Although by the eleventh century the papacy had ruthlessly crushed every movement which could be accused of heresy, it failed to eradicate the urge to reform the church. A powerful stream of spiritual renewal overran antiquated institutions and corrupt policies, and not even the medieval Inquisition, refined in later Roman and Spanish versions, could weaken the longing for redemptive spiritual insight. The chief heresies which had offered alternatives to Roman theology and religious practices were destroyed, but the desire to return to the essential meaning of the Christian life threatened the church from within its loyal ranks. Even as France was made secure against calls for regeneration, the Low Countries witnessed new discontents which eventually contributed to the Reformation. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, individuals devoted to the church came to reject formal monastic life as a means to true spirituality. Beguines – women who took self-administered vows of poverty and chastity and lived quietly at home – began to gather into small communities under the spiritual guidance of lay teachers esteemed for their devotion and experience. Perhaps the greatest of these guides was Hadewijch, whose life and works profoundly affected Jan van Ruysbroeck, influenced German religious thought and laid the basis for subsequent Dutch literature.
Nothing is known of Hadewijch's life except for hints gleaned from her own exquisite writings. Not even her name helps, since one hundred and eleven religious women of the same name are known from this period. Her knowledge of chivalry and courtly life suggests that she was born into the aristocracy, and perhaps the nobility, near the end of the twelfth century. She was Flemish, very likely born in Antwerp, and seems to have acquired an excellent education. Though she wrote in medieval Dutch and addressed all her works to fellow Beguines, she had a good grasp of Latin and French and used this for literary effect. Her chief source of inspiration was the Old and New Testaments, but she blended a profound knowledge of numerology, Ptolemaic astronomy, principles of versification and letter writing, and the theory of music to give original expression to her fresh perspectives.
Hadewijch admired Origen, Augustine, the Victorines and early Cistercians, and her theological standpoints reflect Eastern Orthodox teaching as much as that of the Roman church. She was intimately familiar with the love poetry of the courts, with the lyrics of the troubadours of Provence, and with the language of the German Minnesang as well as her native minnesanc. These love lyrics had grown out of the spiritual love poetry developed by the Sufis of Persia, the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Spain, but they had become thoroughly secular in medieval Christendom. As if returning them to their original source of inspiration, Hadewijch elevated the poetry of courtly love to the intensity of the soul's quest for the Divine.
The Beguines were looked upon with disfavour by the church until Pope Honorius III in 1216 authorized them to live together and uphold the good life. Hadewijch either joined or formed a group of Beguines around this time and became its spiritual guide. Her poetry and letters show that many of her group found her standards too high and attempted to undermine her authority. Hadewijch was well aware of this dissension and sought to appeal to the better side of her charges through moral exhortation without coercion of any sort. Apparently, she was eventually turned out of her community and despite the unwavering loyalty of a few followers was never allowed to return. Nothing is known of her after this time, though later legends suggested that she was imprisoned by the Inquisition and even executed. Probably she lived in retirement, organized her writings and died as an anonymous pious woman whom few knew. Her works were gradually lost in the fifteenth century, only to be rediscovered in 1838. M. Brauns wrote that it is to the credit of our otherwise dark age that Hadewijch was rediscovered, but Columba Hart recently suggested that her discovery may not be so much to the credit of the age but rather its rescue. Hadewijch transcended her time in thought and expression, and her works speak with equal clarity and force to receptive human beings of every epoch.
