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  • “The Violent Are Taking It by Storm” (Mt. 11:12): Reflections on a Century of Women’s Contributions to the Study of Mystical Spirituality1
  • Bernard McGinn (bio)

In the thirteenth century, for the first time in the history of Christianity, women began to take a major role in the production of spiritual and mystical literature. Without in any way diminishing the accomplishments of Hildegard of Bingen and Heloise in the twelfth century, as well as the witness of earlier women authors, what happened in the thirteenth century was unprecedented. Beginning about 1215 when the Cistercian nun Beatrice of Nazareth started her journal, the next hundred years saw a succession of major female mystical authors. Some, like Clare of Assisi and Umiltà of Faenza in Italy and Mechthild of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great in Germany, wrote in Latin; more composed in their vernaculars: Beatrice and Hadewijch in Dutch; Mechthild of Magdeburg in German; Marguerite Porete in French; Marguerite d’Oingt in Provençal. In the case of Angela of Foligno, we have a co-production between the mystic and her Franciscan scribe in producing Latin texts with a heavy vernacular coloring. The next five centuries down to the death of Madame Guyon in 1717 witnessed a continuing succession of female mystical authors—something not found in any other world religion.

The Quietist condemnations at the end of the seventeenth century and the subsequent marginalization of mysticism in Catholic Christianity brought a halt to this rich tradition until the end of the nineteenth century. Women mystics were written about; they did not write themselves. Between 1894 and 1896 the Carmelite nun Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and the Holy Face (Thérèse of Lisieux) penned the memoirs that eventually became the Story of a Soul. The twentieth century once again has seen a significant number of women whose teaching on the pursuit of deeper contact with God continues to inspire many. Think only of such names as Sr. Elizabeth of the Trinity (d. 1906), Elisabeth Leseur (d. 1914), Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941), Edith Stein (d. 1942), Simone Weil (d. 1943), and, more recently, another Carmelite, Sr. Mary of the Trinity (d. 1980). My purpose, however, is not to try to analyze this new surge of women writing mystical literature, but rather to look at a different aspect of the return to mysticism in the past century—the contributions made by women to the study of spirituality, especially mystical spirituality. Obviously, it is impossible [End Page 17] to give an adequate survey of the whole century of women’s contributions to the investigation of spirituality in a short paper, so I shall concentrate on the pioneers and some of their successors, leaving a more complete account of the most recent period (ca. 1975–2010) to another time.

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“Basilica Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae” Courtesy of Pier Luigi Ricci

The history of women writing about spirituality, especially mystical spirituality, is part of a wider story: that of the entry of women into the once-patriarchal realm of theology, or, to put it in terms of the Gospel phrase invoked in my title, a narrative of “the violent taking it by storm” (Mt. 11:12).2 The twentieth century forms a parallel to the thirteenth by becoming the first era in which women seized the opportunity to take an active role in theological study and education. In doing so, I believe they also played a part in helping to overcome, at least in a gradual and not yet final way, one of the most disastrous wrong-turns in the history of Western theology: the divorce sundering spiritual teaching from academic theology that became evident at least as early as the fourteenth century.

The growth of the academic study of spirituality as a distinct discipline in recent decades, for all its laudable achievements, should not obscure the fact that spirituality as a discipline needs theology as much as theology needs spirituality. The lived experience of Christian faith and the academic study of that phenomenon cannot be severed from a grounding in theology broadly conceived as the “understanding of faith” (intellectus fidei): biblically, historically, [End...


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