Dutch Mysticism

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Course about Christian spirituality
in a cultural-historical context

Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries

Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec, their faith and way of thinking

Rozemarijn van Leeuwen
© 1999-2001


Lecture 1b.  What is mysticism?

Topics this hour:
  • Features of the mystical experience:
    fragments of Hadewijch, Simone Weil, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, et al.
  • Splitting up the features in coherent groups:
    • God's 'being' and activity
    • features of the mystical experience itself

What is mysticism?

This course is about medieval mysticism - and that's why we've reflected on the Middle Ages in the hour before the break, and during this hour we'll reflect on the phenomenon of mysticism. When it comes to a course about mysticism, I think that it's very important to understand as clearly as possible what mysticism actually is.

In fact a literature historian can't answer the question what mysticism is. The only question could be: what is a mystical text? And well, that's a text about mysticism, written by a mystic. So that doesn't help much.

That's why I will narrow the question 'what is mysticism' to the much more precise question: what is medieval, christian mysticism according to mystics themselves? Or in other words: what do the texts themselves tell us about the phenomenon of mysticism?

Every reader then will interpret these texts differently. A like-minded follower possibly may take the texts literally; a literature researcher will point out the origin of used images from the Bible; and a neuro-scientist neatly will explain how visionary images arise within the brain.

But I won't go into that any further during this course. The intention is to understand Hadewijch and Ruusbroec's texts from their world view, their faith, their spiritual ideals. That's why I'll now explore a bit further the question out of the mystical texts themselves: what is mysticism according to mystics themselves?

I'll do that by following six mystical fragments throughout the centuries. What are the characteristics of the phenomenon of mysticism, as described by several (christian) mystics?

We'll read fragments written by Hadewijch, Simone Weil, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen, an anonymous Carmelite and Bernard of Clairvaux. Each fragment we'll read, will add another characteristic of mysticism and at the end of this lesson hour I will split up all the features in coherent groups.

First of all a fragment by Hadewijch.

Fragment Hadewijch: mysticism is meeting God or experiencing God

Before the break I've told that Hadewijch wrote in the local language about religion. That is a huge deviation from what was normal and customary in medieval society, in which educated, male priests and monks wrote about religion in Latin. Those gentlemen wrote theological treatises, discussed about theological issues, wrote comments on Bible texts or texts of the Church Fathers, or wrote down the sermons they had delivered.

And exactely all these subjects Hadewijch never writes about. So also in her choice of subjects, she deviates from what was usual in (male, ecclesiastic/monastic) religious life.

Hadewijch writes about how she personally imagines, feels, lives through religion. She writes about her love for God, how she has the feeling that God has touched her, and how she misses God when she doesn't feel His presence. She also writes encouraging to her female friends about longing, loneliness, the growth towards spiritual adulthood here on earth and about the true love for God. In her manuscripts, especially in the visions she wrote down, she describes very visual that God is present for her, visible, meetable.

Hadewijch herself says in her 22nd letter:

Die gode wilt verstaen ende kinnen wat hi es in zinen name ende in sijn wesen, hi moet gode al geheel sijn. (...) Daer omme verliese hem selven, die gode venden wilt ende bekinnen wat hi es in hem selven. (...)

Mijn weten van gode es cleine, een cleine gheraetsel maghic van hem gheraden, want men mach gode niet toenen met menschen sinnen. Mer die metter zielen gherenen ware van gode, hi soudere iet af moghen toenen den ghenen diet metter zielen verstonden.

Hadewijch, letter 22 (v. 1-16).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



Who wants to understand God and wants to know what He is in his name and his being, fully has to be God. (..) Who wants to find God and wants to know what He is in himself, has to lose oneself. (...)

My knowing of God is small, I only can unravel a small part of Him, because it's impossible to explain God in human words. But if one is touched by God in one's soul, they can explain a little bit about Him to them who would be able to understand it in their soul.

Hadewijch, letter 22 (v. 1-16).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 22 entire text (M.D. and translation).

So for her this is not about contemplating or theorising, but about her feeling of 'being touched in the soul by God': being convinced oneself that one experiences a divine presence. And that religious experience leads, according to the mystic, to a little understanding of God, so knowledge of God based on experience, not based on the Bible or on theoretical theology.