Hadewijch recorded detailed visions in a literary yet literal prose. Her letters, some of which verge on treatises, were written in response to the various needs that arose amongst the Beguines and do not attempt to record systematically her views. Her poems – some in stanzas and some in rhymed couplets – are highly polished and tightly structured but dispense with elaborate metaphors. Hadewijch first experienced an ardent vision at the age of ten. Though it took years to nurture the depth of devotion, constancy of thought and purity of will which are essential to the fruition of intimacy with the Divine, she readily recognized the irrelevance of philosophizing about the ultimate nature of Deity and of pursuing a worldly course of acquisition. For her, the central question of earthly existence was: What is the soul's relationship to the Divine? In answering it, she deliberately chose a concept which contains the enigma it veils with a single word – Minne, love. Hadewijch understood the subtle intricacy which links a being and one's encounter with it. The entity has its own existence, nature and qualities, but one's awareness of an entity is conditioned by the maturity and orientation of one's consciousness. One's experience of a being is necessarily filtered through conditioned consciousness. Whilst everyone is familiar with the puzzles this produces in regard to material objects – one may, for instance, mistake a rope for a snake in the twilight – Hadwijch was intensely aware of the problem in relation to Deity.
Since one's experience of God is conditioned by consciousness, Minne refers both to the Divine and to the soul's response to it. Hadewijch was less concerned with the ambiguity of this double reference than with the modes of living and thinking that purify perception and move the soul towards increasing communion with the Divine. Since God was for Hadewijch transcendent, ineffable and incomprehensible, and simultaneously immanent in the manifestation of the Trinity through Jesus and therefore mystically present in the communion wafer, she did not attempt to describe the Inexpressible. Rather, she tried to draw the receptive soul towards Deity by elucidating the stages and aspects of Minne. This is itself an aspect of the Divine which is reflected as a quality of soul and is also the connection between them, rather like the light refracted from the surface of an object, the sunbeam and the solar orb are all one. Knowing that mere moral exhortation and mortification of the flesh are more likely to distract the soul than orient it towards God, she adopted the poetic language of the troubadours to induce a positive movement from the soul.
Hadewijch held that the individual will not find the strength to seek the Beloved (Minne, the Divine) unless he or she initially tastes the compelling force of Love (Minne). As the completeness of Love saturates the awakening soul, one learns to dispel erroneous expectations and renounce inadequate conceptions; one learns to be wholly alive. In regenerating the latent powers of the soul, Love renews one's perspective in relation to this volatile world.
When one begins to sense the totality of Love's power, without which nothing else could be attractive, one loses desire for secondary reflections of the primary source.
Like the knight errant, the awakened soul must learn to sacrifice everything for the sake of Love, which is both the way to the Beloved and its own goal.
For Hadewijch, the taste of Love and the first intense yearning for it mark a dangerous threshold. The individual who has been quickened into this new sense of life does not yet have the precise self-discipline and ruthless self-examination necessary to keep him on the narrow path to the Beloved. If expectations pervaded by preference for pleasure inhabit his mind, he will be embittered by the sufferings attendant on Love. If he is not clear about his psychic constitution, he will drift into romanticized conceptions of Love, and if he is not aware of his somatic constitution, he will become sensuous in thought and action. The pure experience of Love is a sudden entry into a transcendental realm, the kingdom of Love. Since human beings are embodied in a conditioned world, that exalted awareness is readily mistranslated into intensification of tellurian experiences. This is the road to self-defeat and living death, the road which Hadewijch feared many of her Beguines were willingly treading. Only the clarifying potency of Reason bound in service to Love can prevent these disastrous errors. In one of her visions Hadewijch saw a queen clothed in a golden dress sequinned with eyes.
The three royal companions are holy fear, the spirit of self-examination which looks to the purity of the perfections claimed by the aspiring soul; discernment, which distinguishes between Love and Reason; and wisdom, which binds Reason to Love and sees "God alone as God, and all things as God in God's knowledge, and each thing as godlike when in the spirit I am united with God."
If Reason shows clearly the way to the Divine, Love is the motivation to tread it. Love must be as pure as one can make it, and purity is achieved through unconditionality gained by cultivation of all virtues. Thus, one needs to maintain the posture of humility, since unconditional virtue cannot be considered one's own. For Hadewijch, the goal is distant, though the sense of its presence can be near the humble seeker, and anyone who is truly willing can make the journey, though each must begin with the first step. There are no privileges of rank and station in spiritual ascent. In one evocative vision, Hadewijch was led through a garden of trees, each of which symbolized a profound spiritual truth. Eventually they came to the centre of the garden.
