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She chews up every injury: mockery, rudeness, tortures, and reproaches with great persecution; she bears hunger and thirst, cold and heat, as well as painful longings and sweatings for the salvation of souls. She chews up all these things in my honor, bearing and sustaining her neighbor. After she has chewed up this food, she enjoys its taste, savoring the fruit of her effort and the delight of the food of souls, tasting it in the fire of charity for me and for her neighbor.

—Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, Chapter 76

I. Introduction

Saint Catherine of Siena is one of many early Christian female mystics who dedicated her life to developing a theology, accompanied by extreme ascetic practices, centered around eating and the mouth of Christ. [1] A Eucharist devotee, she survived on nothing other than the Eucharist for several years (Dickens 2009, 151); what is the appeal of this holy food for Catherine and other women like her? What feeds their asceticism? It seems that, for these mystics, it is not enough to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. The satisfaction of these women is inseparable from the eroticism involved in the act of consuming: salivating, chewing, tasting, drinking, swallowing, and savoring His flesh and blood as it lingers on their tongues.

The obvious Christian phenomenon that comes to mind when we think of consuming Christ is the holy sacrament of the Eucharist: receiving the sacramental bread that is Christ’s body and drinking the blessed wine that is his blood. The Eucharist sacrament symbolizes Christ’s self-sacrifice and honours His offering at the Last Supper as recorded in the New Testament. Holding the body of Christ in the mouth, then, is the meeting of divine flesh with our own and, as we will see, it is in the preservation of this rapturous mixture that the early Christian woman mystic finds her ecstasy. What is it about this coming together of human and divine flesh that delights these women mystics? How does this fusion extend beyond the Eucharist and why do we find a particular emphasis on Christ’s corporeality as opposed to the Spirit? How does Christ’s materiality speak to our own?

Most Christian mysticism suggests a material conception of the body as far as the body is present, for these Christian medieval thinkers, woman or man, mystic or scribe, were certainly embodied. What to make of this embodied existence, how to understand it, and how to live within the skin while remaining close to God are questions that underwrite their theological teachings. Whether negated, affirmed, or affirmed in its negation, the body presents a peculiar condition for the mystics. Indeed, much of the language in early Christian mysticism suggests repulsion toward the body, a feeling of being trapped within the limits of the skin, mutilating it until it is no longer in the way of the disembodied and contemplative life. Nevertheless, we ought not to approach these texts with an anachronistic filter, regardless how evident a rejection of the body and the material world might seem for Christianity today. We see with prominent Christian woman mystic, Julian of Norwich (circa 14th century), for example, that even a diseased body is welcomed so long as [Julian] can live “to love God better and for longer, and therefore know and love him better in the bliss of heaven” (McGinn 2006, 239).

When considering Julian of Norwich and her wish to remain embodied in the material world no matter how much suffering her body caused her, we can think of the mystical life as one that bears suffering. Though many mystical texts speak of death and of a longing to be with God, mystics, especially women mystics, cannot be explained away as suicidal. Masochistic as it may seem, finding pleasure in (self-inflicted) pain, the mystical life is a mode of existence: it is a way of comporting oneself. No matter how self-destructive their rigid ascetical practices appear (self-torture, wishing for diseases, self-isolation, or, like Catherine of Sienna, refusal to eat) the mystics live on for God. Christian female mystics in particular are not interested in doing away with the body, but rather in treating the body and their embodiment as a place to house a relationship with the Divine. Our task, then, is to understand their rather unconventional treatment of the body.

Whether women mystics perceive the body itself with either sheer disgust or some kind of masochistic adoration is unclear. Their struggle with this tension, however, is apparent in their ascetical practices and manifests throughout their theologies, which are presented in a stream of consciousness as raw as they are seductive. Essential to grasping the complex theologies offered by early Christian women mystics and deepening our understanding of their fascination with the Eucharist is acknowledging woman’s historical identification with the body and the material. Eucharistic devotion cannot just be about eating: for a female Christian mystic, to receive the Eucharist is to chew on the flesh of Christ, literally bringing the teeth together and erasing the distance between her and the Divine.

