Julian Of Norwich (1416), Hildegard Of Bingen (1179), And Teresa Of Avila (1582)
Female saints and mystics are a common feature in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox theological history. They are not particularity noteworthy for their gender. Highly literate and sensitive, this did not distinguish them from their male counterparts (Beer, 16ff). The three saints here are Roman Catholics and span the eras from the late middle ages to the Renaissance. These are also times of violence and plague.
Julian of Norwich was an English monastic living at the very end of the middle ages. The Black Death and Hundred Years War were ravaging Europe. It is no surprise that human sin was the primary concern of Julian. Like most of these mystics, she had visions of another world. There is no reason to believe these visions were false or somehow “hallucinations.” First, it is rare that a hallucination is so coherent and theologically precise as their visions. Second, there is nothing else about their life that would suggest any sort of mental illness. Julian, as well as the other two women described here, was known to be lucid, sane and coherent.
Given the nature of her time, the eccentric idea of Julian is that sin is somehow “necessary” or almost inevitable. Sin, like any other misfortune, is needed to bring people to realize that, by themselves, they can do nothing. Sin or evil is not for this reason a good thing, but it can bring good results.
Julian stresses Christ's humanity by stating that Christ, as a man, suffers with those who are grieved and wronged. In other words, he feels the pain that sin brings to creation. When Christ was in the garden before his crucifixion, he sweat blood. The pain of all the world's sin was laid upon him at once. This is the act of our redemption, not the cross.
In stressing that God has a nurturing role in our lives, she is not stating that God is a woman, like so many would love to believe. There is nothing new or even interesting in this. He cares for his creation like any workman would care for his work – especially if his work were able to reason and feel pain. God is male in the sense that he is a Father, and Julian uses only the male pronoun in speaking of him, as Christ himself did. The Trinity, at least in Greek, is always female. However, the “motherly” side of Christ's mission are a common feature in Christian history.
Jesus is a kind and loving God, father, mother and brother. All of these metaphors Julian uses in her analysis of her visions.
Pain is never an evil while when it is over. Only while we are in the midst of it do we feel miserable. In truth, pain and misfortune are powerful teaching tools. When the Marine drill instructor torments his men, is it because he hates them? No, pain is inflicted so they develop the skills needed to survive in the field. This is very much a part of any training, whether military or parental. Pain is not really pain when it is completed and the lessons have been learned. It is only pain when the sufferer does not know the outcome.
Why would God create anything if He were already perfect and in total bliss? The only reason would be to bring other souls into existence to experience it. In this passage, Julian uses a parental motif: parents let some harm come to a child only to teach them a lesson. Humans have reason and hence free will, thus, any devotion from them must be voluntary and rational.
In speaking of Christ, she writes: “ He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth. . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (this is the ancient logos doctrine, but cast Christ as both patriarch and matriarch. The gender was not important at the time, but the question of his love for what he created was.
Hildegard was one of the most educated humans of her time. There is no subject she did not write competently upon. She also had visions of the same sort as Julian: detailed, stable pictures and images of Christ, not the fluid irrational visions of the mentally ill. At age 43, this highly lucid and sane woman had visions of God, the angels, and Christ which she described in perfectly sane terms. It would be a wild coincidence that these visions, if hallucinations, were perfectly orthodox just by chance. These were theological masterpieces in themselves. When they came to her, she questioned these visions. There is no way to fully summarize her immense output in a few pages. Suffice it to say that these were philosophical interpretations of visions. These visions were icons of reality that could only be described in poetic terms. More than anything else, they stress humility. Any good deed done with pride is immediately reckoned an evil deed.
Any good work we do comes from God, not our own selves. This does not mean one cannot be joyous in devotion, but rather that cannot be the purpose of one's prayer or work. Those “who truly fear God” will receive all they need. Neither Julian or Hildegard sought fame, but their work came out of humility. In speaking of Lucifer, she writes that in “contemplating his beauty,” he “found no defect.” He thought himself perfect.
St. Teresa, writing during the Renaissance, was a true mystic in that she saw the monastic life as participation in grace. She was not “in charge” of her life, but her path was laid out by God first of all. As is common in monastic writings, she stresses that the soul reaches purification in stages. Unlike her two forbears, she did not claim to have mystic visions. She almost laid out a “how-to” of monastic work, though with the proviso that it is God, not the monastic, that is in charge of the process.
First, the devotion of the humble soul. This is the basic, daily prayers of any believer. This then gives way to the “surrender of the will” to God. What is happening is that more and more of the human thought process is removed from worldly concerns. So the third stage is an “absorption” in God, a state of total bliss. This reaches its zenith in the fourth stage of ecstasy, where even self-consciousness is absorbed in the trinity.
These women were anchorites and mystics. Their own “empowerment” was the last thing they sought: rather their mystical life was the rewards that come from surrender. Once one is purified from contact with the world, one can experience the bliss of heaven while still on earth. “Self-worth” was not a concept at the time, and since they all stressed humility, it is something to be spurned. The “fear” of God is not dread, but a deep respect. Only Teresa stands out as not having had visions, but this does not make any difference in their theology. Monastic life is an ascent to holiness (not “goodness”). This is the primary thing they had in common and is at the essence of the Christian life.
It is true that these important saints in the church were known for mysticism rather than practical monastic organization. This was also a concern for men, but women in general during this era seemed to go heavily for the mystical and “participatory” elements in the Christian life. That two of the three saints dealt with here were visionaries is significant. It is also significant that all three were taken seriously in their own time and today, are revered by all Catholics. It might be that a more “intuitive” grasp of God was something more in tune with the female nature at the time.
It would make sense given the dominance of scholastic theology that stressed logical order and cold rigor. That might make for excellent writing and clear thinking, but not as effective for salvation. It seems that all three women here take the insights of the dominant philosophy of the day, only to then be granted a vision of the purpose, what it is all for. Organization and the structure of cognition is needed, since clear thinking is fairly rare. However, monastics need to be reminded of what this clear thinking is working for, to what is it in service.