We all wish to be God with God, but God knows there are few of us who want to live as men with his Humanity. 1 Hadewijch was a 13th century Flemish mystic, and a part of that troublesome and fascinating women’s movement, the beguines. Not much is known about the details of her life: there are 111 known “spiritual” women named Hadewijch from that time period 2, so none of their biographies can be said to match the writings we have. The writings: Hadewijch wrote a large collection of prose letters and visions, as well as poetry. Her writing is our only way of understanding this remarkable mystic. Her poetry is the earliest known in the Flemish language, and the fact that she was literate, articulate, and poetic indicates she likely came from a wealthy family. 3
Hadewijch’s mystical writing is at times quite shocking, especially in regard to the language she uses to speak about love. Her tendency to switch gender pronouns with some fluidity has piqued the interest of recent queer theorists. Here I examine her writings, focusing especially on passages containing erotic language.
Hadewijch as a beguine
The beguine way of life is difficult to characterize; they were never a highly organized movement, but rather developed organically, tending to avoid hierarchy and rules. These women all felt a similar pull to live a more radical Christian life in imitation of Jesus. “What united this disparate group of individuals was a desire to lead a committed Christian life, together with other women, without the constraints imposed by marriage or enclosure.” 4
From what we can tell based on her writing, Hadewijch was a beguine, and a prominent one. She seems to have been a spiritual guide to younger women. She held herself to a very high standard of spirituality, emphasizing imitation of Jesus’ suffering and humility. One can imagine that her rigorous standards might have been opposed by some. Eventually she was likely threatened with a charge of quietism, based on themes of transcending reason, will, and body for the sake of union with Love in her mystical writing. “The general opinion of scholars at present seems to be that Hadewijch actually was evicted from her beguine community and exiled.” 5 A few of her letters seem to express as much.
We turn now to examine Hadewijch’s writings, focusing on her erotic language. Any reading of Hadewijch must start with her concept of minne, Love. Minne is grammatically feminine, and comes from the vocabulary of courtly love. Love for Hadewijch is something like a persona, nearly always female. She offers to Love the same adoration she would give to God or Jesus Christ. N. De Paepe describes it saying, “Minne in Hadewijch’s Poems in Stanzas is not God, Christ, or Divine Love—except in a very limited number of places…Minne is an experience, the way in which the soul experiences its relation to God, a dynamic experience of relationship.” 6
In order to go further, we must turn to the texts. Many of her poems are set in terms of courtly love, with Love being the maiden and the Christian portrayed as a Knight-errant. Hear this stanza, for example:
A fine exterior,
And fine language adorn the knight:
To suffer everything for Love without turning hostile
Is a fine exterior for him who has such ability;
His garments then are his acts,
Performed with new ardor,
not with self-complacency,
And with regard for all the needs of strangers
Rather than of his own friends:
This is the colored apparel, best adorned
With blazons of nobility, to the honor of high Love. 7
What is striking about this motif of the Knight seeking to win or conquer Love is that Hadewijch identifies as the Knight, as the male protagonist. Not only that, but she writes as a male character seeking union with feminine Love. Why wouldn’t she write more of herself as a bride (which she does at times) seeking union with Christ?
Her ability to inhabit both roles, that of Knight and that of Bride, male and female, can be difficult for some modern scholars to interpret. Richard Rambuss points out that the absence of “a polarizing system of sexual types tends to open these works in the direction of a greater plasticity of erotic possibilities, possibilities not entirely containable by our own…sexual dichotomies.” 8 This fact makes Hadewijch’s writings potentially useful when thinking about queer spiritualities. To add one more example, pay attention to the gendered pronouns in this passage from her Poems in Couplets.
The King shall desire your [feminine] beauty…
…When the soul can think of nothing else
But experiencing his kiss and being immersed in him,
That is a life conformed to God and to his pleasure.
If one thus gives up his whole self to Love alone,
God desires his beauty and adorns him with it,
According to his pleasure, according to Love’s mode of action. 9
The combination of fluid gender pronouns with erotic language makes this passage particularly interesting for thinking about how God loves us and how we might love God. Hadewijch may not have been a theologian primarily, but she certainly has written poetry rich with possibilities for theological reflection.