Caroline Walker Bynum’s Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century sheds light on the link between 13th-century mystics and the Eucharist, while subsequently raising questions about female embodiment; close analysis of Medieval Christian mysticism shows patterns that emerge well beyond the epoch of the 13th-century, thus providing insight into such phenomena. With the aim of illuminating some of its consequences, this essay will first acknowledge a historical identification of man with the intellect and the immaterial contrasted by one of woman with the body and the material. Subsequently, I will argue that by virtue of their ascetical practices, supplemented with intense eroticism, Christian female mystics present a kind of reclaiming of the body and the material, thus offering serious works of philosophy. As validated by their exemplar Christ—God incarnate—Christian women mystics reclaim the body as the locus for purification and holy union, thus undoing a hierarchy that renders woman the fleshy, earthly, carnal, and therefore inferior sex.

II. The Disembodied Man: Contemplation of the Immaterial

Embodiment was not an exclusively female concern for the mystics; however, the language of the body, embodiment, the material, and the immaterial can be contrasted between men and women mystics writing in the Middle Ages. Saint Francis of Assisi is one example of many male mystics who depict a tensioned or paradoxical relationship to the material world. For Francis, this life and the material world act as a limitation to another (immaterial) world, yet at the same time, this life is a necessary stepping-stone to another, and presumably better, life in the perceived immaterial world. The life of Saint Francis (circa late-12th to early-13th centuries) is often praised for its likeness to the life of Jesus Christ. Saint Francis’ commitment to community and the renunciation of wealth and private possession inspired many of his contemporaries, eventually known as the Franciscan Friars, to do the same (Zweerman and Goorbergh 2007). [2] It is worth briefly calling our attention here to the order that Saint Francis began, namely, Ordo Fratrum Minorum or the Order of Little Brothers. Even though the Little Brothers try to debase themselves (renouncing all wealth, possession, and property), they remain brothers—men—in a position of authority within the hierarchy of the church. Within Christianity, the prominent theological orders of Francis’s time were his, the Franciscans, and the Dominican Order. What is important to note is that these men were often priests or held a position of power within the church; women could not hold these positions (Zweerman and Goorbergh 2007).

For Saint Francis, however, the most celebrated event of his life is not the order he founded or the vast following he acquired, but rather his miraculous receiving of the physical wounds of Christ’s Passion in Assisi 1224 (McGinn 2006, 225). As his body becomes an intersection between the material and immaterial world, the stigmata of Saint Francis can be read as an instance wherein the body becomes a kind of ingress to the Divine; however, Francis never wrote about the event of his stigmata himself (McGinn 2006, 225), which proves significant for our gendered reading of these mystical texts. My speculation is that something as intimate as receiving the physical wounds of Christ’s crucifixion is too bodily, too fleshy, and too intimate for Francis’s theology. How can Francis offer a theology that, as we will soon see, situates the Divine at a distance or as something otherworldly, while also acknowledging the implications of this instance wherein God and man intersect?

Saint Francis’ poem “The Canticle of Brother Sun” offers insight into how he may have understood the link between his material existence and the immaterial or disembodied life to come:

Praise be to you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Lord Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you enlighten us, and is more beautiful and shinning with great splendor; and bears most likeness to you, Most High. Praise be to you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them… Praise be to you, my Lord, through Brother Wind… through Sister Water…. [and] Brother Fire… Praise and blessing to you, my Lord, and thanks and service with great humility. (McGinn 2006, 291)

In praise of God’s creations, each with male or female attributes, this hymn explores the notion of divine presence on earth. The fact that the sun, masculine in Francis’ description, is glorified as bearing the “most likeness to [God], Most High” suggests that Francis perceives God’s earthly presence to be somewhat distanced. For Francis, God’s likeness or representative on earth is up in the sky, something to be looked at from below, in contrast to the female mystics’ image of divine incarnation as literally pressed up to the skin. The important distinction, then, is the proximity to the flesh. In renouncing property, among other ties to the material world, Francis gets closer to God, but it is difficult to suggest that Francis thought he was—or ever could be—materially with God, absolutely occupying the same physical space, before his mortal death.

