountered the Lord, and yet suffered greatly! She was even suspected of heresy and her visions and experiences were  submitted to the Inquisition!

Alas, Lord! Spare us for our suspicious rejection of the normal Christian life! St. Rose of Lima, St. Mary Margaret Mary, and Sister Fuustina, considered by many of their contemporaries to be strange, excessive, even possessed! Yet, they knew Him whom they had encountered. They knew his love for them, and were willing to suffer with him, and for him!

Spare us O Lord for our obtuseness, our doubt, and our lack of faith in assigning to them, who experienced a normal Christian life, the label of insanity, of oddness, extremity, mental unbalance, and even possession!

They encountered you, they had met you, and experienced you! Yet so many of us thought them strange and unbalanced. Forgive us Lord. Too often we have substituted extreme rationalism, for the mystical vision of You, who go beyond mere words and mere human formulae.

Forgive us Lord, for while our intellect is our crowning glory, sometimes we forget that you cannot be reduced to the limits of human concepts.

The mystics remind us of God’s transcendence, and we have often made them suffer for this.

Yes Lord, while it is surely our obligation to submit all things to your holy Magisterium, forgive, Lord,  us for the times when we have been too slow or too skeptical to accept the bold testimony that the mystics give us, that you are Other and that you draw us beyond what is simply and comfortably understood by us.

Thank you Lord for the mystical tradition, for the holy women, and men too, starting with John the Apostle, who have testified to us of you, who may have encountered You in ways more deep than words, too difficult to define. They suffered much, often at our hands, for the visions ABC, but they knew and would not deny you, whom they encountered.

Yes, pardon dear reader, a brief departure to prayer, and gratitude. As you know, the Pope has recently declared two new doctors of the Church. Among them is St. Hildegard von Bingen, and St. John of Avila.

I must say to you, with some embarrassment, that I know little of their, of her wisdom, and their experience of the Lord. But I will now, go and sit at their feet, encouraged by the Holy Father and I will listen and learn. For I have  learned that the many holy women, and the men too,  the mystics, have much to teach me. Their teachings go beyond words, and into vision, into the deep experience of the heart, into the deeper things of God, things not easily reduced to words. Therefore much is learned not only from their written teachings, but also of their lives and their experience, their sufferings and joys.

The intellectual tradition of the Church, his magnificent and necessary. But so is the mystical tradition, a tradition not opposed to, or really even distinct from, the intellectual tradition. For the same God is experienced and speaks in both ways. And while all things must be submitted to the sacred Magisterium of the Church, the intellectual and the mystical tradition should both be appreciated, and respected.

And thus, my next journey should well be to explore and carefully listen to the teachings of St. Hildegard von Bingen and St. John of Avila. Today the Pope has said listen to them, learn from them, sit and their feet, study and carefully consider what they teach.

Here are new Doctors of the Church.

And, in particular I must say, that I as a man, so relentlessly male, must, despite my gifts as a man, be balanced and completed by the holy women of the Church. Indeed, they have been my teachers, especially in the ways of prayer. Thanks be to God. Here is a video I have compiled in gratitude to some very important women in my life:

15 Replies to “In Praise of the Holy Women, and Men, of the Mystical Tradition”

  1. I have St. Hildegard von Bingen to thank for my going on a chant and polyphony CD buying binge after I heard her music. If I remember right, the first one was Heavenly Revelations, a CD put out by Naxos, which produces good classical music for a reasonable price. But Anonymous 4 has put out some great CDs, such as The Origin of Fire. My favorite though is probably Voices of Angels: Music of Hildegard von Bingen, put out by Voices of Ascension. All of these try to remain true to the original, without any additional instrumentation that some groups have added to modernize her.

    The first track from Voice of Angels, O virga ac diadema, is spectacular, especially when listened to at a fairly low volume that allows the chant to just transcend into every pore of your being (unlike the usual head-banging, ear-piercing level that I like, not only for rock, but also Bach and Vivaldi and Beethoven, etc.). Hard to believe what you are listening to is about 900 years old.

  2. So, why did Church not canonize or blessed or at least venerated Origen and Meister Eckhart due to their mysticism and why did it persecute Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and others due to their mystical beliefs and practices and efforts to reform Orders.

      1. @Pedro,
        The answer is simple: the Church Militant has her human aspect which is always far from being perfect. What is more important, she recognizes her faults by, for example, officially making St. Joan of Arc the patron saint of persons persecuted by the Church authorities. As for Origen, some of his beliefs were clearly unorthodox; on the other hand, Meister Eckhart only needed some influential followers to reverse his unfair condemnation (after all, St. Faustina Kowalska’s Divine Mercy devotion was banned by John XXIII until her compatriot, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, started petitioning the Holy See for the ban’s removal which happened in 1978, about seven months before Wojtyla’s election to the throne of St. Peter…)

        By the way, the name of St. Catharine’s hometown is spelled with one “n” – Siena.

  3. Ah, the mystics. Perhaps with a close relationship with the Soul of God, the Holy Spirit, Ruach HaKodesh. In John 14:15-17 the apostles are told that the world can not accept Him but, the apostles could after accompanying Our Saviour on His mission.
    Could it be that these mystics were not so much of the world as most and encountered and accepted to the point where, as stated, their sanity was doubted? Reminds me of my second most favourite quote (after John 3:16) in 2 Corinthians 5:13 where the minds of the unworldly and the worldy seem counterbalanced, compared,dualized or what I don’t know. Also leads me to think of 2 Peter 2:12 and wonder about the motivation of some who criticize. Couldn’t a lack of understanding be a challenge? An opportunity to keep learning? A lady friend of over 30 years ago once asked me why I could love science when it was so uncertain. One understanding always gave way to another. All I could say was that it was all opportunity. Now I see what was only felt then. It is our understanding of reality that’s so uncertain and science (along with the scientist) merely accepts that and continues seeking, instead of dropping out of the journey with a faint heart. True science – not scientism. Wouldn’t it be so much more so for the mystic who loves God and His Truth?
    What would a harmonious encounter with The Spirit be like? An infinite joy that brings a flood of tears? A dropping of barriers that allows one to perceive the infinite thoughts without understanding? Yet, to be content with the lack of understanding because it reassures that the infinite and omnipotent love behind it is ours if we are willing to receive?
    Can any human words … mere words, even illustrate let alone explain?