At other places in her writing, Hadewijch stretches our spiritual boundaries by the erotic language she uses to express spiritual union with Jesus and God. In one of her fourteen recorded visions, she writes an experience of intimacy with Jesus before or while receiving the Eucharist. It is best to quote at length:
With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave us his Body for the first time; looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another. Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament…After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported. Also then, for a short while, I had the strength to bear this; but soon, after a short time, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form. I saw him completely come to nought and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me. Then it was to me as if we were one without difference. 10
Hadewijch tends to write in an erotic mode when talking about Love/minne, which is “above reason, and above thought.” 11 In her letters, she writes, “…what wondrous sweetness the loved one and the Beloved dwell one in the other, and how they penetrate each other in such a way that neither of the two distinguishes himself from the other. But they abide in one another in fruition, mouth in mouth, heart in heart, body in body, and soul in soul, while one sweet divine Nature flows through them both.” 12 In another place: “But before Love thus bursts her dikes, and before she ravishes man out of himself and so touches him with herself that he is one spirit and one being with her and in her, he must offer her…noble service in all works of virtue.” 13
Hadewijch seems to be in touch with what Paul Tillich articulates as the ontological unity of love. Tillich claimed that within each of the classical loves are the essences of the others: in agape can be found eros and philia and libido, and in eros can be found agape, etc. From that, he can claim, “The unified nature of love demands unequivocally that the role of eros and libido in the spiritual sphere be recognized and accepted.” 14 From the above, I think it is clear that Hadewijch was in tune with the unity of agape and eros. She applies erotic language to God’s agape love, grounding a (potentially) lofty spiritual notion in the human body, making her poetry all the more powerful in its intimacy.
Eros and empowerment
I would claim that Hadewijch’s life as a beguine—a life considerably more autonomous than the normal 13th c Flemish female life—contributed to her sense of spiritual empowerment, which in turn made for such powerful, erotic language as we find in her writings. In one of her visions, a heavenly Voice calls to her, “Behold, Bride and Mother, you like no other have been able to live me as God and Man!” 15 She is confident in her living! In another place she writes, “I am a free human creature, and also pure as to one part, and I can desire freely with my will, and I can will as highly as I wish, and seize and receive from God all that he is, without objection or anger on his part—what no saint can do.” 16 Hadewijch writes as if no earthly thing has power over her; she is a free agent, and freely pursuing Love:
O Love, were I but love,
And could I but love you, Love, with love!
O Love, for love’s sake, grant that I,
Having become love, may know Love wholly as Love! 17
We have in Hadewijch’s life and writings a powerful example of the potential for the Christian life. She writes as an autonomous woman, empowered by Love to live as Love would direct, regardless of church authority or social mores. She is free to express her desire for spiritual union in erotic language, manifesting thereby a comfort with her body, not a denial of it. Her fluid use of gender pronouns and gender roles for God opens us to a far richer theology of divine love. She was a remarkable woman, with plenty to teach us.
- Letter 6, in Mother Columba Hart, trans., Hadewijch: The Complete Works (Paulist Pr, 1980), 61. ↩
- Ibid., 2 ↩
- Ibid., 5-7 ↩
- Fiona Bowie, ed., Beguine Spirituality: Mystical Writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hadewijch of Brabant (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 11. ↩
- Complete Works, 4. ↩
- Ibid., 8. ↩
- Poems in Stanzas 9, ll. 31-40, in ibid., 150. ↩
- Amy Hollywood, “Queering the Beguines: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch of Anvers, Marguerite Porete,” in Queer theology: rethinking the western body, ed. Gerard Loughlin, (Oxford; Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2007), ed. Gerard Loughlin, 165. ↩
- Poems in Couplets 12, ll. 60, 63-68, in Complete Works, 341–42. ↩
- Vision 7, in ibid., 281. ↩
- Poems in Couplets 10, line 21, in ibid., 336. ↩
- Letter 9, in ibid., 66. ↩
- Letter 6, in ibid., 63. ↩
- Alexander C Irwin, Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 12. ↩
- Vision 10, in Complete Works, 288. ↩
- Vision 11, in ibid., 291. ↩
- Poems in Couplets 15, ll. 49-52, in ibid., 352. ↩