Hadewijch of Antwerp
The woman who found Union with Augustine in the belly of the Phoenix
Hi Friends -
Her name was Hadewijch, pronounced HAH-d’-wake, according to my half Flemish wife. Hadewijch writes in Dutch of her vision:
I was in a very depressed frame of mind one Christmas night, when I was taken up in the spirit... Then I saw coming as it were a bird, namely the one called phoenix. It devoured a grey eagle that was young, and a yellow eagle with new feathers that was old... I nevertheless perceived the essence of all things I saw. For all that is seen in the spirit when one is raveshed by Love is understood, tasted, seen, and heard through and through... One of the eagles who were swallowed was Saint Augustine, and the other myself... The phoenix that swallowed the eagles was the Unity in which the Trinity dwells, wherein both of us Love... I reflected on this union with Saint Augustine in which I had attained... it weighed on me now that this union with Saint Augustine had made me so perfectly happy.1
And she concludes her vision of union with Augustine with this provocative statement:
For I am a free human creature, and also pure as to one part, and I can desire freely with my will, and I can will as highly as I wish, and seize and receive from God all that he is, without objection or anger on his part—what no saint can do.
Back then, language like that would get you burned at the stake. Today, it will get you credentialed as a Licensed Unity Teacher.
Hadewijch lived in the mid 1200s, about 25-50 years before Meister Eckhart. It is amazing to me, given all the interest we have about him, scholars are only now coming to ask how much Hadewijch and her writings might have influenced Eckhart, Eric Butterworth’s great teacher.
Hadewijch wrote in Troubadour Love Lyric, a literary style just coming into vogue, which spoke of Love as something deeply desired, but never fully consummated. What made her mystical writings unique is that she reversed the gender roles: God is Love—feminine Love—and the suiter is a troubadour who falls into a mystical state because of his desire for Her.
The above was a Hadewijch vision; here is a Hadewijch poem that conveys same notion, in which Hadewijch, taking the male voice, speaks of his relationship with Love:
Love has subjugated me:
To me this is no surprise,
For she is strong and I am weak.
She makes me
Unfree of myself,
Continually against my will.
She does with me what she wishes;
Nothing of myself remains to me;
Formerly I was rich,
Now I am poor: everything is lost in love.2
I don’t know what Charles Fillmore would have thought of this, but I suspect that he knew that Myrtle, in some respects, was his spiritual superior.
Hadewijch was a Beguine (pronounced ba-GEEN). Beguines began to appear around 1200 and continued until the last Beguine passed in in Kortrijk, Belgium, in 2013, at the age of 92. They had an 800 year run.
By far the best Internet resource to learn more is Hadewijch and the Beguines, a talk by Saskia Murk Jansen, a dutch-english scholar, given at St. Giles’ Church, Oxford. Feb 15, 2015. Here is the Youtube link: https://youtu.be/nAo_GKLaFTU.
If you scroll to the bottom of this post you can download my notes on this talk and many other resources.
Another resource that is particularly important is a talk given by Christina Van Dyke on the 40th anniversary of the Society of Christian Philosophers. She says that beguine spirituality may become even more popular in the 21st century for four reasons:
- Their focus was on humility and self-knowledge, not in justification and getting into heaven.
- Their focus was on the Humanity of Christ, which we share, not the Divinity of Christ, which we worship.
- They (the Beguines) were not cloistered. They were comfortable with the newly emerging market economy, they looked outward and embraced change as a free movement, not inward as a religious order.
- They “listened to voices from the margin,” serving the sick, the impoverished, the oppressed, and found in those voices a calling to become healers.
The link to Christina’s talk on Youtube is: https://youtu.be/efBn9BFaXy4. If you are looking for looking for a way to reach people today with a “new insight in Truth” let Christina explain why Hadewijch and the Beguines may guide the way.
I first learned of the Beguines in the 1980s and 1990s while visiting my wife’s family in Belgium during summer vacations. I kept a bicycle in my father-in-law’s garage. The kids were still little but nearly every day I would ride to a flemish town, have a sandwich and beer at an outdoor cafe on the town square, then ride home in time for my mother-in-law’s incredible dinners.
Nearly every sizable flemish town I rode into had a beguinage, a courtyard with cottages forming the parameter of some sort, the best-known being in Bruges. Today they are primarily residences for artists and creative folk, but back then they were homes for women who formed their own communal association for study, work, and ministry. The Belgians think they were convents for nuns, but they were in fact places where women took control of their own destiny. They had no vows, no order or rule, no founder and no cloister. One was free to join and free to go. And they did so.
That they paid taxes gave them respect with the civic authorities. That they served the sick and dying gave them a following among the common folk. That they were women who made their own life decisions made them the envy of the nuns. That they accepted anyone who wanted to live the Vita Apostolica was appreciated by the Franciscans and Dominicans. That they were self-supporting and made money sometimes rubbed men and their guilds the wrong way. And that they sometimes drew the common folk and their money away from the local parish church caused the parochial priest to make unfair criticism of their lifestyle and beliefs.3
If we have learned anything in our 120 years of Unity it is that any successful religious movement will attract many and piss off a few. The Beguines lasted 800 years. We have a way to go.
I hope you will download my notes and learn more about Hadewijch and the Beguines. And if you get to Belgium and find yourself on the grand place of some wonderful flemish town, be sure to have une Duvel, the world’s best beer.
Sunday, December 13, 2020
- Vision 11: The Abyss of Omnipotence, English version by Mother Columba Hart: Original Language Dutch. Hadewijch, The Complete Works, tr. Columba Hart, O.S.B. (New York: Paulist Press,1983), 289-93.
- Love has subjugated me, by Hadewijch. Retrieved from Poetry Chaikhana: Sacred Poetry from Around the World, December 6, 2000. http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/Poets/H/Hadewijch/Lovehassubju/index.html
- Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines (Katonah NY, BlueBridge, 2014). An excellent introduction to the Beguines.