Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mechthild's Vision of Mary

[This entry is for the class on November 3, “Mater sponsi, sponsa Dei.”  The readings were from Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Gertrude of Helfta.  I focus on Mechthild here, though.]

Looking through Mechthild’s writing again, I noticed how frequently she uses the word “love.”  On pages 52-53, for examples, the word love appears 18 times.  This isn’t particularly surprising, given the focus on love in the New Testament and in Christian tradition, but Mechthild seems to talk about it more than other figures whose work we’ve read.  In her retelling of the Passion narrative, Mechthild distinguishes between its effects on the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.  While both suffer because of their love for Christ, Mary Magdalene is inconsolable because she has “simple love without lofty knowledge” (203).  The Virgin Mary is unique because she has both love and knowledge. Mechthild claims that Mary spoke to “our Lord” and “his Godhead then answered her sometimes” (203).  Does this mean that Mary can talk to Jesus because she is close to him or is Mechthild implying that she has special communication with God in a non-earthly sense? I read it as the latter at first, perhaps because “Godhead” is not a term I particularly associate with Jesus.  Perhaps Mechthild is inclined to view Mary as the recipient of divine knowledge because of Mechthild’s own experience of visions.  In any case, she describes the Virgin Mary’s combined and special traits of both love and knowledge, which together allow her to bear the grief of her son’s death. Others may love him, but they lack Mary’s unique knowledge.

What is interesting to me about this is that Mary is not characterized just in terms of her love and devotion to Christ but as a figure of knowledge, perhaps in reference to her association with Wisdom.  Mechthild writes, “of all humankind her heart was most deeply filled with divine knowledge” (204).  Mechthild then connects this trait to virgins, who “preserve their chastity out of love for God” (204).  “They are able to move the heavenly Father on our behalf because they bear his likeness fully in themselves” (204).  This quote strikes me as a radical interpretation of virgins’ special access to God.  Like Mary (though not necessarily in imitation of her), virgins have a special relationship with God because they are a reflection of God on earth.  Each of the four female authors here (Elisabeth, Gertrude, Mechthild, and Hildegard) have a connection to Mary (and God?) because of their merits and devotion.  Some of them have visions of biblical figures and events because, like Mary, they have both an aptitude and a calling. 

Mechthild presents an image of Mary suckling the “pure lamb…from her heart” (75).  Later she feeds Christ with “the sweetness flowing from her pure heart” (199).  Virgins seem to have a similar role of sustaining Christ with love in Mechthild’s account.  Is this capability specific to female virgins?  I suspect that isn’t the case for any of the four authors, given their close relationships with brothers, confessors, etc., but there also seems to be a slightly different relationship between the women in these texts and Mary because of their ability to have visions.

I keep thinking about our discussion of Marina Warner in class.  While it seems to me that she likely applied aspects of her own experience to radically different contexts, I’m tempted in each reading for this class to question what the depictions of Mary mean for the author’s (and by extension, their society’s) perceptions of gender.  To me, religion plays a hugely significant role in the construction, legitimation, and maintenance of gender ideologies—though to be clear, I think perceptions of gender also contribute to religious understandings and practices; the relationship between them isn’t in any way straightforward.  Part of me wants to believe that as anachronistic as some of Warner’s ideas may be too much of the history of Christianity, it still means something that two exalted roles of Mary are contradictory for other women.  Granted, these aren’t the only roles of Mary and she means more than her relational position.  However, each of the cultures in which our sources were produced featured inequality—sometimes incredibly pervasive and harmful—between men and women.  Both men and women could be devoted to Mary and feel particular kinship with her, but ultimately none of these women could be priests and very little of their writing, much less their direct, unfiltered thoughts, survives.

Much of the material in this class points to previously unexamined symbols and conceptions of Mary, but I keep finding myself wanting to make sure that the possibility isn’t lost that perceptions of the Mother of God had an influence on the way women in general were perceived.  It’s a different question than the ones we focus on (for good reason, since the things we talk about in class have often been ignored), but it’s one that remains important to me.  Has anyone else been struggling with similar ideas?  They seem apt for this class session, since the authors are all women.

- J.F.


  1. Something interesting to consider when we think of Mary as an unattainable ideal for women is the degree to which she served, in a different way, as an unattainable ideal for men as well. Indeed, the whole cult of the saints in general strikes me as setting up a host of unattainable exemplars, especially when we consider the incredible feats that the saints accomplish in so many medieval hagiography. How does this constant establishment of unattainable heroes shape a culture in general? Or, from another angle, how does it differentiate a society from the one we live in today? Of course, this is largely just a broadening of the question which you ask.

    Interesting also is the connection between wisdom and virginity, we tend to divorce intellectual achievement from personal conduct, but that divide was not present at all, indeed it was actively rejected, by the authors we read. What does that say about knowledge (perhaps more accurately about wisdom) as conceived of by these authors, and what sort of impact might virginity have on our ability to know?

  2. To follow on dyingst's comment: it is important, I think, to distinguish between Mary as an exemplar and the effect of having such a female figure on the development of ideas about women. I, for my own part, think that the reason that Western civilization, specifically, Western Christian civilization developed the very radical ideas that it did about women was precisely because Mary had such an elevated place in medieval Christian theology and devotion. To blame Mary for being an "unattainable ideal" makes no more sense than to blame Jesus for being a God-man rather than simply a holy man or saint. That we now see both of them in these terms ("insulting" rather than "inspiring") has (as I have been trying to suggest) more to do with changes in how European Christians think about what kind of knowledge they want to have about Jesus and his mother than it does with medieval efforts (as Warner et al. have contended) to "keep women down." On the specific imagery that Mechthild uses: as far as Mechthild and her sisters were concerned, they had achieved the highest ideal possible for women--namely, virgins. They were in no way considered lesser because they were not also mothers, for after all, as virgins, they expected (or hoped) to sing the new song reserved for virgins before the throne of the Lamb, themselves elevated above all other women who had been mothers. The sense that women should be *both* virgin and mother like the Virgin Mary would have struck them as nonsensical, I expect. Which leaves us with the puzzle of how it ever came to be normative for Catholic women (as Warner seems to have be taught or imagined). RLFB