nthposition online magazine

'At leisure for love': amorous rhetoric in the Helfta Mystics


[ strangeness - july 02 ]

Sex sells, we are constantly told. We are sold its promise from every billboard model's glossy, invitingly open red lips. It advertises everything from the latest model of car to the services of the sex industry itself. It invades every aspect of our lives, and has become diluted as a result. Likewise it is with love. We inhabit a knowing society, where the word 'love' has lost its meaning, become worn through over-use. It is invoked to describe anything from a preference for chocolate, to the transitory passion for a lover, to the eternal craving of the soul for God. We intellectuals cannot use the word 'straight' any more, we must invest it with inverted commas, pay lip service to its literary history, be constantly aware that it is borrowed from countless better-scripted scenes than we can ever describe. We are post-modern post-structuralists, after all, and we know that words have little 'real' value.

I can't in all honesty say that these opinions are ones that I hold to be entirely true, or at least not in every circumstance, and this is partly for reasons that will become evident here. But they are arguments familiar to us all. Every week, it seems, some journalist or critic will sum up our debased, decadent Western attitude to sex and love in pretty much the terms I have just outlined. But this pose of the weary chronicler of debased humanity is not new, in fact it grows rather tired; witness the annoyance of Thomas Malory in the 15th century:

"Nowadayes men can nat love sevennyght but they muste have all theire desyres. That love may nat endure by reson, for where they bethe sone accorded and hasty, heete sone keelyth. And ryght so fareth the love nowadayes, sone hote sone colde. Thys is no stabylité. But the olde love was nat so. For men and women could love togydirs seven yerys, and no lycourus lustis was betwyxte them, and than was love trouthe and faythefulnes." [2]

Malory is writing in his Morte Darthur, where he chronicles the saga of tragedic love that rends apart the court of King Arthur. In this famous passage, Malory laments that all in his day are too preoccupied with sex, that 'real' romantic love has passed away in favour of "lycourous lustis", lecherous lust. Of course he does not, and cannot, specify how much time separates his century from that in which he claims that the great passions, content to remain unrequited, flourished. And yet, ironically, for us, following CS Lewis's idealisation of the middle ages in 'The Allegory of Love', the very middle ages of which Malory is complaining have become in our imaginations synonymous with the great golden age of purer loves.

So where does this leave love, where sex, and where the erotic? Have we through time lamented a lost ideal of chaste imaginations, of pure love, that never existed? Were there ever people for whom the universe around them did not seem to burgeon with sensual imagery? Surely, you might venture, in the writings of the theologians I will be discussing, we may find some respite from an emphasis on sex, the human body, and the appetite for love. Celibate nuns of the high middle ages can have little truck with such things. Not so. And so I will be exploring the theological motivations that prompt those men and women who describe themselves as being "at leisure for love".

Thomas Aquinas, in describing the loving union with the divine, likened it to a friendship of equals. [3] He argued that this model best expresses the full and gracious equality of the partnership. Indeed, some medieval theologians preferred such forms of human love as a metaphor for the relationship of the human soul with the Godhead. Nonetheless many others chose the imagery of a mutual erotic passion, despite Aquinas's criticism that the pattern it provides is too hierarchical, that one partner is more dominant. Dependence and infatuation, he says in the 'Summa', breed inequality. Since it was even ventured by some theologians that it is through violence that God wins our love, Thomas's point may seem valid. [4] The imbalance between God and the soul as imagined by those using the Song of Songs as a model, he says, lends it limited applicability for use of the divine, appearing to lessen the extraordinary grace with which God makes us his equals, his companions. It is characterised by straining and burning ("intensio et fervor"), and it fosters uncertainty and insecurity. However, many disagreed. What Fergus Kerr has called "the imagery of longing and yearning, of being hot and sticky" continued: Aquinas's attempt to cleanse the language of union ultimately was unsuccessful. [5] Marguerite Porete, for instance, writing in the 14th century, explicitly argued against Thomas, proclaiming that "between lovers there is no lordship". [6] The self is annihilated, the soul is subsumed into God, but the infatuation, the melting, are mutual; the desire we feel to seek God out is the same love which he poured out into the world. In the erotic model God and the soul are both driven by natural appetite into the closest possible proximity. And so in many writings of mystical theology the discourse of the love of God receives the superimposition of the emotional pattern and the literary metaphor of the fall into sensual love.