Mystics themselves describe mysticism as an experience. Therefore it's often written about as 'mystical experience', also within the literary-historical research. Mystics consider this to be a religious experience, the experience of a divine presence. In the case of christian mystics, this god always refers to the christian God from the Bible - Jahweh, one of the sky gods from the Near East.

And although Hadewijch mentions here how immensely difficult it is in her opinion to say something about God in our human language and to understand God with our human intellect ('it's impossible to explain God in human words'), she still tries, a few lines further ahead, to verbalize how she experiences God:

God es boven al ende onverhaven. God es onder al ende onverdruct. God es binnen al ende onghesloten. God es buten al ende al omgrepen.

Hadewijch, letter 22 (v. 21-24).

speaker music play middle dutch   Play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



God is above everything, but not elevated. God is below everything, but not suppressed. God is within everything, but not enclosed. God is outside everything, but completely enclosed.

Hadewijch, letter 22 (v. 21-24).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 22 entire text (M.D. and translation).

These kind of texts, that express a conviction that God's presence is experienced (Hadewijch calls it here 'touched by God in one's soul'), and in which the mystic says that this experience leads to knowledge of God for them, these texts are called mystical texts.

As far as christian, medieval mystical text are concerned, the word mysticism could be defined as 'meeting God' or 'experiencing God'. The word 'mystic', by the way, is derived from the old Greek muein (closing lips and eyes, become silent, shut oneself off, turn inside) and is related to mustikos/mustes (mystery, hidden, secret, initiating).

In the hand-out you'll find several definitions of mysticism. I will read one with you, written by Oliver Davies. He states:

Mysticism can be described as an experience of God. In mysticism the devine is not an idea or the basis of a theological system, nor is it an image one has created oneself or has received from tradition. No, mysticism is about a feeling within a person that a transcendentally and divine being is present for that person without medium in between.

Oliver Davies.

So according to mystics, mysticism is not a theory or an idea, but is described as an experience. Well, this is very easy to say, mysticism is the experience of God. But in fact that's very exceptional. For an average person, an average Christian, no god or goddess is visible, they can't meet or experience the god they believe in, gods are not touchable, not present in the here and now. Christians base their faith in the existence of the sky god Jahweh normally on something else, like the Bible.

But suddenly the mystics say, that this god is meetable for them. That it is possible to have contact between a human being and God, already here on earth.

What do they claim to experience, how do they put it into words? We'll read five more fragments of christian mystics from several centuries, to get an idea of the features of the mystical experience: what do mystic say they've experienced, what do they try to express about God; and how does a mystical experience work, according to mystics themselves?

Before we read the fragments, I have to make two small remarks on the definition 'mysticism is meeting God'.

First of all. The fact that in research the word 'experience' is adopted from the mystical text, doesn't mean that it actually is the case it's realy an (religious) experience. It's simply impossible to determine that. Moreover the descriptions themselves especially show that an intense, vivid, deep living-through of religious images from the own spiritual tradition arises, after the mystic totally loses himself in deep prayer or meditation (lower consciousness).

The scientific research, we earlier spoke about, then shows: because this phenomenon takes place within the brain (that new combination of images, that arises during lowered consciousness), it appears to be an experience to the person concerned. When you want to approach mystical text scientificly, I think it's unavoidable to consider the problems concering the word 'experience'.

A vivid, personal living-through would be a more neutral description within literary research. But because the word 'experience' and 'experiencing God' is so commonly adopted and used, and because we try to look throught the eyes of mystics to the mystical text during this course, I will conveniently keep using the word 'experience', however with this side note.

Secondly. We can use this definition as long as we (like in this course) are talking about christian, theistic mysticism. But mysticism, being convinced that there is something that transcends you, is found in all cultures and all times in human history: jews, muslims, buddhists, sufists and all sorts of other religions and sects are familiar with mystical experiences.

They all phrase it in their own way, using words from their tradition (the 'transcendentical', the 'All-One', the 'nirvana' or 'enlightenment') and using images from or matching their religion. As soon as you read just a few mystical text from different parts of the world, you'll start to understand that a mystical text never can be a valid proof of 'the existence of a god' - all over the world texts from different cultures and religions contradict each other completely (sometimes many gods are experienced, sometimes just one, sometimes none at all with an 'all' in which the human being is destroyed; sometimes gods are placed high in a heaven, sometimes on earth within nature, etcetera...; and every tradition is convinced of their own rightness and the complete misconception of all other religious groups, that often are depicted in a hell for all eternity).

