Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beguine Classics: Hadewijch of Brabant

What does it mean to be in love with Christ? In concrete ways, how do we pursue him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength?

The women known as Beguines help us to flesh out the answer in our everyday life. One of their original writings that we have today is by the 13th century Belgian woman named Hadewijch. Pulsating with a palpable love for Jesus, Hadewijch’s writings draw us as readers into a fresh appreciation of—and fresh encounter with—the Lord.

Passionate Love for God
First and foremost, Hadewijch invites her readers into an intimate love relationship with God who is Love.

“O beloved, why has not Love sufficiently overwhelmed you and engulfed you in her abyss? Alas! when Love is so sweet, why do you not fall deep into her? And why do you not touch God deeply enough in the abyss of his Nature, which is so unfathomable? Sweet love, give yourself for Love’s sake fully to God in love.” (Hadewijch, 56)

This thirteenth-century Beguine from Belgium was passionately in love with God! From the time she was ten years old, she had experienced God’s remarkable touch in her life. As the leader of a Beguine community, and as a writer, she called believers to leave behind half-hearted Christianity in order to plunge into a fully engaged, fervent love relationship with the Lord.

“You should always look fixedly on your Beloved whom you desire. For he who gazes on what he desires becomes ardently enkindled, so that his heart within him begins to beat slowly because of the sweet burden of love. And through perseverance in this holy life of contemplation, wherein he continually gazes on God, he is drawn within God. Love ever makes him taste her so sweetly that he forgets everything on earth.” (Hadewijch, 88)

The sweetness of such an ardent love of the Lord will woo us away from all the false loves of the world—all the distractions and addictions that clamor for our attention. These hold no interest for us if we truly taste the overpowering presence of Jesus!

When the Feelings Fade
Second, Hadewijch prepares her readers for the time when these passionate feelings and intimate encounters with the Lord fade. The emotions of falling in love do not last forever. Initial experiences of “spiritual sweetness” give way to a more mature love.

That is okay. While we are certainly to enjoy emotional connection with the Lord when we experience it, we dare not cling to it. Feelings come and go, and we cannot gauge our spiritual growth on them. Rather, the fruit by which we are known is our growth in Christ-like character.

“Virtues and not sweetness are the proof of love, for it sometimes happens that he who loves less feels more sweetness. Love is not in each person according to what he feels, but according as he is grounded in virtue and rooted in charity (Eph. 3:17). Desire for God is sometimes sweet; nevertheless it is not wholly divine, for it wills up from the experience of the senses rather than from grace.” (Hadewijch, 66-67)

Those who try to cling to feelings and experiences are often led astray. Indeed, we find out that they were more interested in having a “spiritual high” than they were in loving God.

“For we discover in these souls that as long as sweetness endures in them, they are gentle and fruitful. But when the sweetness vanishes, their love goes too; and thus the depths of their being remain hard and unfruitful. . . . These are fainthearted folk; they are easily elated when all is sweet and distressed when anything is bitter. A small heavenly favor makes their heart exceedingly joyful, and a small sorrow exceedingly afflicts it.” (Hadewijch, 67)

Although it is hard to let go of those initial feelings of being in love, we must do so in order to move on a mature love of Christ. Hadewijch is a wise guide in this process.

Invitation to Read the Classics
Hadewijch’s writings consist primarily of poetry with some letters she wrote to younger women she mentored, as well as fourteen visions that she recorded. If you appreciate poetry and profound figurative language, you will really enjoy this Beguine’s works.

A full collection of Hadewijch’s writings in English is available in the Classics of Western Spirituality. All the above quotes are from this volume.

•Hadewijch. Hadewijch: The Complete Works. Translated by Mother Columba Hart. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980. ISBN: 0-8091-2297-9.

My book that was just released in IVP’s Formatio Series provides an introduction to Hadewijch and the key spiritual formation themes that she explores.

•Myers, Glenn. Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3551-5.

Hadewijch’s writings can be found in several other collections, including the following:

•Bowie, Fiona, ed. Beguine Spirituality: Mystical Writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hadewijch of Brabant. In Spiritual Classics. New York: Crossroad, 1990. ISBN: 0-8245-0993-5.

•Dreyer, Elizabeth A. Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant. New York: Paulist Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-8091-4304-6.

•Murk-Jansen, Saskia. Brides in the Desert: The Spirituality of the Beguines. The Traditions of Spirituality Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. ISBN: 1-57075-201-X.

Especially if the feelings of spiritual sweetness have faded in your life and you wonder why the Lord is ignoring you, I highly suggest Hadewijch’s writing. She offers some of the deepest insights, and she expresses herself with profound thought and heartfelt passion.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

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