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Mechthild of Magdeburg
Mechthild of Magdeburg

Mechthild’s Call to Compassion

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The beguines’ choice to live in cities among poor and working-class people showed their dedication to serve God by serving the “least of these.” Theologian Wendy Farley presents Mechthild’s teaching on contemplation and compassionate action:

Mechthild’s theology is driven by Lady Love, who plants a seed of compassionate action superior to the marvels of contemplation. Lofty words without compassion are useless; love of God that rages against human beings is without value. [1] We get some clues about how contemplation of Love translates into practical compassion in her advice to leaders of religious communities.

Mechthild begins with this somewhat formidable advice: compassionately and cheerfully “you should so transform your heart in God’s holy love that you love … each and every brother or sister entrusted to you in all [their] needs.” This care should be quite concrete. Community leaders should arrange for basic comforts of others. They should console the sick every day while being generous with material gifts. They should clean them, make them laugh, and carry away their waste. “Then God’s sweetness shall flow wonderfully into you.” [2]

Mechthild insists that the intimate love she and God share is made manifest in a desire to serve others:    

The radical compassion she envisions as the heart of practical action cannot be generated out of a sense of obligation or duty. It is a heart-sense that makes it unbearable to be indifferent to another’s needs or to think of anyone as “below” oneself. In an echo of her trinitarian understanding of the soul, she suggests a threefold practice to support this radical compassion: detachment, which participates in the transcendent mystery of the godhead; compassion, which participates in the humanity of Christ; and desire to care for human need, which participates in the Holy Spirit. [3] In addition, she recommends that one dedicate an hour or so to undisturbed prayer. Though she is writing to people who live in religious community, the insistence that the wells of mercy and compassion are fed by prayer is pertinent to modern people as well. As many an overworked pastor or mother knows, this hour (or even twenty minutes!) is difficult to find. Yet without it, compassionate care can become exhausting rather than grace-filled and sweet. We are better able to convey love and compassion when we are grounded in the experience of being loved ourselves.…

Love of God and of humanity are not two separate things, as if one could love God but shun humanity. Compassionate action reflects and mirrors the divine image. Love is not an emotion or obligation but is God present in the soul. When we love others with warmth, affection, and care for their needs, it is God loving them through us. Mechthild hears Christ himself insist that those who know and love the preciousness of [Christ’s] freedom “cannot bear to love me only for my own sake. They must also love me in creatures. [Then] I remain what is most close to them in their souls.” [4]


[1] See Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead 6.30, trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 256.

[2] Mechthild, Flowing Light 6.1; Tobin, 223, 224.

[3] Mechthild, Flowing Light 6.1; Tobin, 225, 226.

[4] Mechthild, Flowing Light 6.4; Tobin, 231.

Wendy Farley, The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics (Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press, 2015), 79–80.

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:  

The night my granddaughter was born, I found it hard to sleep. Wave after wave of gratitude kept washing over me, and tears kept flowing. I felt that I was spiraling, being pulled deeper and deeper into love. This experience reminded me of being a little girl, lying in my bed on Christmas night, reluctant to let go of the joy, happiness, and love of that day. Love has accompanied me all my life and it now walks with me as a grandmother. —Patricia S.

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