Medieval Mystics Exude Confidence in Christ’s Love
October 31, 2019
Retreat affords chance to explore two women’s spiritual wisdom
The spiritual insights of two female medieval mystics will form the foundation for a retreat later this month at the St. Benedict Center north of Schuyler.
The weekend event will highlight one of the Benedictine’s own, abbess and German mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), alongside English anchoress and spiritual counselor Julian of Norwich (1342 – circa 1416).
Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Hildegard a doctor of the church in 2012 with these words: “This great woman truly stands out crystal clear against the horizon of history for her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching. And, as with every authentic human and theological experience, her authority reaches far beyond the confines of a single epoch or society; despite the distance of time and culture, her thought has proven to be of lasting relevance.”
Julian’s true name is unknown. She became an anchoress – adopting a religious life in which one withdraws from secular society to devote themselves to a life of prayer and asceticism, often anchoring themselves in a small cell attached to a church or monastery. She simply is named after the church where she lived most of her life, St. Julian in Norwich. People traveled great distances to seek her spiritual advice, and her mystical visions are related in her spiritual classic, “The Revelations of Divine Love.” She is quoted as saying, “The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”
Anthony Lilles, associate professor of theology and academic dean of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and Kris McGregor of the Discerning Hearts evangelization apostolate in Omaha will present the retreat on the spirituality and wisdom of the two medieval mystics.
Retreat center administrator Father Thomas Leitner said that Hildegard and Julian “invite and encourage us to embark upon our personal journey of discipleship, of truly following Jesus, rather than just standing at the sidelines.”
Lilles is a former Academic Dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. Before that, he helped found and served as Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. His expertise is on the spiritual doctrine of the Carmelite doctors of the church, including St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux. He is widely published in the areas of Catholic theology and spirituality.
Lilles completed an email interview with the Catholic Voice about the significance of the teachings of Hildegard and Julian and their relevance in the lives of today’s Catholics.
The retreat runs Friday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 a.m. through Sunday, Nov. 17 after lunch at Saint Benedict Center, 1123 Road I, Schuyler, NE 68661. Cost is $205.77 for single rooms and $188.40 for doubles. To register, go to christthekingpriory.com and click “Retreat Schedule” under “Retreat Center.” You can also register by calling call 402-352-8819.
Q: How did you become interested in medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich and St. Hildegard of Bingen?
Learning how to pray has been a lifetime pursuit. I learned very early on that if one wants to go deeper into the mystery of prayer, one needs to read the writings of those who are actually praying. Julian of Norwich and St. Hildegard of Bingen are women of profound interiority and faith. They witness to the richness of the Christian tradition of prayer in the Catholic Church, and they do so with a certain feminine genius that is too often overlooked. Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict have spoken about the importance of this voice in the life of the church and the need to re-propose the Catholic mystical tradition. Their writings witness to this tradition and advance it in a way that helps us enter the very heart of the church.
Q: Who was St. Hildegard of Bingen? What is important about her life?
St Hildegard was an abbess of a Benedictine monastery and a contemporary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Her writings are extensive and include spiritual and moral treatises. A true daughter of St. Benedict, she relates an encounter with the Word of God that challenges her to cry out to the whole church about the objective majesty of the Bridegroom and the complete sovereignty of his love for this Bride the church. She cries out against the mystery of sin and calls the church to a deeper appreciation for what the Lord accomplishes in the life of grace. She cries out against clerical abuse with very poignant images and in the midst of the grave scandals of her day, she helps believers recover confidence in the victory of good over evil.
Q: Of all the medieval mystics (such as St. Bonaventure and St. Catherine of Siena, who are perhaps better known), why are Julian and Hildegard worth getting to know?
St. Hildegard is a doctor of the church and this means that the church sees in her writing a standard for our mystical tradition. We need to rediscover and re-propose this mystical tradition today because of the spiritual hunger so many of our contemporaries feel. Julian, with her deep confidence that “all will be well” is worth our effort in the face of all of contemporary society’s hysteria and contention. She helps us see that God is in control and that he has a beautiful plan for our lives.
Q: In your upcoming retreat, these two women are brought together. What specifically connects these two medieval mystics?
The connection between these women, in particular, between Julian’s “Showings” and St. Hildegard’s “Scivias,” is their devotion to the Savior and confidence in his saving love. We need this devotion and confidence today. Their rich use of metaphor and their own fearless description and witness to encounters with him will help us think about our own encounters – and perhaps stir in us the desire to search out the inexhaustible riches of Christ for ourselves. Finally, a sense of mission permeates their text, and for many today who are not sure how to engage the mission of the church, allowing our hearts to catch on fire through their witness may well be the medicine we need.
Q: Who was Julian of Norwich? What is important about her life?
She was a recluse who received visions on May 13, 1373, and 20 years later, just before going into deeper silence and solitude, shared her insights with the church to help stir confidence among the faithful in the definitive victory of Christ over sin, death and the demonic. Her intention is that her readers should go deeper into prayer and holiness of life out of gratitude and reverence for the Lord.
Because mystical experience exceeds our ability to express, her writings test the limits of the language of her time by its use of metaphors and rhetoric. These writings were preserved and circulated among the English Carthusians, who found them useful for their way of life. This is significant. Prior to the Reformation, the English Carthusians were, in many ways, the spiritual engine driving English piety, and the fruit of their holiness is made known in the heroic martyrdoms they suffered during the English Reformation. Her significance may well be that she has contributed to the patrimony of the church a wisdom that enables this supreme expression of faith and witness to God.
Q: Medieval mysticism is often esoteric and difficult to understand. How is the work of these two women relevant to today’s Catholics?
Some medieval mysticism can be esoteric … these women use powerful and evocative metaphors that challenge us to open up our hearts to the mercy of God in new ways. One cannot read their writings prayerfully without being overcome with a sense of awe and reverence for the holiness of the Lord.
Q: Julian and Hildegard have become popular in some feminist and New Age circles. How can we avoid misinterpreting them?
We need to read them in continuity with the mystical tradition of the church rather than in opposition to it. They are part of a beautiful symphony of mystical teachers who have helped Catholics discover the gift of intimacy with Christ and his healing love. Reading them in concert with this rich patrimony unlocks new depths to their wisdom that often elude people in non-Catholic circles.