It is Neoplatonic language that forms the basis of the medieval understanding of the word 'erotic', implying a love which is characterised by unrequited desire. The Greek term 'eros' means affective love towards an object. Neo-Platonism addressed issues that were of concern to the medieval theologian considering the implications of union, such as the need to consider unity and differentiation, oneness and distinction, or freedom and necessity. It was concerned with all forms of love, human and divine. The equivalent Latin terms which we find in the theological writings under discussion are similarly those that usually pertain to more earthy passions. Fergus Kerr, in his article 'Charity as Friendship', describes the different kinds of love as follows:

"...dilectio [is] a certain love in which God is loved for his own sake...[Love also] might be envisaged with Augustine as concupiscentia, desire (for God); [and] with Dionysius as amor (eros in Greek). [7]

The most frequently chosen word for love in the Song of Songs, a text pivotal to the medieval blending of spiritual and sensual love, is 'dilectio'. Though Thomas Aquinas said of friendship, 'caritas', that its fellowship springs from choice, as much was said of desire. William of St Thierry claimed that 'dilectio' specifically denotes an element of will or choice, derived from the Latin 'electio'. He offers as an example a quotation from the Song of Songs chapter 5 verse 10: "dilectus meus electus est milibus: my beloved is chosen out of thousands". [8] The Song was taken to be an especially apt way of imagining the soul's longing for and union with the divine. For exegetes from Origen onwards, it was taken to be the address of a man and woman betrothed and promised to each other who have not yet consummated their marriage. Their longing and anticipation proved the ideal metaphor: the soul, as female, was imaged as the 'bride', and by extension the Godhead becomes the 'bridegroom' of the Canticle. The literal expression of the Song may be of carnal love, but the unspoken allegorical interpretation teaches us about spiritual love.

We see a similarly frustrated yearning expressed in the secular world as the "amor de lonh" - the 'far-off' or 'long-distance' love - whose severities are evoked by the authors of medieval romances, poems, and troubadour lyrics. Literary works of the middle ages frequently attest to a sense of admiration for the purity of the desire that is put to the tests of distance and unattainability. Contemporary scholarship suggests that this concept of 'courtly' love was more probably the product of conscious literary design, that it was created rather to fulfil an idealised and imaginary vision of romance than to demonstrate actual behaviour. In the area of theological writing, nevertheless, the aptness of this rich metaphorical vocabulary was adapted. Fiction was raided to assist the theologian in describing an attempt to genuinely live out such a love.

Common to sacred and secular authors alike is the wish to surrender one's identity into an annihilating embrace. The appearance in later medieval theology of poetic evocations of the pains of love has been termed "la mystique courtoise." [9] This mysticism is 'courtly' because it represents an ambiguous blending of the discourses of the chamber and the cloister. It is a style of writing that speaks to and from the private and public realms simultaneously: it is at once deeply intimate and profoundly remote. It is characterised by paradox and ambiguity, establishing tensions between opposite yearnings: sweetness and torment, absence and presence, distance and desire.

In the mystical schema the relationship between the soul and God is initially one characterised by a love unfulfilled and charged by a feeling of suspense. Romantic or sexual metaphorical imagery is the ideal medium for expressing desire for God, because of its tensions of interplay between the possession of the beloved and his elusiveness. The essential quality of such writing is that the love be anticipated, that the lovers' enjoyment of each other be (at least temporarily) postponed. The emotional mood is above all that of arousal and desire, rather than completion and delight. Many theologians, such as Gertrud the Great of Helfta, would argue that the soul can achieve no greater union with God while she remains in her physical body.

However, other mystics declare that some select souls, if they can achieve the annihilation of their wilful selfhood, will move still closer to God. In this highest union the soul ceases to represent the Bride of the Song of Songs, restlessly seeking her lover through the streets, but instead is the Spouse, Mother, or 'Virgin Wife' of God and enjoys his complete and peaceful embrace. To be permitted to embrace God is to be allowed to participate in his nature: it is after all from the embrace of the father and son that the holy spirit is born. The enacting of love is natural to the godhead. As the soul and God embrace, they mirror one another, their gestures are reciprocal: they are united. The soul enters a relationship of domestic intimacy: no longer simply promised to God, now she is given to him. She ceaselessly gives birth, Meister Eckhart writes, to the Word in her soul.

