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 2b.  Hadewijch: vision and mystical experience

Topics this hour:
  • Vision VI: vision and mystical experience according to Hadewijch (against background medieval cosmology)
  • The medieval opinion on the phenomenon visions
  • The meaning of 'ghebruken', 'gheeste' and 'minne'
  • First impression of Hadewijch's image of God
  • Reading aloud vision VI in Middle Dutch


In this hour we will read Hadewijch's sixth vision. First in translation, with a commentary to each paragraph.

Fourteen visions of Hadewijch were preserved - why do we start with reading the sixth vision? In my opinion this provides the best access to Hadewijch's oeuvre and to her religious way of thinking.

First of all, this vision distinctly shows how Hadewijch's visions are constructed - you could say that this is her 'prototype', the 'standard model' of her visions. Second of all, we'll come across all of her most important key words: ghebruken, to get into a gheeste and minne. I will thoroughly clarify each term to understand what Hadewijch means by that.

Thirdly, by means of this vision it's possible to make a clear distinction between two types of religious experiences: visions and mystical experiences. We'll see how they relate to each other and how they both can be understood from the medieval world view.

From there I'll also will discuss in more detail, as I have promised, the opinion of the medieval man on visions and their meaning.

Finally this sixth vision will give us a first impression of Hadewijch's view on God. And also the features of her view on God can be divided into two clusters, consistent with the distinction between vision and mystical experience.

At the end of this hour, I will read aloud the whole text of the sixth vision in Middle Dutch (with a translation to read along). Then you'll be able to hear, with all the explanation in the back of your heads, the entire visionary text as a whole.

That also gives an opportunity to hear that Hadewijch not only did write beautiful imaginatively, but also in an elegant, poetic rhythm, in beautifully sounding, refined, neat 'Diets' (Middle Dutch) - you actually can hear why Hadewijch is regarded as a formidable writer, one of the highlights of Middle Dutch literature.

Vision VI

We'll start reading the sixth vision. In the Anthology you'll see the Middle Dutch on the left page en the translation on the right page.

Structure of the text

Vision VI consists of five parts:
  1. Beginning (v.1-20)
    introduction, taken 'into a spirit' and start vision
  2. Angel as mediator (v.21-34)
    an angel speaks as intermediary between Hadewijch and God
  3. Beholding God (v.35-66)
    Hadewijch sees God and receives knowledge about both man and God
  4. Experiencing God (v.67-78)
    this leads to a mystical unification
  5. Rounding-off (v.79-end)
    last words and returning 'in oneself'.

We'll start reading at the beginning, the introduction and the start of the vision (part 1).

It was during a Three King's Day. I was nineteen years old, as people said. I wanted to go to our Lord and in those days I was full of yearning and an overpowering longing for God - how He gives and takes when one is lost in Him and absorbed in delight (ghebrukenessen); and this for the ones who favour his will in every respect. On that day I was once again strongly moved by the love (minne).

And then I was taken into a spirit and I was guided to where I was shown a high, impressive place and at that mighty place was a seat. And the One who sat there, no one could look at Him, nor understand Him - because of the dignity of the task that was practised up there. Seating on such a place is above heavenly or earthly understanding.

Above that high seat on that high place I saw a crown that surpassed all tiaras and that was so wide, that she enclosed everything underneath and nothing existed outside that crown.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 1-20).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

After this an angel arrives (part 2, v.21-34). First the angel introduces Hadewijch to God and after that he askes God to totally lead her to Him. So this angel plays a mediating role (according with the medieval world view) between Hadewijch (the earthly) and God (the Empyrean).

Then came an angel with a glowing incensory, glowing with fire and smoke. He kneeled before that highest seat with the crown above it, and worshiped Him, saying: 'Oh, unprecedented power and almighty, great Lord, hereby You are honoured and praised by this woman, who is visiting You in your hidden place.


"Now reveal to her that You brought her here and lead her totally inside You."

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 21-24, 34).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

I would like to go back to the first paragraph (v. 1-8), that describes what happens before the actual vision begins. What does Hadewijch want, what sets her in motion? It says, in the third verse:

In those days I was full of yearning and an overpowering longing for God - how He actually gives and takes when one is lost in Him and absorbed in delight (ghebrukenessen) (...).

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 3).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

So immediately we encounter here, already before the actual vision begins, one of the most important key words of Hadewijch: ghebruken ('in op nemene van ghebrukenessen'; absorbed in delight). In Middle Dutch this paragraph sounds like this:

ende ic was te dien tide in begherten ende in oversterken eyskene, wie god nemt ende gheeft die in verlorenheiden van hem, in opnemene van ghebrukenessen (...)

