4 Gifts to the Church from Mechthild of Magdeburg

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

A week after I started reading Mechthild of Magdeburg[1], my wife asked jokingly (I think) whether she should be worried about my new 13th-century girlfriend. It was an understandable question: I’d never read anything quite like Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead and I was eager to tell anyone who would (pretend to) listen about this fascinating writer. Mechthild (her name looks complicated, but it’s closely related to “Matilda”; the ch is hard, like in character, and the th is more like a t) lived most of her life as a beguine[2]—a member of a lay sisterhood, living in chastity, poverty, and community—before entering a convent in later life. She and her book became inspirational models for contemplative prayer; but soon after her death, Mechthild’s work was known only in bits and pieces, often anonymously. So if you haven’t heard of her, that’s not surprising. As I’ve continued to study Mechthild’s life and work, I’ve found four significant gifts that she gave to the church—gifts that I’ve experienced personally, and that I think can be profoundly helpful for discipleship today.

1. The gift of creativity in prayer and writing.

Mechthild’s book is a mixture of visionary journeys, images of courtly love drawn from her medieval world, conversations between her soul and the Lord, sympathetic observations on characters from Scripture, and other meditations. But later, she asks God to let her stop writing: she feels “just as weak and unworthy, and more so, than . . . when I was required to begin.” God responds by showing her “a spiritual convent” of personified virtues. For example, the “abbess is sincere love”; the choir mistress, hope; the schoolmistress, wisdom; and the “mistress of the sick is toiling mercy.”[3] In these personifications, perhaps Mechthild’s prayerful imagination is rising to the challenge of relying on (and identifying with) her new sisters, even in the frustrations of writing. It’s as if she’s looking at the flawed, flesh-and-blood sisters around her, and seeing, in their actions, reflections of love, hope, mercy, etc. What would happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to use this text to shape our perceptions of others in our churches and communities? Individually and together, how are we embodying such virtues? Where might God be calling us to nurture, complement, and pray for one another in our practices of love, generosity, or peacemaking?

I’ve also found that Mechthild’s book fuels my own reading and writing. In my journaling, her tendency to align her character with those that inspire her in Scripture—not just for their heroics, but for their approach to suffering—has transformed the way I identify with the oh-so-human thoughts and reactions recorded there. Mechthild’s honesty about her failings and weaknesses has changed the way I see the Examen, the prayer in which we take stock of our day and ask for God’s help in remedying the moments that require forgiveness. I’ve even found Mechthild’s work helpful for my own creative writing, as I’m working on a novel that draws significantly from her life experience. Not that I always agree with her theology or her interpretations of Scripture; but when I part company with her, I have to discern what it is that I disagree with and why. Prayerfully cultivating such discernment makes us more sensitive to the voice of God, more faithful in our imagination and discipleship, and that’s never a bad thing.

2. The gift of seeing estrangement and exile as welcome gifts.

One of the most consistent notes in Mechthild’s writing is her yearning for God’s presence. To express this yearning, she often used images of estrangement and exile, as though she were living in another country, separated from her true home and her Lord. These metaphors helped her face challenges in her life, coming to see them as bittersweet blessings from God. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that she found help in identifying her feelings of estrangement and exile with similar experiences of the Bible’s cast members, including Jesus, Mary, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, and Stephen. In the following short excerpts, Mechthild speaks respectively to Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and Mary, Jesus’ mother:

“I live with you in the desert wilderness, because all things are foreign to me except God alone”;

“To the extent that we live a holy life in exile,” we resemble John the Baptist;

“Ah, Lady, remember all my longings and all my prayers . . . when I leave this deplorable exile.”[4]

Desert wilderness. Foreign. Deplorable exile. With these images, and in solidarity with biblical figures who had undergone similar experiences, Mechthild transforms her feelings of estrangement and exile into heartfelt prayers of hunger for God. Amid the rapid religious, political, and cultural shifts that are re-shaping our world today, the image of exile is receiving a lot of attention: in some instances it’s being used to describe a sense of loss and nostalgia for the Christendom of the past, while in other cases it’s employed as a picture of Christian mission in an uncertain future, and it’s not easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.[5] And in the current Syrian refugee crisis, we should be careful not to use images of exile too easily, as exile is a very real thing for so many. But in all of this, exile and estrangement should never be left as merely abstract concepts. They certainly weren’t just images for Mechthild; they were at the heart of her prayer language, shaping her prayers for herself and for others in their suffering.

