Mystics of the medieval and modern ages

Women of wisdom and courage

Johanna Fisher (Professor of English and Women Studies, Co-director Women and Gender Studies)

The achievements and efforts of women throughout history have sometimes been bold, and at other times, subtle. This subtlety is noted especially in the efforts of the medieval mystics.

Writing in convents or cells as the anchorites did (those withdrawing from secular society for example Julian of Norwich), we see these subtleties of challenge to the oppressive theologies established by church authority; theologies that often denigrated women.

Mystics such as Christine de Pizan (The Book of the City of Ladies) wrote against the misogynistic ideas about women and sin, thereby revealing their intelligent and logical ability to argue against the practices that made women subservient to men both in secular and religious society. Pizan, the first professional and female author challenged the notions of womanhood derived from Jean Meun’s Poem, The Romance of the Rose about the corrupt nature of women.

Likewise, Julian of Norwich challenged the mainstream theological thinking about the nature of God by arguing for a feminine presence that is articulated in the motif of the mother; the mother that evokes images of kindness, nurturing, and caring. She experienced 16 ‘showings’ (revelations from God) as she refers to them that reveal her understanding of God as both mother and father. She was the first woman to write a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love, in which she explains her encounters with God. This book, even today, influences the ways feminist theologians see the nature of God-one that includes the feminine divine as part of that understanding.

Her thinking is revolutionary given her isolation from the world. Interestingly, during the COVID lockdown [as was for Julian, the lockdown mirrored the occurring plague epidemics in her life], many people, including theologians reconsidered her importance about current ideas regarding the nature of God, explaining that her understanding of the feminine presence in the Godhead (the essence of God in Christianity) was one that still speaks to us 500 years later.

The mystic St. Therese of Lisieux, too, in subtle language expressed her understanding of the Godhead. Although her theology in its expression is traditional, that is to say a classic Catholic theology; what makes it different was the simple language she used to urge people to consider the importance of humility and rather offer what she called ‘little acts of love’. However, if one examines some of her ‘feminist’ ideas revealed in her writings, i.e. Story of a Soul, she proclaims her desire to be priest, to be Crusader for Christ, to be a doctor, to be an Apostle. These are all traditionally male dominated professions; two of which have never been filled by a woman.

She was bold in her thinking, challenging the boundaries of what women can do within the structure of a church that still today does not recognise women as priests. And yet, she actually was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, in 1997, one hundred years after her death. Her work, her thinking, and her sense of mission, testifies to a strong sense of the eternal God. This is a God that gives women courage to resist oppression as demonstrated when she went on pilgrimage in 1887 to Italy where Pope Leo XIII refused to officially support her appeal to be allowed to become a Carmelite (religious order within the Catholic church). She refused to leave and was carried out of the church.

Therese died in 1897 and was beatified (deceased person's entrance into heaven and their capacity to intercede on behalf of those who honour or pray to them) in 1923. It was how she resonated with ordinary people that contributed to her early beatification. She is the most popular saint in modern times (as Pope Pious X declared) and she can be found in churches all over the world, thereby attesting to what courageous women can and have contributed to religious thinking and practice.

Attention to the lives of women in medieval and modern times give us insights into the long history of women advocating for their dignity as human beings and serious contributors to all facets of human achievement.