The Desert Mothers Revisited:

The Mothers of the Diocese of Liège

by Margot H. King [1]


Three decades ago, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a most spiritually active woman, remarked that there were no desert mothers:

I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness. Men may go away and become desert fathers, but there were no desert mothers. [2]
Not only was Dorothy Day wrong with regard to the fourth-century Egyptian and Syrian deserts where Desert Mothers existed in their thousands, [3] she was also wrong concerning the anchoretic vocation for twentieth-century women. In 1972, an Orthodox nun living in North Yorkshire, wrote:
We are three desert mothers now, all three longing for silence and seclusion, but it must now be found inwardly, for the demands are coming, knocking at our gate, both inward and outward, and will not be denied. [4]
When I began my research into the history of the Desert Mothers I, like Dorothy Day, misconstrued the vocation of the recluse and concentrated on the external aspects of this way of life. It was, in fact, through the extraordinary example of one woman, Christina of Saint-Trond, that I discovered that my original interpretation was too narrow. Although the form her asceticism took recalls the ascetic pyrotechnics of the stylites and dendrites of the desert, her horrified family finally managed to compel her to descend from the church steeples or the treetops on which she sat to warn sinners of the fate which awaited them if they persisted in their sin. [5] So fascinated was I by her story that I began to read the lives of her female contemporaries and in this way was introduced to the beguines of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in the diocese of Liège. Although none was as eccentric as Christina and most were neither enclosed behind walls nor, indeed, even led strictly solitary lives, it soon became clear to me that the interior disposition is clearly as important as the exterior. Insofar as they lived alone with God, enclosed within the cell of their hearts, they were as worthy to be called Desert Mothers as were their desert foremothers.

I would therefore like to examine the lives of several of these holy women who lived in the diocese of Liège [6] in the light of these considerations, to see them as Desert Mothers living in community, traveling through a spiritual desert and finding within themselves that foretaste of heaven, the paradisial garden. Of the many thousand women who lived holy lives in thirteenth-century Flanders, [7] to my knowledge only thirteen vitæ are extant: the life of Marie d'Oignies by Jacques de Vitry; [8] three lives written by Thomas de Cantimpré: Lutgard of Aywières, [9] Christina of Saint-Trond, [10] Margaret of Ypres, [11] as well as a supplement to Jacques' life of Marie d'Oignies; [12] the life of Beatrijs of Nazareth; [13] vitæ of three different Idas: Ida of Nivelles; [14] Ida of Léau [15] and Ida of Louvain; [16] as well as lives of Aleydis of Schaarbeeck, [17] Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, [18] Yvette of Huy, [19] Elisabeth of Spalbeek, [20] and Catharine of Louvain (or Parc-des-Dames). [21] The writings of Hadewijch [22] are of inestimable value in illustrating the spiritual climate of the period but unfortunately we know virtually nothing about her life.

One must approach these lives with caution. Most of what we know of these women is limited to what their biographers thought worthy of mention; what, in other words, fitted the often stereotypical portrait of a holy woman and for the mediæval hagiographer, a strict adherence to factual history was often less important than the higher goal of edification. [23] Furthermore, when a pattern is discovered in a vita, [24] it is more often than not, a reflection of the biographer's training and experience and not an accurate picture of the person whose life is being described. To discover such a pattern in these lives is a genuinely thrilling experience for the textual historian, but it must not blind us to the fact that these discoveries do not shed much light on the women themselves; rather, they show us how these women were viewed by their male contemporaries: emotional, affective and frequently irrational. That the biographers were writing within a mystical and, as Caroline Bynum has shown us, [25] the feminine spiritual tradition should not blind us to the fundamental misogynistic bias in these vitæ. The highest praise given to a woman was still that she was "manly" and constant [26] despite her inherently mutable nature, and that she could achieve sanctity only after she had transcended her natural inclinations towards carnality which could be transformed into supernatural virtues. Her eroticism could be moved into the garden of the Song of Songs and there find fulfillment in the love of the divine Bridegroom. What had previously been condemned as weakness was now considrered strength: her emotionalism transformed into a wondrous affective love, her ready tears as compunction, and her swoonings and faintings as signs of inner mystic experiences. Above all, the lowly female status and enforced humility became cause for joy since most of these women were, like Christ himself, excluded from positions of temporal authority. And thus, ironically, did they wreak their charitable revenge. Not for them the possibility or eventhe temptation of dominance and control [27] through social position. In fact it was their very powerlessness which gave them the means whereby they could exert an influence upon their society, the more powerful for being largely unacknowledged.

Despite the many centuries which separate us from these mediæval women, we can learn much from them. The startling popularity of my original paper on the Desert Mothers indicates to me that there is something in their spirituality which has struck a responsive chord in us. Since few of us show any signs of a willingness to be bricked up behind a wall - still less to sit in trees or to live in tombs - the attraction of their way of life must lie not so much in its physical isolation as in a spiritual withdrawal which enables one to come to terms with the world and its appalling spiritual and social problems.

It seems to me that to characterise as Desert Mothers only those who were physically isolated from others -- as I did in the first of these papers -- is to miss the point. The desert experience was (and is) an inner spiritual state, characterised by a self-imposed exile and a turning away from the concerns and passions of the external world. This kind of radical "conversion" seems only to be esteemed during periods of great social upheaval. Such a period was the fourth century when Christianity had become legitimised, bureaucratised and softened. So too were the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the old feudal structures were breaking up, to be replaced by God knew what and when even Peter's rock was beginning to look a little shaky. What indeed can I say about our own twentieth century except that I have reached an age when I even look back nostalgically to the simpler days of the 1940s and '50s when, stifling as the period now appears, we all thought that Christian values were as secure as motherhood and apple pie; when the Christian family was protected by the daily recitation of the rosary and, following Bishop Sheen's example, a plastic statue of Our Lady of the Airwaves stood guard on the top of our TV sets.

Our present social turmoil is, in fact, what binds us to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts of the fourth century and the towns and villages of thirteenth century Brabant. Our decadent urban society is similar in many ways to the world in which these holy women lived and, like them, many of us yearn to withdraw into the desert, to escape the fearful temptations to which we are being subject but, alas, as in thirteenth-century Brabant, there are few handy deserts into which we can easily retire. My study of these women, therefore, is something more than an interesting but abstract historical study. We can learn much from their example as spiritual models for our confused and spiritually bankrupt Western European society.