3. The gift of following Christ as a pilgrim.

400 years before John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, Mechthild envisioned her life as a pilgrimage, following a path that Jesus had walked as a pilgrim before her. In her younger days, she had observed,

“God guides his chosen children along strange paths . . . that God himself trod: that a human being, though free of sin and guilt, suffer pain. Upon this path the soul that aches for God is joyful.”[6]

Years later, ravaged by age, illness, and blindness, she returns to the exile theme as she laments:

“This is how the tormented body speaks to the lonely soul: ‘When shall you soar with the feathers of your yearning to the blissful heights to Jesus, your eternal Love? Thank him there for me, lady, that, feeble and unworthy though I am, he nevertheless wanted to be mine when he came into this land of exile and took our humanity upon himself.’”[7]

The younger Mechthild understands this path is “strange” not merely because it carries both pain and joy, but because God himself has preceded her on it and is now her guide. Looking back upon the same path, her older self is thankful for the same grace, in a different key: Christ “wanted to be mine when he came into this land of exile and took our humanity upon himself.” Here—and in other places in her book, where she envisions Christ himself as a pilgrim[8]—Mechthild reminds herself, and us, that if the hard moments of our lives feel like estrangement, alienation, and exile, then there is consolation in knowing that God himself knows what it is like to have been estranged, alienated, and exiled. As if that were not enough, God wants to identify so closely with us in our hardships that he belongs to us, and we belong to him.

4. The gift of submitting our gifts to our community and the church.

Having spent her earlier life serving in what today we might call “intentional community,” when Mechthild transitioned to the convent in later life and poor health, she struggled with letting others serve her, as well as with the question of whether to keep working on her book, as we’ve already seen. But her writing shows how she brought these challenges back to God. Even when she struggled most with her longing for God’s presence—confessing, once, that when God “chooses to withdraw,” to temporarily estrange or absent himself from her, “My longing is higher than the stars”[9]—even then, her life points to a submission to Christ and to the church. In continuing to live in community with her new sisters, in submitting to their Cistercian order, and in completing her book as an example of contemplative prayer that would inspire them even after her death, Mechthild’s path of discipleship wasn’t just a “vertical” relationship of disciple and Master, but a “horizontal” relationship with other disciples in her community, too. She might not have put it quite this way, but Mechthild was contributing her gifts to what has been called the maintenance of longing:[10] a mutual support of one another’s hopes for God’s kingdom, when facing a deeply fragmented world.

In all of these gifts—and perhaps in others that I haven’t yet discerned—Mechthild’s discipleship isn’t a new thing. It is a well-worn path, which she followed with faltering but prayerful steps, inviting others to follow along. She was well aware of the company of saints who had preceded her on this path, and of her own frailty and faults that kept her from walking it as confidently as she might have liked. But she allowed Christ to use these challenges to conform her more closely to his image, so that others might meet Christ while following the written “footsteps” she left behind in her book.

[1] Much of this post is adapted and expanded from a longer paper that I hope will be published in an upcoming issue of the Canadian Theological Review.
[2] Yes, as a matter of fact, the word is distantly related to the Cole Porter song, “Begin the Beguine.”
[3] Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Book 7.36. Quotations in English are from Frank Tobin’s translation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998).
[4] Ibid., 2.24, 6.32, and 7.20, respectively.
[5] For a helpful study of this image of exile in biblical tradition and the church today, see my friend Lee Beach’s book, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015).
[6] Ibid., 1.25.
[7] Ibid., 7.65.
[8] Ibid., 6.33, 7.13.
[9] Ibid., 7.8.
[10] Sherrie Steiner and Michelle Harper Brix, “Mark 7: Nurturing Common Life among Members of Intentional Community,” in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, edited by The Rutba House (New Monastic Library 1; Eugene: Cascade, 2005), 97–111, citing 102 here.

Matthew Forrest Lowe is a freelance editor, professor, and writer, specializing in spiritual formation, biblical theology, and imperial contexts. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where he co-directs Lectio House, a retreat house startup, with his wife Karen.