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Mechthild of Magdeburg
Mechthild of Magdeburg

Body and Soul Are One in God

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Lie down in the Fire;
See and taste the Flowing Godhead through your being.
Feel the Holy Spirit moving and compelling you within

the Flowing Fire and Light of God.
Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead 6.29

Mechthild of Magdeburg was a member of the beguines, lay women who lived communal lives of Christian devotion and service in the Low Countries of Western Europe and in France and Germany. Scholar Carol Lee Flinders writes:

Describing the soul’s relationship with God, [Mechthild] marvels at “the powerful penetration of all things and the special intimacy which ever exists between God and each individual soul” (Flowing Light 3.1).… The paradox enchants her: God is everywhere and surely, therefore, impersonal; and yet in relation to the individual soul, God is entirely intimate and surely, therefore, personal.

“Our redeemer has become our bridegroom!” Mechthild exults. Others had said as much, but in a relatively formal, allegorical mode. When Mechthild writes of the soul’s romance with God, she is no allegorist: in the depths of her being, she has found a lover who is fully, deliciously responsive. “Thou art my resting-place,” God tells her, “my love, my secret peace, my deepest longing, my highest honour. Thou art a delight of my Godhead, … a cooling stream for my ardour” (1.19). God is there, Mechthild insists, for every one of us, not in a general, impersonal sense, but there—so exquisitely right for you it’s as if you’d made him up. He “whispers with His love in the narrow confines of the soul” (2.23). Her language is almost shockingly erotic at times; for Mechthild, the sweet goings-on between God and the soul are the reality—all-consuming and exquisitely fulfilling—of which human sexuality is only a pale shadow.

Mechthild’s sensual language may surprise us, but it would have been familiar to readers of her own time:

Perhaps we need to emphasize this. The astonishing concreteness of Mechthild’s imagery—its unembarrassed physicality—is somewhat deceptive if she is read casually. One might think she was celebrating the senses, the body, and even sexuality in and of themselves. In a way, she is, but readers of her time would have understood unequivocally that she conjures up the pleasurable experiences of the physical realm as presentiments, or intimations, of an awakening into supreme joy—joy that is interior and immaterial and unending. Rather than distinguish sharply between the physical and spiritual realms, then, and reject the physical, she joins them in a natural continuity and progression. We are led inward by way of everything in this life: everything in this life, therefore, has its own sanctity.

References:

Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 44–45.

Quotations from The Revelations of Mechthild of Magdeburg; or, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Lucy Menzies (London: Longmans, Green, 1953).

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Alma Thomas, Snow Reflection on Pond (detail), 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Loïs Mailou Jones, Jeune Fille Français (detail), 1951, oil on canvas, Smithsonian. Loïs Mailou Jones, Textile Design for Cretonne (detail), 1928, watercolor on paper, Smithsonian. Click here to enlarge image.

Mechtild looks into our eyes with peace and knowing of the Beloved – we look back into her eyes having beheld the same Beloved.

Story from Our Community:  

A short time ago, I went to the seashore for solace. A disaster had swept away everything of the life I had known. While walking the shore, I noticed some anemones flourishing in the tidepools. They had been cut off from the tide, isolated in the shallows. I, too, was feeling isolated. I bent toward the anemones, and gently touched one with my finger. It recoiled inward on itself. I suddenly understood that I must let God touch me from above and try not close inward on myself as the anemone did. Scientists have called the ocean the cradle of all life forms. In religious life, water is often the symbol of transformation. Poets and mystics tend to see water not only as the symbol for but source of change. Without the living water of faith, we all shrivel and die. —Anne W.

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