Two characteristics seem basic to the desert experience: radical separation from the world and radical poverty. Essential to this conversion are four elements which Gabriele Winkler ascribed to the encratics, an early sect of Syrian ascetics: poverty as uprootedness from comfort and wealth; the dissolution of origins and family ties; homelessness as a precondition for the proclamation of the Kingdom; and the dissolution of what previously constituted oneself. [28]

None of this is, of course, particularly new within the monastic tradition. The word monachus of course simply means "alone" and refers to the person who lives on the edges of society. By the twelfth century, however, the monastic ideal had become weakened and the Benedictines themselves had succumbed to the materialistic values which accompany temporal power. New forces, however, were at work and from them would emerge new religious orders and new forms of the spiritual life.

In the eleventh and twelfth century, a new form of spirituality emerged in which eremeticism played a fundamental role. [29] The beguines figured prominently in this movement, women not bound by canon law who remained in society but who followed in the footsteps of their spiritual foremothers and fathers and who could be called the "new desert mothers." Jacques de Vitry called them:

the holy virgins in the lily gardens of the Lord who scorned carnal enticements for Christ, despised the riches of this world for the love of the kingdom of heaven, clung to their heavenly Bridegroom in poverty and humility and with the work of their hands, earned a sparse meal. But although their families abounded in great riches, yet they preferred to endure distress and poverty and were forgetful of their people and the home of their father rather than to abound in riches which had been wrongly acquired or to remain in danger among worldly pomps (Prologue 3)
For these later hermits, physical separation from others was less important than a mental and spiritual isolation from the world and its affairs. Thus arose what would appear to be the anomalous concept of communities of recluses who lived within society and displayed no external signs to distinguish their eremetical vocation. For them, the existence of physical solitude became secondary to psychological solitude. Their uprootedness from society was an inner and spiritual displacement, although sometimes this renunciation manifested itself externally in voluntary pilgrimage. [30]

As with their Desert forebears, radical poverty was central to the aims of these new hermits. Like them they wished to become new apostles, to recreate "the path of the apostles" (vita apostolica) by the kind of self-renunciation enjoined by Christ who had said "whoever wishes to follow me, let them renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Lk 9: 23). They took this command literally and energetically pursued a life of real material poverty, much to the dismay of the official Church and the rich monastic orders. [31]

Wishing to imitate Christ in his radical poverty, these "poor men and women of Christ" [32] fled wealth, comfort, power and the pursuit of worldly success and chose to live separate, sequestered and marginal lives on the fringes of society. The essential requirement was solitude, but they did not allow this quest for solitude to become a materialistic concern. Where they lived was an irrelevancy as long as they were allowed to live alone with God. Thus the solitude of those who either lived in the world or in a coenobitic community was as much a conscious withdrawal into the "cloister of the heart" [33] as was the enclosure of an historical anchorite within an anchorhold or reclusorium. Pilgrimage in this sense became an interior journey which had as its goal union with God in the solitude of the abyss of the soul, a foretaste of the joys of Paradise and the Beatific Vision. The metaphor of the cloister of the heart was a monastic commonplace and is found in the Sayings of the Fathers, as well as in the writings of Church Fathers. [34] It was not, however, until the late Middle Ages that this metaphor took on a new urgency, [35] especially for those people who, like the beguines, elected for various reasons not to enter an existing monastic order. [36] Hugh of Folieto in his De claustro animæ had equated it with contemplation:

Contemplation is called the cloister of the soul into whose embrace the consciousness [animus] withdraws itself and there meditates only on heavenly things. It is placed far from the crowds of carnal thoughts; it flees the sweet attractions of the flesh; it restrains the vague impulses of the sense. There it enjoys angelic delights [and] reads in the Book of Life. It holds its peace for the sake of silence; it serves harmonious morals in the choir of virtues; it contemplates the goodness of the Supreme Father and the beatitude of angelic creation; it waits on the goodness in which nothing is lacking and on the beatitude which is wanting in nothing. It considers the power of the Father, the wisdom of the Son, and the loving generosity of the Holy Spirit (PL 176, col. 1087)
Physical solitude and the life of the hermit lay, of course, at the root of this spiritual anchoretism and the pages of these thirteen vitæ are filled with references to both female and male recluses who provided models for our Desert Mothers. [37] Of the thirteen women whose vitæ are extant, each one exhibits anchoretic traits no matter what her station in life. Only Yvette of Huy (11571228) lived the canonically approved life of a recluse, physically shut up in her anchorhold under the authority of, first, the bishop and then the abbot. Even Marie d'Oignies (1177-1213), probably the best known of these women and the founder of the beguine movement who lived her entire life within society, is portrayed as a spiritual recluse. [38] After spending sixteen years after her conversion in caring for lepers near the town of Nivelles, her desire for solitude was apparently finally fulfilled when she moved to Oignies. She had begged the Lord that he find her a place where she could be alone with him and not be bothered by the crowds of people who insisted on visiting her. Her prayers were answered and "a place was shown to her which she had never seen [and] which before her arrival had been barely known because it was so primitive and so poor" (93, p. 88). Although Jacques depicts this move in terms of a self-imposed exile, in fact, the community at Oignies was already well established by the time Marie moved there and, far from being friendless, the prior was her brother-in-law. [39] Despite these inconsistencies, it is clear that Jacques' purpose in writing his life was to portray Marie and her followers in terms which drew a parallel between them and the Desert Fathers. When describing the extremes of self-mortification to which his spiritual mother had been driven, he even explicitly compared her to Simeon Stylites and to the great Antony himself:
Why are those people who are amazed at the worms which swarmed from the wounds of Simeon and at the fire with which Anthony burnt his feet not be astonished at such fortitude in the frail sex of a woman who wounded by charity and invigorated by the wounds of Christ, neglected the wounds of her own body?" (VMO 22)
Christina of Saint Trond (1150-1224), stylite and dendrite, of course was the hermit personified and inhabited trees and steeples and, in the last year of her life, withdrew again into "desert places" and only returned to the town rarely (35, 46). At the age of ten Margaret of Ypres (1216-1237) often went into the forest where she flagellated herself (4) and frequently would bypass a village "so that she might not see a man or a woman." (19). She prayed alone in a secret place high on a balcony and her union with the Lord took place in the secret of her heart (19). Indeed she was so successful in her attempt at the hidden life that "she was forgotten all the time after she was converted to Christ" (22). Although Lutgard of Aywières (1182/3-1246) lived in community, first as a Benedictine and then as a Cistercian, her biographer clearly considered her a recluse. After the scandal which attached to her after an attempted rape, Lutgard returned to the convent where she had been a boarder and, having offered up her suffering to the suffering Christ, she "was segregated from almost all human speech and consolation and totally yearned for heavenly things" (VLA I, 8; p. 10). Later in her life, she fled the Benedictine convent of St. Catherine's in Saint-Trond to avoid the office of prioress and after much prayer and soul-searching, decided to settle at the French-speaking convent at Aywières: there she could find even more solitude since she did not know (and could never learn) the language. Ida of Louvain lived the life of a recluse in her father's house and frequently [more solito] went into solitary places to pray "not so much alone as solitary" (2, 3). She did, however, once exhibit a reassuring sign of humanity when she was driven to preach to assortment of fowl who were pecking for food in the square in front of the church and to scold them for their unseemly behaviour on a Sunday. She did this, says her biographer, to prevent herself from becoming bored by her solitude [tædio molestata] (29). Like Marie and Lutgad, she was finally driven further into the desert and embraced the life of a Cistercian because of her growing reputation. Catherine, the sister of Ida of Léau (c1200c1260) became a recluse "within the Cistercian Order" where she persevered in her conversion in "a manly fashion." Before entering La Ramée, Ida herself remained in the world for a short while after her sister's departure, but while still in the world, withdrew from worldly concerns by frequenting the company of the recluses and beguines for instruction. She fled "festive occasions and more secretly entered solitary retreats and was protected from the mocking rebukes of those around her "protected by the force of her innermost soul" [virgo vi pectoris loricata], hedged around by the impregnable palisade of purity and innocence" [vallo inexpugnabili puritatis et innocentiæ circumsepta]. Likewise did Beatrijs of Nazareth (1202/41268) "zealously hide the treasures of heavenly grace within the cloister of her innermost soul" [VBN Prologue 6, 59-60]. Elsewhere her biographer describes this cloister but he crams it with so many busy allegorical virtues that one wonders how there was room for Christ. [40] Aleydis of Schaarbeeck, (Ý1250) spent the last years of her life in a separate building isolated from her sister nuns because of leprosy and both her dwelling and her body were called by Christ a "tabernacle of my covenant." He told her, "I shall remain with you and I shall be, as it were, your cellarer and I shall minister to you providently in all needful things" (12). In her desire for seclusion Ida of Nivelles (1199 1231/2) at the age of twelve is reported to have said,
I would like, if it could be, that I would be going along or standing somewhere and the earth would open up under my feet, and the lower part of my little body would be hidden away in the earth, and the upper part become short and tiny" (1, 4).
The life of Juliana of Mont-Cornillon (11931258) is probably the most pertinent of all these vitæ to our discussion. As a child she loved to be alone (I,3) and as she progressed in holiness and her fame spread, she "was pained by the approach of visitors, longing to hide and take shelter beneath the bushel of her humility . . . and would look for a corner to hide" (I, 8). An oratory was built for her so that she could meditate in privacy for "the greater her privacy, the greater her devotion in prayer" (I, 11). Her profound devotion to the Eucharist occasioned a vision in which the Lord commanded her to inaugurate a special feast in honour of this Sacrament (I, 13) and it was this vision which, ironically, brought her into conflict with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities and which ultimately forced her to spend the rest of her life in the most extreme form of solitude: exile and enforced pilgrimage.