In “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” Francis refers to “Sister Bodily Death” and to a “second death.” The second death is a kind spiritual death and a trope that comes from the Book of Revelations. For Francis and other Christians, this second death would be worse than bodily death insofar as it signifies a turning away from God, leaving us in a kind of mental “hell” endemic to the human condition (Armstrong, Brady, and Vaughn 1982). [3] All of us experience the first death, which is a mortal or bodily death, and only in accepting bodily death as a means to God can we escape the second death, bearing the first with patience and dignity. Hence, for Francis, we need the body, but only insofar as we need bodily death: we live this life for another. Though he does not outwardly denounce it, Francis expresses little interest in the body itself, let alone bodily pleasure. For Francis, embodiment is perceived as some strange but necessary step in the ascent into heaven. Unlike Julian of Norwich, who wished not to die, but to live in her diseased body, Francis accepts bodily death as that which opens the door to the Divine, offering a closer proximity to God. One question we might ask ourselves, then, is why does Julian of Norwich think her body, diseased or healthy, possesses the space to reach God? Why does she seem to find the Divine already within her corporeality?

The theology of many other male mystics presents accounts similar to those of Saint Francis regarding materiality and immateriality and how to endure embodied existence until the ascent toward God. This is not to say that women mystics were not invested in such an ascent, but rather an eroticism can be traced in their asceticism (their physical embodied practices) that is unmatched in the work of male mystics. Christian Women mystics are obsessed by the idea of sustaining the body and savoring its decaying flesh. She dwells in her rotten ecstasy. On the other hand, the work of male mystics is largely contemplative, linear, and philosophical. [4] Well before the work of Saint Francis, for example, Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) developed a theology that is more or less a work of philosophy or Biblical commentary. Gregory “rearranges” the story of Moses “to present the patriarch as the model of mystical ascent to God,” and the second and larger part of Gregory’s work is a “contemplation of the meaning of the story [of Moses]” (McGinn 2006, 13). Gregory’s theology is an interpretation of the Old Testament with the goal of teaching us how to live this life with knowledge of God and in accordance with God’s goodness (McGinn 2006, 14). Both Gregory and Francis, then, present a theology that is goal-oriented, shepherding their readers toward the good life.

Female mystics, on the other hand, are completely frenzied with experience. There is, unfortunately, no manual or rigorous guide to be traced in their confessions. There is little “shepherding” found in the work of Christian women mystics, for their writing tends to be more descriptive and phenomenological as opposed to the prescriptive work of men. Gregory’s work, though intellectually stimulating, does not evoke or stimulate our senses in same way that reading someone like Teresa of Avila will:

He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. (McGinn 2006, 358-359)

The reader feels Teresa’s passion and arousal as the text is imbued with physical, emotional, and bodily qualities. The difference between Teresa’s experience and Gregory’s commentary is that her text is sensual, appealing to our senses, whereas Gregory appeals to our more contemplative nature. Women mystics act out their experiences without a “why” or a reliance on interpretation—to call on Meister Eckhart, a prominent Medieval thinker, philosopher, heretic, and mystic who was part of the Dominican Order. Meister Eckhart “believed that the ‘excessive’ or ‘saturated’ nature of God’s overflowing and inexhaustible word invited the interpreter and listener not only to read the hidden message within, but even to ‘break through’ all images in the text” (McGinn 2006, 35), hence ascribing to divine worship the act of interpretation. For women mystics like Teresa of Avila, it is not the interpretation of her experience that makes it divine, but the experience itself as it delights and brings her closer to God. While Saint Francis, Gregory of Nyssa, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and other male mystics contemplate the transience of this life, having thoughtful orgasms at the idea of another, Teresa and other women mystics find their satisfaction here in the body and all its fleshiness.