The definition of a vision, used in religious psychology studies, could also be applied to mysticism: 'A vision always shows that which the visionary already believes in, in images from his religious tradition, that form new combinations, of which he becomes part within that vision'.

Well, I'll leave all other religions and movements aside. We will now focus on how this mystical experience is put into words in the Western, christian world.

Just to be clear, this course won't answer questions like: is a mystical experience something supernatural, or are they strongly lived-through images or hallucinations or literary fiction; should I believe in them or not? We will read these texts from their cultural-historical context, so the question is only: did the author himself, or the public of that time, did the medieval man believe that this was a supernatural religious experience or not? That will be reference point this whole course long and next week I will give an answer to that question with extensive argumentation.

So to understand the phenomenon christian mysticism for now, we will read the next five fragments just to be able to order and classify the features - apart from the question if the source is supernatural or in the own brain. In any case these texts that express the conviction of that experience of God exist, especially during the Middle Ages, and we will try to get a grip on this phenomenon.

hadewijch visions manuscript c bethlehem louvain

Hadewijch, Visions,
Manuscript C, 14th centuty (Bethlehem Cloister, Louvain).
-click to magnify-

Fragment Simone Weil: love, im-mediately, an Other

The second fragment we'll read is written by Simone Weil, a French philosopher. She lived in the first half of the 20th century (1909-1943). She was very religious, but never entered the Catholic Church, because she had several fundamental objections. Besides some philosophical works, she also has written books about religion, best known is Waiting for God. She also wrote letters to a good friend, a monk, that are published as Letters to a monk. This fragment is from one of those letters.

She writes that she is in a retreat for a week, in 1938, and she has memorised a poem of George Herbert, titled 'Love'. This poem is about an encounter between a soul and God, personified as love. She describes that again she suffers from migraine and decides to concentrate her attention on the poem, not on the pain.

Many times, during the climax of these headache crisises, I pushed myself to recite the poem, with all my attention, fully feeling the tenderness inclosed in that poem in my soul. I thought I only declaimed it as a beautiful poem, but without knowing it, this reciting had the power of a prayer. And one time, while I was reciting it, like I've written you, Christ himself descended and incorporated me.

During my reasoning about the unsolvability of the problem of God, I never had forseen this possibility, to have a real contact, person to person, here on earth, between a human being and God. Very vaguely I had heard about things of that nature, but I never had believed in them. The stories about manifestations in the Fioretti rather repelled me, just like the miracles in the gospels. What's more, during Christ's confiscation of me, neither my sense organs, nor my imagination played any part at all; I only felt, through the pain, the presence of a love, similar to the love in the smile of a loving face.

I never had read any mystics, I never had felt an urge to read them. (...). In his compassion, God had prevented me from reading mystics, so that it would be obvious for me, that I hadn't made up this completely unexpected contact. Even so, I still halfly refused it, not my love, but my intellect.

Simone Weil, Letters to a monk (1951).

English translation by RvL.

This fragment clearly shows, like Hadewijch's fragment, that Sime Weil finds it difficult to put this sudden experience into words. She writes: 'Christ himself descended and incorporated me'. She emphasises that she felt this as a 'real contact'. But when she tries to describe what it is she experienced, she is only able to say what it was not: she didn't see anything, she didn't imagine anything, she didn't form a picture of it, 'neither my sense organs, nor my imagination played any part at all'; but she felt the presence of love, like a smile of a loving face.

So the experience is about being incorperated, a feeling, love. It's not an experience through the physical senses. This is a well-known aspect of the mystical experience and is formulated as: im-mediate, without mediation, without medium in between. The contact is direct, there is no perception, image or verbalisation as a mediation in between, the mystic feels the prensence of God without mediation, direct, im-mediate. It's not an image, not an idea, but a feeling from the inside out.

I also want to point out, it seems just a detail, that Simone Weil says: 'person to person'. This is a very specific feature of Western, christian mysticism. That what is experienced, the presence, the transcendence, that other reality, that love, is experienced as a person, as an Other, a divine Other. Next week, when we'll read one of Hadewijch's visions, we will again encounter this aspect very clearly. In christian mysticism, God is described as a personal God.

This experience is completely unexpected for Simone Weil, she emphasises that she wasn't engaged in it, that she didn't consider that this could happen to her, and that she even didn't believe in religious experiences. So as the last element I add this to the list of features on the blackboard: the mystic is passive, it happens to the mystic.