It is obvious that a desire for solitude was one of the characteristics these women had in common. Those who, for one reason or another, found themselves living in a community found it within themselves in the inner anchor-hold of the enclosed garden [41] of the Song of Songs and in the arms of the Divine Bridegroom. Thus, paradoxically, do those who willingly forsake human delights and fellowship find an ineffable companionship with Divinity itself which satisfies all human needs - even those sensual desires which the ascete had given up for God. [42] Once after Ida of Nivelles fed a poor man who had come to the door of her cell and

behold, the same beggar reverently approached his hostess and stood in front of her and, as it seemed to her, opened her breast [pectus] with his own hands and entering into the opening, he himself entirely withdrew within her. He disappeared through it and entered deeply within [penitus introivit] (VILO 18).
Having eaten Christ's truth as found in the words of Holy Scripture, Ida was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and the Word was conceived in her womb:
There is no occasion for wonderment if the Word which was made flesh in the womb of the Virgin resolved to dwell in the hearts of the saints, nor is there any cause to marvel at the means and reasons for his desire to renew the mysteries of his Incarnation also in the womb of this virgin. Finally just as Mary had divinely brought forth the Incarnate Word into the world for the salvation of all by giving birth, so too, in a reversal of roles, did the venerable Ida commit that same [hoc ipsum] to the receptacle of her belly [alvi sui] which she had eaten through her lectio [ 43] (Ibid., 1, 24).
The imagery used by Ida's biographer to describe her union with the Divine Bridegroom is not only lush and sensual, but indeed verges on the explicitly erotic:
After she had received she blessed the Author of that peace in a tireless round of thanksgiving. Because it was seen to be worthy enough for the other things and proper for the Reason that the Bridegroom give himself to the bride, he, the Beloved One, went to meet his beloved by enveloping her with embraces. After Holy Communion was completed, the Bridegroom and Lover of the virgin familiarly summoned her, [and] her soul was called forth from every little dwelling of her little body, especially from the place situated near the intimacy of her heart. In that place he worthily recompensed her for those things which before he had considered worthy and had freely received from his virgin and he honoured her with holy embraces and renewed them by repeated intercourse [commercio] - not just for a moment but with careful sufficiency and frequent repeated variations. And just as someone is embraced with bodily arms and just as in those external embraces of the arms a certain interior affectionate feeling of friendship is felt through youthful experience, so it is said that the divine embraces made her feel very much the same way [and] her entire soul was focused in one part of her body with youthful and loving affections and she was most firmly coupled [copulari] with her Bridegroom, Christ the Lord, by means of mutual embraces and reciprocal joy (VILO 2, 5).
The first step in the spiritual pilgrimage of the Desert Mother involved withdrawal and exile from the world and from one's family. For some of the women, this break was relatively painless and they turned towards God with their family's blessing. For others it was a more radical separation. Marie, forced into a marriage against her will, finally convinced her husband John to live a celibate life and to give up everything to the poor for Christ (13). They renounced the values of society and were condemned by worldly people and by their relatives" and "were accounted vile and degraded" (15). However, no matter what the circumstances, each was faced with the same choice and each ultimately came to love her spiritual exile.