Undoubtedly, reading texts by male mystics that act as Biblical commentaries or interpretations can be mentally if not physically pleasurable (particularly for philosophers) because of the intellectual process that these texts encourage. In a way, these commentaries seek to uncover meaning and truth that might otherwise be overlooked. Biblical commentaries and interpretation, then, begin in a kind of philosophical quest. That is, these interpretations signify a longing for deeper insight into what shapes human existence. Although women mystics provide us with what I consider works of philosophy, their works also conveys a pleasure that is immediate and felt. Historically, immediacy of this nature is uncommon to masculine philosophical discourse. The philosophical process asks us to uncover radical ways of thinking—about morality, politics, human nature, spirituality, transcendence, immanence, natural laws, and so on—offering new insights and ways of looking at the world. In this way, the immediacy and corporeality of the work of women mystics invites an alternative sensibility and engagement on the part of the reader, opening up rather distinct modes of thinking and feeling the Divine, and thus I take these women to be radical philosophers.

As Bernard McGinn writes of women mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism: “for all her extreme language, it is clear that Hadewijch had received a sound theological education and had an original perspective on many of the doctrinal foundations of mysticism, such as the Trinity and the nature of redemption” (McGinn 2006, 102). In thinking about the Holy Trinity or the nature of redemption Hadewijch engages in philosophical analysis, as it is commonly understood. That is, she takes a complex concept, the Holy Trinity, and attaches to it a kind of metaphysical significance. Hadewijch also writes on “Love,” divine love, but she binds an affective quality to the concept. [5] That is, Love, for Hadewijch, is an affective state that informs her understanding of the concept of the Trinity. She writes:

I saw a great eagle, flying towards me from the altar. And he said to me: ‘If you wish to become one, then prepare yourself.’ And I fell to my knees and my heart longed terribly to worship that One Thing…Then he came from the altar, showing himself as a child…he came to me in the appearance and in the clothing of the man he was on that day when he first gave us his body, that appearance of a human being and a man…with the humility of one who belongs entirely to an-other…I saw him disappear to nothing…melting away and fusing together…it was to me at that moment as if we were one without distinction. (McGinn 2006, 103)

Her analysis is a kind of affective philosophical investigation. She asks, how are we to understand what is three and at the same time one? She asks the philosophical question, how is the one connected to the many, a question explored from Antiquity to today.

Is the temptation to exclude Hadewijch of Antwerp from the philosophical canon simply because her visions and poetry informed her theology, and thus her work is not strictly intellectual reflection? As a discipline, philosophy is grossly disproportionate in terms of gender (as well as race, class, privilege) and the current, and exalted, philosophical cannon actively reinstates this disproportion. Students, faculty, and the academic community at large are making efforts today to effectively broach this issue (i.e., PSWIP’s 2014 Symposium), but we might benefit from further exploring this relationship between the historical rendering of women to the lesser or “second” sex and woman’s restriction to the material world and the body. What would it look like for philosophy to take seriously the idea of thinking through feeling? Although a major point of emphasis throughout this essay has been the immediate and experiential aspect found in the work of women mystics, I want to emphasize that it does not follow from this that there is nothing philosophical to say beyond these immediate sensations or that these sensations themselves are not saying something philosophical. What we say of the mystics in general ought not to be transcendent or other-worldly in order to have philosophical significance. The philosophical question is precisely what is to be said about such a profound bondage to the body.