I am going to be using, as part of my consideration of the role of the erotic metaphor in theology, the writings of two of the mystical theologians of the German convent of Helfta, Gertrud the Great and Mechtild of Magdeburg. [10] Contemporaries, though Mechtild was the elder, both nuns lived and wrote in the mid 13th century. Mechtild wrote in German a compendium of visions, prayers and dialogues, 'The Flowing Light of the Godhead'. From Gertrud's corpus of work, the 'Spiritual Exercises' and Book II of 'The Herald of Divine Love' are the only remaining texts which we are told come directly from her hand. In Book I of the 'Herald', we have a hagiographic description of her experiences, and Books III to V are works based on her dictated spiritual counsels. We know too from her biographer that Gertrude translated her own Latin writings into German, collaborated with her other famous contemporary, Mechtild of Hackeborn, to write down Mechtild's revelations, and wrote books of the sayings of saints, books of prayers, and simplified versions of scriptural passages. All of the remaining works of Mechtild and Gertrud testify to a preoccupation both with text and body, interweaving poetry, liturgy, theological doctrine, and visionary encounters. In the form of the text, which blends harmoniously a variety of sources, and in the concerns it is voicing, their writing indicates a desire to transcend boundaries and melt differences. Body and text, vision and insight, become one.

The most sensual of Gertrud's writings are 'Spiritual Exercises' numbers five and six: "mystical union" and "jubilus". In both she attempts to describe the ineffable joy of aspiring to oneness with God, "the fruition achieved through the coupling of the Word with the soul". Though she concludes the nuptial contract with God, she is in a state of constant desire as she awaits the fulfilment of the marriage bed. Her poetic longings lushly detail the delicious anticipation and anguish in which she remains, for complete union for Gertrud can only come at her death. The text is a series of ecstatic outpourings, following in exercise five the structure of the seven canonical hours, in which the mystic is enrolled in the school of love.

Gertrud advises the nun at least three times a day to put herself "at leisure for love", by joining herself to "the spouse Jesus" in prayer as if he were present with her. She should imagine herself running up to God in the morning, saying:

"For you I watch at daybreak. For you my soul has thirsted, for you my flesh... visit me now in the morning at daybreak... come to me now bountifully that I may dulcetly melt into you... when will you satisfy me with yourself? If only I might here perceive the fine rays of your Venus-like beauty for a little while and at least be permitted to anticipate your gentleness for a short time and pleasantly beforehand to taste you."

At midday Gertrud recommends that the soul "approach the spouse blazing in love for you". She imagines his love burning her like the heat of the afternoon, and among her torrent of requests to him to allow her to gaze on his beauty and satisfy herself by being consumed by him, she cries:

"Oh, if [only] I were granted to come exceedingly close to you so that I might now find myself not only next to you but within you... With you as a husband, my Lord, such fecundity might enter my soul that the renowned offspring of total perfection would be born in me."

In the evening Gertrud is "entirely melting and growing faint while waiting to enjoy" union. She tells the nun to rush into Christ's embrace, to be amorous, to plead for his kisses:

"If only, O my dearest dear one, I might seize you in my inmost [self] and kiss you warmly so that, truly united with you, I might cling inseparably to you."

