Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
It is not possible to understand the strange times which we call the Middle Ages without understanding mysticism. Mysticism was a current which ran through the church of Christ throughout her history, beginning already in the third century, and it continues to the present.
That this should be so is not surprising. The pendulum in the spiritual life of the people of God swings from one extreme to the other. On the one extreme lies a cold and lifeless dead orthodoxy which is often characterized by rationalism; on the other extreme lies the fervency of mysticism. Between these two extremes the life of the church swings. It is difficult for the church to keep a proper spiritual balance. The swing is to be explained by the fact that neither extreme satisfies.
When the church falls into the spiritual graveyard of dead orthodoxy, the people of God want more from religion. They desire a spiritual life which is warm and fervent, filled with the personal experience of union with Christ, characterized by piety and godliness. If this desire is not kept improper balance, the pendulum swings towards mysticism with all its emphasis on feeling, subjective experience, evidences of conversion, inner union with God, and genuine piety. But because mysticism tends to denigrate the knowledge of faith, this too cannot long satisfy, and the life of the church swings back again on its weary course towards rationalism and an exclusive emphasis on knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
In the Middle Ages, the Romish Church developed rapidly towards outward forms of worship. The worship of the church was filled .with liturgy; the mass was said in Latin; the life of the people was regulated by law upon law and precept upon precept. And the worst was that the salvation of the people of God was placed in the hands of the clergy and the church so that nothing was required of the saints but outward conformity to the regulations of the establishment. It is not surprising that mysticism should flourish. It was an understandable reaction to the external form of religion.
Mystics abounded. They were present in every decade of Medieval times. They were present also at the time the Reformation burst over Europe.
As an example of mysticism, Catherine of Siena stands high above all the others. Of her such eulogies as these have been spoken: “She is the most eminent of the holy women of the Middle Ages whom the Church has canonized. Her fame depends upon her single-hearted piety and her efforts to advance the interests of the Church and her nation. . . Although the hysterical element may not be altogether wanting from her piety, she yet deserves and will have the admiration of all men who are moved by the sight of a noble enthusiasm . . . .” “She is one of the most wonderful women that have ever lived.” “Catherine’s figure flits like that of an angel: through the darkness of her time, over Which her gracious genius sheds a soft radiance.”1
Catherine Benincasa was born in Siena, Italy around 1347. She was the 23rd child and a twin in a family of 25 children. Her father, Jacobo, was a dyer and belonged to the lower middle class. Her mother, Lapa, was, quite obviously, a housewife. She received no schooling at all and learned to read and write only in later life.
She was born in a time of upheaval in Europe, but especially in Italy. The Renaissance, that great pagan revival of learning, was sweeping Europe and clashing with the darkness of preceding centuries. National, economic, social, and educational changes were in the wind. Under the influence of French cardinals in Rome, the papacy had been moved to Avignon, France and had come completely under the domination of the French. This so-called Babylonian captivity of the church had resulted in the secularization and moral decay of the papacy. No longer was the church trusted – it had lost the prestige of its apostolic seat in Rome, and a general dissatisfaction with the church prevailed throughout Europe.
Catherine’s mystical life began early. At the age of 7, she claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus with Peter, Paul, and John, which led her to the resolve to devote her life to religion. While first her parents objected on the grounds that she suffered from delusions, they were persuaded at last of her claims and set aside a part of the house for her in which to pray, meditate, and receive visions and trances. In her own corner of the house she became something of a recluse: she refused to sleep, ate almost nothing, and beat herself three times a day with a whip or a chain. When at 14 her parents arranged a marriage for her, she cut off her beautiful hair to dissuade her intended husband. When her face was pock-marked from an attack of smallpox, she accepted it as a special gift of God which would make her unattractive to men. Her biographer describes her vividly.
Nature had not given her a face over fair, and her personal appearance was marred by the marks of smallpox. And yet she had a winning expression, a fund of good spirits, and sang and laughed heartily. Once devoted to a religious life, she practiced great austerities, flagellating herself three times a day, – once for herself, once for the living and once for the dead. She wore a hair undergarment and an iron chain (bound about her waist). During one Lenten season she lived on the bread taken in communion. These asceticisms were performed in a chamber in her father’s house. She was never an inmate of a convent. Such extreme asceticisms as she practiced upon herself she disparaged at a later period.2
At about the age of 20, in obedience to what she considered a vision, she joined the Sisters of Penitences, a Dominican Order, although she refused to become apart of a convent, disdaining the restrictions which convent-life required. Her life was an active involvement in the daily affairs of the people in Siena and in the problems of the church.
