Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent Women 8

"Hell is the seventh name 
Of this Love wherein I suffer.
For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again…
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To founder unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love"
Hadewijch of Antwerp

Hadewijch is one of my favourite theologians and poets. She's like John of the Cross on acid. Full of romance, gender-bending and self-abasement; it's gripping, moving and very clever. In the same tradition of St Denys, with St Bonaventure's more human and Christological elements, but grafted into the medieval narrative of the questing knight:

"He must march far who presses on to Love – 
Through her broad width, her loftiest height, her deepest abyss.
In all storms he must explore the ways;
Then her wondrous wonder is known to him: 
        That is – to cross her desert plains,
To journey onward and not stand still;
To fly through and climb the heights,
And swim through the abyss,
There from Love to receive love whole and entire."

'She' has become a 'he', Christ has become a 'she', the mountain is partnered with her deepest abyss; there is a complementarity of images that is pretty damn sexy. Never has the journey of the soul been so exciting.

"My soul melts away
In the madness of Love;
The abyss into which she hurls me
Is deeper than the sea;
For Love’s new deep abyss
Renews my wound:"

And the knight errant narrative is matched by a love story. She is the Elizabeth Wurtzel to John of the Cross' Plath. There's a terrifying chaos to the writing, but not without careful thought. The mystical journey is a kenosis, an emptying of the soul and the medieval period learns to describe this passionately. The danger is great - especially for women - and others like Marguerite Porete learned this at great cost, but this self-abandonment to God runs like a seam of coal through Christian history. And it's anything but miserable:

She always wishes to hear
And to give herself to rejoicing and sadness;
Love cannot be without either;
She is always mingling both in a wonderful way;
So strongly active is Love’s nature
That she cannot rest one instant.

The qualification of the active life of love prevents her from disappearing into self-absorbption, and with all that passion there is joy as well as sadness. Grace Jantzen drew attention to the natal aspect of the abyss in her writing, finding it to be a site of nourishment and plenitude. This is true, but to return to the quote with which I began the abyss is equally a place of self-destruction and the womb of creation possesses the vagina dentata; it is the place of making and un-making. People always go to Julian for the female metaphors of God. Hadewijch may have been from Belgium but she definitely provides a more exciting place to begin uncovering some traditional feminist theology...

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