Mechtild of Magdeburg is similarly tormented by the wonders of a love that both transfigures and wounds her. Like Gertrud, she confesses that it is demanded of her by God that she attempts to write of the love that they share. [11] Like Gertrud, too, by meditating on, and discussing the reasons behind, God's absence, she makes him in some way present to herself and to her readers. Both women write of longings and anticipations, and by communicating their fantasies they make them real. They are able to write themselves into a state of mind that makes them receptive to recognising the presence of God within their souls, actualising the union with the beloved. Mechtild does not write with the structure and clarity of Gertrud, but we see the same sense of alienation:

"Whenever I saw anything that was beautiful or dear to me, then I began to sigh, and after that to cry and after that I began to think, to lament, and to speak in this way to all things: '...this is not your beloved, who has greeted your heart and has illuminated your senses and has so wonderfully bound your soul.'" [12]

All this weight of desire and frustration that we encounter in Gertrud and Mechtild springs entirely from their perception of their distance from God, a distance as much linguistic as moral, temporal, or emotional. While some theologians, such as Meister Eckhart or Marguerite Porete, seek to move beyond desire, which is always predicated on absence, into possession, Gertrud and Mechtild cannot quite make this shift. For Marguerite or Eckhart, it is by annihilating the self, leaving off all other attachments, that they can paradoxically become most perfectly themselves and most fully attached, in union with God. The body, locus of desire, is transcended. The annoyance and puzzlement that spring from an attempt to make language, which is successive, express eternal and intemporal matters, are abandoned for silence. [13] Meghtild and Gertrud remain in desire, only ever half-satisfied by the images they create for themselves and the words of love they compose. It is a stage that Marguerite Porete warns her readers not to fall into:

"[The Soul] cannot bear any kind of touch except the touch of the pure delight of love, by which she is made uniquely happy and beautiful... But Desire has deceived many souls, because of the sweetness of her love's delights." [14]

But the Helfta mystics do not overcome their captivity in love: by allowing themselve to be seduced by simultaneous pains and wonders of embodiment they trap themselves in it. Though Gertrud in her other work, the 'Herald of Divine Love', indicates that she realises that she needs to move beyond an attachment to creation, she does not do so. For Mechtild, though the gap between herself and God can be overcome, her life is one of joy and sorrow, possession and elusiveness, by turns. Neither writer makes a complete move into the silent contemplation of union, and so we, like them, cannot get beyond the text; and this is a problem, because ultimately, whether in union or in separation, our language of God fails.

Words belong to the order of beings and creation and cannot reach beyond this; witness the failure of Babel. It is also the case that language per se is flawed: it no longer has the perfect reflection of the particular quiddity of each object named that Adam's language possessed when he was still creating the taxonomy of Eden. [15] But in addition to this problem we must face the further issue that fallen man is simply too distanced from God to perceive him unaided. And yet when drawn up by grace into union, we are confronted by the opposite dilemma: we are too intimate to gain the perspective necessary to form a description.

The issue of how to write of mystical experiences combines the problems inherent to our fallen embodiment, our language, and our encounters with what is beyond the world. Even were our words more accurate in realising, making real, what is not real (not as we are real) though perhaps is most real, there is the further barrier of our sensual apprehension. When the soul meets the divine it is wordlessly: not the body, nor the senses, nor the mind can express what takes place. Whatever we attain, we cannot bring back.

I began this paper by trotting out one of the truisms held about contemporary life: that we are inadequate to the task of writing about love. To ascribe the cause of this to postmodern caution and suspicion, even irony, is to fail to look with any attention to the past. The philosophers and theologians of the middle ages express the same dismay at their linguistic struggle. The frustration is not ours alone: it is timeless; Gertrud or Mechtild would say that it is inherent to our human condition, and can only be remedied by grace.

Our words and our senses alike are puzzled by the divine. We are dazzled by our exposure to love: we are always too near or too distant for an accurate depiction. We are caught out, standing either "up too close or back too far". [16] Our bodies are not adequate to the task of union. The only reconciliation possible is provided by the encounter with the body of Christ, whether his mystical body, his historical body, or his presence in the true Eucharistic body. And the best way for the soul to express this encounter is through the sensual metaphor, where fiction and reality, love and desire, also meet each other. I will finish with the words not of a theologian, but of the novelist David Brooks:

"...they turn to the physical expressions of desire, as if to seek, in their penetrations, their surrenderings, to go where language cannot, as if the desire they feel is not something distinct from language, but a product, an inseparable part of it, and the need for physical satisfaction is in some way its extension. Becoming thus another kind of speech, the act of love becomes also a comment upon, and a mirror to, the world outside it, and yet the lovers, entering a place beyond words, can have no words with which to take what they find there back into the world they must eventually re-enter: the two worlds remain in this sense for ever apart, however linked, for ever linked, however much apart, each with its different language of desire." [17]