Christina's first break with the world was unquestionably the most extreme, involving as it did her death. In the case of Lutgard, after her father lost her dowry in a bad business deal, she was given the choice by her worldly mother of remaining in the world in a menial position ("to look after the cows") or to become a nun and thus make a most respectable marriage, Christ obviously being considered "a good match." Her irrevocable break with the world came later after she was driven into the solitude of her heart (VLA 1, 8). [44] Ida of Léau continued to live in the world after her conversion but was not affected by it [vivens in sæculo non sæculariter]: she "rendered herself uninvolved and alienated" from all worldly emptiness and concerns and, utterly rejecting the riches, honours, joys and delights of the world, took no pleasure in seeing her family (6). Indeed she showed such constancy and stability of purpose that according to the author, it seemed that she had taken her stand not in the world but in a cloister [claustro non sæculo substitutam] (7). The case of Aleydis was a little different. The author commends her for her wisdom in remaining quietly at home rather than roaming the streets until, at the age of seven, she renounced worldly pomps by entering the convent of La Cambre. In fact, it was not until she contracted leprosy that she made a radical break with the world: [45]

Wishing his future vessel of election to be utterly purged of all temporal disturbance and from all worldly defilement, he visited his bride and bestowed a ring upon her as a sign of perfect love. He did this so that she might the more freely engage in leisure for God alone, lingering with him within the cell of her mind as if in a bridal chamber. Since he wished his bride to become inebriated by the sweetness of his own odour, he struck her with leprosy. Thus isolated, at first she was afflicted with a great anguish but God quickly drenched her with his sweet odour and she was filled with so many delights that it seemed as if it [i.e. her soul] were paradise and if she had been given the choice of regaining her health, she would have refused it because she preferred to remain in this state and to be visited only by God (VAS 9)
Of our holy women, five were adults and laywomen when they chose to renounce the world: Marie, Ida of Léau, Ida of Louvain, Yvette of Huy, [46] and Ida of Nivelles. Catherine was only eight when she decided that she preferred the Christian doctrine to the Judaic code of her father and fled to the priest Reynier who then placed her in the Cistercian convent of Parc-des-Dames. Of the four who were placed in convents as children (Beatrice, Lutgard, Aleydis, and Juliana), Beatrice [47] and Lutgard lived reclusive lives in community while Aleydis and Juliana [48] suffered greatly through enforced isolation and exile. Of the three more "ordinary" laywomen, Margaret of Ypres lived a life of holy solitude within society, Elisabeth of Spaalbeek was separated from the world from the age of five because of illness and could not move from her bed and Christina, of course, lived on the edges of society because of her holy madness. [49]
Radical poverty therefore meant, for these pauperculæ, not only indigence but, on a more profound level, a very real sense of homelessness and a conscious uprooting from comfort and wealth. Their homelessness involved either a psychic alienation from the familiar or, occasionally, literal pilgrimage and exile. The most obvious example of such exile is that of Juliana of Mont-Cornillon who was cast out from her convent by worldly prelates and bureaucrats and spent the last years of her life in frightful exile, shunted from one place to another. Even though Marie lived all her adult life in only two places (Willambrouk and Oignies), she also endured harsh (albeit short) ascetic pilgrimages. [50]

To follow the Gospel command of poverty literally was almost as difficult for those women who lived in canonical orders as it is today for contemporary religious, protected as they were, and are, from the harsh realities of indigence by their community structures. In any case, self-renunciation through a radical elimination of comfort and wealth was viewed with some suspicion by the beleaguered but entrenched thirteenth-century ecclesiastical hierarchy and most of these vitæ reflect this nervousness. The nuns, of course, were protected to a degree from the ravages of real poverty by virtue of their profession as religious. But even laywomen like Marie, Christina and Margaret were unable to show their solidarity with the naked Christ by this kind of renunciation: they had no real power in the world and no property to give up and lived apparently unprotected lives within the world. They were even forbidden by Church law to beg although they wished to. Marie was dissuaded from begging by the pleas of her (male) friends [51] but Christina begged without hindrance because she was beyond the pale anyway, but all our other holy women chose fasting [52] as the means whereby they could witness self-renunciation and through which they found consolation in poverty of spirit. [53]

There was, however, one avenue open to laywomen which had the advantage of shocking the establishment [54] while allowing them to remain true to their monastic roots. The rejection of money and wealth drove them to earn their livelihood through manual labour which thus became the means whereby they might at once do penance and restore that paradisial balance between body and spirit which had been lost through sin.

The habit of the original desert mothers of wearing male clothing [55] also falls the category of a manifestation of self-imposed exile from society and its mores and had the extra advantage of ensuring that the cross-dresser would be ostracised and, at best, become a laughing-stock. In the prologue to the life of Marie, Jacques refers to the confusion which the sight of these women caused a simple Benedictine who did not know "which of these people É were men and which women" (Prologue 4).

Another method used by these women to distance themselves from society was by becoming one of Christ's fools. The tradition of holy folly stretched back to the desert and to the Irish hermits, not to mention the example of St. Francis himself and his followers. Although Christina is obviously the best example of such an apparently mad person, [56] Ida of Louvain can surely also lay claim to the title and the words foolish, stupid, mad, demented, deranged, and insane are applied to each one of these mystic women to describe them after (or during) ecstasy.

Their most radical renunciation by far, however, was what Winkler described as "the dissolution of what previously constituted oneself." It is this profound ascesis which proves the soul's merit and is the occasion for the outpouring of Divine graces. Complacency is the worst enemy of the soul and even these women who, according to hagiographic convention had been impossibly sanctimonious as children, had to endure a complete collapse of their self-image before they could achieve union with God. Christina had to undergo appalling suffering. Lutgard was nearly raped. Juliana was subjected to intolerable persecution. Aleydis was struck with leprosy and Elisabeth and Marie to debilitating illness. Yvette was trapped in an unspeakably unhappy marriage. Ida of Louvain was brutalised by her father. Catherine had to endure all the agonies that went with being a Jew in a Christian society. Not all, of course, were subjected to such dramatic reversals but even those like Ida of Léau, Margaret of Ypres and Beatrice who did not appear to undergo distress at the hands of their neighbours, nevertheless had to endure great agony of spirit as a result of ridicule and malice.

It appears that such lack of comprehension did not stop with the death of these women. Even six centuries later, their lives are met with laughter and ridicule. Their behaviour has been called pathological and their biographers accused of credulity. That they were really very strange is undeniable but their lives are as effective sermons today as they were in the thirteenth century. Their radical poverty and clear rejection of power were direct affronts to a materialistic society. Can we not learn from such an example? Through their asceticism and the grace which followed, their suffering became a positive force in a world marked by wars, natural disasters, indifference, and murderous intent and malice. Is our world much different? The direct action advocated by Dorothy Day has a place in combatting these evils but no one individual or group of individuals can hope to alleviate the miseries of the world by social means alone. To seek to correct the evils of the human condition by human effort is clearly impossible, but these women did not despair. They did what they could in the limited area of activity allotted them but, even more importantly, they chose a life of redemptive suffering within an inner desert. There, alone with God and separated from the world, they paradoxically were able to minister the more effectively to the world which they had rejected because their ministry was not limited. There too they found a joy which made their ministry all the more convincing to disbelievers. We can, indeed, learn much from them.


