While reading the four assigned texts for Monday’s class, I was drawn more towards Elizabeth of Schönau‘s Visions and the Revelations of Saint Birgitta than Mechthild’s Flowing Light of the Godhead or Saint Gertrude’s Life and Revelations. While both texts were interesting (albeit, if I may say so, a tad long winded), my interests in religion have always leaned towards the physical and experiential; theological exposition only makes its way in as a supplement to human experience. It’s the humanness of religion that gets to me, specifically the countless ways through which an individual will manifest and express his/her relationship with the divine. Throw in my interest (… obsession) in ecstatic practices of self-mortification in Catholic religiosity, and Elizabeth’s Visions and Birgitta’s Revelations held much sway over me. Unfortunately I read them first, so while reading the other two texts, I had to resist the overwhelming urge to drop them and just go back to E & B.
Consequently, due to my academic interests, while reading Elizabeth I was focused on the how and when of the visions more than the content. I was not surprised to hear during lecture that she suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety, illness, and self-punishment via extreme asceticism (so much that Hildegard had to tell her to slow her roll). Although I wish we had a clearer picture of which illnesses she suffered from (the only thing I remember from lecture is the statement that her illnesses extended from her asceticism), her psychological and physical profiles nevertheless create a context for us to understand her need to create moments of ‘visionary’ experience. Although a touch presumptuous of me to do so (I don’t have any sort of medical degree), the textual descriptions of the moments in which her ecstatic visions would overwhelm her sound very much like epilepsy, which has a long history of association with the divine.
We noted during the lecture that the vast majority of her visions were triggered by the liturgy; epileptic fits are often ushered in by a trigger, caused either by an action on the part of the individual, or as a response to environmental conditions. Whether it was the act of reading, recitation, or another factor, the majority of Elizabeth's visions follow a distinct and discernable pattern. A number of clues pop up among the lengthy descriptions of her visionary experiences. She would often grow weak (59), her strength sapped from her body (65). Her visions always involved overwhelming bright light (common in epilepsy, and also in the onset of migraines which can involve light sensitivity and temporary blinding in one eye). In one instance, she describes one of the visionary experiences as a moment in which a, ‘powerful and bitter suffering rushed over her (me), and I was fatigued by it beyond belief,” (79); her weakness and sapping of strength implies a loss of bodily control. In addition, during that particular vision she states that her fellow sisters were soon praying over her, which zeroes us in to the fact that during her fits she would fall to the ground. In regards to the visions themselves, it is probable that they occurred during the aftermath of her epileptic seizures, when she laid in a quiet repose. One clue lies in the description of when the ecstasy would take over: on page 80, Elizabeth describes ecstasy as the moment in which her flesh would become quiet, implying that her visions occurred during the aftermath of physical distress. Depending on where in the brain the seizure is occurring, hallucinations are commonplace. It is not hard to assume then that her hallucinations took on the form of her dominating spirituality (so dominant that it bordered on neurotic obsession and was the probable root of her depression and anxiety).
I would be remiss if I did not address the potential fact that such epileptic attacks, and her illnesses, could have been psychosomatically induced. On page 102 Elizabeth describes one of her prolonged infirmities; this particular one was so bad that her fellow sisters “expected nothing other than her (my) impending death,” (102). Her symptoms of physical distress were only allayed after the lord abbot came to visit and said a prayer to the Lord over her. She immediately slipped into an ecstatic experience in which she talked to the apostles Peter and Paul. Afterwards all of her maladies had been cured, and she “rose from her (my) bed and went out, healthy, with all her (my) strength restored,” (103). This particular event reminded me of St. Teresa of Ávila (not sure why she has been on my mind lately, as I also brought her up in my last blog post) who, if I am recalling correctly, once grew so envious of a fellow sister who suffered from a lethal physical infirmity, that she soon thereafter was overcome by an illness which kept her bed ridden for the majority of the next two or three years (to note: if truly incapacitated her muscles would have atrophied; however, when her suffering was suddenly lifted, she was able to walk around and be active as if her illness had never happened). Teresa viewed suffering as an act of devotion to, and blessing from, God; the more the suffering, the better. She so envied her fellow sister (who died), that she induced a state of prolonged illness, and it was over the course of her suffering that she would have ecstatic experiences. Elizabeth, I am certain, was of like mind.
To briefly address Saint Birgitta, I am of the belief that we have to take into account her personal history when reading her Revelations. It is not a coincidence that, as a mother eight times over, her major work was preoccupied with the mother-child dynamic. To approach her religiosity through the relationship of which she could most relate and empathize with is, simply, expected. To the point made in class that we should refrain from identifying her role as a mother as the dominant influence on her spirituality (which is a completely valid point), spirituality can only best be expressed through the prism of one’s personal roles and experiences. It’s akin to the question in the writing of fiction: how much personal stuff goes in as opposed to fictional approximation. Both work, but those that are informed by personal experience often have a ring of authenticity that catapults them into another realm of quality (which is why the Revelations of St. Birgitta has stood the test of time, and why it’s a bit more difficult to recall a quality text written by a non-mother/male from the perspective of the mother-child relationship).
All of this is to say that it is of utmost importance when reading personal texts such as these that we take into account the author’s biographical story. Elizabeth suffered from epilepsy or another disease that expressed itself through seizures (for the sake of my post I am taking this as fact); she then chose to incorporate her debilitating physical malady into her religious and spiritual life. It was her decision to reframe her illness not as an abnormality, but as the vessel through which her ‘real spirituality’ could be expressed. Similarly, St. Birgitta’s text, although lacking in description as to how these revelations came to her, is dominated by the author’s emotional experiences as a parent. Her motherhood was the vessel through which she was most able to express her spirituality.