Many such women could be saints because they felt divinity closer to them than hands and feet. The medieval imagination was so stimulated by all the forces of word, picture, statue, ceremony, even by the color and quantity of light, that supersensory visions came readily, and the believing soul felt itself breaking through the bounds of nature to the supernatural. The human mind itself, in all the mystery of its power, seemed a supernatural and unearthly thing, surely akin to—a blurred image and infinitesimal fraction of—the Mind behind and in the matter of the world; so the top of the mind might touch the foot of the throne of God. In the ambitious humility of the mystic the hope burned that a soul unburdened of sin and uplifted with prayer might rise on the wings of grace to the Beatific Vision and a divine companionship. That vision could never be attained through sensation, reason, science, or philosophy, which were bound to time, the many, and the earth, and could never reach to the core and power and oneness of the universe. The problem of the mystic was to cleanse the soul as an internal organ of spiritual perception, to wash away from it all stain of selfish individuality and illusory multiplicity, to widen its reach and love to the uttermost inclusion, and then to see, with clear and disembodied sight, the cosmic, eternal, and divine, and thereby to return, as from a long exile, to union with the God from Whom birth had meant a penal severance. Had not Christ promised that the pure in heart would see God?
Mystics, therefore, appeared in every age, every religion, and every land. Greek Christianity abounded in them despite the Hellenic legacy of reason. St. Augustine was a mystic fountain for the West; his Confessions constituted a return of the soul from created things to God; seldom had any mortal so long conversed with the Deity. St. Anselm the statesman, St. Bernard the organizer, upheld the mystical approach against the rationalism of Roscelin and Abélard. When William of Champeaux was driven from Paris by the logic of Abélard, he founded in a suburb (1108) the Augustinian abbey of St. Victor as a school of theology; and his successors there, Hugh and Richard, ignoring the perilous adventure of young philosophy, based religion not on argument but on the mystical experience of the divine presence. Hugh (d. 1141) saw supernatural sacramental symbols in every phase of creation; Richard (d. 1173) rejected logic and learning, preferred the “heart” to the “head” à la Pascal, and described with learned logic the mystical rise of the soul to God.
The passion of Italy kindled mysticism into a gospel of revolution. Joachim of Flora—Giovanni dei Gioacchini di Fiori—a noble of Calabria, developed a longing to see Palestine. Impressed on the way by the misery of the people, he dismissed his retinue and continued as a humble pilgrim. Legend tells how he passed an entire Lent in an old well on Mt. Tabor; how, on Easter Sunday, a great splendor appeared to him, and filled him with such divine light that he understood at once all the Scriptures, all the future and the past. Returning to Calabria, he became a Cistercian monk and priest, thirsted for austerity, and retired to a hermitage. Disciples gathered, and he formed them into a new Order of Flora, whose rule of poverty and prayer was approved by Celestine III. In 1200 he sent to Innocent III a series of works which he had written, he said, under divine inspiration, but which, nevertheless, he submitted for papal censorship. Two years later he died.
His writings were based on the Augustinian theory—widely accepted in orthodox circles—that a symbolic concordance existed between the events of the Old Testament and the history of Christendom from the birth of Christ to the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Joachim divided the history of man into three stages: the first, under the rule of God the Father, ended at the Nativity; the second, ruled by the Son, would last, according to apocalyptic calculations, 1260 years; the third, under the Holy Ghost, would be preceded by a time of troubles, of war and poverty and ecclesiastical corruption, and would be ushered in by the rise of a new monastic order which would cleanse the Church, and would realize a worldwide utopia of peace, justice, and happiness.86
Thousands of Christians, including men high in the Church, accepted Joachim’s claim to divine inspiration, and looked hopefully to 1260 as the year of the Second Advent. The Spiritual Franciscans, confident that theirs was the new Order, took courage from Joachim’s teachings; and when they were outlawed by the Church they carried on their propaganda through writings published under his name. In 1254 an edition of Joachim’s main works appeared under the title of The Everlasting Gospel, with a commentary proclaiming that a pope tainted with simony would mark the close of the Second Age, and that in the Third Age the need of sacraments and priests would be ended by the reign of universal love. The book was condemned by the Church; its presumptive author, a Franciscan monk Gherardo da Borgo, was imprisoned for life; but its circulation secretly continued, and deeply affected mystical and heretical thought in Italy and France from St. Francis to Dante—who placed Joachim in paradise.