1. This paper was originally presented at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley CA, February 18, 1988, co-sponsored by the Franciscan School of Theology and the Center for Women and Religion. It subsequently appeared in Vox Benedictina 5/4 (October 1988) 325-354 and was printed, along with The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe, as the first of the Peregrina Papers with the title, The Desert Mothers (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1989).

2. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper, 1952).

3. See The Desert Mothers I. In 1984, I counted 2975 women whom Palladius mentions in his Lausiac History and according to Wallis Budge in his preface to The Paradise of the Fathers, 27% of the stories told in the first book deal with women: Lausiac History, ed. Cuthbert Butler (Cambridge: University Press, 1898-1904); tr. W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: SPCK, 1918), and E.A. Wallis Budge, Paradise of the Fathers,Vol. 1 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1970) lxv, lxvii. It is interesting to note the exaggerated swing of the pendulum in recent years. From Dorothy Day's assertion in 1952 that "there were no desert mothers," we seem to have gone to the other extreme. In the movie Behind the Veil (Women's Department of the National Film Board of Canada, 1984), it was given as fact that there were "twice as many Desert Mothers as Fathers."

4. Mother Maria: Her Life in Letters, selected, edited and introduced with a short biography by Sister Thekla (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979) xxxiv-xxxv. Almost all the published works of Mother Maria are available through Peregrina Publishing. Peregrina has recently published a study of this extraordinary woman: Encounter With a Desert Mother [Mother Maria Gysi], by Irma Zaleski (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1997)

5. Her vita was written by Thomas de Cantimpré: Vita s. Christinæ Mirabilis virginis, ed. J. Pinius, Acta sanctorum July 24 (1868) 5: 637-660 and now available on this website; translated by Margot H. King, The Life of Christina of Saint-Trond, Peregrina Translations Series (1986; rpt. Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1995). See Margot H. King, "The Sacramental Witness of Christina Mirabilis: The Mystic Growth of a Fool for Christ's Sake," in Peace Weavers, Medieval Religious Women, Vol. 2 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987) 145-164 and Robert Sweetman, "Christine of Saint-Trond's Preaching Apostolate: Thomas of Cantimpré's Hagiographical Method Revisited" Vox Benedictina 9/1 (1992) 66-107; reprinted in On Pilgrimage: The Best of Vox Benedictina 1984-1993 (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1994) 411-432.

6. A year after I first made the acquaintance of Christina and her spiritual sisters in the diocese of Liège, I spent three months burrowing in European libraries looking for manuscripts which contain the vitæ of the Mothers of the Diocese of Liège and reached a suprising oasis when, that summer, I was asked to give a seminar on them at St. John's University in Collegeville. I arrived exhausted and largely unprepared -- except for a conviction that the phenomenon of the Desert Mothers was not confined to the early Church. Fourteen of us (myself a laywoman and thirteen nuns!) spent six weeks examining the historical and spiritual roots of the desert experience and, I suspect, learned more than did my students. They had been living the tradition, whereas I had been only studying it.

7. Thomas de Cantimpré, for instance, set the number of mid-thirteenth-century beguines living in Nivelles at 2,000 (Bonum universale de apibus 2, 54, 10), cited by E.W. McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture (1954; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1969). Matthew Paris gave the same number for Cologne and the neighbouring cities (Chronica maior 4, 278; cited by R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) 319. Jacques de Vitry in the prologue to his Life of Marie d'Oignies describes this phenomenon:
Many holy virgins in the lily gardens of the Lord and you rejoiced. You saw crowds of them in different places and how they scorned carnal enticements for Christ, despised the riches of this world for the love of the heavenly kingdom, clung to their heavenly Bridegroom in poverty and humility and earned a sparse meal with their hands. Although their families abounded in great riches, yet they preferred to endure distress and poverty and were forgetful of their people and the home of their father rather than either to abound in riches which had been wrongly acquired or to remain in danger among worldly pomps. You saw holy women serving God and you rejoiced. With what zeal did they preserve their youthful chastity and they armed themselves in their honourable resolve by salutary warnings, so that their only desire was the heavenly Bridegroom. Widows served the Lord in fasts and prayers, in vigils and in manual labour, in tears and entreaties. Just as they had previously tried to please their husbands in the flesh, so now the more did they attempt to please their heavenly Bridegroom in the spirit.The bibliography for the beguines is vast. Here I note only the following: Joseph Greven, Die Anfänge der Beginen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Volksfrömmigkeit und das Ordenswesens im Hochmittelalter (Münster, 1912); A. Mens, Oorsprong en betekenis van de nederlandse begijnen- en begardenbewegung (Leuven: Universiteitsbibliothek, 1947; Simone Roisin, L'hagiographie cistercienne dans le diocèse de Liège au xiiie siècle (Louvain: Bibliothèque de l'Université, 1947); Michel Lauwers, "Expérience béguinale et récit hagiographique: à propos de la 'Vita Mariæ Oigniacensis' de Jacques de Vitry (vers 1215)" Journal des savants (1989) 61-103 and "Paroles de femmes, sainteté féminine: L'église du xiiie siècle face aux béguines in La critique historique à l'épreuve, ed. Gaston Braive and Jean-Marie Cauchies (Brussels: Publications des Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 1989) 99-115; Walter Simons, "The Beguine Movement in the Southern Low Countries: A Reassessment" Bulletin de l'Institut historique de Rome 5 (1989) 63-105.

8. Jacques de Vitry, Vita Maria Oigniacensis, ed. D. Papebroeck Acta sanctorum June 23 (1867) 5: 542-572, now available on this website; [Two Lives of Marie d'Oignies:] The Life of Marie d'Oignies, by Jacques de Vitry, tr. Margot H. King, with introd. and notes by Margot H. King and Miriam Marsolais; Supplement to The Life of Marie d'Oignies, by Thomas de Cantimpré [and] The Anonymous History of the Church of Blessed Nicholas of Oignies and Marie d'Oignies, tr. with notes Hugh Feiss, osb, Peregrina Translations Series (1986; rpt. Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1993). See Lauwers, "Expérience béguinale et récit hagiographique."

