Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mechthild of Magdeburg and the "Flowing Light of the Godhead"

Mechthild of Magdeburg (Asteroid 873 Mechthild discovered 21 May 1917)

Because we do not know exactly when the Beguine mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg was born or when she died, I have chosen today to post about her--on this day in 1917, the German astronomer Max Wolf discovered an asteroid, named and numbered 873 Mechthild, after this thirteenth-century woman.

A nineteenth-century representation
of Mechthild of Magdeburg,
Church of St. Gordian and Epimachus,
What we know about Mechthild's life comes from the work for which she is principally known, The Flowing Light of the Godhead. The biographical details are few--she seems to have been born between 1207 and 1210, the child of a noble family, since she refers to court life and customs. She has a brother, Baldwin, who joins the Dominican order and who receives an excellent scholastic education, though Mechthild refers to herself as a "simple spiritual creature" (her work is notable in that, unlike most of the spiritual writing of her contemporaries, it seems to have been written in the vernacular rather than Latin).

Mechthild also tells us that she began her remarkable visionary life at the age of twelve--and that, for the next thirty-one years, "the loving greeting" from the Holy Spirit came to her "every day."

In her work she also reveals that when she was a young woman (perhaps about 1230) and "through God's word," she went to Magdeburg to live a life of "renunciation of the world." There she joined a Beguine community and seems also to have grown into a position of leadership within this community.

As we have seen, the Beguines were a lay religious movement--Beguines were not associated with any religious order, nor did they live in any officially sanctioned community. They lived an ascetic, spiritual life, devoting themselves to poverty and chastity, working among the poor and ill and modeling their lives on the life of Jesus. To be a Beguine was to live a potentially dangerous life--in a few days I will post on Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1310.

Mechthild writes that she "painfully conquered the body for twenty years"--always tired, weak, and ill, she devoted herself to "sighing, weeping, confession, fasting, watching," following in her life the "glorious suffering" of Jesus. It is at this point, after twenty years of rigorous self-discipline, that her confessor tells Mechthild what God expects of her:
Then he [her confessor] commanded me to do that about which I often weep for shame when I look at my unworthiness: write this book out of God's heart and mouth. This book has thus come lovingly from God and not from the human senses.
For the next fifteen (or so) years, Mechthild records her visions, conversations with God, and revelations. At some point, probably about 1270, she puts aside her "homeless life" and joins the  monastery at Helfta, joining the remarkable Gertrude of Hackeborn, her sister Mechthilde of Hackeborn, and a woman we have met before, Gertrude the Great.

Helfta, where Mechthilde of Magdeburg lived at
the end of her life

The reasons for Mechthild's move are not clear--but she was old, she had become blind, and, perhaps more critically, increasing restrictions were being placed on Beguines in Germany and the Low Countries, and Mechthild's own religious claims and her criticisms of the institutional church had made her vulnerable. The date of her death is not certain--there are a wide ranges of dates suggested, from 1282 to 1297.

One of the best accounts of Mechthild as a visionary is Bernard McGinn's, in vol. 3 of his history of western Christian mysticism, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200-1350. There is a very affordable edition of The Flowing Light of the Godhead, but you can find a good, manageable chunk in Henry Carrigan's Meditations from Mechthild of Magdeburg.