The centrality of the Song of Songs to medieval Christian devotional literature, images, and practices sets the stage for an intensely erotic and, at least on the surface, heterosexualized understanding of the relationship between the soul and God. Origen (c. 185-254), the first Christian commentator on the Song of Songs whose work survives, reads the series of erotic poems as an allegory both for the relationship between Christ and the church and for that between Christ and the individual believer.12 The latter reading provides a central source for twelfth-century mystical exegetes like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), William of St Thierry (c. 1080-1148), and Rupert of Deutz (1077-1120), who increasingly emphasize the intensely erotic nature of the relationship between the lover and the beloved, the bridegroom and the bride, or Christ and the soul (see McGinn 1994: 158-224, 225-74 and 328-33; and Krahmer 2000). When undertaken by male authors, these allegorical readings often involve a kind of linguistic transvestism, whereby the male devote becomes the female soul joined in loving union with the male figure of Christ.13 When undertaken by women, on the other hand, apparently normalized sexual roles often prevail.
So, for example, in Mechthild of Magdeburg's (c. 1260-1282/94) Flowing Light of the Godhead, an understanding of the soul as the bride of Christ is joined with traditions derived from courtly literature.14 In Book I, Mechthild describes the soul as a lady, who dresses herself in the virtues so as to be prepared to welcome the prince. After much waiting, in which the soul watches other holy people dance, "the young man comes and says to her: 'Young lady, my chosen ones have shown off their dancing to you. Just as artfully should you now follow their lead.'" The soul replies:
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 1998: 44, 59)
Their dance is recorded in song: the young man sings: "Through me into you/And through you from me," while the soul responds, like the alternatively joyful and despondent bride of the Song of Songs, "Willingly with you/Woefully from you."
Mechthild makes explicit her preference for erotic over maternal metaphors in her conception of the relationship between the soul and Christ. Weary of the dance, the soul says to the senses that they should leave her so that she might refresh herself. The senses, wanting to stay with the soul, offer a series of refreshments in which they too might take part: "the blood of martyrs," "the counsel of confessors," the bliss of the angels, and finally, the milk of the Virgin enjoyed by the Christ child. To this, the soul replies, "That is child's love, that one suckle and rock a baby. I am a full-grown bride. I want to go to my Lover" (1998: 61). Although there the senses will "go completely blind," the soul asserts that her true identity is found in the nature of God.
A fish in water does not drown.
A bird in the air does not plummet.
Gold in fire does not perish.
Rather, it gets its purity and its radiant color there.
God has created all creatures to live according to their nature.
How, then, am I to resist my nature?
I must go from all things to God,
Who is my Father by nature,
My Brother by his humanity,
My Bridegroom by love,
And I his bride from all eternity.
(Mechthild 1998: 61)
Just as Mechthild will insist that she is both God's child by grace and by nature (1998: VI, §31), so here she claims to be daughter, sister, and bride of Christ, multiplying metaphors (all derived from the Song of Songs) without undermining the eroticism of the dance of love in which the dialogue appears.
Moreover, identification does not preclude, but rather seems to follow from the intensity of desire. After asserting the commonality of her nature with that of the divine, the bride of all delights goes to the fairest of lovers in the secret chamber of the invisible Godhead. There she finds the bed and the abode of love prepared by God in a manner beyond what is human. Our Lord speaks:
"Stay, Lady soul."
"What do you bid me, Lord?"
"Take off your clothes."
"Lord, what will happen to me then?"
"Lady soul, you are so utterly ennatured in me
That not the slightest thing can be between you and me." . . .
Then a blessed stillness
That both desire comes over them.
He surrenders himself to her,
And she surrenders herself to him.
What happens to her then - she knows -
And that is fine with me.
But this cannot last long.
When two lovers meet secretly,
They must often part from one another inseparably.