By the way: the fragment clearly shows that she was engaged in reciting a poem about a human being meeting God, depicted as love - and that she recited it with "the power of a prayer". Afterwards this image comes alive for her as a feeling of love, an experience. We will encounter this many more times, that images and ideals precede visions and mysticism.

List of features:
  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic

Fragment Teresa of Ávila: unity, immanence and transcendence

We'll travel further back in time, to the 16th century, a fragment of Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). She founded the new monastic order of the Discalced Carmelites (the 'barefooted Carmelites'). She wrote several books, including an autobiography.

It's well worth reading, she writes very, how shall I put it, directly, appealing: she describes her life, but repeatedly wanders from her subject, gives free course to her thoughts, refers to all kind of parts of her daily life. In the second half of her life she starts to get visions. Very often she sees things like Christ, Mary, angels, but also terrible devils (yes, it's very fascinating literature).

teresa of avila portrait 1576

Teresa of Ávila,
based on a painting from 1576
(when she was 61 years old).
-click to magnify-

This quotation dates to the period she first started to get spiritual experiences and she doesn't really know what to think of it.

At the beginning it happened to me that I was ignorant: I didn't know that God was present in all things. And when it seemed to me that He was really present, I thought that that was impossible. Still, I couldn't help but believe that He was there, because it was obvious to me that I had felt that He Himself was present.

Ignorant people said to me that only His grace was present, but I couldn't accept that, because - like I said - it seemed to me that He Himself was present. And thus I was in trouble. A great scholar of the order of Saint Dominicus redeemed me of these doubts: he said to me that God is present and how He shows Himself to us. That was really a relief to me.

There is an inner peace, and pleasure or displeasure hardly have the ability to take away this presence of the three Persons from me, as long as it will last. This presence has such a nature, that one cannot doubt it: it's obvious that one experiences what Saint John says: "He shall live in the soul", and not only through grace, but because He lets you feel His presence. This brings along so much goodness, that it's inexpressible, specially this: that it's no longer necessary to search for all sorts of ideas to know that God is present.

Teresa of Ávila.

English translation by RvL.

At the end of this fragment, we see the same 'feeling', that Simone Weil expressed just before. It's about feeling, experiencing, not about thinking or theorising. It's even no longer necessary to search for all sorts of ideas to know that God is present.

Well, God is present, but where is He? And Teresa's answer is: in the soul. She phrases this very careful, she immediately refers to a quotation from the Bible, a quotation from John, because it's rather a lot that she claims. God is not far away, somewhere high in heaven, out of reach for the human being on earth; no, He is in the soul. This aspect is usually refered to as 'unity', 'mystical unity', 'being one', God is in the soul, or the soul is one with God.

Another term that is used is immanence: God is in the soul, God is immanent - opposed to transcendent: God transcends everything, surpasses everything. In fact we already saw this in Hadewijch's fragment, her 22nd letter, when she writes: 'God is within everything, but not enclosed. God is outside everything, but completely enclosed'. In a beautiful way, in paradoxes, she states that God is both immanent and transcendent.

In his book The spiritual wedding Ruusbroec more precisely explains how God is in the soul, in what way human beings are connected with God, according to him. We'll find out more about that during the fifth lecture, when we'll read the Wedding.

List of features:
  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency

Fragment Hildegard of Bingen: male and female, light and warmth, insight

We continue with the fourth fragment, even further back in time, written by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was the daughter of a German earl and she became a Benedictine abbess. She lived in the 12th century, so one century before Hadewijch, and she is very famous for her visions, that later were drawn by a monk. She wrote about various subjects, like music, herbology, linguistics, cosmology and philosophy - all in Latin. Her most famous vision books are the Scivias ('know the roads of God', ± 1151) and Liber Divinorum Operum ('book with divine works', ± 1173).

In the Anthology one of these visions is depicted, the vision of 'God and creation'. Other visions show the choirs of angels, the cosmos, the ascend of the soul after departing this life, and God, whom she portrayed as both male (living) light and as female (warm) love.

