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?