(Mechthild 1998: 62)
As long as the soul remains within the body, the lovers can only meet fleetingly. The intensity of her desire and fusion with the divine both demands the use of erotic language and subverts it, for the body cannot sustain the experience of the divine embrace. (Although as I will show below, Mechthild insists that the body will ultimately be reunited with the soul and share in its final glory) The suffering to which God's presence and absence gives rise is then itself taken up as crucial to the path of desire for and identification with Christ.15
The interplay of suffering and desire is also crucial to the poetry and prose of Hadewijch (fl. 1250) in ways that ultimately disrupt the heteronormativity of the relationship between the soul and the divine prevalent in Mechthild's work.16 In a poem on the seven names of Love, Hadewijch makes the spectacular claim that Love, Hadewijch's favored name for the divine, is Hell.
Hell is the seventh name Of this Love wherein I suffer.
For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again,
Because no grace exists there.
As Hell turns everything to ruin,
In Love nothing else is acquired
But disquiet and torture without pity;
Forever to be in unrest,
Forever assault and new persecution;
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To founder unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love.
(Hadewijch 1980: 356)
For Hadewijch, the constant "comings and goings" of Love are a source of continual suffering, for the soul is caught between the ecstasy of the divine presence, Love's unrelenting demands for fidelity, and the constant threat of God's absence. Suffering does not preclude erotic desire, but is central to it. As Karma Lochrie argues, "aggression, violence, masochism, and dark despair are as fundamental to the visions of some women mystics as the tropes of marriage and. . . languorous desire." For Lochrie, this kind of excessive, violent desire is "queer in its effects - exceeding and hyperbolizing its own conventionality and fracturing the discourses of mystical love and sex" (Lochrie 1997: 184).
Hadewijch, like Mechthild, argues that this suffering love itself becomes a part of the soul's identification with Christ. As she writes in a letter to fellow beguines, "we all indeed wish to be God with God, but God knows there are few of us who want to live as human beings with his Humanity, or want to carry his cross with him, or want to hang on the cross with him and pay humanity's debt to the full" (Hadewijch 1980: 61). Yet this demand that the soul identify with Christ in his suffering humanity does not preclude a desire for the divine best expressed through the language of eroticism. Again like Mechthild, Hadewijch, particularly in her visions, makes use of imagery derived from the Song of Songs as the basis for her understanding of the union between the soul and Christ. One day while at matins, she writes:
My heart and my veins and all my limbs trembled and quivered with eager desire and, as often occurred with me, such madness and fear beset my mind that it seemed to me I did not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfill my desire, so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must die. (Hadewijch 1980: 280).
This leads Hadewijch to desire that her humanity "should to the fullest extent be one in fruition" with that of Christ, so that she might then "grow up in order to be God with God" (Hadewijch 1980: 280).
The vision that follows is the fulfillment of that desire. Looking at the altar, she first sees Christ in the form of a child of three years, holding the eucharistic bread in his right hand and the chalice in his left. The child then becomes a man and administers the sacrament to Hadewijch.
After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So that I was outwardly satisfied and transported. Also then, for a short while, I had the strength to bear this; but soon, after a short time, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form. I saw him completely come to naught and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me. Then it was to me as if we were one without difference. . . . After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself. (Hadewijch 1980: 281-2)
Full union with Christ, expressed here through intensely erotic language, leads to a fusion and identification with profound theological implications. Although heterosexual in its imag-istic operation, moreover, the melting away of the soul into the divine radically undermines any stable distinction between male and female and, more importantly for Hadewijch, between human and divine. The incarnation, in which God becomes human, becomes the basis for humanity's full identification with the divine.
Yet Hadewijch's work undermines associations of masculinity with the divine and femininity with the human, for it includes a series of poems in which the divine is represented as Love (minne, which is feminine), the unattainable female object of desire, and the soul as a knight-errant in quest of his Lady17 Love cannot be clearly identified either with Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, or the Trinity; Hadewijch continually shifts and overlaps various divine referents. These poems again stress the cruelty of Love and the anguish to which her demand for desirous fidelity reduces the knight.
Sometimes kind, sometimes hateful,
Sometimes far, sometimes to hand.
