Internet Monk is having a book club this month. The last week of the month, they’ll be discussing Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. I thought this sounded interesting, so I got a copy from the library and read it. And this reminded me of reading a book about St. Catherine of Siena a few years ago and also about reading on the web about St. Hildegard of Bingen.
What do these women have in common? They were all three medieval women who took their faith seriously. They had mystical experiences. And they were all educated enough to leave us a record of their lives and thoughts. I don’t know that we could say that they are “typical” medieval women because they were all somehow “religious” (i.e. they were unmarried and were somehow connected to a church vocation).
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was raised by an anchoress in connection with a convent. Hildegard later become the head of this convent. She had visions throughout her life, but became compelled to write them (with the help of a scribe – she was literate, but not comfortable with substantial writing) after a major vision when she was 42 years old. Hildegard also loved music and wrote a good bit of psalmody and plainsong. She demonstrated significant leadership by moving her convent to a better location and then founding another convent several years later. She also wrote about herbs and medications and their uses.
Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was quite influential, despite her short life. She was born to a well-off family, but refused to marry, apparently having pledged celibacy at age 7. Her visions began when she was six years old and appear to have been intermittent. In her teens, she had a serious illness that did not resolve until she was taken to an order of Dominican sisters. She became a Dominican “tertiary”, which meant that she lived outside the order itself, but lived by their vows. St. Catherine was quite active with charity work in her city. She was also known for eating very little, often just taking Mass once a day and vomiting any other food people tried to force on her. During the most productive time in her life, she corresponded with the pope, urging him to return to Rome from Avignon as well as encouraging him to start another Crusade. She died at age 33, three days after having suffered a stroke.
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) is the woman about whom least is known. Most information about her comes from the works she left behind. She was born and raised in Norwich, England, during the time of the Black Death, which decimated the city’s population. Julian survived this to have another illness during adulthood which is when her visions occurred. After the death of her mother (it appears), Julian became an anchoress and wrote her accounts of her visions. According to the biography I read, she probably was somewhat literate before her visions, but learned more scripture and other writings probably from a local friar. Despite the concern about a woman being literate, she did have her book published during her lifetime.
Why am I writing about these three women? Mostly because they are interesting. Also because they all probably had some brain illness that gave them visions. Hildegard most likely had migraines – more interesting than my migraines since she had visions with them! Saint Catherine almost surely had anorexia mirabilis, a compulsion to not eat in an attempt to become more spiritual, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she also had temporal lobe epilepsy or some other epilepsy that gave her visions. Julian of Norwich had one series of visions associated with a severe illness.
Did God really send them visions? Or were these purely natural phenomenon that these women chose to interpret religiously? I think the answer is partly both. God is in control of whatever happens to us, even when it appears completely natural, so the fact that these women had these experiences isn’t “random” (at least those of us who hold a Christian worldview believe). The women interpreted them as religious phenomena because that’s what they expected. Hildegard had been raised in a religious house; St. Catherine expressed a desire for religious experience as a young child; Julian had prayed to suffer like Christ. When these women had what we might call a delusion or seizure, they attributed it naturally to God and, I believe, were led by God into Christian interpretations.
For these three medieval women, their “illnesses” (because I think they really were having primary brain pathology) became assets. But what about others who had these same diagnoses? I would hate to be stuck in medieval times with intractable migraines – the pain sounds bad enough, but to also get hallucinations?! And I can’t imagine that all communities were very sympathetic to everyone with seizure disorders or mental illnesses that gave them hallucinations or random acts of catatonia. What happened to those folks in medieval times? Were they branded as heretical instead of religious? Or shunned? Or given bizarre treatments for exorcism?
And are we losing some Christian “mystics” or insight because we’re medicating these brain illnesses? I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be treating these illnesses with medication!! Seizures, migraines, and compulsions are all debilitating. The three women noted here were blessed to be in a position to have education and influence.
Did God use mysticism more in earlier times before we understood how the brain affects the mind? This is the explanation I find most comfortable. As we learn more and more about biology, we learn how brain chemicals affect how we think and behave. I believe that God will still give some people mystical experiences, whether or not we can explain it physically. But, it’s less common as we understand the brain and help people live as normal as possible lives with these illnesses.
I’m fascinated to see how God redeemed the illnesses of these three women, I think partly because I’m still trying to see how God is working in my life with my migraines. And I wonder about the people who weren’t able to write about their experiences – how did they cope? what were they thinking and feeling? What about people who are having these experiences today? How many are real and how many are undiagnosed illness? And what if they are both?
Clearly, I have more questions than answers. What about you? Any thoughts?
BTW, the Internet Monk book club is discussing Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free this week. You might want to check it out since it goes along with the suffering of these women and how they interpreted it and how it affected them.