III. Woman’s Historical Identification with the Body and the Material

Why is the work of male mystics typically characterized as intellectual and interpretative, as opposed to the affective, bodily, and material accounts of women? Perhaps one reason why female mysticism has generally been deemed less philosophical is that women were excluded from priesthood and were “unauthorized to [formally] engage in the interpretations of scripture” (Hollywood 2012, 1). Yet this limitation failed to keep all women from asking questions about human nature, Being, and so on––ultimately doing the work of philosophy. Woman mystic Hildegard of Bingen (late-11th to early-12th centuries), for example, has frequently been read as a philosopher, visionary, theologian, and theorist. The difference, however, is that many of the questions early female thinkers asked began with the body and worked toward developing a deeper understanding of the relationship between materiality and immateriality. Most medieval male thinkers, on the other hand, began in a presupposition that disembodiment leads to truth. Accordingly, many women mystics find their theology beginning with Christ and his materiality, which is most exemplified by the Eucharist. Likewise, with Hildegard of Bingen, we get a theology that is rooted in a cosmological and therefore material account of sexual identity (Allen 1985, 296). Though evidently influenced by Aristotle, Hildegard goes further in emphasizing that the sexes are unique yet radically dependant on each other. For Hildegard, God is both male and female, which establishes a metaphysical equality between men and women. This metaphysical equality, however, does not obscure an important difference: man was created by God from the earth and woman created by God for man, from his flesh and bone. The insistence on this difference in Christian theology perpetuates the patriarchy, and renders women’s nature as having a more immediate connection to the body and the flesh and at a greater distance from God (Allen 1985, 297). What separates Hildegard’s theology from others is her insistence on “a new synthesis of body and soul,” which leads to a theory of human nature that requires “a complementarity, rather than a polarity [Aristotle] of the sexes” (Allen 1985, 301). As we will see, complementarity and synthesis are important to early Christian female thinking, especially in the work of women mystics; the body complements Christ’s body and in the reception of the Eucharist these bodies become one.

Marguerite Porete, a mystic who has been noted as “an exception” to the Eucharist devotion found in most major female Christian figures (Bynum 1991, 142), also writes in a language characterized by synthesis:

One must crush oneself, hacking and hewing away at oneself to widen the place in which Love will want to be, burdening oneself down with several states of being, so as to unburden oneself and to attain to one’s being. (McGinn 2006, 174-175)

Here, Porete marks the body as that which must be gutted in order to make space for God. Her fixation with mutilating the body, shedding skin and opening up for God, however, is not far off from the kind of synthesizing that manifests as devotion to the Eucharist. She continues:

The sixth state is when the Soul does not see herself at all, whatever the abyss of humility she has within herself, nor does she see God, whatever the exalted goodness he has. But God of his divine majesty sees himself in her, and by him this Soul is so illumined that she cannot see that anyone exists, except only God himself, from whom all things are; and so she sees nothing except herself. (McGinn 2006, 178-179)

To what extent, then, can we say that Porete is really an exception? Arguably, what Porete is working with here is a notion of ‘negative synthesis’: one must negate both God and self into nothingness and out of this nothingness a union is achieved. Likewise, in Eucharist devotion, there is an implicit negation that takes place while the female mystic devours Christ, consuming Christ into her being. At the same time, the erotic quality of this consumption, namely, the physical and spiritual enjoyment she gains from this experience, speaks to the all-powerful character of the Divine and her relative dependence on this divine presence for her pleasure. The ecstasy she feels when nourishing herself with the food of Christ not only sustains her, but often renders her immobile, surrendering her will and her self to God. Because the enthusiasm women mystics have for the Eucharist is rooted in a desire to become one with God, or perhaps to understand God’s oneness (Hadewijch), I contend that Porete is not so much an exception but rather a different manifestation of the same desire.

What should we make of this desire for union and why does it characterize female mysticism in particular? Given that womankind was historically linked to the body—largely characterized as an impediment to reason ruled by deceptive senses and therefore a limitation of the soul—it is not surprising that we find such strong language of synthesis in Hildegard, Porete, and works by other women mystics. These women are pushing back against their subordination. Beyond pre- and early-modern Christianity, many female authors and artists have “linked embodiment to female creativity” and found their “subjectivity and voices centrally in the realm of the body and its pleasures” (DeShazer 2001, 375). Whether it is the negative synthesis that we find in Porete, a union with God brought on by the annihilation of self and God into nothingness, [6] a metaphysical “complementarity” of the sexes (Hildegard), or general Eucharistic devotion, the goal is to bring together the body and soul, material and immaterial, woman and man, human and divine.