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 3).

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

What does Hadewijch want? She doesn't want to get a vision, to see and behold God from a distance, no, she feels a yearning, an overpowering 'claiming' to get lost in God, to the ghebruken. What does she mean with this word 'ghebruken'?

The meaning of the word 'ghebruken'

A very important and recurring theme in Hadewijch's works, is the antithesis ghebruken and ghebreken.

In her visions Hadewijch describes her mystical experiences. So the moments that a mystic says that they are aware of God's presence. Usually she describes this with the Middle Dutch word ghebruken. Literally this words means 'enjoying'.

This splendidly shows how in those earliest religious texts in the regional language, a vocabulary is developed to be able to express yourself in Dutch about mysticism, theology, spirituality. Beside the mentioned word ghebruken, these are words like gerinen ('stirring'), orewoet ('raging longing for love'), enicheit ('oneness'), invloeyen ('flowing inwards'), verweentheit ('glorified'), etc., etc.

The Middle Dutch Dictionary (see yellow text box) gives a rather neutral definition of the word gebruken: 'enjoying, tasting'. The intense, delightful exaltational, ecstatic, mystic meaning it only gets through the context, the related content.

Then you can notice two important ways of using this word by Hadewijch. First of all: the delightful being united with God, enjoying the devine love. It that case it is the soul who ghebrukelijc experiences the devine love, enjoys it. This also includes an aspect of feeling love within the human being - so the meaning and the emotional value of the word ghebruken can be described as: a kind of intense, lovingly experiencing the divine love.

Meaning of 'ghebruken', Middle Dutch Dictio­nary:

• Enjoying, relish, savour, a plea­sant sensa­tion

• Enjoying inter­action with some­one, a pleasant or bless­full closeness

• Spiritual delight, sacred enjoy­ment, mystical connec­tion

• Elevating, divine

The Germanic word 'brui(ken)' is derived from the Latin word frui: 'enjoying' - for example: frui vita, 'enjoying life'.

In German mysti­cism you find a similar deri­vative: the göttlicher Gebrau­chung ('the godly enjoy­ment').

However the ghebruken also exists within God Himself - for example: He is 'in the highness of his ghebruken' (letter 6). In this context Hadewijch uses the word to describe the inner-divinity enjoyment, the loving enjoyment within God.

The Dutch translations in the Anthology we use during this course, are from prof. Mommears' publication of the visions (he is one of the members of the Ruusbroec Society in Antwerp). Mommaers translates ghebruken with the Dutch 'genieten' ('enjoying', 'feeling delight'). But in fact it means more than that. So every time you read the word 'genieten'/'enjoying', take a look at the Middle Dutch text, most probably it says ghebruken - and the meaning and the emotional value is more like: to intensely and lovingly experience the divine love. Hadewijch mainly writes about the ghebruken in her visions and letters.

But a mystic hasn't permanently that feeling of awareness of God's presence. Also for Hadewijch, those mystical experiences are just short, sporadic moments, for the larger part God isn't experienceable present here on earth, she just has to live her earthly life, in abandonment, Hadewijch calls it 'in ellende' ('in misery'). After that moment of ghebruken, there will be the ghebreken (the 'lacking'). These are two poles in Hadewijch's writings. Ghebreken (literally 'the lacking', lacking God) means: the misery and the loneliness, abandonment because of the separation from God in the sublunary sphere.

So the ghebreken ('lacking God') refers to simply being a human on earth, in the sublunary sphere. And that is a good thing, Hadewijch says, we will see in the fourth lecture that it's important to her to live her normal life as a human being here on earth. But nonetheless, she then misses God's presence and is longing for her beloved, her 'minne' (her love). And she verbalizes that mainly in her letters and poems: the ghebreken, the lacking, the abandonment, the longing.

ghebruken   ghebreken
enjoying, having delight; God is present; lovingly experiencing the divine love   lacking; separation from God in the sublunary sphere; loneliness, longing; living earthly life

Continuation vision VI: start visionairy text

Hadewijch continues, in verse 7, that she is strongly touched by love: 'On that day I was once again strongly moved by the love' (moved, touched, stirred).

Being touched by love, we've already seen in the fragments of Simone Weil and the anonymous Carmelite, last week. This is without a doubt the most important key word in Hadewijch's texts, the Middle Dutch word: minne (in Dutch: 'liefde', in English: 'love'). When we arrive at part four of this vision, later on, I will explain the origin and the meaning of this word 'minne' in detail, so I'll come back to that later.

