November 19 – Mechtild of Magdeburg

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Mechtild of Magdeburg, person of prayer

Mechtild was a celebrated medieval mystic, however not a lot is known about her. What we do know comes largely from hints she gives in her written work. She was born in a noble Saxon family about 1210.

Mechtild’s century, the 13th, was the golden age of chivalry. Troubadours sang of romance between lords and ladies. It was also a golden age of saints, including Francis, Clare, Dominic, and Gertrude. Mechtild takes her place among them as a mystic and poet. She was a troubadour of the love that binds the soul to God.

At 23, Mechtild moved from her village to Magdeburg, Thuringia, in central Europe. She lived there many years as a Béguine and later became a Dominican tertiary. Béguines were women without religious vows who formed communities to serve the poor. Mechtild exhausted herself with austerities because she believed she had to conquer herself in order to achieve oneness with God. Later she wrote this beautiful dialogue between God and the soul about curbing desires and orienting them to God:

God: You hunt ardently for your love, What do you bring to me, my Queen?
Soul: Lord! I bring you my treasure; It is greater than the mountains, . . .
          More glorious than the sun, More manifold than the stars,
          It outweighs the whole earth!
God: O image of my Divine Godhead, . . . What is your treasure called?
Soul: Lord! it is called my heart’s desire! I have withdrawn it from the
          world, . .
          Where, O Lord, shall I lay it?
God: Your heart’s desire shall you lay nowhere, but in my own divine heart
          and on my human breast. There alone you will find comfort and be
          embraced by my Spirit.

It was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged and helped Mechtild to compose The Flowing Light.

Her criticism of church dignitaries, religious laxity as well as her claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. With advancing age, she was not only alone, and the object of much criticism but she also became blind. Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, who offered her protection and support in the final years of her life, and where she finished writing down the contents of the many divine revelations, she claimed to have experienced. It says much of this community and its Abbess Gertrude, that they would embrace a woman who was over 60 years of age, in poor health and so isolated by society. It is unclear whether she formally joined the Cistercian community or if she simply resided there and participated in the religious services but did not take Cistercian vows.

It is unclear when Mechtild died. 1282 is a commonly cited date, but some scholars believe she lived into the 1290s.

 Written by Peter Gador-Whyte