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The mirror of simple souls

Margherita Porete’s difficult and passionate affair

We know very little about Margherita Porete. We know not when or where she was born. We do know that she was from the North of France, perhaps Valenciennes. We know nothing about her family or formation; some have suggested that perhaps she was formed in a Beguinage in that same region. Chronicles speak of her as a Beguine, one of the numerous Beguines of the time. These were women that were neither religious sisters nor married who often lived in community and led a life dedicated to prayer, work and caring for the sick, a life many judged to be saintly and others as too autonomous. There is reason to believe, however, that Margherita was not a typical Beguine.

In short, we know little about her, but the little we do know is enough. We know more about the circumstances surrounding her tragic death than the book she wrote, which was a masterpiece of mystic literature written in the vulgar (French instead of Latin) and one of the first great texts of prose in the French language (and strangely not often considered in French culture).

Margherita is depicted in documented history as a character in her trial conducted by the Inquisitor of Paris and terminated on the stake 1 June 1310. It was a tragic event only overcome by public emotion who was moved by her tranquillity as she died. At the time Phillip the Beautiful (Phillip IV) was reigning in France and the Inquisitor, brother Guglielmo of Paris, was her confessor.

Margherita was condemned because she continued to proliferate her book, which was already judged as heretical years before; twenty-one theologians convoked by the Inquisitor of Paris in 1310 judged it as such. To make things worse, she would not swear an oath and therefore could not be interrogated. Thus she remained in silence, and refused to recant her views. She was driven to a dishonorable person, brother Guglielmo, a corrupt man of power, who accused her of heresy.

Neither the acts of the trial nor the chronicles that speak about her death mention the title of the book. In the end, this actually helped the spread of the book since it was no longer associated to a condemned heretic. Only recently, thanks to the research done by Romana Guarnieri, have we been able to recognize the burned Beguine of Paris as the author of that book which, never printed but only copied and translated, continued to circulate throughout Europe captivating souls in search of God.

“The Mirror of Simple Souls” is both a guide and story of a personal and mystical search, yet shared and steered by a mysterious spiritual society of Dames nient connues (the unknown women). There is good reason to believe that it was read by Master Eckhart showing signs of it in his famous “Sermons” written in German.

Today, Margherita’s masterpiece has had a true editorial success in Europe and the United States with a vast array of translations, comments and studies of it. The first edition appeared in 1965 by Romana Guarnieri and was published under history and literature. It can also be found in the “Continuatio medievalis” from “Corpus Christianorum” in the edition published by the Jesuit, Paul Verdeyen.

Even today “The Mirror of Souls” is a fascinating writing but also difficult to understand. Indeed, there were many men of the Church, contemporaries of Margherita, who judged it as such, one of which was known as the magister of Sorbona (a colleague of Eckhart). They recognized that it was inspired by God and had gone where no one had gone before. But it was also recognized that it was for very few, because many could be mislead. Such concerning and yet favorable opinions have been carried over to the appendix in the hope that the text would be preserved. It is quite clear that “The Mirror of Simple Souls” was and is a work on the edge; in today’s conception it’s similar to a “Blade Runner”.

Like Margherita’s contemporaries, we must approach her writing with caution because it becomes very risky to interpret such an edgy work. There’s good reason to believe that the version we read today is a later and more adapted version. The original text was lost and what we have now is a copy from two centuries after it was written. This book isn’t, as it’s often said, an exhalation of the desire for love, but rather it instructs one to go beyond this and to tap into a relationship with God where the soul practices virtue, a relationship where rules and sacraments no longer have meaning. The “simple souls” are desiring souls and are prevented from entering into the promised land. Here, no one knows the annihilated souls just as no one can know God. What all of this means cannot be easily summarized nor is it easy to comprehend, but undoubtedly what the author understood it to be was the entire life of the Church.

If we apply the term mystical to Margherita’s work then we risk not knowing her at all. The contemporary culture disassociates the mystic from reality and from every encounter with the here and now. Whereas living in reality and engaging with everyday life is precisely what is found in the writings of mystics, and which is also found in Margherita. However, this doesn’t mean that her teaching, even though written in common language, was able to greatly influence the society of her time. What it does mean is that her spiritual research was able to make, what we would call, scientific discoveries, namely verifiable experiments regarding the human reality (and not separable from revealed truth). Here, we are getting close to the edgy innovation of Margherita’s book. Her method doesn’t seek to be one with God, as the ancient Christian mystics taught. Rather, she and the mysterious ‘unknown women’ ( Dames nient connues ), discovered that this goal of oneness is blocked, and yet it is there that another way is opened up, which is the way of the fallen and lost. To understand this we must look to Dante’s “Paradiso”. The movement of the annihilated soul is not an ascension but a hastening from below into nothing, and it is this plunge which permits the soul to reach the Divine power.

In other words, Margherita discovered that the human being is not actually limited, but is essentially non-existent. Perhaps today, despite our unsophisticated spiritual civilization, we are ready to begin to understand this. And perhaps it will help us to understand that Margherita’s revelation is a feminine experience.

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