You also can see this on the depicted vision: God is shown as a circle and at the top you see the head of a man and the head of a woman. From the female side of God, a red circle derives that encloses everything. Hildegard calls it 'God's mother love': God's love encloses everything.

hildegard liber divinorum operum vision 2 god and creation

Hildegard of Bingen, 'God and creation'
second vision in
Liber divinorum operum.
-click to magnify-

This male and female principle of God are depicted here as a man's and a woman's head. But Hildegard writes in her comment, that she only saw one head, male and female at the same time, interweaved. But she could not draw that, so she let the monk draw two heads above each other. And he drew a golden ring in between, as sign of their complete connection.

Hildegard gives the female principle of God, or the female side of God, a red colour and she describes it as 'warm love'. And she gives the male side of God a grey-blue colour (the inner circle) and she describes that as 'living light'. Next week I'll show you more of Hildegard of Bingen's visions.

There are other mystics who describe God as female, or as androgynous, male and female - deviating from the church doctrines, that state that God is exclusively male, a Lord, a Father. For example Julian of Norwich, an English prophet around 1400, persistently speaks about God as our Mother and about Christ's mother love. Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec both never discuss this, they always refer to God with 'him', but I add it on the blackboard to the list of possible features of meeting God anyway.

So far on account of the depicted vision, now Hildegard's fragment. Hildegard is not an distinct mystic, she rather is a prophet, a see-er, a visionary. Through her visions, she receives insight in creation, mankind and God, but generally there is no direct contact with God, an experience of God. But in the following fragment she clearly describes that she is innerly touched.

In the year 1141 after the incarnation ('the becoming human') of God, when I was fourtytwo years and seven months old, the heaven burst open in a fiery light. It flowed through my spirit and burned through my heart like a flame, that did not really burn, but rather heated up, like the sun that warms up everything she aims her beams at.

And suddenly the meaning of the psalms, of the gospels and of all the other books in the old and the new testament unlocked for me.

I saw and heard this all, but I couldn't get myself to write it down. Not out of unwillingness, but out of doubt, so intense that the scourge of God threw me on a sickbed. Finally, deposited by severe pains, I brought my hand to writing. Then my strengths returned. Only then I recovered from my illness.

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias (Prologue).

English translation by RvL.

So light flows out of heaven in Hildegard's spirit. She feels lighted and warmed. This is a well-known theme in mystical writings: light, receiving light, enlightenment. We'll read more about it in Ruusbroec's works: receiving light and warmth.

What is the result of this light for Hildegard? She doesn't throw herself on the floor filled with fear, as you might expect, no, she receives insight. Many other mystics claim this, also Hadwijch, we'll see that next week; when they are touched by God, they receive insight in God and in themselves: knowledge of God and self-knowledge. According to mystics themselves, a mystical experience often goes hand in hand with insight and spiritual growth.

When you read mystical texts, you soon will realize that more often than not they're not only about the actual divine experience, but also about the insights that the mystic, through that experience, received about human life on earth, the soul or the psyche of men, the relationship between man and God, about spiritual growth and so on. We'll also see this in Hadewijch and Ruubroec's texts.

List of features:
  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency, male and female, light, warmth, insight

Fragment of an anonymous Carmelite: conscientisation, personal/trinity, non-personal/eternity

We'll finish with a fragment from the diary of a nun (deceased 1914), we don't know her name, a Carmelite from around 1900. In her description, several features of the mystical experience compactly come together. She writes that she is praying, turning inside, and then something happens, something happens to her.

During the prayer, the third day at night, I entered my soul and it seemed to me that I descended in the dizzying, staggering depths of an abyss. My impression was that I was surrounded by a boundless space. Then I felt the presence of the holy Trinity. I became conscious of my own not-being. I could understand this better than ever before and this knowledge was very pleasant. The divine infinity in which I was submerged and that filled me, was just as pleasant (...).

Without seeing anything, neither with the eyes of the body, nor with the eyes of the soul, I was aware that God was present. I felt his glance came to rest on me, full of tenderness and affection, and that he smiled to me, so friendly. I seemed to be immersed in God. My imagination was restrained and didn't move. I didn't hear any of the sounds that possibly surrounded me. My soul was fixated on the glance that, invisible, looked down on me and my heart repeated tirelessly: 'My God, I love You!'

A Carmelite.

English translation by RvL.

This nun enters her soul and she becomes aware of two things: in her soul appears to be an abyss and in that abyss one can experience the infinity. She doesn't say that this abyess came into existence due to her prayer - no, the abyess had been there all the time, but now she becomes conscious of it. And this is one of the most important features of the mystical experience: becoming conscious, conscientisation.