  4. As a long-time student of St. Hildegard, I’d like to offer you some places to start in your study (I’ve discussed much of this while musing a few weeks ago on Doctoral “nickname” we should start using for Hildegard). In a comment above, Bender recommended some recordings of her music, which is one area in which she is most well known today. The sublime liturgical texts she composed for her nuns to sing throughout the year in the Opus Dei are available in an excellent edition and translation by Barbara Newman: “Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum” (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988, 2nd ed., 1998).

    The best place to start to get to know St. Hildegard is probably her first major theological work, “Scivias” (available in a first-rate translation by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop from Paulist Press’ Classics of Western Spirituality, pub. 1990). The first part, containing six visions, deals with the order of creation and is built around the relationships in creation between microcosm and macrocosm. The second, of seven visions, is focused on the order of redemption, and treats of the Church and her sacraments. Across these first two parts, Hildegard articulates the process from Creation through recreative Redemption, perfected once in the Sacrifice of the Son on the Cross and perpetuated in history by the work of the Church. Finally, in the thirteen visions of the third part, Hildegard recapitulates salvation history in the image of the “edifice of salvation”, adorned with an extensive array of personified Virtues, allowing her to reinterpret the recreative dynamic from the eschatological perspective. (Sadly, there is still no decent English translation available of Hildegard’s third and greatest visionary work, the “Liber Divinorum Operum”, though I am currently working to remedy that — I’ve recently posted a translation of one its more sublime visions, from Part III, of the theophanic fountain.)

    Another way to get to know her is through her extraordinary corpus of more than 300 letters, whose addressees range from local religious superiors all the way up to Popes, Kings, and the Emperor. In them, St. Hildegard’s character as a reformer, prophet, and consoler comes through most vividly. The complete collection can be found in a three-volume set translated by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994-2004); and an excellent overview selection can be had in the one-volume “The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen” by Joseph L. Baird (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).

    Finally, still one of the best theological studies in English is Barbara Newman’s “Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine” (Univ. of California Press, 1987, 2nd ed., 1997). Do not be put off by the title—it is not a “feminist” perversion of Hildegard’s thought, but rather an excellent study of Hildegard’s unique contributions to theology.

    May St. Hildegard pray for us all to share in the illumination of the Living Light with which Our Lord blessed her!

    1. Nathaniel,

      Thank you for these excellent and comprehensive suggestions! Today I’m very thankful for interlibrary loan…


  5. When I look back growing up amongst the confusion and turmoil of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s both within and without our Church it occurs to me the important role female mystics had in holding my interest and forming my faith. St. Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal, Sr. Marie of St Peter and the Holy Face of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Later, St Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. I owe a great deal to the gifts of these women, who somehow taught me to look past the confusion and the merely temporal. Without them and the fascination they hold I’m not sure where I’d be today regarding faith and our Church.

  6. Would you please clarify something for me, if possible, father. You made a distinction between the intelligent and the mystical. Through last week I was studying the angels – the intelligensia, perhaps, or rather intelligibles. One thing disturbed me in my ‘research’, and that was the dominions, powers, and principalities were so often associated with ‘fallen’ angels, perhaps because the ‘idea of power’ conjures up often times, the worldly authority that can be so frightening. But if Satan was indeed a Seraphim, and his ‘sin’ was self love, that is pride, rather than an intllectual envy with regard to intellect, (the Cherubin, I understand), and if Michael the archangel, was/is a angel of the lower orders, and fought Satan through his militant opposition, why must the powers etc. be associated with ‘evil’. I will believe that there are good powers, dominions, and all the rest and will not allow myself to be frightened by this interpretation of bad principalities, because of Michael, primarily being of a lower order of angel. Thus anything is possible.
    So are we to identify the mystics with some kind of angelic intelligent ‘intelligible’, and would there be a difference between this and the intellect as some sort of human abstract thought. Can we identify the mystics with some sort of intelligentia, that is comparable to angelic knowledge, wisdom, vision, whatever. These intelligibles I accept as being beyond the human intellectual powers of thought. But it makes me wonder, what kind of intelligence bears witness through a ‘vision’, or whatever. Thank you.

  7. Excellent post, Monsignor!
    Dismas, your comment on the mystic saints is ‘spot on’ for me as well!
    Thank you all for feeding this hungry soul with such rich food!

  8. The intellectuals are the academia of the faith whereas the mystics have taken faith to the level of an art form. One could be both yet academics are not a prerequisite. Mainly, any mentor worth their salt knows that simple pictures best reflect the power and reality of a masterpiece which awes and inspires by it’s humility. Unless you are arrayed as one of these, you shall not see the kingdom of heaven.

  9. Thank you timing so Holy Spirit inspired. Working on a paper re Mary and the Anointing at Bethany and predominant mmetaphors and relational metaphors in ministry pastoral leadership and biblical hermeneutics. THUS gave fuel to the question that kept popping into my spirit “what is the role of mysticism in this ” scripture for today. ” THEN I came across this thanks. “GOD IS STILL WORKING”

Comments are closed.