IV. Women Mystics: The Redemption and Reclamation of the Body Through the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ

Many religious figures, male and female, were known to renounce material possessions (Francis of Assisi and the Poor Clares most famously), but it is important to acknowledge that women, as Bynum points out, had little property to renounce. What these women could refuse however, was food (Bynum 1991, 142). Food is a most basic material necessity, thus refusing to eat is one way a woman can escape or possibly negate her dependence on, and identification with, the body. My claim, however, is that women mystics used eating and the refusal of food in order to reclaim the body as that which can be acted upon, particularly through devotion to the Eucharist:

Not-eating was complemented by holy eating. Food was filth; it was also God. The woman’s revulsion at her own body…was given a theological significance more complex than dualism… The point of even the oddest of these stories was ultimately not rejection of the physical and bodily, but a finding of the truly physical, the truly nourishing, the truly fleshly, in the humanity of Christ, chewed and swallowed in the [E]ucharist. Even here, physicality was not so much rooted out or suppressed as embraced and redeemed. (Bynum 1991, 142)

In this passage, Bynum wonderfully articulates woman’s redemption of the physical, one that reclaims the body and her own corporeality as something to be sanctified through its identification with Christ: the figure which represents the material and immaterial, human and divine, woman and man. This redemption can further be articulated in the language of accident and essence: body, the accidental, becomes essential for the distinctly Christian salvation of humanity in the figure of Jesus Christ. Woman, relegated to the “dependent” and “accidental” sex historically, acquires an essentiality by making this gesture of bodily sacrifice an existential project.

Just as we find a God that is both male and female in Hildegard, the figure of Christ, as Christ is God, must also be feminine and masculine in nature. Aside from the “masculine” representations we find in paintings and other physical depictions, Julian of Norwich (among others) presents an image of Christ as mother, as feminine:

Our true mother, Jesus, he who is all love, bears us into joy and eternal life; blessed may he be! So he sustains us within himself in love and was in labor for the full time until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievous sufferings that ever were or shall be, and at the last he died. (McGinn 2006, 245)

Christ is mother and father, woman and man, human and divine. This suggests that the nature of Christ, and therefore of God, is changeable or one of becoming. Mysticism, then, challenges yet another theological, but also philosophical, hierarchy of being and becoming. In traditional Christian theology, this hierarchy appears as such: the nature of God (author of the universe and essential being) ought to be fixed, immaterial, and eternal, while human nature is one of becoming, ephemerality, and materiality. Mysticism brings the eternal to the material by locating and working within a concept of the Divine that is changing or becoming. Rather than deny that God is eternal or infinite, the Christian women mystics reclaim the body, that which is changeable and in a process of becoming, as a locus for divine manifestation. Mystical experience relies on an intersection between God and human and it has to happen here, in this world where the mystics live. In Christianity, Christ appears in at least two physical forms: a human being and as the Eucharist (bread as flesh and wine as blood). Likewise, the female body, as it was “believed to be more labile and changeable…and more open to penetration” (Hollywood 2012, 29) becomes a suitable place to house such divine becoming. Women mystics make this claim explicit through their extreme physical practices, ascetic practices that make a statement that inverts the stigma attached to the changeability of their material being, reflected in the changeability of Christ.