This is also the case regarding the presence of God. She becomes conscious of this presence. He doesn't arrive in her soul, it's not that first He isn't there and after she starts to pray He arrives there. No, she becomes conscious of his presence. And then she uses a word we have seen before: she feels God's presence. She doesn't see Him, she doesn't hear Him, but she feels his presence (his tenderness, affection, even his smile). And this experience is so lifelike, so 'real' to her, that she emphasises that it's no imagination, her imagination even is 'restrained', not active (here we see again the aspect of im-mediateness, the experience is direct, not by means of images).

In the hand-out you'll find a quotation of professor Mommaers, one of the members of the Ruusbroec Society in Antwerp. He states that many mystics express that a mystical experience is far more real, more intense, than a normal, everyday experience:

A mystic experiences, in an overpowering way, the presence of something that transcends himself and that is far more real than everything we normally see as reality.

P. Mommaers.

Back to the Carmelite. How does she describe God? First she describes Him as a Trinity, three Persons, so personal, as a Three-ness. After that she describes God as a divine infinity, so a-personal, non-personal.

So we see a lot of features in this short fragment. This Carmelite is praying and becomes conscious of the presence of God (conscientisation). She doesn't see God from a distance, as a radiant figure on a throne or something, no, in fact she sees nothing. The physical senses have no part in experiencing God, it is without a mediation, im-mediate (im-mediate). Because it's immediate, the experience feels more real, more true, deeper than our normal, daily experiences. She writes that she feels submerged in God and that she is filled with God. God is not only around her, transcendent, always greater; but also completely flows through her soul or spirit, immanent. So God is not only sensed outside the human being, but also present within the soul, one with the soul (mystical unity, being one).

bernard of clairvaux portrait manuscript duinenabdij

Bernard of Clairvaux,
manuscript Duinenabdij.
-click to magnify-

When reading Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) one can also find all these elements. This 12th-century abbot has had (due to his commentary on the Song of Songs and other works) a big impact on the spirituality of the 12th and 13th century. During the third lecture of this course I'll hand out an explanatory note about that subject.

As you can see, Bernard and Hildegard were contemporaries (Hildegard was eight years younger than Bernard). We know that they exchanged letters with each other in the years 1146-1147, in which she asks him for advice. We also know, thanks to reports of the Trier Synod, that he was familiar with several of her visions.

In the following fragment (meant to already get a littlebit acquainted with Bernard of Clairvaux) you'll again come across multiple of the aspects we've found: conscientisation (the mystic becomes conscience of what already is there, God doesn't visit him, but he becomes aware of His presence); God is not visible through the senses (meeting God is im-mediate); and the aspect of being one.

I have to admit - I speak like a fool - that the Word has visited me, in fact many times. But although He entered me often, I never witnessed the arrival. I have felt His presence, I remember He was with me; at times I've even been able to have a premonition of His entrance - but I never could feel that, nor His leaving.

He surely didn't enter through the eyes, because He has no colour; nor through the ears, because He doesn't make a sound; nor through the nose, because He isn't part of the air, but of the spirit. How did He come inside me? Maybe he didn't enter at all, because He doesn't come from elsewhere.

After all, He is not one of the things that surround us. And He didn't come from inside me, because He is good and I know there's nothing good in me. I ascended above myself, and behold, the Word was even higher. Curious I investigated what was beneath me, and surely enough, I discovered Him even deeper. When I looked outside myself, and further than everything outside me, I found out He was there. And when I looked inside me, He always was more internal.

Thus I learned that it's true what I had read: 'We live, move and are in Him'.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

English translation by RvL.

List of features:
  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency, male and female, light, warmth, insight, conscientisation, personal/Trinity, non-personal/infinity

Well, now we have collected a long list of features of christian, mystical texts on the blackboard. Can this disorganized list help us to get a hold of the question: what is mysticism, what does it mean?

Splitting up the features in coherent groups

With the discussed fragments in mind, I will ask four questions to orden all these features in coherent groups.

These mystical texts state that these mystics experience God's presence, and get knowledge from this, insights in God, knowledge of God - this is a radical different approach of religion than normally (when people believe something, assume something, theorise). For these mystics, God is not far away, high in heaven, but here and now present and experienceable. The shortest definition of mysticism is: mysticism is an experience of God.