1  This paper is part of my current research project in 'erotic theology'. Several recent studies, most notably Denys Turner's 'Eros and Allegory', have examined the role of 'erotic' metaphors in Latin texts, especially in Biblical exegesis of the Song of Songs, or in sermons and treatises. As yet however no-one has studied the role of such imagery in vernacular theology of the later middle ages (13th and 14th centuries). It is arguably in the vernacular mystical texts that one finds more daring language and theologically provocative imagery. It is by comparing the imagery as it appears in the writings under research that we can begin to question the role of the body and physicality in medieval texts, and whether this can be said to differ in male and female writings. [Back]

2  Thomas Malory, 'Works', ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford: OUP, 1971) 649. [Back]

3  Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologiae' 2a 2ae Vol. 34 (London: Blackfriars, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1975). [Back]

4  Kathryn Gravdel, 'Ravishing Maidens; Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law' (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 1991) 5 details that Gérard of Liège describes God as the "best rapist": "si autem uiolentiam requirit amor noster, cest con li face force... tout a force maugre nostre uorrai uostre amour auoir." [Back]

5  Fergus Kerr, "Charity as Friendship," 'Language, Meaning and God: Essays in Honour of Herbert McCabe', ed. Brian Davies (London: Chapman, 1987) 6. [Back]

6  Marguerite Porete, 'The Mirror of Simple Souls', ed. Ellen Babinsky (New York: Paulist Press, 1993). For the sovereignty and lordship given to the chosen bride of God, see Chapters 31, 21, 26, 27, and 99 of the 'Mirror'. [Back]

7  Kerr 4. [Back]

8  Denys Turner, 'Eros and Allegory' (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995) 81 n. 14, referring to William's 'Divine Names.'
In the 'Golden Epistle' (trans. Theodore Berkely, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1980) and the 'Exposition on the Song of Songs', William distinguishes between three types of love: sensual/animal, rational, and spiritual/intellectual. We also find in William's 'Brief Commentary on the First Two Chapters of the Song of Songs' that "rational enquiry" and the "striving" love "achieve nothing there where everything depends on the experience of love's understanding", where God and the soul are "one spirit".
For a translation of the 'Brief Commentary' see Turner, 'Eros and Allegory' 278. [Back]

9  By Barbara Newman in 'From Virile Woman to WomanChrist' (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 1995). [Back]

10  It is uncertain - and frequently a matter for dispute - to which Order one should consider the Helfta nuns as belonging: administered by Dominicans, following the Order of St Benedict, the nuns were nevertheless extremely influenced by the Order of Cîteaux. Helfta was founded in the mid-13th century and thus postdates the Cistercians' ban on further monasteries of nuns being admitted into the Order. Gertrude and Mechtild of Hackeborn are frequently represented as wearing black, perhaps indicating that the nuns considered themselves to be Benedictines. See Sr. Maximilian Marnau, "Introduction," 'The Herald of Divine Love', by Gertrude of Helfta (New York: Paulist Press, 1993) 10. [Back]

11  Gertrud of Helfta, 'The Herald of Divine Love' (New York: Paulist Press, 1993) 109 quotes God as saying: "I desire to have in your writings incontrovertible proof of my divine love, as I propose through them to do good works to many souls in these modern times." [Back]

12  Mechtild of Magdeburg, 'The Flowing Light of the Godhead', trans. Lucy Menzies (London: Longmans, Green, 1953). [Back]

13  Jorge Luis Borges, "A New Refutation of Time," 'A Personal Anthology', trans. Anthony Kerrigan (London: Picador, 1968) 42: "all language is of a successive nature: it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters". [Back]

14  Marguerite Porete, 'Le Mirouer des Simples Ames'. 'Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis LXIX', ed. Romana Guarnieri and Paul Verdeyen (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1986) 322, 324. Translation mine. [Back]

15  God might have created the world, but he left it up to mankind to create a language with which to describe it. [Back]

16  Apologies to Gigi... [Back]

17  David Brooks, "The Book of Sei", 'The Book of Sei' (London: Faber, 1988) 8. [Back]