V. Some (more) Mystical Masochism

The Eucharist is perhaps the clearest example of the changeability of Christ’s physical form—changing bread into flesh and wine into blood—but there is evidence of Christ’s volatility, or perhaps His impassibility, in The Passion (Christ’s death on the cross) as well. When His flesh was pierced, Christ bled and suffered, suggesting that the physical form of God, the skin holding Christ together, was far from impenetrable. Blood, scabs, tears, scars, wounds, and so on are all physical signs of Christ’s corporeality and when these women mystics bled, cried, felt immediate pain, or inflicted harm on their bodies leaving physical reminders, perhaps they were reaching out to Christ, connecting with God through their shared materiality. Alternatively, blood, particularly Christ’s blood, is that which heals: in Catherine of Siena’s theology, for example, “the central symbol is the blood of Christ, the fluid that redeems, bathes, nourishes, and binds us to the Savior” (McGinn 2006, 540-541). Christ’s blood is so important to Catherine because she too bleeds. Blood is necessary for life: the blood, as it flows from Christ’s body, makes the claim that God was alive, embodied, and human just like Catherine.

Though Catherine’s asceticism began with not eating and evolved into rigorous holy eating, the patron saint of Italy (next to Saint Francis) would eventually perform other trials of physical endurance, such as hours of flagellation, kneeling in prayer for impossible intervals, and scalding herself with hot water (Dickens 2009, 151). Angela of Foligno (late-13th to early-14th centuries), Julian of Norwich (14th century), and Marguerite Porete (late-13th to early-14th centuries) also work within a framework of pleasure characterized by extensive torture and torment. It is difficult, however, to think of a woman mystic who better expresses this intense mixture of pleasure and pain than Hadewijch of Antwerp:

And I was in such a state as I had been so many times before, so passionate and so terribly unnerved that I thought I should not satisfy my Lover and my Lover not fully gratify me; then I would have to desire while dying and die while desiring. At that time I was so terribly unnerved with passionate love and in such pain that I imagined all my limbs breaking one by one all my veins were separately in tortuous pain… This much I can say about it: I desired to consummate my Lover completely and to confess and to savor to the fullest extent–to fulfill his humanity blissfully with mine and to experience mine therein, and to be strong and perfect so that I in turn would satisfy him perfectly. (McGinn 2006, 103)

Whether it is about savoring the sweet fleshy taste of the Eucharist, or prolonging physical states so painful that they are euphoric (“desire while dying and die while desiring”), there is undeniably an extreme eroticism to the devotions of Christian women mystics: they want to sustain these sensations. Etymologically, the words “passion” and “compassion” are linked to the Latin terms passionem, “to endure” and com “together with” or “in combination.” [7] We can thus think of Christ’s Passion, coupled with the endurance displayed by these women mystics throughout their extreme ascetical practices (starvation, self flagellation, etc.) as a kind of compassion or unified suffering. Accordingly, the goal for these mystical “masochists” is not simply to feel the physical pain or the existential pangs of this life, but rather to endure and bear them—not with “patience and dignity,” as the Franciscan way encourages, but instead by taking pleasure in this pain and consequently inverting another hierarchy, namely, an affective one. The Franciscans teach us to feel suffering with patience and dignity, or perhaps not at all. Women mystics, on the other hand, encourage feeling as a mode of thinking and spiritual reflection: they ask us to embrace the body, perhaps not in a manner we can consider conventionally dignified, patient, or silent, but instead to moan about in embodied euphoria.

VI. Conclusions

As most medieval women, and therefore medieval women mystics, spoke only in the vernacular, they had male scribes record their reflections on their mystical experiences, or, in some cases, the mystical experiences as they were happening. For example, consider Angela of Foligno’s brother scribe and especially the care he took to distance himself from her experience, as it makes for an interesting side note to this project. He writes:

I, friar scribe, did not take much trouble to write about the sixth step of the multiple sufferings, both through bodily ills and unnumbered torments of soul and body stirred up by many demons in a horrible way. I was not able to note down the many stories in writing that I understood would have been worthwhile and useful. But I have tried to write, just as I heard from her mouth, some little bit of the words of Christ’s faithful love about what she suffered and the testimony she bore. I do this as a hasty sketch, because I cannot understand enough to write down a full account. (McGinn 2006, 375)

