Teaching the Politics of Mysticism through Film

By Roman, Christopher | Transformations, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Politics of Mysticism through Film


Roman, Christopher, Transformations


Anchoress

DIR. CHRIS NEWBY INTERNATIONAL FILM CIRCUIT 1993

In the early British literature surveys that I teach, my students often have difficulty in understanding mystical language and the struggle of women mystics. Both the Norton Anthology and the Longman Anthology present the medieval mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe with other medieval religious selections such as the anchoritic guidebook, The Ancrene Wisse, the mystical handbook, The Cloud of Unknowing, and selected lyrics from the mystic Richard Rolle. The students' problems emerge as they try to comprehend Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe's use of metaphoric language and the challenge they posed as writers creating spiritual knowledge, knowledge that is typically the domain of male religious authorities. Coupled with the students' struggles in understanding the political dimension of medieval women mystics is the difficulty in understanding mystical metaphors themselves. Mystical metaphors are a unit of language that recognizes the divine in terms of the world. My pedagogical emphasis in using Anchoress is to present to my students a way to understand language as a mode of identity formation in a historical moment and the articulation of experience that challenges a religious authority based in traditions that deny women's experience. Through close reading, discussion, and a viewing of the film Anchoress, I try to explore the problems of women's identity, voice, and representation in the Middle Ages.

I teach at a large research institution in the heart of the Bible Belt, with about thirty students per early British literature survey class. My students are unfamiliar with Catholic theology, and the very idea of mystics and medieval Catholicism is foreign to them. Film offers a way to experience the Middle Ages beyond the written word. Often films characterize the Middle Ages as a time period of warfare, poverty, violence, sexism, and superstition. Mystics, in turn, are members of society who have set themselves apart and have no immediate presence in the community. However, Anchoress offers a representation of mysticism that does not "other" the experience of female mystics; rather, it offers a framework in which women's mystical experience is central to the life of the spiritual community.

The 1993 film Anchoress directed by Chris Newby is based on the medieval life of Christine Carpenter, anchoress of Shere. Anchoress is a black and white film and many of its scenes harken back to Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal. When it was initially released, Anchoress was described as a "modern re-creation of a medieval pageant" and Newby was complimented for "deftly carr[ying] our century's attitudes about spiritual freedom and feminism into an artfully constructed past" (James "Carrying Today's..."). Anchoress, for all of its stillness, quiet, and monochrome, is an art film, and it illustrates the political and spiritual difficulties of the medieval anchoritic life.

The film's importance for my class lies in its depiction of the spiritual-corporeal metaphors of visionary life as well as its representation of the political and spiritual marginalization that Christine navigates in order for her to be enclosed and speak of her spiritual experiences. Other contemporary examples of mystical experiences in film, such as those in the Joan of Arc films The Messenger (1999) and Joan of Arc (1999), represent the mystical experience as a flash of light or as white angels visiting Joan on the battlefield. This is not necessarily God in life, as medieval mystics write of, but a fleeting experience that leaves Joan of Arc inspired. The blinding light does not reveal the ways in which the medieval mystics (or Joan of Arc, for that matter) connected the divine into the terms of their own experiences.

I include Anchoress in a unit on medieval and Renaissance spiritual and devotional texts. In this literature course, I shy away from lecture, except to introduce historical context, and I rely on the students to participate through question and answer. …

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