To him who endures this with loyalty of love
That is jubilation;
How love kills
In a single action.
(Hadewijch quoted in Murk-Jansen 1996: 58)
Those who are "Knight-errants in Love" live in an endless oscillation between darkness and light, the divine presence and her absence.18 The knightly soul is suspended between activity,
"laying siege" to Love in desire and fidelity - ("the brave," one poem advises, "should strike before Love does")19 - and recognition that his "best success" lies in the suffering he undergoes when "shot by Love's arrow" (Hadewijch 1980: 162). Even as Hadewijch stresses the gap between the (feminine) divine and the (masculine) soul, then, she both undermines rigid gender distinctions and lays the groundwork for the eventual union of the soul and the divine through the soul's "mad love" and suffering desire - a union that occurs through Christ but is often poetically imagined without reference to his human body20
In the dialogues that make up Marguerite Porete's (d. 1310) The Mirror of Simple Souls, Porete similarly employs the feminine figure of Love as the most prominent representation of the divine. She goes even further than Hadewijch, moreover, in suggesting that while Christ and Christ's body play a crucial role in the path of the soul to union with Love, ultimately the role of the body and of Christ will be surpassed. Instead, the female soul engages in a loving dialogue both with Lady Love and with the feminine Trinity, giving the text an intensely homoerotic valence absent in Mechthild's heterosexual account of the love between the soul and Christ and Hadewijch's transvestism, in which the soul becomes male in order to pursue Lady Love. Love and the soul provide a representation of those souls who have become so free of all created things, including will and desire, that they are indistinguishable from the divine. I have argued elsewhere that Porete's pursuit of annihilation is a result of her desire to escape the intense suffering engendered by endless desire and "mad love." Absolute union with the divine occurs through the sacrifice of desire by desire. Yet the resulting loss of distinction between the soul and the divine also radically subverts, even erases, gender distinctions, a move both dependent on and subversive of the text's homoeroticism. (Porete uses the femininity of the soul and Love to elicit pronominal ambiguities in which the gap between them is erased.21) Porete's work, with its distrust of spiritual delights, ecstasies, and visions, stands in a critical relationship to that of her beguine predecessors. This is evident in her relationship to the imagery of erotic love. For Porete, like Hadewijch, Love is the primary name of the divine and she at times make use of language and imagery derived from the Song of Songs, yet always in ways that undermine the initial gendered dichotomy between the lover and the beloved. This subversion seems dependent, as it is in Hadewijch, on a displacement of Christ's body.
The process can be seen most starkly in a crucial scene toward the end of the Mirror in which a now masculine God challenges the soul concerning the strength of her fidelity As Nicholas Watson argues, the series of hypothetical scenes recounted by the soul "are eccentric versions of the love-tests found in the tale of patient Griselda." Just as Griselda is honored for patiently submitting to the various tests of her fidelity posed by her distrustful husband, so the soul imagines a series of tests posed by God. She asks herself, as if He Himself were asking me, how I would fare if I knew that he could be better pleased that I should love another better than Him. At this my sense failed me, and I knew not how to answer, nor what to will, nor what to deny; but I responded that I would ponder it.
And then He asked me how I would fare if it could be that He could love another better than me. And at this my sense failed me, and I know not what to answer, or will, or deny.
Yet again, He asked me what I would do and how I would fare if it could be that He would will that someone other love me better than He. And again my sense failed, and I knew not what to respond, no more than before, but still I said that I would ponder it. (Porete 1993: ch. 131, 213-14)
Using the imaginative meditative practices recommended within contemporary devotional treatises as a means of participating in and identifying with Christ's passion, Porete here enacts a Trial of Love reminiscent of those within secular courtly literature.
