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Friday, June 15, 2007
Book Discussion - Visions and Longings

Our book selection for this month's book discussion is Monica Furlong's Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics. This book was meant to give us a taste of a stream of Christianity that is unfamiliar to many of us. To read the women mystics forces one to acknowledge that there were women doing theology and teaching spirituality in the church all along. These voices were not silent, just forgotten by many.

Furlong presents us with eleven women from the Medieval period who committed their lives to serving God. She helps us by giving overviews of the period, church history, and monastic structure. For each women we are given a brief biography and then a few key selections from their writings. And so, in her own words and theirs, Furlong sketches rebellious Heloise, runaway Christina of Markyate, visionary Hildegard of Bingen, the lovesick Beguines, sickly Clare of Assisi, joyful Angela of Foligno, strong-willed Catherine of Siena, mad Margery Kemp, and optimistic Julian of Norwich. The sampler provided in the book presents the common theme that these women faced hardship and persecution in order to follow God. Resistance to women having leadership roles in the church (even if it was just over women) was a constant struggle for many of these women as they tried to establish new and distinctly female communities. Others had to overcome family and social pressure to live an indulgent life and be married off well. For these women to follow a life of chastity and devotion to God upset the dominant secular paradigm as to what were appropriate roles women. And many of these women faced severe physical illness as they took on lives of poverty and hardship for the sake of the kingdom.

I enjoyed Furlong's matter of fact approach to these women. Unlike other hagiographers who exalt these mystics to inhumane levels of saintliness, Furlong wasn't afraid to mention the human elements. She explores the political and religious power plays that often influenced "devotion." She also admits the possibility that many of these women suffered from what would be labeled today as mental disorders. This is done not to emphasize their humanity at the expense of their spirituality (and therefore dismiss their mystical encounters), but to allow for the complexity of their lives to be fully acknowledged. Yes, Furlong is saying, there are other theories that can be used to explain these women away but I say that the holistic women (potential imbalances and all) should be embraced.

As much as I admire that approach and as much as I value hearing the voices of women long silenced, I still struggled to get into their writings. I am not a dualist who despises the body as these women did. I also have a hard time connecting to God through mystical visions and metaphors. But I know that many people, many of you, are greatly blessed by such writing. With that I look forward to hearing your thoughts about these women and their writings. I will start us off with a few questions but I encourage anyone bring up other ideas and questions. As always anyone is welcome to participate in the discussion (even if you haven't read the book).

Question for Discussion -

1. What is the value in reading the medieval women mystics? I grew up very low church protestant and although the anti-catholic bias has faded, there are still those who see no value at all in reading the writings of catholic nuns who lived 700+ years ago. So I would love to hear from others - why should anyone read this stuff?

2. Many of these mystics would today be diagnosed with a mental disorder and their visions, obsessions, and passions medicated away. What are your thoughts on this? Is is right to even bring up such modern medical ideas when discussing such spiritual writings? Does having a mental disorder in any way diminish the validity and value of these women and their writings? And what about today - would it be wrong to medicate away the spiritual visions someone was having?

3. A common theme in the writings of these women is to disparage themselves and the female gender. We read over and over that women are "weak creatures" "a worm" "nothing." What is your reaction to this? Do you think these women truly believe this about themselves and why did they? Or do you think these women had to throw in those lines of abasement in order to get published (and not be burned as a heretic) in a very male dominated church?

4. What is your reaction to the concept that in order for a women to escape being ruled by a father or husband she had to make vows to a life of chastity, seclusion, and poverty? If this was the only way you could be free to serve God, could your accept those boundaries? Do you think it a good or bad thing that it is easier for a woman to serve God these days?

5. Do you identity with any of these women or their writings? Are there any that you want to read more about?

6. Julian of Norwich addresses the hardships of life, service, disease, and death in her famous refrain about complete trust in God. She writes, "And I understand no greater stature in this life than childhood, with its feebleness and lack of power and intelligence, until the time that our gracious Mother has brought us up into our Father's bliss. and there it will truly be made known to us what he means in the sweet words when he says: All will be well, and you will see it yourself, that every kind of thing will be well." Is this beautiful trust or an escapist crutch women in this period had to invoke to survive?

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posted by Julie at 11:16 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 6/16/2007 04:27:00 AM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    I really don't know what to do about the mental illness potential factor in mystical visions -- or how to understand the relationships between the chemistry of our brains and spirituality/connection with God generally, for that matter. I'm looking forward to reading the thoughts of others.

    To most of the questions, my response if "both." Women probably on some level had internalized a low view of themselves, but many also knew their own wisdom and were saavy enough to know what disclaimers were required to bring down male defenses enough to listen to truth.

    Is it possible to exemplify beautiful trust and be future-oriented because the present is challenging or burdensome? As a mother, I try to live in the present with my kids, myself, my family. And there are days when doing so requires me to actively chant as a mantra, "this too shall pass," because then I am more able to both endure challenges and be available for the gifts I might otherwise miss if I wasn't aware that I couldn't ever go back to this moment, and that what I do with it is my opportunity to take or miss.