Perhaps in excited expectation of the coming Kingdom, a mania of religious penitence flared up around Perugia in 1259, and swept through northern Italy. Thousands of penitents of every age and class marched in disorderly procession, dressed only in loincloths, weeping, praying God for mercy, and scourging themselves with leather thongs. Thieves and usurers fell in, and restored their illegal gains; murderers, catching the contagion of repentance, knelt before their victims’ kin and begged to be slain; prisoners were released, exiles were recalled, enmities were healed. The movement spread through Germany into Bohemia; and for a time it seemed that a new and mystical faith, ignoring the Church, would inundate Europe. But in a little while the nature of man reasserted itself; new enmities developed, sinning and murder were renewed; and the Flagellant craze disappeared into the psychic recesses from which it had emerged.87
The mystic flame burned less fitfully in Flanders. A priest of Liege, Lambert le Bégue (i.e., the stutterer), established in 1184 on the Meuse a house for women who, without taking monastic vows, wished to live together in small semi-communistic groups, supporting themselves by weaving wool and making lace. Similar maisons-Dieu, or houses of God, were established for men. The men called themselves Beghards, the women Beguines. These communities, like the Waldenses, condemned the Church for owning property, and themselves practiced a voluntary poverty. A similar sect, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, appeared about 1262 in Augsburg, and developed in the cities along the Rhine. Both movements claimed a mystical inspiration which absolved them from ecclesiastical control, even from state or moral law.88 State and Church combined to suppress them; they went underground, emerged repeatedly under new names, and contributed to the origin and fervor of the Anabaptists and other radical sects in the Reformation.
Germany became the favorite land of mysticism in the West. Hildegarde of Bingen (1099–1179), the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” lived all but eight of her eighty-two years as a Benedictine nun, and ended as abbess of a convent on the Rupertsberg. She was an unusual mixture of administrator and visionary, pietist and radical, poet and scientist, physician and saint. She corresponded with popes and kings, always in a tone of inspired authority, and in Latin prose of masculine power. She published several books of visions (Scivias), for which she claimed the collaboration of the Deity; the clergy were chagrined to hear it, for these revelations were highly critical of the wealth and corruption of the Church. Said Hildegarde, in accents of eternal hope:
Divine justice shall have its hour… the judgments of God are about to be accomplished; the Empire and the Papacy, sunk into impiety, shall crumble away together…. But upon their ruins shall appear a new nation…. The heathen, the Jews, the worldly and the unbelieving, shall be converted together; springtime and peace shall reign over a regenerated world, and the angels will return with confidence to dwell among men.89
A century later Elizabeth of Thuringia (1207–31) aroused Hungary with her brief life of ascetic sanctity. Daughter of King Andrew, she was married at thirteen to a German prince, was a mother at fourteen, a widow at twenty. Her brother-in-law despoiled her and drove her away penniless. She became a wandering pietist, devoted to the poor; she housed leprous women and washed their wounds. She too had heavenly visions, but she gave them no publicity, and claimed no supernatural powers. Meeting the fiery inquisitor Conrad of Marburg, she was morbidly fascinated by his merciless devotion to orthodoxy; she became his obedient slave; he beat her for the slightest deviation from his concept of sanctity; she submitted humbly, inflicted additional austerities upon herself, and died of them at twenty-four.90 Her reputation for saintliness was so great that at her funeral half-mad devotees cut off her hair, ears, and nipples as sacred relics.91 Another Elizabeth entered the Benedictine nunnery of Schonau, near Bingen, at the age of twelve (1141), and lived there till her death in 1165. Bodily infirmities and extreme asceticism generated trances, in which she received heavenly revelations from various dead saints, nearly all anticlerical. “The Lord’s vine has withered,” her guardian angel told her; “the head of the Church is ill, and her members are dead…. Kings of the earth! the cry of your iniquity has risen even to me.”92
Toward the end of this period the mystic tide ran high in Germany. Meister Eckhart, born about 1260, would come to his ripe doctrine in 1326, to his trial and death in 1327. His pupils Suso and Tauler would continue his mystic pantheism; and from that tradition of unecclesiastical piety would flow one source of the Reformation.
Usually the Church bore patiently with the mystics in her fold. She did not tolerate serious doctrinal deviations from the official line, or the anarchic individualism of some religious sects; but she admitted the claim of the mystics to a direct approach to God, and listened with good humor to saintly denunciations of her human faults. Many clergymen, even high dignitaries, sympathized with the critics, recognized the shortcomings of the Church, and wished that they too could lay down the contaminating tools and tasks of world politics and enjoy the security and peace of monasteries fed by the piety of the people and protected by the power of the Church. Perhaps it was such patient ecclesiastics who kept Christianity steady amid the delirious revelations that periodically threatened the medieval mind. As we read the mystics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it dawns upon us that orthodoxy was often a barrier to contagious superstitions, and that in one aspect the Church was belief—as the state was force—organized from chaos into order to keep men sane.