After this the actual vision begins, from v.9 onward. But that is not what Hadewijch longed for. She yearns to be absorbed in God, to the ghebruken, the experience of God's love, the mystical experience (that only will follow in part four). Last week we saw that such a mystical experience is described as im-mediate, without mediation, without images in between. And that it's hardly possible to put that into words.

First Hadewijch describes (prior to the actual mystical experience) a vision, a spiritual experience with images. Such a visionary part in a mystical text has a clear function. By means of such a vision, she can clarify the meaning of the actual mystical description: the vision part of the text shows in images that she is guided by an angel, the she is in the celestial spheres, that it is God whom she meets.

So the images of the vision give meaning to the short description of the mystical experience, that is embedded in that vision.

As in most of Hadewijch's visions and letters, also in this vision we recognise images she derives from the Bible, religious or theological writers or images of the christian tradition. I'm lacking the time to discuss this extensively. But take for example the sentence:

Then I was taken into a spirit and I was guided to where I was shown a high, impressive, awesome place and at that mighty place was a seat. And the one who sat there ... (vision VI).

This is very similar to a sentence of the bible book Revelation in the New Testament:

At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there ... (Rev. 4:2).

In both cases of course it is God sitting on that seat or throne. We discussed last week (frequently asked questions: science about visions) that the current psychological religious studies determines: 'A vision always shows what the visionary already believes, in images from his religious tradition, whereof often he becomes a part within that vision'. But it's not about such a contemporary description now; we'll move on to the question that is the centre of attention within this course.

The medieval opinion on the phenomenon visions

What did people in the Middle Ages think about the phenomenon of getting visions? Before the break we saw that getting a vision was possible within the medieval world view. But what did happen during a vision, according to the medieval man, and what value was attached to a vision?

Several mystics have written about visions during the Middle Ages, so we can get a rather clear idea about their opinion. You'll find four fragments about visions in today's hand-out, so we will read some parts of those.

First of all the fragment written by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century). What does she write about the phenomenon of getting visions?

Truly, the visions that I've seen, I didn't receive them in my dreams or while I was sleeping, nor in insanity, nor with the eyes of the body or the ears of the exterior person, nor in hidden places; but awake and in full consciousness, with the eyes and the ears of the inner person, on open, public places, according God's will. But how this happens, is hard to figure out for a mortal man.

Hildegard of Bingen.

English translation by RvL.

According to Hildegard, she is not asleep when she receives a vision, so they are not dreams. She's also not insane. And very important: the images of the vision don't go through her physical senses, but she sees them with her 'inner eyes', the eyes of the innerly person, the eyes of the soul. So it is, according to her, a supernatural, metaphysical or spiritual experience, of someone who is awake and to his senses.

John of Ruusbroec (14th century) also states that one doesn't perceive a vision through their senses. I'll read the first paragraph of Ruusbroec's fragment.

Out of this tempest in the soul and the agatation of the love (minne), some people are on occasion pulled above their senses into the spirit; and they get an announcement, in words, or in images and pictures, of some kind of truth, that they or others need, or sometimes of things that are still in the future. This is called revelations or visions. (...) An angel can accomplish this in a human, by God's power.

John of Ruusbroec.

English translation by RvL.

So Ruusbroec states that God can show a certain truth to a person through a vision, and that this usually is done by an angel. This corresponds with the idea about angels, according to the medieval world view. Just before the break, we saw that an angel was considered to be a messenger of God during the Middle Ages, God could get in contact with a human being through angels.

Last of all a paragraph by Teresa of Ávila (16th century). She writes:

If the Lord thinks it's right to show the ecstatic soul certain secrets or some heavenly things or visions with images, then it's possible for her to recount those later on. They are pressed so strong into her memory, that she will never forget them. However, if she experiences visions of the mind (meaning: experiences without images, mystical experiences), then it's impossible for her to say anything about them.

Teresa of Ávila

English translation by RvL.

Here Teresa distinguishes a vision and a mystical experience. In case of a vision, one sees with the eyes of the soul. One can describe this in detail afterwards. A mystical experience is a spiritual experience without images, and it's almost impossible to say something about it afterwards.

So a vision is, according to the medieval man, a truth of God, that is shown to the soul by angels. The person sees this directly with his/her spiritual eyes (the images don't come through the physical senses), is awake and not insane. This corresponds seamlessly with their world view, with the nine choirs of angels and angels as God's messengers. So based on those medieval fragments, this could be the definition we could use: a vision is a truth of God, that is shown to the soul by angels.