The trial leads to the death of the will and of the desire (that same desire more often elicited and exploited through such meditative practices). In acquiescing to demands that go against her desire to love and be loved by God alone, she "martyrs" both her will and her love, thereby annihilating all creatureliness and, paradoxically, attaining a union without distinction with the divine. In Watson's evocative words, Porete "out-griselded Griselda," taking the test of submission to such extremes that subservience becomes the means by which the soul forces God to merge with her (Watson 1996: 3). Porete takes the cultural stereotype of the patient bride who will submit to anything in fidelity to her bridegroom and converts it into an account of how the soul's fall into nothingness is itself the apprehension of her full share in the divine being.22 Like Mechthild, who insists that the soul is God's child by nature, thereby challenging late medieval versions of the doctrine of grace, Porete stresses throughout the Mirror the ways in which the soul, by emphasizing and embracing her sinfulness, abjection, and humility, can become one with God.23 Most crucially, as Watson argues, Porete shows the soul achieving "mystical annihilation of her own volition, by telling herself stories" (Watson 1996: 6). This particular story both depends on and subverts the hierarchically ordered gender expectations of late medieval culture.
Porete's use of erotic and gendered language is, like that of her fellow beguines Mechthild and, particularly, Hadewijch, remarkably complex.24 As the example offered here suggests, however, unlike Mechthild and Hadewijch - or perhaps better, more starkly than they -Porete posits the goal of the soul as the eradication of any distinction between herself and the divine. Porete evokes this union without distinction through the unsaying or apophasis of gender and the displacement of Christ's body as the center of religious devotion. With the overcoming of gender comes also the annihilation of desire and radical detachment from the body25 Porete never mentions the orthodox doctrine of the resurrection of the body, for example. With the annihilation of gender, will, and desire, also comes an end to the painful and ecstatic eroticism that runs throughout the texts of Mechthild and Hadewijch.
Porete's utopic subversion of gender difference (grounded, needless to say, in her desire to overcome the gap between the soul and the divine), leaves no room for the vagaries of desire expressed in the closing dialogue of Mechthild's Flowing Light. There we hear the words of a body and soul who refuse, finally, to renounce their ambivalent and multivalent desires.
This is how the tormented body speaks to the lonely soul: "When shall you soar with the feathers of your yearning to the blissful heights of Jesus, your eternal Love? Thank him there for me, lady, that, feeble and unworthy though I am, he nevertheless wanted to be mine when he came into this land of exile and took our humanity on himself; and ask him to keep me innocent in his favor until I attain a holy end, when you, dearest soul, turn away from me."
The soul: "Ah, dearest prison in which I have been bound, I thank you especially for being obedient to me. Though I was often unhappy because of you, you nevertheless came to my aid. On the last day all your troubles will be taken from you.
Then we shall no longer complain.
Then everything that God has done with us
Will suit us just fine,
If you will only stand fast
And keep hold of sweet hope.
(Mechthild 1998: 335-6)
This promise depends on the body's self-denial, for "the less the body preserves itself, the fairer its works shine before God and before people of good will" (Mechthild 1998: 336). It is precisely the intense suffering of this desire and the self-denial to which it leads that give rise to Porete's attempt to save the soul and body through the martyrdom of the will.
Porete's utopic vision involves an effacement of differences - between God and soul, uncreated and created (including the body, will, and desire), and male and female - that, paradoxically, both queers heteronormative desire and sacrifices the bodies and desires from which, in their multiplicity, contemporary queer theory and practice emerge. There is clearly no straight road from medieval mystical writings to contemporary practices and politics. In the writings of the beguines, desire is both a resource, an opportunity, and a problem - a problem to which Mechthild, Hadewijch, and Marguerite respond in very different ways. The divergence between them shows that although we can't simply identify these women's accounts of religious experience with human sexual practices, what they write about their relationship to the divine originates in and remains tied to their experiences of themselves as embodied and desirous human beings. And even the most apparently heteronormative texts queer sexuality in that the object of this desire is not another human being, but (a) divine (Godman). The ecstasies of religion and those of sexuality are metaphorically linked at least in part because of their shared bodiliness, intensity, and tendency toward excess, an excess that, in the case of Marguerite Porete, leads to the subversion of the very grounds from which it emerges.26
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