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:

Behold, ancient one, you have called me and sought me, what and who I, love, am, myriads of years before the birth of humanity! See and receive my spirit! With regard to all things, know what I, love, am in them! And when you fully bring me yourself, as pure humanity in myself, through all the ways of perfect love, you shall have fruition of me as the love who I am. Until that day, you shall love what I, love, am. And then you will be love, as I am love.

God is love and makes herself known to Hadewijch. (Following Middle Dutch grammar, God as love is female in Hadewijch’s writing.) Love also shows Hadewijch that she herself will be united with love fully in this life, before “the death that makes you alive.”

Yet the path to union with God in and as love is fraught. In her eighth letter, Hadewijch describes two fears that beset the soul as love grows in her:

The first fear is, one fears that he is unworthy, and that he cannot make love content. And this fear is the very noblest. ... For when they fear that they are not worthy of such great love, their humanity is shaken by a storm and forbids them rest. ... The second fear is, we fear that love does not love us enough, because she binds us so painfully that we think love continually oppresses us and helps us little, and that all the love is on our side.

Hadewijch claims that these fears enlarge the soul:

Even though anyone loves so violently that he fears he will lose his mind, and his heart feels oppression, and his veins continually stretch and rupture, and his soul melts—even if anyone loves love so violently, nevertheless this noble unfaith can neither feel nor trust love, so much does unfaith enlarge desire. And unfaith never allows desire any rest in any fidelity but, in the fear of not being loved enough, continually distrusts desire. So high is unfaith that it continually fears either that it does not love enough, or that it is not enough loved.

Here, and again in her penultimate vision, Hadewijch insists that noble unfaith, in which the soul fears that she does not love God enough and that God does not love her enough, is “the most delightful voice of love.”

On the path of noble unfaith, in her ninth vision, the soul sees wisdom as “a queen ... clad in a gold dress; and her dress was all full of eyes; and all the eyes were completely transparent, like fiery flames, and nevertheless like crystal.” Through this wisdom, which is the soul’s own, she knows “God alone as God and all things as God in God’s knowledge, and each thing as godlike.” The eyes on wisdom’s gown signify the fullness of her virtue; their fiery nature the intensity of her knowledge of love; and the “crystallinity of the eyes ... painful mystical knowledge.” Through love, the soul has wisdom and knows all.

Yet, this is not Hadewijch’s final word, for the vision ends in an unknowing that surpasses wisdom itself—“then wisdom became subject to me, and I left her. But love came and embraced me; and I came out of the spirit and remained lying until late in the day, inebriated with unspeakable wonder.”

There are five more visions in Hadewijch’s book. With ever-intensifying imagery, she insists on the superiority of unfaith in the pursuit of love, an unfaith that is never content with its love for love or love’s love for it. To experience the ravishment of love is to suffer with Christ in his humanity and so to be promised that one will become God with his divinity. It is to abdicate wisdom and knowledge for the destructive force of love. And yet it is also to conquer. Hadewijch’s visions end with the voice of Christ, the Beloved, openly revering her:

Oh strongest of all warriors! You have conquered everything and opened the closed totality, which never was opened by creatures who did not know, with painfully won and distressed love, how I am God and Human! Oh heroine, since you are so brave and since you never yield, you are called the greatest heroine! It is right, therefore, that you should know me perfectly!

In Hadewijch’s language of battle, unfaith, in its very despairing desire, in its disavowal of the claim to know, paradoxically conquers love. There the soul stands, a warrior victorious over God, loving God and knowing God, perfectly.

Amy Hollywood teaches at the Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (University of Chicago Press, 2002), and Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor, with Patricia Beckman, of The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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