In our century, we can interpret the phenomenon of visions as hallucinations or delusions, or even as being made up, or - considering the many literary references - as literary fiction. We could ask the question: is a vision really a supernatural experience or is it just literature, or is it a strongly felt, lived through, religious image, that is evoked by the brain itself? But this course is not about this question, we read these medieval texts from their cultural-historical context. What did the public of that time think about these texts, what did medieval men think about visions?

And for the medieval man (who puts confidence in the sincerity of the mystic), a vision is real. What is shown is a truth. And not just simply a truth, but a truth that is interpret as directly coming from God - so as a sacred, exalted, impressive message. And because both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec were appreciated in high regard, many people will have attached faith and value to their texts.

From that point of view, that historical perspective, I will read those medieval visions during this whole course. I'm not trying to understand what our opinion is about these visions, but I'm trying to look into the head of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec, to understand their way of thinking and their religious beliefs, their faith.

The meaning of 'taken into a spirit'

Well, how does a vision exactly work in Hadwijch's writings? We'll pick up Hadewijch's sixth vision and go back to the second paragraph we just read. In verse 9 it says (click on 'play' to hear the Middle Dutch):

And then I was taken into a spirit ...

Ende doe werdic op ghenomen in enen geeste ...

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 9).

English translation by RvL.

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

Mommaers doesn't really translate the phrase 'in enen gheeste', he only changes the spelling a bit ('in een geest'; I was taken 'into a spirit'). But what does that mean, to be taken 'into a spirit'? Hadewijch is taken into 'a spirit' after which she sees a mighty place, a seat and a crown; and after that an angel approaches her, who recommends her to the one on the seat.

Well, Hadewijch's medieval audience now knew exactly what was going on! After all, they believed in the world view we discussed before the break. Hadewijch meets an angel that leads her to God; so she is (or better: her soul is) in the celestial spheres. To be precise: she is in one of the planetary spheres, filled with ether and the nine choirs of angels.

In her first vision, Hadewijch states that she is guided by a Throne Angel, that will 'accompany me on all my roads' (I will repeat it in Middle Dutch, click on play):

Ende die mi leidde dat was j. inghel vanden tronen die dat onderscheet hebben. Ende op dien selven dach wasic te hem comen met wassene, soe dat ickene hadde ontfaen dat hi soude sijn in miere hoeden ende gheselle in al minen weghen.

Hadewijch, vision I (v. 23-25).

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



The one that guided me was an angel, one of the Thrones; and they have the gift of distinction. Right at that day, I had grown up to his height and I had received that he would guard me and accompany me on all my roads.

Hadewijch, vision I (v. 23-35).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision I entire text (M.D. and translation).

At that moment, the medieval man exactly knows where Hadewijch is. There are nine orders of angels, the higest three are the Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim, and she is with a Throne Angel. So very close to God.

The Thrones populate the planetary sphere of Saturn - so truly a heavenly experience high in the celestial spheres. After that you only have the sphere of the Firmament (with the Cherubim) and the Primum Mobile (with the Seraphim) - so being with the Thrones is being very close to the Empyrean, residence of God, surrounding the whole of creation in the medieval cosmology.

Before the break, we saw the two medieval miniatures of the nine planetary spheres and the nine choirs of angels, that seamlessly fit together. I'll show them again alongside each other.

medieval ptolemaic model earth center    hildegard scivias vision angels

The geocentrical world view with the nine celestial spheres
and the nine choirs of angels around the earth
(according to Hildegard).

So in conclusion, the medieval world view makes clear how you could translate or define the phrase 'in enen gheeste'/'in a spirit'. The word 'gheeste' here refers to an angels' sphere: Hadewijch is in a celestial sphere (above the moon), in the world of the immaterial ether, a planetary sphere, circling the earth, with one of the nine choirs of angels.

If you pay attention you'll notice that Hadewijch's visionairy descriptions always are 'three-dimensional': the angel doesn't 'show' her something in the sixth vision, but 'leads her to'. And as we will see next week: she doesn't 'see' an orchard, but walks through it, from tree to tree. She doesn't 'see' a mountain, but climbs it.

So 'op ghenomen in enen gheeste'/'to be taken into a spirit' in Hadewijch's writings means: to be taken into a celestial sphere with one of the choirs of angels, or shorter: 'to be taken into an angels' sphere'.

By the way, the expression is taken from the Bible book Revelation, that says, in the Latin Vulgate: 'et sustulit me in spiritu' ('en verhief mij in de geest'/'and elevated me into the spirit'; 4:2 and 21:10).

We'll return to Teresa for a short moment. She writes in the second paragraph:

The fact is, that the spirit really seems to leave the body. But on the other hand, the person clearly isn't dead. During several moments however, it's not in her power to tell if her spirit is in her body or not. It appears to her she was right in an other land, very different from the one we live in. There she is faced with another light, so different from the light down here (...).