Following the tree along all its branches to the roots leads the soul to the seat of Deity. There Hadewijch beheld a throne shaped like a disc, supported by three pillars – one of fire, one of topaz and one of amethyst. Under the centre of the disc was a dark whirlpool in rapid revolution.
There she beheld the Beloved and realized that she had been led by him the whole way, even though much of it still had to be lived. Though she fell at his feet, at once he said, "Stand up! For you are standing in me from all eternity entirely free and without fall." After explaining that she was granted this vision because the guiding angel had found her worthy in reverence and realization, he said, "Moreover, I give you a new commandment. If you wish to be like me in my Humanity. . .you shall desire to be poor, miserable and despised by all men; and all griefs will taste sweeter to you than every earthly pleasure – never let them sadden you." For Hadewijch, the overwhelming promptings of spiritual Love demand nothing less than total immersion in the Divine. This desire inevitably engenders suffering, for all that partakes of the world becomes alien and ceases to support the lover. But to the lover's eyes the world is simultaneously transfigured, so that what others call suffering and woe is actually joyous. The lover comes close to Deity by taking on the humanity of Christ as exemplified in the life of Jesus. In emulating Christ one is united with God.
As the diversions of the world – and everything which is not seen as a manifestation of the Divine is a distraction – are alien to the soul, Love must purge them away. The soul suffers because its notions of experience must be transformed. In the initial raptures of Love there is a subtle tincture of self, for all experiences involve some reference to oneself as that which has the experience. In looking with Love to That which can never be depicted, attention includes oneself. If this tendency to deflect attention is not purged, the soul will begin to admire the gifts to the exclusion of the Giver. Affection supervenes, one loses sight of the goal, and in time the purgations of Love seem harsh and even unfair. One becomes self-centered and either flees to worldly pleasures or isolates oneself in bitterness. Hadewijch discovered that purified experience without self-reference is indeed possible.
One can behold the Divine without the limited assessments of unregenerated self-consciousness. Knowing that Love is distinct from particular experiences, one can learn to experience purely, witnessing the Source without noticing the witness. Thus self is lost in the Beloved because that which was the pellucid element in consciousness is perfected through union with the Beloved. The individual who attains this experiences unsurpassed liberty and considerable freedom of the will. To achieve this, however, requires a spiritual journey that begins in the enthusiasm of spiritual youth, passes through many stages of self-correction, and matures when one is spiritually old. Old souls know that suffering is not characterized by external marks, but represents alienation from the Divine and is quickened by the often painful sundering of alien bonds.
The soul's intense attraction to Love is a sign that it has not yet grown old. To earn that state, which has little to do with longevity, the soul must learn to be both fearlessly active and unconditionally receptive. In seeking Love, the soul is a knight errant, prepared to face every trial and deprivation for the sake of coming closer to the Beloved.
Yet the soul should adorn itself as a bride awaiting the bridegroom, for when the soul has donned the virtues of selflessness, charity and identification with all beings, and the faculties of will, truthfulness and spiritual memory, it will be gathered up by the divine bridegroom in heavenly marriage. The selfless soul becomes so perfect a mirror of the Divine that the Christos-light and its reflection are indistinguishable.
Hadewijch may have been disappointed by the inability of many of her Beguines to make full use of their opportunities to become knights and brides of the Beloved. She may have been saddened by the waning of the chivalry of the soul and pained by her own exile. But she was hardly surprised. The behests of spiritual Love lead to suffering until resignation to the Divine is complete, and then flow forth in an unspoken joy as one succeeds in living the lover's life in this world. For Hadewijch, her own experience of pain was merely part of the suffering of humanity which longs for closeness to Deity. It is a longing which, when intense and complete, is rewarded in full measure.