Her reputation is based in large measure on her many charitable works. She went among the poor to alleviate their suffering. She nursed the incurably ill, especially those with cancer and leprosy. She worked with prisoners, staying with them during their trials and executions. When a young nobleman was condemned to die for words of disrespect of the magistrates, she comforted him in his despair, taught him to be joyful in the face of death, and was present with him on the block when he was beheaded. She caught his head in her hands and was pleased to be splattered with his blood. She is said to have performed miracles of healing and raising the dead during a plague which ravaged the city. At every opportunity she preached to the people and soon gained a large following of men and women who were mostly from the laity and who wanted to imitate her piety.
It is not surprising that the fame of such a selfless woman spread rapidly and she soon found herself involved in the affairs of the church at large. It was at this time that she began writing her famous Letters, 400 of which are extant. They were written to family members, poor and distressed, sick and dying, princes and rulers, popes and cardinals, foreign kings and soldiers. They were filled with admonition, sharp reproof, comfort, advice, and details of her own mystical experiences.
Because she operated so freely outside the church’s official authority, she was tried for heresy by a Dominican tribunal, but was cleared of all charges. The court did, however, appoint for her a spiritual adviser, Raymond of Capua, who became her friend, secretary, biographer, and confessor.
Her participation in church affairs involved her in efforts to organize another crusade, which she intended to be used to bring the gospel to the Moslem Turks. She worked hard in getting the papacy out of Avignon and finally succeeded in restoring it to the ancient papal see in Rome. Her first trip to Avignon to speak with the pope resulted in bitter disappointment, for she found the papacy to be “a stench of infernal vices” rather than “a paradise of heavenly virtues,” as she expected. But the return of the papacy to Rome resulted in graver problems – the great Papal Schism in which two rival popes claimed the papal chair. To her despair she failed in settling this problem – a problem which was not resolved until the Council of Constance the same Council which burned John Huss at the stake.
Her efforts were not always welcomed. At Avignon the cardinals treated her with coolness, the influential women with disdain, and the bureaucrats with hatred. The niece of the pope, while kneeling at her side in prayer, ran a sharp knife through Catherine’s foot, which gave her a permanent limp.
She died before reaching her 33rd birthday, with final words to her companions: “Dear children, let not my death sadden you, rather rejoice to think that I am leaving a place of many sufferings to go to rest in the quiet sea, the eternal God, and to be united forever with my most sweet and loving bridegroom.”
The mysticism of Catherine is typical of many in the Medieval Period. Dreams, visions, and trances continued throughout her life. She claimed to have drunk the blood of Christ which flowed from His side and the milk of Mary, Christ’s mother. At an early age she said that she had been married to Christ and that she wore His ring on her finger – although no one else could ever see it. Because she meditated too often and so intensely on the sufferings of Christ, she professed to have Christ’s “stigmata” (the wounds of the nails and the spear-thrust) in her body – although these too were invisible to everyone but herself. Many of her “Letters” were written in a trancelike state.
The goal of Medieval mysticism (as with all mysticism as it has appeared throughout the ages) was “union with God.” This was the highest ideal of the saints. But such union with God could come about only through rigorous spiritual and physical exercises. It required of one that he (or she) meditate unceasingly on the suffering Christ; that the world with all its attractions be forsaken; that sin be rigorously suppressed by fierce ascetic practices, for only in this way could one escape from what was called “the dark night of the soul.” Emerging from this dark night, one awoke to glorious, unearthly, supremely blessed union with God Himself. This is what Catherine meant by her marriage to Christ.
Union with Christ is taught by Scripture as the blessedness of salvation. The joy and comfort of the assurance of salvation is the experience of God’s people. Meditation and study of God’s Word are held before us as obligatory for a godly life. Genuine piety and a life of fellowship with God is the portion of the righteous even here in the world.
Where the mystics went wrong was that they reduced all religion to experience and feeling. Mediated by dreams and visions, trances and appearances of saints and angels, the Christian life is defined in terms of subjective and indefinable inner states of feeling. Knowledge is spurned and true knowledge is considered unessential. But this is terribly wrong. It is the knowledge of the truth that sets us free. And to know God and His Son Jesus Christ is to have eternal life. After all, faith – the faith that unites us to Christ in the mystical union of His blessed body – is first of all knowledge. It is more than knowledge, but it is knowledge for all that. The spiritual experience of the child of God may and does ebb and flow; but we know whom we have believed. And that is salvation.
1. Quoted from Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, p. 194.
2. Quoted from Schaff, p. 195.