Issue Date: August 12, 2005
Mystic women, modern seekers
Elizabeth A. Dreyer, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, says that her aim in Passionate Spirituality is to explore the theme of passion in the spiritual life as it has developed in Western culture. I see the mystics as models and teachers who can instruct us about the deep feelings that run beneath the surface of an often hectic and superficial existence, she writes in the preface.
She uses two medieval women mystics as models: Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Beguine Hadewijch of Brabant (mid-13th century). In recording their visions, both used the language and imagery of passion to describe their encounter with God. Dr. Dreyer hopes these two women give examples to contemporary people trying to develop their spirituality in a world that she says often is skittish about discussing love or strong emotion.
Passionate Spirituality is a revised and expanded version of Passionate Women, Two Medieval Mystics, which Dr. Dreyer delivered and published as the 1989 Madeleva lecture, a talk on women and spirituality given annually at St. Marys College in Notre Dame, Ind.
Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-82) in her masterwork The Interior Castle likens the soul to a castle with seven dwelling places, each of which represents a certain stage of the spiritual journey. Author Megan Don intends her Falling into the Arms of God as a reflective interpretation of The Interior Castles format and ideas.
Ms. Don is a retreat leader who divides her time between Melbourne, Australia, and Maine. She opens Falling with a helpful introduction explaining the lively St. Teresas life and works. The main part of the book is divided into seven parts that are meant to correspond to the saints dwelling places: The Awakening, The Return and so on. Each part breaks up into several chapters containing an opening quote from scripture or from Teresa of Avilas writings, a reflection on the chapters theme by Ms. Don and a closing meditation, usually a suggestion for deepening your contemplative practice: Fall into the gentleness of your loving self, Imagine looking at your inner castle. The author recommends her book for use in discussion groups.
Its a little disconcerting to hear Catherine of Siena (1347-80) say, Keep up the good work! or I feel real, deep-down awe. But those are some of the things she does say in Incandescence, a compilation of sayings from 19 women mystics of the Middle Ages.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher, assistant professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Shorter College in Rome, Ga., undertook her project in order to translate the mystics words into the American idiom. A preface by Phyllis Tickle, a contemporary writer on spirituality, compares Dr. Butchers efforts to those of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who devoted long hours to translating Dantes Divine Comedy into a mode of expression late 19th-century Americans could understand.
Incandescence is a sort of devotional, with a short reading from a different mystic for each day of the year. The book draws most heavily from the writings of well-known mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich and of course Catherine of Siena, along with offerings from a few less familiar names such as Marguerite dOingt and Umilta of Faenza. Biographies of the women are included at the back.
-- Antonia Ryan
National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005
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