9. Thomas de Cantimpré, Vita Lutgardis, ed. J. Pinius Acta sanctorum June 16 (1867) 3: 187-209; The Life of Lutgard of Aywières, tr. Margot H. King, Peregrina Translations Series. Rev. ed. (1987; Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1991) and by Fr. Martinus Cawley, osco in his Lives of Ida of Nivelles, Lutgard and Alice the Leper (Lafayette OR: Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, 1987). See my "The Dove at the Window: The Ascent of the Soul in Thomas de Cantimpré's Life of Lutgard of Aywières" in Hidden Springs 225-253; Amandus Bussels, "Saint Lutgard's Mystical Spirituality, Ibid. 211-223; Alfred Deboutte, "The Vita Lutgardis of Thomas of Cantimpré, Ibid. 255-281.

10. See above n. 5.

11. Vita Margarete de Ypris, ed. G. Meerseman in "Les Frères Prêcheurs et le mouvement dévot en Flandres au XIIIe siècle," Archivum Fratrum Prædicatorum 18 (1948) 106-130; The Life of Margaret of Ypres, tr. Margot H. King, Peregrina Publishing Co. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1994).

12. Vita Mariæ Oigniacensis, Supplementum, ed. Arnold Rayssius Acta sanctorum (23 June) 5 Iunius (1867): 572-581; [Two Lives of Marie d'Oignies:] Supplement to The Life of Marie d'Oignies, by Thomas de Cantimpré [and] The Anonymous History of the Church of Blessed Nicholas of Oignies and Marie d'Oignies,tr. with notes Hugh Feiss, osb, Peregrina Translations Series (1986; rpt. Saskatoon: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1993).

13. Vita Beatricis: De Autobiografie van de Z. Beatrijs van Tienen O.Cist, 1200-1268, ed. L. Reypens (Antwerp: Ruusbroec-Genootschap, 1964). Beatrice has finally received the attention she deserves with not only a fine new translation into English but also with a marvellous study of her life and times: The Life of Beatrice of Nazareth, 1200-1268, tr. and annotated by Roger de Ganck, assisted by John Baptist Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Studies, 1991); Roger de Ganck, Beatrice of Nazareth in her Context (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Studies, 1991), and Towards Unification with God: Beatrice of Nazareth in her Context Part Three (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Studies, 1991). See also Ritamary Bradley, "Love and Knowledge in Seven Manners of Loving" in Hidden Springs 361-375 and Mary Ann Sullivan, "An Introduction to the Vita Beatricis" Ibid. 345-360.

14. Gosuinus de Bossut [?], Vita Idæ Nivellensis in Quinque prudentes virgines, ed. Chr. Henriques (Antwerp, 1630): 199-297; tr. Fr. Martinus Cawley, osco in his Lives of Ida of Nivelles, Lutgard and Alice the Leper. See also Martinus Cawley, "Ida of Nivelles: Cistercian Nun" in Hidden Springs 305-321 and Claire Boudreau, "'With Desire Have I Desired': Ida of Nivelles' Love for the Eucharist" Ibid. 323-343.

15. Vita Idæ Lewensis, ed. R. de Buck Acta sanctorum (October 29) Octobrius 13 (1867): 100-135 and Quinque prudentes virgines; translated by Fr. Martinus Cawley, ocso (Lafayette OR: Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, 1985). See also "Colman O'Dell, "Idea of Léau: Woman of Desire" in Hidden Springs 415-443 and Chrysogonus Waddell, "Ida of Léau, or, The Inconveniences of Ecstasy," Ibid. 445-470.
16. Vita Idæ Lovaniensis, ed. D. Papebroeck Acta sanctorum (April 13) Aprilis 2 (1867): 157-189 and Quinque prudentes virgines; translated by Fr. Martinus Cawley, ocso (Lafayette OR: Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, 1986).

17. Vita Aleydis Scarembecanæ, ed. G. Henschen Acta sanctorum (June 11) Iunius 3 (1867): 471-477 and Chr. Henriques, Quinque prudentes virgines; translated by Fr. Martinus Cawley, ocso in his Lives of Ida of Nivelles, Lutgard and Alice the Leper. See also Edith Scholl, "The Golden Cross: Aleydis of Schærbeek" in Hidden Springs 377-393 and Edmund Mikkers, "Meditations on the Life of Alice of Schærbeek" Ibid. 395-413.

18. Vita Julianæ Corneliensis, ed. G. Henschen Acta sanctorum (April 5) Aprilis 1 (1865): 435-475; The Life of Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, tr. Barbara Newman, Peregrina Translations Series (Saskatoon: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1988).

19. Hugh of Floreffe, De B. Jetta sive Jutta, vidua reclusa, Hui in Belgio, ed. G. Henschen Acta sanctorum (January 13) Ianuarius 2 (1863): 145-169. And now see, Jennifer Carpenter, "Juette of Huy, Recluse and Mother (1158-1228): Children and Mothering in the Saintly Life" in Power of the Weak: Studies on Medieval Women, ed. Jennifer Carpenter and Sally-Beth MacLean (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995) 57-93 and Isabelle Cochelin "Sainteté laïque: l'exemple de Juette de Huy (1158-1228) Le Moyen Age, 95, 5th ser., vol. 3 (1989) 397-417.

20. Philippe de Clairvaux, Vita Elisabeth Sanctimonialis in Erkenrode in Catalogus codicum hagiographicorum Bibliothecæ regiæ bruxellensis 1 (Bruxelles, 1886) 362-378.

21. Vita Catharinæ, ed. G. Henschen Acta sanctorum (May 4) Maii 1 (1866): 537-539 based on chapters in the Bonum universale de apibus of Thomas de Cantimpré (pp. 296-300) and in the Dialogus miraculorum of Cæsarius of Heisterbach (2, 25).

22. Brieven, ed. Jozef Mierlo (Antwerp: Standaard-Boekhandel, 1947); Mengeldichten, ed. Josef Mierlo (Antwerp: Staandard-Boekhandel, 1952); Strophische Gedichten, ed. Jozef Mierlo (Antwerp: Standaard-Boekhandel, 1942); Strofische Gedichten, Middelnederlandse Tekst en Moderne Bewerking, Klassieken uit de Nederlandse Letterkunde (Zwolle: W.E.J. Tjeenk Willink, 1961); Visioenen, ed. Jozef Mierlo (Leuven: Vlaamsch Boekenhalle, 1924-1925); Hadewijch: The Complete Works, tr. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

23. See the remarks of Hippolyte Delehaye on this point: Les légendes hagiographiques. 3rd ed. (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1927) and of Charles W. Jones, Saints' Lives and Chronicles in Early Éngland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947).

