Academic journal article Magistra

Love and Beauty in the Presence of God: Pathways through Beguine and Tantric Mysticisms

Academic journal article Magistra

Love and Beauty in the Presence of God: Pathways through Beguine and Tantric Mysticisms

Article excerpt

This essay will consider the special mystical experiences of two Beguines, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch of Antwerp, who variously used erotic and gendered imagery to convey their yearning for union with God. The kind of feminine/masculine symbolism exhibited by them can also be found in the spirituality of the Indian Tantras, which is a religious system that focuses on the concept of shakti as the emblem of power in the universe. This force is conceived as feminine, and personified as the divine consort of the god Shiva.

Although there are substantial theological differences between these two traditions, there appear to be correlations at the level of image-making. It is to be shown here that they both extol the quality of Love, but from different angles. It may be contended that, so far as textual evidence is concerned, the Beguines express a "love of love," while Tantric practitioners (who are predominantly men) express a "love of beauty." In what follows, these kinds of mysticism, Beguine and Tantric, will first be framed, then instances of their applications will be examined and, finally, their correspondences analyzed.

Beguine Mysticism

A compelling motif of medieval mystical feeling, first made explicit by the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), was the sense of God as being the essence of love. Using the platform of exegesis of the Song of Songs, Bernard sought to integrate both carnal and spiritual experiences, and he recognized that bodily love was at least a form of spiritual love. However, the highest, purest love, because selfless, was exemplified in the urgent desire of the bride for her bridegroom, and Bernard translated that spiritually by representing the soul as the bride and Christ (the incarnation of the Word) as bridegroom. "Such love," he thought, "is completely mutual, and it is perfectly satisfying in the sense that it is the highest form of vision or contemplation of God and the most exalted type of union."(1)

Bernard's perspective of eroticism, besides that of other male writers of the period, was, however, just a "spiritual" one, and not one that included actual bodiliness and sexuality. Indeed, according to Grace Jantzen:

[a]lthough [Bernard's sermons] are explicitly based on one of the most erotic love poems in the literature of the world, they manage to reduce eroticism to a sustained allegory, intellectually intricate, but hardly passionate.(2)

In effect, she argues, this de-eroticized vocabulary of passionate spirituality acted as a substitute for actual physical bodily love.

Bernard McGinn locates the place of women mystics in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the tradition of Mary Magdalene's penitential weeping and espousal of love for Christ.(3) He argues that the unique efforts of the Beguines in realizing a sense of union with the divine constituted a new mode of mystical endeavor. Moreover, the foremost problem for women mystics of the time was the issue of authority. Thus, lacking the necessary theological background, they tended to support their claims to authority by appealing to visionary revelation.

Augustine had divided the showings produced by special divine action into three ascending forms based on their relation to materiality: corporeal visions, spiritual visions, and intellectual visions. He privileged the last kind over the others, as it refers to an idealized realm of objective reality, in which God is sharply illuminated. The cognitive dimension of intellectual visions is understood as being superior to that of imagistic spiritual visions or sense-directed corporeal visions.(4) Male mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, likewise preferred intellectual visions.

The medieval female mystics, however, tended to "collapse the Augustinian hierarchy" by merging and melding the three kinds into "direct forms of `total' conscious experience of God realized as much in and through the body as in a purely spiritual way. …

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