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My spiritual formation students are reading The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s love with Three Women Mystics by Wendy Farley. The book explores the life and faith of Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Julian of Norwich. Our conversation as been rich, both serious and entertaining, full of good questions, puzzled looks, and some laughter. We discussed the use of feminine language for God, along with a comparison between the theology of the institutional (patriarchal) church and that of the women mystics. Of course, we fall into stereotypes when we talk about masculine and feminine metaphors for the divine, but it’s an important conversation with significant implications for our understanding of faith and spirituality.

A central focus of our discussion is the metaphors we use for salvation. The dominant metaphors at that time centered on sin, wrath, and satisfaction. That somehow humans have robbed God of the honor God is due, deserving punishment. The sacraments are seen as instruments of salvation, believing that Jesus made satisfaction for our sin on the cross, bearing God’s wrath so we don’t have to. The women mystics see salvation differently. For them, the focus is healing. Sin is a condition in which humans forget who they are, becoming distorted by wrongly directed desires. In this metaphor Jesus comes to find us, to heal our wounds, and call us back to the love of God that is ground for all creation. God is not wrathful, and God’s justice is always filtered through God’s mercy. Everything God does is for the good of a creation that is called back into relationship.

Yesterday, in discussing Marguerite, a student asked how we know when we’ve entered into faith. Marguerite suggests that reconcililation with God moves through reason, through virtue, through rightly ordered desire, but never stops at any one of them. In fact, true faith is to move beyond, to negate them, to come face to face with Lady Love. Notice, we must move through them. That’s the hardest part for my students. Their generation wants to have spirituality without religion, so they read Marguerite and say, “Oh yes, I totally agree. We just need to love.” But, they miss her point. We must move through reason and virtue, we must reorder our desire, to then enter into the freedom of Love.

I responded to the question by suggesting that faith produces a life of generosity and grace. Moving through belief and virtue means letting them go–loosening our grip. Being caught up in the love of God means our lives become a reflection of God’s love. In my neck of the woods talking about God’s love gets you in trouble. Self proclaimed prophets, standing up for God’s truth, have made it known that too many preachers and teachers have gone soft, talking about God’s love and grace but never justice and wrath. They are obsessed with calling people out, publicly shaming them, calling their faith into question. I wish they would read Mechthild. Farley writes this of Mechthild’s perspective:

The potential conflict between Justice and Mercy is resolved by the intervention of the Son, whose Mercy both limits and reorients Justice. There is still judgment for unrepentant guilt, but Justice is able to focus on a gentler task. In the company of Mercy, his work is to inspire friends of God to live a holy life. Through this discipline, God’s friends share in the purity of Christ’s own life. Justice is no longer limited to punishment but works to re-balance and harmonize the soul.

Nowhere in scripture does it say that God is justice, or God is wrath. It does say, “God is love.” This morning I’m thankful for mystic women like Mechthild, Marguerite, and Julian for the gentle reminder.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

2 Comments

  • Dr. Stephen Staggs says:

    . . . and Rachel Denhollander, a devout Christian lawyer, teacher, and activist who recently spoke at the January Series at Calvin College. Her talk was the most lucid and important reflection on justice and forgiveness I have ever heard. If there is one address to listen to/view today, let it be hers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZsA8tur_Ik

  • Ann says:

    Marguerite Porete… I knew that name sounded familiar. She was one of the mystics we covered for an “Atheism for Lent” class I participated in. Thanks for the reminder… I just went back and re-read some of her work (so beautiful and moving)!

    Chapter 18. How such creatures do not know how to say any- thing about God.
    The Soul. Such creatures can no longer say anything about God, for they can no more say who
    God is than where he is. For whoever speaks of God, when and to whom and where he
    pleases, must never doubt but must know beyond doubt, says this Soul, that he never once
    tasted the real kernel of divine Love, which in all men, truly, once tasted, robs the Soul forever of
    her senses without her knowing it. For this is the true and pure kernel of divine Love, in which
    there is no created matter, and it is given to the crea- ture by the Creator; and it is the custom of
    such Souls to comprehend much and to forget it quickly, so subtle in his dealings is he who
    loves them.

    Chapter 21. Love replies to Reason’s objection, because this book says that such Souls
    take leave of the Virtues.
    Reason. And who are you, Love? says Reason. Are you not also one of the Virtues, and one
    of us, even though you be above us?
    Love. I am God, says Love, for Love is God, and God is Love, and this Soul is God through
    its condition of Love, and I am God through my divine nature, and this Soul is God by Love’s
    just law. So that this my precious beloved is taught and guided by me, without herself for she
    has been changed into me. And this is the outcome, says Love, of being nourished by me.

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