In the blink of an eye, she is taught so much, that she couldn't be succesful in arranging even a thousandth of it, even if her imagination and intellect would work on it for years. This is not a vision of the mind, but one with images. It is seen with the eyes of the soul, much better than we down here can see with the eyes of the body.

Teresa of Ávila

English translation by RvL.

Until here for this moment. Teresa explicitly describes receiving a vision as an out-of-body experience. And she calls the place we normally live in 'down here' - opposed to land of vision, that therefore has to be 'up there' (sublunar-celestial).

That same element we find at the end of several of Hadewijch's visions. She describes that she 'returns' again 'in herself', 'in the matter', in her body. For example the end of the eighth vision:

Go back into your body (or: your matter) and let your works blossom. (...)

Then I returned in myself (...).

Hadewijch, visioen VIII.

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VIII entire text (M.D. and translation).

It's only possible to return into the matter (in the sublunary sphere) if you have been away from that world of matter (have been in the celestial spheres, ether).

So concerning the type of visions that visionaries like Teresa and Hadewijch write, you could conclude that in case of a vision, the soul leaves the body, ascends to a celestial spheres, the spheres of the angels and sees there with her spiritual eyes. In their texts, a vision or mystical experience is an out-of-body, spiritual experience.

We just came up with the definition: What is a vision according to a medieval man? It is a truth of God, that is shown to the soul by angels.

In the case of Hadewijch's type of visions, you can add: thereby the soul leaves the body, ascends to the spheres of the angels and sees there with his/her spiritual eyes.

However, later on when we'll read Ruusbroec, we will come across another explanation of the religious experience, after he describes his view on man. A human being is a micro-cosmos, a refelection of the cosmos, and in this way it makes sense that religious experiences, visions and mysticism, also can be described within the soul, in the core of the human being. After all, the human being is a micro-cosmos, according to medieval man, and God is transcendent and immanent. I'll come back to that later.

Continuation vision VI: image of God

We'll return to Hadewijch's sixth vision. The angel has recommended her to God and has played his mediative role; that brings us to the third part of the vision (v.35-66). Hadewijch will behold God.

What does Hadewijch see? At the beginning of the vision, she just saw a seat with a crown above it. V.12: 'The One who sat there, no one could look at Him, nor understand Him'. And after the angel has spoken, she hears a voice that says: 'See who I am' (v.36).

And only then, after the voice has said that, she is able to see God. And the first thing she says about God, is that he emanates light; v.37: 'And I saw the One that I had been searching for and his appearance manifested itself so luminescent'.

And then I heard a voice speaking to me, dreadful and never heard. It spoke to me in an apparition and said: "See who I am".

And I saw the One that I had been searching for and his appearance manifested itself so luminescent. Within it I could recognize all the appearances and all the shapes that ever have existed and will exist of all the righteous people that give Him honour and service.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 35-46).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

In this vision, God is represented as a human figure, with an appearance, a face. Later Hadewijch also describes a right and left hand (v.55) and also a chest (v.64). And in this appearance (v.40-55), so in this personal God, Hadewijch sees all forms of life, all possible relations between man and God.

You will remember the fragment of Hildegard of Bingen, last week, in which she wrote that she received insight in the Bible. Here we see a similar aspect: the mystic reports that she receives spiritual insight. In this case, insight in the relation man-God. So a vision consists of sight and insight - images alone are not enough, they also have a meaning, lead to knowledge, lead to insight for the mystic.

After this, from v.60 onward, Hadewijch describes God very similar to the fragment in letter 22, we read last week. Now v.60 - and I'll repeat it in Middle Dutch:

Ic sach sine lingde onder al verdruct. Ic sach sine cleinheit boven al verheven. Ic sach sine verborghentheit begripelec alle dinc omme vloyende, Ic sach sine wijtheit binnen al besloten.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 60).

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



I saw His greatness suppressed by everything; I saw His smallness elevated above everything; I saw His concealment enclose and enflow everything; and I saw His grandness surrounded by everything.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 60).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

In four paradoxes, Hadewijch indicates that God is within everything, immanent, and surpasses everything, transcendent.

So first Hadewijch describes God as personal, as a person, a human figure (with a face and hands). Within that personal God, she perceives all the ways man can live, all possible kinds of relations with God. After that, she describes God as non-personal, a-personal, a greatness, a grandness, present in everything: so transcendent and immanent. Last week we already saw that mystics describe God as personal and as non-personal: God is an Other and an abyss, God is a face with a smile and is love.