24. For example, the brilliant discovery by Miriam Marsolais that Jacques de Vitry used Richard of St. Victor as a the structural basis for his Life of Marie d'Oignies and my conviction that Thomas de Cantimpré drew upon William of St. Thierry for his lives of Lutgard of Aywières and Christina of Saint-Trond. See the relevant translations by Peregrina Publishing Co. and the notes contained therein. It is becoming increasingly clear to me if those vitæ which enjoyed great popularity in the thirteenth century are obscure to us, it is more often than not our inability to "decode" them. The Middle Ages were not as credulous as we arrogantly suppose and, once the key to understanding them is found, they can be recognised as profound statements on the difficulties of the human condition. Thus did Christina's breasts and Lutgard's fingers drip oil.

25. Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

26. See, for instance, The Life of Margaret of Ypres 7 where Margaret "manfully" [viriliter] suppresses a sexual urge. In The Life of Ida of Louvain 6, Ida's sister Catherine "manfully perseveres"; elsewhere, Jacques remarks on the female habit of gossiping. And so on.

27. Caroline Bynum posits the theory that because women were powerless within society, the only renunciation available to them was the rejection of food. Men were able to withdraw from the worldly temptations of social power, prestige and wealth, but women could only exercise this kind of control through their own bodies: Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) and "Feast, Fast and Flesh: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women" Representations 11 (1985) 123.

28. Gabriele Winkler, "The Origins and Idiosyncrasies of the Earliest Form of Asceticism" in The Continuing Quest for God: Monastic Spirituality in Tradition and Transition, ed. William Skudlarek (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1982) 9-43. The encratics abstained from flesh, wine and marriage like the heretical Manichaeans and the Albigensians and the beguines were frequently accused of this heresy.

29. Henrietta Leyser, Hermits and the New Monasticism: A Study of Religious Communities in Western Europe 1000-1150 (London: Macmillan Press, 1984).

30. See Jean Leclercq "Monachisme et Peregrination" Studia monastica 3 (1961): 33-52 and G.B. Ladner "Homo Viator: Medieval Ideas on Alienation and Order" Speculum 42 (1967): 233-259 and, of course, Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).

31. See the many fine articles by Michel Mollet, especially The Poor in the Middle Ages, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986); Brenda M. Bolton, "Paupertas Christi: Old Wealth and New Poverty in the Twelfth Century" in Renaissance and Renewal, ed. Derek Baker, Studies in Church History 14 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977) 95-103 and L.K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London: P. Elek, 1978).

32. Marie and her followers are often called pauperculæ Christi: "poor little women of Christ."

33. See Gerhard Bauer, Claustrum Animæ: Untersuchungen zur Geschicht der Metapher als Kloster, Band I: Entstehungsgeschichte (München: Wilhelm Fink, 1973) and Guerric Couilleau, "Le coeur et la cellule" La vie spirituelle (mai-juin 1980) 384-392.

34. Bessarion 12; Ammonas 4; Gelasius 6; Anonymous 115 in J. Cl. Guy, Les apophtegmes des pères du désert (Paris: Bellefontaine, 1966).

35. But nothing like the urgency it has assumed in the later twentieth century! For an utterly fascinating example of how the anchoretic life has been pursued by the "non-churchy" in the later decades of the twentieth century, see Marsha Sinetar, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Self-Discovery (New York: Paulist Press, 1986).

36. Two reasons are commonly given for the existence of these female gyrovagues: that there were too few convents to house those wishing to enter and the monks refused to open new ones; and as a result of the Crusades and widespread war, there was a surplus of single women. Neither explanation really satisfies. Who can ever explain a sudden explosion of piety and religious fervour? See Brenda Bolton, "Mulieres sanctæ" in Sanctity and Secularity: The Church and the World, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973) 77-95.

37. For example, Yvette's father became a recluse after his conversion but before Yvette herself was enclosed. The sister of Ida of Léau became a recluse before Ida entered La Ramée. In The Life of Yvette of Huy, the author remarks that Hugh of Pierrepont, bishop of Liège (1200-1229), had so many female recluses in his diocese [cum plures in sua dioecesi reclusas haberet] that he found it difficult to admit new ones (44, p. 166).

38. The location of her cell, however, was similar to that of an anchoress: see para. 24 and my n. 55.

39. See my translation of the life, p. 133-134, n. 137.

40. Her methodical biographer also describes two cells in her heart which she established and to which she flee when attacked by temptation. In these cells she stored "in orderly fashion" both the memory of the frail human condition and the graces which she had been given (103). Furthermore she built in her heart "a spiritual cloister" but administered as though it were an temporal monastery which appears to be crammed with people: God is the abbot (strength and power) and love and spiritual affection his close companions; reason is abbess to whom discretion (the guardian of virtues) ministers; wisdom is prioress (regulator of the virtues) and, interestingly enough, subordinate to reason; prudence (teaching and supervising exterior exercises) is sub-prioress; and, finally, charity is cellarer who "continuously exercising herself in love of God and neighbour liberally ministered and poured out whatever gifts and graces she received from God to relieve the needs of her neighbours" (111-112).

41. Note that almost every time Jerome speaks of the Desert Fathers, he uses a garden image and when he speaks of gardens, he is frequently referring to the mind. In Against Jovinian, the hortus conclusus and fons signatus are symbols of the perpetual virginity of Mary (1, 31; p. 30).

42. The eroticism found in many mystical treatises has caused much scandal and consternation. What more obvious choice than to use erotic imagery to describe the intimate union of the soul with God? Mediæval writers were neither squeamish nor prudish when it came to sexual matters and saw nothing scandalous in an explicit sexuality. Admittedly the soul (or mind) is non-material but one cannot make a clear division between soul and body. If the soul is rapt into union with God, there will be an effect upon the entire human person, the body included. What more natural result than that the body itself feels and responds to this union. It is interesting to note that Lutgard's early visions are described in human terms and her response is that of a sensual being. When she later achieved what William of St. Thierry called the level of perfection, her visions became less material and she described what she has seen in images of light. Ida of Louvain, on the other hand, was much more sensual.

43. Thus is Bede's image of rumination carried to its logical - and feminine! - conclusion.

44. The term used is segregata and although it is in the passive case, the fact that she "yearns" for the things of heaven indicates that she has actively participated in her isolation. The phrase "omnino segregat [a] a voluptate sæcularium" is found in the Liber de diversis ordinibus ecclesiæ 2, 9, quoted by Jean Leclercq, "Monachus" in his Études sur le vocabulaire monastique du moyen-âge (Rome: Pontificum Institutum S. Anselmi, 1961) 19.

