Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: Medieval Women Mystics by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard

Medieval Women Mystics: Gertrude the Great, Angela of Foligno, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich introduced and edited by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard

This book gives a collection of writings by four medieval women who experienced mystical visions. Those visions were not just for their personal gratification but led them to live holier lives, instruct others, and give a concrete witness to the demands of Christ's love. They are not the only women mystics of the time. They have been selected to represent the variety of vocations available to women and to show a feminine response to grace. These texts are not dry, technical scholasticism. They do contain precision and show a concrete and personal response to the call to holiness.

Each section starts with a brief biography and overview of the woman followed by passages from primary texts. I am a fan of primary texts when studying someone so I like the format very much. Enough texts are provided for each woman to present various thoughts and experiences. Here is a quick overview of each lady:

Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) went as a five-year old orphan to the Benedictine abbey of Helfta. Nothing is known now of her parents; she clearly adopted the nuns as her family. She became a nun and had several visions of our Lord. Late in her life she was commanded to write down her visions. Some stories come from her own words; others are written down by others. She had a great closeness to Christ, granting her insights on His suffering and His relationship with His mother that are edifying.

Angela of Foligno (ca. 1248-1309) was highly influenced by the rise of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, etc.), especially by the character and spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. She was a married woman of some wealth who was transformed by Francis's example. She became a spiritual mother to many and often gave others practical advice. Her words center around Christ in His poverty and humility, emphasizing that spiritual growth can only come through both the knowledge of Christ's life and the imitation of His example. Suffering is to be embraced as a means of unity with Jesus and a way to strengthen virtue.

Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) was also a married woman but she lived in high society. After having mystical visions of Jesus and His blessed mother, she spoke out against abuses and corruption among the courtly aristocrats, earning her the title "the Swedish Joan of Arc." She and her husband eventually left courtly life and went on various pilgrimages. Birgitta founded a mixed order (i.e. men and women in the same setting) and obtained papal approval. Her fame and influence all but disappeared during the Protestant Reformation and only recently has Birgitta's writings and contributions been recognized.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1420) had a near-death experience in her thirties during which she had sixteen visions of Jesus and Mary over a few days. Afterward, she became an anchorite, someone who dedicated their lives to prayer and counseling while never leaving very small quarters. Typically anchorites live in a room attached to or inside a church so they could receive the sacraments. She lived her life in Norwich at the Church of St. Julian (so most scholars don't even think "Julian" is her real name) and wrote a book about her visions and her reflections on them afterwards. Since she was not part of an order, her book was thought lost during the Protestant purges in England. She has only recently been rediscovered. She had an intense devotion to Jesus and Him crucified and is famous for writing "all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well." The quote is a response to reflections on the damage that sin causes. She is a bit controversial--she discusses the "motherhood" of Christ, which would surely garner all sorts of misinterpretations in modern media. She describes His providence and how He feeds His children from His own body, something that mothers do. So the idea isn't really as controversial as it seems.

The book is a wonderful overview and makes for a good jumping off point for further reading. I am interested especially in Julian and Birgitta and will be hunting around from more from them.

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