Hadewijch then states in v. 63: 'I heard his reason and understood all reason with my reason'. So after God told Hadewijch 'See who I am', she not only actually gets to see God's face and luminescency, but she also observes things that give her insight in the relation man-God and she receives knowledge of God.

Continuation vision VI: the mystical experience of unity

All these things make her so astonished (in a 'state of wonder'), that she gets 'buten den gheeste', 'outside the spirit'. This is the fourth part of the vision (v.67-78).

If you remember the ptolemaic world view once more (the geocentric model of the universe), we roughly could divide that into three parts: the earth, the sublunary sphere (residence of man); the planetary spheres and firmament or the spheres of the angels (residence of angels); and the Empyrean (residence of God).

empyrean   divine
planetery sph.   celestial
earth   sublunar

We just saw that to be 'taken into a spirit' means for Hadewijch that her soul is taken from the earthly sphere into a spiritual sphere, celestial sphere, with the choirs of angels. And then to get outside the spirit hence means to get outside those angels' spheres, into the Empyrean, to God.

So here, in v.67, the actual mystical experience begins. Until now, Hadewijch saw God, from a distance; now the mystical experience, the mystical unification begins.

But then all the richness that I had seen in Him brought me into astonishment. And through that wonderment I got outside the spirit, where I had seen all that I had been searching for. So while I was able to to know my frightening and unspeakable sweet Love, in all that rich abundance, I fell outside the spirit, away from myself and all that I had seen of Him - completely lost I fell into the delightening chest of his nature, the love (minne).

I remained devoured and lost in there, outside all comprehension: neither knowing, nor seeing, nor understanding, other than to be one with Him and to enjoy (ghebrukene) Him. I remained there less than half an hour.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 67-78).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

Here we see again the word 'ghebruken', Hadewijch's key word when describing the actual mystical experience of one-ness: 'to be one with Him and to ghebrukene Him'. I didn't know anything else anymore, but to be one with God, and to intensely and lovingly experience the divine love, to enjoy.

She has no 'comprehension' anymore, she doesn't 'see' anymore - here we recognize some of the characteristics of the mystical experience, that we found in the various fragments of mystics last week. And also love is mentioned here again.

Hadewijch writes that she loses herself in God's nature, the love (minne): 'I fell into the delightening chest of his nature, the love'. So the nature of God, the being of God, she describes as 'minne', love. This word 'minne' is probably the most important key word in Hadewijch's mystical thought.

The meaning of the word 'minne'

Until the rise of these mystical texts in the vernacular, the Middle Dutch word 'minne' was used in secular texts, especially in courtly literature and love lyrics. Courtliness was a literary ideal that arose in the 12th century. In early Germanic stories, true friendship, loyalty and love mainly existed between men (brothers in arms, knights). In courtly stories, however, a knight's love for an unreachable lady is idealised - denominated by the word 'minne'.

The word 'minne' is etymologically related to the Greek word memini ('to remember'), the Latin word mens ('thought, spirit') and the English word mind ('thought, spirit, consciousness'). So it refers to love, that a human being can carry in his thought, in his (loving) memory, in his consciousness; so an inner, deeply heartfelt, internal love, a spiritual love, that internally filled and also elevated the knight.

In that traditional, earliest courtly literature, it is always about a man that worships an unreachable woman (so a one-way affair). However very soon, in that same 12th century, also literary texts are written in which they take it one step further: a longing for mutual love, love that really is returned (a developement that later leads to romantic love).

Last week we already saw an example of that mutual love (using that word 'minne'): the 12th-century songtext written by Hendrik van Veldeke, in which he compares the love of the main character ('I') with Tristan and Iseult: 'ende ich sie minne bat dan he' (and I love her even more, than he loved Iseult).

Now Hadewijch is the first to use that word 'minne' from the courtly literature and love songs in a religious context. In her case, it is also about such an inner, internally filling, elevating love for a mostly absent beloved (namely Christ or God). A fundamental difference is that in her case of course it's not anymore about a man's love for a woman, earthly love, but about religious, spritual, exalted, explicitly un-earthly love.

Only a very few times she experiences the 'minne' - not when she's on earth, but during a mystical experience, when her soul is 'in den gheeste' (in the spirit, in the angelic spheres) and when she falls 'buten den gheeste' (outside the celestial spheres). So during an out-of-body experience, non-sensory and un-earthly. It's obvious that she doesn't relate to the proper traditional courtly love (one-way affair), but to the ensuing ideal of mutual love.