The first question is: (1) where is God experienceable, where do mystics experience Him? The answer, as we saw, is: in the soul, in the core of the human being. God is there; and a mystical experience doesn't mean that He suddenly arrives there, but that the mystic becomes conscious that God (already and always) is there (conscientisation).

The second question is: (2) what is the object of the mystical experience, how do mystics describe God? Not as an old, white man, on a respectful distance, not as a strict judge, a Lord or a Ruler - but as a smile, as love, as warmth, as light, as an infinite abyss. As present in yourself, immanent, and also as a height, a depth, larger than everything, transcendent. As personal, a person, an Other, a divine Other; and also as non-personal, an infinity, light, love.

These qualities in which God is described, seem to be divisible into two kinds of features, opposite pairs, contrasts that complement each other, paradoxes.

•  God is described as non-personal (infinitive), but at the same time as personal (an Other).
•  God is experienced as transcendent (surpassing everything), but also as immanent (in the soul, being mystically one).
•  God is described as Unity (by chance that was not very emphasised in these fragements, but we already know this from the Bible), but also as Trinity, a Three-ness (and sometimes as Two-ness: male and female).
•  In the last lecture we will learn furthermore, that Ruusbroec describes God with another paradox, an opposite pair that complements each other: being in rest and being active.

In short: God is described as both a non-personal God and a personal God. In an orderly scheme this would be as follows:

   The 'being' of God:

non-personal (infinitive) personal (an Other)
transcendent immanent
Unity Trinity (or: male-female)
in rest (passive) active

Mystics often describe God in paradoxes, opposite pairs, that complement each other. God is non-personal: an all-embracing infinity, completely One and in rest (the left row). And at the same time God is personal: a personal Other who is active (the right row).

So with this, I can strike out a number of features on the board:

  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency, male and female, light, warmth, insight, conscientisation, personal/Trinity, non-personal/infinity

Now the third question. (3) How is the divine activity expressed? (the activity in the right row). Still on the board we find several features I haven't used in the scheme, and those all happen to be terms that say something about God's activity. These are: light, warmth, insight and love.

   The activity of God:

light warmth
insight love

So the first scheme shows, schematically, God's being according to these mystical texts. And the second scheme shows, schematically, God's activity. I will extensively come back to this last scheme during the lectures about Ruusbroec.

Again I can strike out four more terms from my disorganized list, because they have gotten a meaningful place in aboven scheme:

  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency, male and female, light, warmth, insight, conscientisation, personal/Trinity, non-personal/infinity

So now I've answered three questions: where do mystics experience God, how do they describe God and how is God active? But there is one more question: (4) how does a mystical experience function? When does a mystic experience God? When do mystics say they become conscience of that divine presence?

In all the fragments we have seen that this always happens suddenly, unexpected. It is something that happens to the mystic. He can't evoke it. He could strive for it, open himself up, try to reach the right state of mind, but he cannot evoke it or enforce it. It's beyond the borders of his ability: it happens to him.

The last features that still aren't crossed out on the board, all say something about the question: how does a mystical experience work?

Features of the mystical experience itself:
  • im-mediate
  • conscientisation
  • it happens to the mystic
  • presence in the soul (immanent): unity (being one)
  • surpassing everything (transcendent): infinity

With that, all the features from the mystical fragments we read today, that I wrote on the blackboard, are split up in: characteristics of God; God's activity; and features of the mystical experience itself.

  • love, im-mediate, an Other, it happens to the mystic, unity (being one), immanency, transcendency, male and female, light, warmth, insight, conscientisation, personal/Trinity, non-personal/infinity

At the very end of the last meeting, I will get back to all these features of the mystical experience, that came into sight from the mystical texts. At the end of the course, we can expand the question 'What is mysticism' to: 'What is mysticism according to Hadewijch and Ruusbroec?' What more will we have learned in six more lectures?

Last of all: language is failing

I'll end with a warning. We read mysticial texts, but all mystics warn that it's in fact not possible, to be fair, to describe a mystical experience, to verbalize it, to put it into words. Our language refers to our daily, earthly reality and, as they say, a mystical experience transcends this reality, it's an experience on the level of the spirit, experiencing another reality, a divine reality.

Hadewijch herself states in her 17th letter:

Earth is not able to understand the language of heaven, because for everything that exists on earth, one can find sufficient language and Dutch, but for this I know no Dutch and no language. I have knowledge of all kinds of meaningful expressions that a human can have knowledge of; but all I've told you, I can't express in Dutch, because as far as I know, no Dutch exists that expresses that.

