Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Noble Unfaith and Perfect Knowledge

Hadewijch and the ravishment of love

Amy Hollywood

It is the mid-thirteenth century, in the Low Countries. A woman sees visions and hears voices. Often she is in church, attending mass or the recitation of the Psalms. As others sing and pray, she is taken up out of herself into the Spirit and shown God’s secrets: a meadow filled with trees; opulent cities; the heavenly Jerusalem; a gray eagle with yellow feathers and a yellow eagle with gray feathers; a very deep whirlpool; Christ as a child and Christ as he was on the day that he died on the cross; God’s face; the Trinitarian abyss. Various figures—John of Patmos, angels, wisdom personified as a woman, God—explain to her what she sees. And often, as these visions and auditions come to an end, she swoons in God’s embrace or is swallowed up into the fathomless depth that is God.

When she comes to, she writes. Five manuscript copies of her work, some of which circulated under the name Hadewijch, remain. They contain not only accounts of her visions, but also letters and poems. We know nothing of her other than what her writings suggest. She was likely a beguine, a laywoman who devoted her life to God but without joining an established religious order. Appearing first in the late twelfth century in the Low Countries, beguines lived alone or in groups, praying, exhorting each other to Christian perfection, and supporting themselves through their labor. A beguine might be a nurse or a schoolteacher; she might care for the dead or work in the cloth industry. She might be wealthy and live off her dowry or found a house in which other women might live together with her. We don’t know how Hadewijch earned her living, but there is evidence from her writings that she was a teacher and spiritual advisor to other beguines.

What we do know is that in a time and a place in which religious leadership was almost exclusively the purview of men, the language of the Church was overwhelmingly Latin, and only women within established orders held any official religious status, Hadewijch dared to write theology outside of the cloister and in the vernacular. She made theology out of her experience and shared it with those closest to her and, perhaps, with a broader public.

Hadewijch learns and teaches many things in her visions, but at their heart is love—God as love, God’s love for humanity, and humanity’s love for God. In the second of her visions, Hadewijch comes to understand love, even as she is sparked by this vision ceaselessly to repeat, “What is love? And who is love?” The following vision reads like an answer to this question. Hadewijch sees the “countenance of the Holy Spirit,” from which issues a voice that says to her:

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