'Minne' (love) is not the only word that Hadewijch borrows from the secular litera­ture: she also taps into several existing medieval registers (vocabulary, themes, images and textual forms), like:

• courtly love songs (nature introduction, poems in stanzas)

• courtly novels (minne, service, loyalty)

• novels of chivalry (adventures, pride, battle, wandering around)

• Bible, reli­gious songs and theo­logians (Bernard of Clair­vaux, Willem of Saint-Thierry and Richard of Saint-Victor).

So her work didn't come into exis­tence out of thin air - but it seam­lessly matches the 13th-century literary practice and ideals of those days con­cerning skilled author­ship: 'conven­tion and varia­tion'.

In both ereas she is an un­paralleled master. She is very familiar with French, Latin, Dutch and biblical litera­ture ('conven­tion') and from there she is, very eloquently, able to trans­form existing terms and themes into religious or mystical subjects ('varia­tion')

Within the whole field of Middle Dutch religious litera­ture, Hade­wijch as a writer operates on the highest level with hardly an equal. Not because she has risen out of pure inspi­ration out of nothing­ness - on the contrary: she is fully rooted into the thinking, believing, the litera­ture and the spiritu­ality of her time; and from there she has been able to develop an unique, inno­vative and lived-through, vivid oeuvre.

End of vision VI

As soon as Hadewijch is absorbed in the being of God, the love, she's just not able to say anything anymore, she doesn't see anymore (un-sensorial) and all words and images fall short, fail, she gets 'outside all comprehension': 'neither knowing, nor seeing, nor understanding, other than to be one with Him and to enjoy (ghebrukene) Him'.

During the vision, Hadewijch was able to see with the eyes of her soul, now she has that im-mediate experience, without images, the mystical experience of unification. Last week we already saw that a mystic is hardly able to say anything about experiencing divinity. Also in this case the description is very short, v.67-78, only 12 lines of the 92 lines length of this vision.

We arrived at the end of the sixth vision, the conclusion (the fifth part, v.79-end).

Then I was again awakened in a spirit and I understood as before and understood all words.


And with that I was brought back again, to my deepest regret, in myself.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 79-end).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

During this paragraph an angel yet again speaks some concluding final words on behalf of God. And in that speach he makes a very startling statement, in v.86:

I lead you, as god and human, again back into the cruel world: there you will taste all kinds of deaths, until you'll return here to fully enjoy Me.

Hadewijch, vision VI (v. 86).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).  Vision VI entire text (M.D. and translation).

With the word 'death' Hadewijch doesn't mean dying, but the earthly experience of the absence of God. Death means the absence, God is not experienceable.

But I'm aiming at the sentence: 'I lead you, as god and human, again back into the cruel world'. Here Hadewijch is called 'god and human' ('god ende mensche'). This is of course highly curious! I'll get back to these ideas, to 'become divine' and to 'be divine', during the fourth lecture.

So the ending of the sixth vision says: 'And with that I was brought back again, to my deepest regret, in myself' ('in mi selven'). She is brought back in herself, so her soul is brought back into her body. From the celestial spheres back to the earth. 'Jamerleke', regrettably enough, miserably enough.

This last hour we explored the main line of the sixth vision and this vision unmistakable shows Hadewijch's underlying realm of thought. She is taken into a spirit, is guided by an angel, she sees God and gets insights (vision, 'sight and insight')  →  she experiences God (mysticism, ghebruken, minne)  →  and afterwards she returns 'into herself', in the matter, in her body.

With this overall view, you could say that the medieval cosmology is the stage on which Hadewijch's visions and mysticism take place. The three parts of the visionary text (vision - mysticism - return) seamlessly match the medieval cosmology (angel's choirs - Empyrean - earth).

During a vision she is 'taken into a spirit' (with an angel, in one of the choirs of angels), during the mystical experience she 'falls outside the spirit' (lost and absorbed into God, in the Empyrean) and afterwards she returns 'into the matter', into her body (the sublunar sphere, the earth).

mystical experience   ghebruken
  Empyrean   divine
vision   beholding
(sight and insight)
  planetery spheres   celestial
back 'into the matter'   ghebreken
  earth   sublunar


At the beginning of this hour, I gave four reasons why I wanted to start with this sixth vision of Hadewijch. I'll get back to each of these four reasons to see what we learned about each of them in the last hour.

First of all the structure of the text, how this 'prototype', this 'standard model' of her visions, basally is constructed. We've seen that the description of the actual mystical experience of unification, that ecstatic, im-mediate moment without words and images, is embedded in a visionary text, that visually clarifies it's meaning for the listeners.