Why he “cannot understand” or “was not able to note” everything is accounted for by the fact that Angela believed her struggles to be somewhat beyond comprehension, but Friar Scribe’s incomprehension is useful, nonetheless, to the juxtaposition of male and female mystics that this paper has put forth. He literally takes what she describes as indescribable and tries to turn it into something comprehensible. Even if it is at Angela’s request that her experiences be scribed and shared, there is still something beautiful about the incomprehensibly of her experiences; to comprehend Angela of Foligno, then, seems to require a kind of thinking through feeling rather than reading or writing. These female mystical raptures point to a certain kind of knowledge or exposure to the Divine, which many people, as evidenced by their scribes (often, if not always, men), did not have immediate access to. To comprehend their experiences is to live them—to feel them—in and through the body.

The insistence of disembodiment and the denunciation of all things material that seems to underscore many modern fundamentalist theories of Christianity should not lead us to think that things were always, or will continue to be, that way. Instead, the mystics, especially women mystics, challenge this claim and give an account of Christianity wherein the body is not denounced, but is instead central to humanity’s connection with the Divine. Though one might simply dismiss (as people did and some perhaps still do) these women as hysterical, insane, and unnatural insofar as they speak of hallucinations and delusions, a rigorously feminist scholarship does not. Women mystics ask us to recover the body and lived experience; they present us with a philosophy of feeling and their texts make fruitful contributions to feminist theories and philosophy classrooms today. To tell their stories and to take seriously the philosophical consequences of these narratives is to tell the history of the oppressed, subordinated, and forgotten. The woman mystic confronts the “problem” of the body and asks a significant question: what the hell should we do with it?


1. Catherine of Sienna, Angelino of Foligno, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Claire of Assis, Margaret of Ypres, Agnes and Lukardis, etc.

2. For autobiographical details of St. Francis I am also drawing on lecture notes from my time studying under Professor John Caruana in Florence, Italy. I would also like to thank Professor Anthony Paul Smith for our discussions on Francis and the Dominicans.

3. This was also referenced in lectures on the life of Saint Francis by Professor John Caruana.

4. This is not to say that men were more intellectual than women, but the point is merely to highlight a difference in their work and mystical experiences, a difference that has been noted before.

5. I would like to thank Professor Simon Critchley for bringing this point to my attention.

6. I recognize the philosophical implications of a term like “nothingness” but all I mean here is to stress the point that Porete seeks radical negation, she wants to cut up herself as well as God into pieces so small that they become indistinguishable.

7. Thank you to Professor Anthony Paul Smith for bringing this to my attention and for our discussions.

Works Cited

Allen, Prudence. “The Adoption of Aristotelian Arguments” ch. IV. In The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250. Montréal: Eden Press, 1985. Print.

Armstrong, Regis J., Ignatius C. Brady, and John Vaughn. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New Jersey: Paulist Press Inc., 1982. PDF e-book.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” ch. IV. In Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991. Print.

DeShazer, Mary K. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001. Print.

Dickens, Andrea Janelle. The Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. PDF e-book.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Translated by Bernard Bosanquet. London, England: Penguin Books, 1993. Print

Hollywood, Amy. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

McGinn, Bernard. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: Random House Inc., 2006. Print.

Zweerman, Theo H. and Edith van den Goorbergh. Saint Francis of Assisi: A Guide for Our Times. Belgium: Peeters Publisher, 2007. Print.

Sarah Clairmont is an MA candidate in the philosophy program at the New School for Social Research in New York. Originally from Toronto, she came to New York with the intention to work with philosopher and professor Simon Critchley on a larger project that explores the intersection of philosophy and theology, specifically, embodiment. This idea was marked by her time in Florence, Italy, when studying under professor John Caruana, and upon her seeing the head of woman mystic, patron saint, and incorruptible, Saint Catherine of Sienna—flesh preserved. This paper is a foundational piece to this project.

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