  • At 6/17/2007 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Lori

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read, but then again, I love reading the ancient mystics. My life has been profoundly influenced by women (and men) who knew our same God in a very different time, but in similar ways. I am challenged by their wholehearted commitment to God, and softened by their openness to God and other humans. I believe reading them is important for the same reason that we closely watched Mother Theresa--they help show us what a God-saturated life can be.

    I guess this is why I so appreciated the biographical information, as well. Knowing that these women suffered from numerous illnesses, including mental & emotional disorders, rounds them out and provides for us a more realistic picture. Sometimes we find it easy to write off their saintly life ("If I were cloistered I could be more saintly, too!") but this revelation of their humanity clarifies that their convictions and commitments are possibilities for us all. Knowing that in all their human weakness they nevertheless gave their all to God reminds me that I, too, am called to such radical obedience. (An interesting (fictional) read that examines the conflict between illness & mystical experience is Lying Awake by Mark Salzman.)

  • At 6/18/2007 03:40:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    I think the mental illness thing really struck me as I read the book. When I was in college (Christian college) there was a girl who lived on the same floor as I did. She was super spiritual, to the point that it made the rest of us uncomfortable. But of course we had to feel guilty because weren't as spiritual as she was. It reached the point that she would stay up most of the night praying in front of an open window (in winter) so she could feel closer to God. If any of us passed her in the hall, she would grab our arm and make us pray with her. eventually the lack of sleep made her so sick that she was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed as manic/depressive. Her 'manic' side came out as bouts of intense prayer.

    So was it wrong or bad for her to be like that? was it wrong to medicate her prayers away? I never wanted to be around her because she condemned anyone who didn't pray as much as she did. In a school that focused a lot on personal piety, prayer was a good thing that we all needed more of - so we were wrong and she was right until she was diagnosed...

  • At 6/18/2007 08:45:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    What's the difference between a false spiritual experience and a real one, between mentally manic and spiritually ecstatic? Might the brain look the same for both? What's the difference between encountering the LIGHT and seeing a bright light because you're brain's deprived of oxygen?

    Should we judge by the fruit?

    Julie, I guess if your college friend was always judging others for not being like her and praying as she did, perhaps that is an indicator that there truly was an imbalance.

    On the other hand, if someone exhibted the same fervency of prayer and was full of grace and brought peace and joy to others, and challenged them in a spirit of love, then I wouldn't assume that just because her experience was strange that it wasn't authentic.

  • At 6/19/2007 01:41:00 PM, Blogger Sensuous Wife

    I've requested this book from the library and look forward to reading it. The mystics have been a great source of encouragement to me, specifically Madam Guyon, Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

  • At 6/19/2007 02:05:00 PM, Blogger Lori

    Jemila, I'd agree with your assessment that it's the fruit of mystical experience that most clearly seems to gauge authenticity. Do visions & dreams (& depression, illness, or even stigmata) serve to elevate the "seer" or do they direct observers beyond the seer, to the Giver of the visions? Do these extraordinary experiences result in personal transformation? If so, I believe they should be viewed as gifts from God--regardless of the underlying "physical" explanations. It does seem likely that with time, we'll understand the scientific underpinnings of much (if not all) religious experience, particularly such outstanding experiences as visions. The question then will be--does a scientific understanding negate the spiritual reality?

    I don't believe it does. It makes perfect sense to me that God should use this created order (God's idea to begin with) to reveal God's self to us. While there's much we don't understand about that self-revelation, the revelation still stands.

    I recently read an article about Abraham Lincoln, who it seems suffered from severe depression for much of his life. That depression, interestingly, seems to have fueled his personal resolve & determination (the level of effort required for someone in depression to even get out of bed is enormous--let alone lead a whole country!) I don't believe anyone would negate the value of his contributions to our people, at least based on the reality of his depression. Instead, it seems that his depression itself was a gift that allowed him to see so clearly and doggedly pursue equality.

    In much the same way, it seems these women were able to give so much precisely because they suffered.

    Julie, your question about Julian is an interesting one. I know women who choose escapism in the face of oppression, and their language doesn't sound all that different than Julian's. However, I think I have to side with a traditional interpretation of the words this time. Within the context of her writing, we see a beautiful, submitted, loving spirit that exemplifies trust in God. Julian seems to have been gifted with the ability to see the ultimate reality of God's redemption. What a remarkably peaceful place to be! (This sort of vision is common to mystics in other religions, as well--the sense of oneness & wellness is described in many different traditions, and therefore seems to "hold water".)

    And now, another question:

    Was there any specific exerpt that touched your soul? Any specific words or ideas that have stuck with you? Anything that has challenged you, or created within you a deeper longing?


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