Hadewijch, letter 17 (v. 114-122).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 17 entire text (M.D. and translation).

You cannot catch God into earthly words. Every word is too small for God. If you could describe God with one word, God wouldn't be larger than that word. And in the first fragment of Hadewijch, at the beginning of this hour, we already read: 'It's impossible to explain God in human words. But if one is touched by God in one's soul, they can explain a little bit about Him to them who would be able to understand it in their soul'.

John of Ruusbroec also has written about the incomprehensibility of God, the impossibility to contain, to enclose God into a word, to comprehend God. As soon as you understand, it falls under the comprehension of the material creation, and God is not created, not physical, not material.

Ruusbroec states that the only way to understand God is 'with god'.

The incomprehensible nature of God surpasses all creatures in heaven and earth. Everything that a creature can understand, is creature. However God is above all creatures and outside all creatures and inside all creatures. And all created understanding is too small to grasp Him. But if a creature wants to understand and get and examine God, then they have to be lifted above themself into God, and to understand God with god.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). God is incomprehensible.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 117.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

So we are warned. Both language and understanding fail to say something about or to grasp something of mysticism. Mystics try to express something in language, that exceeds language. Descriptions and images in mystical writings, and probably in all religious texts, are at the very most a manner of speech, an attempt to evoke something.

If you would like to read more about the phenomenon of (christian) mysticism, this introductory and clarifying book by professor Mommaers is a good starting point: What is mysticism? (1977). It's here on the desk to leaf through it. See also the list with used literature.

Next week we will read some visions of Hadewijch; she is, like she says, 'touched in the soul by God' and we will try to grasp the meaning of it - as far as it's comprehensible. We will do this from the medieval world view, because this can throw a clarifying light on the medieval thoughts about visions and mystical experiences, about the place of the human being in creation and about the relationship between man and God within medieval thinking.

Finally, as I conclude every lesson hour, I'll hand out a summary, in the form of a bullet point list.


This last hour was about the definition and features of the mystical experience (concerning christian, theistic mysticism).

•  Mysticism is an experience of God, meeting God. A mystic experiences, by his own account, the presence of God.

•  Features of this experience itself are: im-mediate, conscientisation, it happens to the mystic; presence in the soul (immanent) or mystical unity (being one); and surpassing everything (transcendent) and infinity.

•  Characteristics of God, the 'being' of God, are described in oppositions - God is both non-personal and personal:
  • non-personal:
    an infinity, in rest (transcendent, unity, not active);
  • and personal:
    an Other that is active (immanent, a Trinity or male and female; active).
In a scheme this is schematical:

       God's 'being':

non-personal, infinit personal, Other
transcendent immanent
Unity Trinity (or: male-female)
rest activity ↴

•  The activity of God is described with the words: light or insight/truth/wisdom; and warmth or love.

       God's activity:

light warmth
insight love

Next week

So next week we will read in Hadewijch's visions. The context to understand these, is the medieval world view: how did the medieval man think about visions and mysticism?

Thank you for your attention and see you next week.

Background information

The course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries consists of seven lectures. The mystical writings of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec will be read and understood from their cultural-historical context.

•  About this course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries: content and layout.

•  Background literature about the Middle Ages, Hadewijch, Ruusbroec and medieval mysticism.

•  About the teacher Rozemarijn van Leeuwen.

•  Read the reactions or leave a comment.

•  Texts of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec: fragments in Middle Dutch and nowadays Dutch.

Original Dutch course

•  Lecture 1/7b in Dutch: Wat is mystiek?.


©  Above lecture is part of the course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries, by Rozemarijn van Leeuwen (1999-2001).

It's not permitted to copy this text digital or in print and/or to publish it.

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Follow the whole course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries online:

    first lesson hour (cultural-historical background) second lesson hour (reading texts)
  1 The Middle Ages What is mysticism?  ↑
  2 The medieval world view Hadewijch: vision and mysticism
  3 Hadewijch: glimpse of her life Hadewijch: roads towards God
  4 Women in the Middle Ages Hadewijch: bridal mysticism
  5 Ruusbroec: course of his life Ruusbroec: Active Life
  6 The horrible 14th century Ruusbroec: Inward Life
  7 Image and resemblance of God Ruusbroec: To meet Him