I picked up a new book (well, several new books) at Youth Specialities (aka Nat’l Youth Workers Convention) this weekend. The title is above, and it is written by Carol Lee Flinders, a woman who is well-known for collaborating on the ‘Laurel’s Kitchen’ cookbooks. This, however, is not a cookbook, but a rather academic (she has a doctorate in medieval literature) look into the lives and writings of these women. Maybe you could call it literary critique???
Right off the bat, she addresses the issue of why she makes the jump from cooking to mystics. Her answer is compelling–she speaks of hunger and how hunger of the body and hunger of the spirit share so many commonalities. (Shedding a new layer of light on the importance of eating together).
I have only once before been exposed to ideas and writings like this, and that was in Wonil Kim’s “Feminist Readings of the Bible” honors course in college. There is a lot of emphasis on the unique (and generally understated or ignored) view/experience of God by women. The author also endeavors to consistently draw attention to where each mystic appeals to the modern mind frame and how their message can affect our present lives.
I view the snatches reading that I do during the day as a ‘cleansing of the palate’ during a day of mothering. Keeps me sane, so to speak. This particular book has been not only informative and devotional, but also amusing and interesting.
So far I have read about St. Clare of Assisi, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Julian of Norwich, and at the last nursing break, a few pages of St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Clare of Assisi was a contemporary of St. Francis. I very much enjoyed the picture Flinders painted of her joyfulness and plain good sense. She was the first woman in the West to write a Rule for her order (aptly entitled “The Poor Ladies”, and the parallels that Flinders exposes between the higher-up, micromanaging popes and cardinals are just funny. E.g, Cardinal Hugolino’s rule says that you have to tell candidates for joining the order about “the hard and austere realities” of life with the order. “Clare says only, ‘Let the tenor of our life be thoroughly explained to her.’” Beautifully and fully understated.
And Grandma should enjoy this one: “Pope Innocent busied himself a good deal about exactly what everyone should wear: cover this, cover that, and ‘Let them not dare to appear in any other way before outsiders.’” Clare says, wear cheap clothes because you love a Child who was wrapped in poor swaddling clothes. Hehe, she just cuts to the heart of things with a delightful sense of letting the women work it out for themselves. (Taken from p. 35 & 36)
Mechthild of Magdeburg kind of freaks me out a little. Mystics in general are very “other” for me. I have a very hard time understanding how you can remove yourself from the world completely to get closer to God. And the seeming excesses of emotion and experience and inwardness make me feel uncomfortable. But Mechthild kind of takes the cake for me. Her writings are described as having erotic overtones. Now, I have no experience with literary critique and have a hard time discerning a writers’ meaning unless it is explicitly stated, but even I caught those ‘overtones’. I expect that several years from now, I will look back from a more progressed experience and laugh at my uncomfortableness, but let us just say that it didn’t speak clearly to me. (It must not have spoken clearly to very many people…I don’t think Mechthild was ever in the running for sainthood. But then again, I don’t think she did any miracles so she’d be out of the running anyhow.)
I did very much appreciate certain other parts. Her book is entitled “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”. Flowing light, isn’t that beautiful. The idea of flowing, particularly liquids flowing, abounds in her writings. (See, there goes the eroticism again, but I guess you could call it overtones). The idea of God, God’s love and goodness as flowing is a very powerful image. Here, listen to this:
“She [Mechthild] will speak of an ‘inward tug’ and ‘the
rippling tide of love which flows secretly from God into
the soul and draws it back mightily back into its
Source.’” (p. 63)
I enjoyed Julian of Norwich much more easily. Her two big points are sin & forgiveness, and motherhood. Motherhood, meaning the realization of the motherly attributes of God. I especially enjoyed the little section that draws a parallel between the wound in Christ’s side from which flowed blood and water, and childbirth (another time blood and water flows that is also fraught with suffering and ultimately joy).
Before Lia wakes up and Amelie gets cranky, I just want to say that much of the fun of this book comes from Carol Lee Flinders herself. Her writing is very vivid, and joyous, and funny. It has stretched my vocabulary…it took several chapters before I was able to define “corporeal” and recognize its meaning immediately when used in a sentence. But to illustrate the fun of reading this book, I will leave you with a quote from the chapter on St. Catherine of Siena (whose picture is up at the top…it is actually a corner of the painting “God appearing to St. Mary Madgalene and St. Catherine” by Fra Bartomelo…I would love to have it for a quiet space in my house):
“Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347, just four years after Julian of Norwich, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. (This fact merits, if not comment, at least a respectful pause.)” (p. 107)