· The saint of the month ·
Here is a woman who did great things in secret. Hadewijch of Antwerp lived in the mid-13th century in the old Low Countries and came from a noble family which belonged to the movement of the Beguines. She died when she was about 60, between 1260 and 1269, after having been a spiritual teacher. She wrote Letters and Poetry and drafted Visions, addressing lay people in particular. She was cited and valued by the spiritual and mystic Jan van Ruusbroec. Her mystical experience was lived outside the university, clerical and male worlds. Indeed Beguinism, to which Hadewijch undoubtedly belonged, is a movement of spiritual reaction: it was a matter of freeing oneself from the rigid methods of monastic life. Thinkers wanted to be rid of formalism in order to follow the evangelical counsels without taking vows, in the midst of the world and in the heart of cities. The purpose of Beguinism was to return to the lives of women in the early Church, whether they were virgins or widows. Beguinism was a very fervent movement. The most celebrated Beguinages were those in Bruges and Ghent, while in Strasbourg there were 60 houses of Beguines and in Cambrai in 1240 there were 1,300 Beguines. Meister Eckart often preached to Beguines. Hadewijch’s teaching focused mainly on the journey the soul must make in order to be likened to God. This teaching consists of communion with God and above all of the fact that the human being, entirely filled by God, becomes like him. The likeness to God is defined as love. Thus the starting point of Hadewijch’s mysticism is conversion to the depths of the soul: she explains that it is in the depths of themselves that human beings discover a spontaneous impulse towards God. Therefore in her writings and in her letters she frequently recommends becoming what deep down we are.
Hadewijch has left us a collection of 31 Letters ofwhose importance it is believed that she herself was aware.They are not dissertations; rather, she expresses in them her friendly sentiments or, better, her friendship for the young women whom she is addressing. Indeed friendship as she conceives of it is not an end in itself. In her opinion it is divine love that sustains this human love and causes it to develop. Moreover the epistolary genre enabled her to give greater depth to the direct expression of her profound experience. She thus shares her personal witness to her life as being in love, as well as her teaching, which she herself says she takes directly from God. For this mystic the purpose of human existence thus consists of the fact that the human being becomes love just as God is love. In this love he or she becomes one with God, and Christ’s mediation is created in this unity with God. In Letter 18 she writes: “The soul is a way for the passage of God from his depths to his liberty; and God is a way for the passage of the soul into its liberty, that is, into his inmost depths, which cannot be touched except by the soul’s abyss”.
Just as the sculptor with his chisel removes all that is superfluous from the block of marble to create the masterpiece he has in mind, so, in this perspective, the life of the soul is not conquest but a liberating self-stripping: “The soul must stand naked before God and stripped of all repose that is not God’s”. If they are to find their true being in God human creatures must empty themselves. This is what she writes in Letter 6. “If you want to attain the being in which God created you, with great nobility you must not refuse any suffering”. Then the spiritual journey of the soul is rediscovered, a restitution of what we are in God, it is by love that the soul is liberated and reaches its true being, what God has thought for eternity: hence she concludes in her Letter 22 by saying “To be what he is, nothing less”.
In other words, Hadewijch emphasizes the doctrine according to which the soul is in eternally in God and it is thus necesary to rediscover this original being which is God. Her teaching is based on Scripture; in his Prologue St John expresses it with these words: “All things were made through him... In him was life” (Jn 1:3) and this life was the Word, Christ. St Paul in his turn writes: “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God… for in him all things were created… He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17).All human creatures are included, designated beforehand, incorporated in the Word, which is the archetype of creation. This means that the divine archetype lies in the abysses of the soul and dwells there. In her Letter 2 she writes: “If you want to obtain what is yours, give yourself to God and become what he is”, for “whoever loves with a more ardent love runs more swifly and is the first to reach divine holiness which is God himself” ( Letter 13). For Hadewijch it was a matter of explaining to the young girl to whom the letter is addressed that she must return to her eternal being, the being we have in God. Indeed, the soul must lose itself in order to find itself God with God; it is a question of assimilation into God, of deification. These are her words in Letter 9: “May God make known to you who he is and may he absorb you in him…. Where the abyss of his wisdom is, he will teach you what he is, and with that wondrous sweetness the loved one and the Beloved dwell one in the other”. In this perspective loving is being, for love makes us be something more, it brings us back to our origins. Or, to express it in her words, “May God be God for you, and may you be love for him” ( Letter 12)
Sr Catherine Aubin, a Dominican, teaches spiritual and sacramental theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, and at the Claretianum Institute of Consecrated Life in Rome. She is guest Professor at the Dominicans’ Pastoral Institute in Montreal. Among ther works translated into various languages we may recall: Tra le sue opere tradotte in diverse lingue ricordiamo: Prier avec son corps à la manière de saint Dominique (Paris, Cerf, 2005) [On Praying With the Body, According to St Dominic ]; Les fenêtres de l’âme (Paris, Cerf, 2010 [the windows of the soul); Les saveurs de la prière (Paris, Salvator, 2016) [the savours of prayer; Prier avec son cœur, la joie retrouvée , (Paris, Salvator, 2017) [Praying with one’s heart, joy refound].
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