Second of all, we talked about the difference between a vision and a mystical experience: images that are shown to the soul by angels versus the im-mediate experience of unification with God. Her descriptions of these, both get meaning out of the medieval world view, the medieval cosmology: the choir of angels is the stage of 'in a spirit/gheeste' and visionairy images; and the Empyrean is the stage of 'outside the spirit/gheeste' and the mystical expierence.

Third of all, we encountered several of Hadewijch's key words, mainly 'ghebruken' (enjoying), 'ghebreken' (lacking), 'opgenomen in enen gheeste' (taken into a spirit) en 'minne' (love). Understanding what Hadewijch is trying to express with these words, really helps you to give meaning to the rest of her oeuvre - since we will encounter these words many more times.

And last of all, this vision gave us a first impression of Hadewijch's image of God. And these characteristics clearly can be divided according to the vision and the mystical experience: the first is how Hadewijch sees God, the second is how Hadewijch experiences God.

In both cases her descriptions are very clear. During the vision: the personal and non-personal God, transcendent and immanent. As light and love. And as a source of insight: knowledge of man and of God. All these elements we've already seen last week, following the question: 'what is mysticism?'. I've written them as list on the blackboard then.

And during the actual mystical experience she describes God's nature, God's being as 'minne', as love. Last week, of course, also the love was part of the list on the blackboard. Next week, however, her image of God will be expanded with a totally new and unexpected image.

Reading aloud the entire vision VI in Middle Dutch

Now we've read vision six completely and extensively discussed it. If there's still time, I want to read it aloud entirely in Middle Dutch (with English translation to read along, of course). You now all have an understanding of the meaning of the text and with the original Middle Dutch you will hear it in Hadewijch's own words.

In the movie below, you can listen to the Middle Dutch, while reading along in English.

Unfortunately I speak nowadays Dutch with a northern-Low-Countries accent (I'm from Utrecht, 'above the big rivers', and that Hollandic pronunciation distinctly differs from the Flemish and Brabantian pronunciation 'below the rivers'). In fact these text should be read aloud by someone who was raised in Brabant, that still will sound closer to how Hadewijch will have sounded. But even so, I still hope that the video will give an impression of the Middle Dutch.

Reading vision VI in Middle Dutch (with English translation).
Duration: 12 minutes.

See also: the integral text of vision VI, Middle Dutch and translation


This last hour we've read and discussed Hadewijch's sixth vision. By means of this vision, we focused on the structure of Hadewijch's visionary texts; the difference between vision and mysticism; several important key words; and her image of God.

•  The structure of the vision corresponds to the medieval cosmology: it starts 'in the spirit' with an angel (vision, 'sight and insight'; part 2-3); afterwards she falls 'outside the spirit', into the Empyrean, into the divine (mysticism, ghebruken; part 4); and finally she returns to the matter, into herself (the earth; part 5).

•  The images of the vision give meaning to the short description of the mystical experience, that is embedded in that vision.

•  Hadewijch describes the mystical experience with the Middle Dutch word ghebruken (enjoying/having delight, intensely and lovingly experiencing the divine love). The opposite is the ghebreken (the lacking, the separation from God in the sublunary sphere, loneliness, longing, living earthly life).

•  A vision is, according to the medieval man, a truth of God, that is shown in images to the soul by angels. Thereby the soul can leave the body, ascending to the spheres of the angels and seeing there with his/her spiritual eyes.

•  According to the medieval world view, the phrase 'to be taken into a spirit' (opgenomen in enen gheeste) means: to be taken into a sphere of angels. Here the vision takes place.

•  And the phrase 'to get (or fall) outside the spirit' (buten den gheeste) means: get outside those celestial, angels' spheres, to get/fall into the Empyrean, to God. Here the mystical experience takes place.

•  Hadewijch states that she acquires knowledge of God in two different ways - similar to the distinction between vision and mysticism. During a vision Hadewijch sees God, during a mystical unification she experiences God.

•  During a vision, Hadewijch says she can describe God as personal and non-personal, transcendent and immanent. God is a source of insight: self-knowledge and knowledge of God.

•  During a mystical experience, Hadewijch says to experience God as 'minne', as love.

•  The word 'minne' (love) refers to an inner, internally filling, elevating love for a mostly absent beloved.

Next week

Next week we'll thoroughly look into Hadewijch's life and the world she lives in.

In the hour after the break, we will read more of Hadewijch's works. First we will be able to extend her image of God. She adds an unexpected characteristic to this image.

And we'll also read about the roads that Hadewijch should have to go, according to the visions. The week after that, we will see how she integrates those roads into her earthly life.

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 2/7b in Dutch: Het visioen en de mystieke ervaring bij Hadewijch.


©  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