45. Note the parallel between the OT concept of leprosy. Seen as an outward sign of sin, lepers were forced outside society and to walk around in ragged clothing and unkempt hair, warning off anyone who approached by shouting "Unclean!" (Lv 13:1-2, 45-46). In his turn, Christ healed the lepers but then himself withdrew from society (Mk 1: 40-45). For these women, such an outward manifestation of sinfulness was the first step (either literal leprosy in the case of Aleydis or conspicuous poverty and/or conspicuous repentance in the case of the other women) which preceded their inward healing. They too withdrew in order to heal others.

46. Yvette, forced into an unwelcome marriage, hated her husband and wished him dead but soon repented of her sin and was (it would seem) rewarded for her contrition when he did, in fact, die. Note that she wished to be afflicted with the same disease as that with which Aleydis was struck: "In this obscure retreat, she was motivated only by a love of Jesus Christ and by a desire to imitate him who, from his love for us, wished to appear like a leper struck by God and humiliated [quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum]." In the event, she was not externally afflicted; her social alienation and humiliation were inner dispositions of the soul.

47. Beatrice's biographer, a man who considered order to be the guide of all virtues, saw danger in this kind of withdrawal. Although Beatrice was settled in community, she also "feared to be too involved in virtuous works (i.e. her prayers, readings, meditations, genuflections and breast beatings) in the eyes of men, she therefore," he says, "often rather imprudently withdrew from them" and her zeal became sluggish because, "on the one hand she was fleeing a reputation for holiness [but] on the other she was succumbing to the wound of squalid sloth through lack of caution" (62): a rather incongruous perception, it would seem, in the context of these charismatic women. It must be noted, however, that the vita of Beatrice is unlike the others in that her biographer is not only methodical and systematic but places what seems to me to be undue importance on the virtues of moderation and order and, even more surprisingly, makes wisdom subordinate to reason (112)!

49. After Christina died, she made a pact with God to return to earth to show sinners the inevitable result of their behaviour. It is certain that she was one of Christ's holy fools and that her otherworldly experience caused her great suffering and apparent madness when she had to re-enter human society. Thus she fled the foul stench of humanity to perch in trees and to sit upon steeples.

50. "Almost every year she used to visit the church of Blessed Mary of Heigne on pilgrimage where she received consolation from the Blessed Virgin. The church was about two leagues distant from her home and when the winter was bitterly cold she used to walk with bare feet to the church and the ice did not wound her feet" (28).

51. "She conceived such a great love for poverty through the spirit of fear that she hardly even wanted to possess the bare necessities of life. Thus one day she made plans to flee so that, unknown and despised among strangers, she might beg from door to door, that naked she might follow the naked Christ É She frequently paid heed to and recollected the poverty of Christ who, when he was born, did not have a place in the inn and who did not have the money to pay the tribute. Thus she wanted to be fed with alms and she wanted to be received in strangers' houses. She burned with such a desire for poverty that she took with her a little bag in which to put alms and a little cup from which she might drink water or into which she might put any food which might be given to her while she was begging. Thus clothed in old rags, she was only barely discouraged from her plan by the copious tears of her friends. When the poor little woman of Christ had said her farewells and wanted to take to the road clothed like this with her little bag and her cup, her friends [amici: i.e. her male friends] who loved her in Christ sorrowed so much and shed so many tears that she could not endure it and was filled with compassion. Although she wanted to flee and to beg, she was restrained by two things: she chose to remain because her absence would have seemed intolerable to her brothers and sisters and therefore she did what she could (45).

52. See, of course, Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, passim.

53. Thus was Marie forced into radical poverty of spirit:
What did the poor little woman of Christ lack, she who always fled wealth and always had enough to give to others? She always loved poverty so extravagantly that the Lord provided her with the necessities of life. She not only spurned wealth through a spirit of fear but she also considered herself small in her own eyes with a spirit of poverty. She cast herself down with such humility that she accounted herself as nothing and whenever she had done anything well, she felt as if she were useless. She said this not only with her mouth but she felt it in her heart. Considering herself to be inferior to everyone, she never presumed anything in herself and indeed thought that everyone was superior to her. When the Lord did something good to her, she imputed it to the merit of others and never sought her own glory but referred everything to him from whom comes all good. She judged herself unworthy of the goods she had received and she condemned no one, neither the weak man nor the sinner, and despised only herself. She was indifferent alike to blame or to praise and, surrounded on the right and the left by the shield of truth, shadows were to her the same as light and she was not depressed by reproof or raised up by praise (46).

54. See, for instance, a gloss to The Life of Marie d'Oignies where the scribe wrote in the margin opposite the chapter entitled manual labour, the words "that which is not fitting to women." See VMO 38:

The prudent woman knew that after the sin of our first parents the Lord enjoined penance through them to their sons, that is to say "You will eat your bread by the sweat of your brow" (Gn 3: 19). This is the reason why she worked with her own hands as often as she could so that she mortified her body with penance, so that she furnished the necessities of life for the poor, and so that she acquired food and clothing for herself, or rather for all those things which she had given up for Christ. The Lord bestowed upon her such strength in labour that she far exceeded her companions and she was able to obtain for herself and for one companion the fruit of her hands, and she gave diligent heed to the words of the apostle "Whoever will not work will not eat" (2 Thes 3: 10). She accounted all exertion and labour sweet when she turned her attention to the fact that the only begotten Son of the high king of heaven "who opens his hand and fills with blessing every living creature" (Ps 144: 16) was nourished by Joseph's manual labour and by the work of the Virgin, that poor little woman. In quiet and silence she followed the injunction of the apostle and by the labour of her hands (1 Thes 4: 11), she ate her bread since her strength was in silence and hope (Is 30: 15). She so loved quiet and silence that she fled noisy crowds and once barely said a word from the Feast of the Holy Cross until Easter. The Holy Spirit revealed to her that the Lord had accepted this kind of silence and especially because of it, that she had obtained from the Lord that she would fly up to heaven without going to Purgatory. See also, inter alia, VILO 1, 16.

55. See John Anson, "The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism; The Origins and Development of a Motif" Viator 5 (1974) 1-32; Evelyne Patlagean, "L'histoire de la femme déguisée en moine et l'evolution de la sainteté féminine en Byzance," Studi medievali 3e série, 17 (1976), 597-623, Meeks, W.A. "The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of Symbol in Earliest Christianity" History of Religions 13 (1973-1974) 165-208; Kerstin Aspegren, The Male Woman: A Feminine Ideal in the Early Church, ed. R. Kieffer (Uppsala: Academia Ubsaliensis; Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1990); Baudoin de Gaiffier "Palatins et eunuques dans quelques documents hagiographiques" Analecta bollandiana 75 (1957), 17-46; Bernnasser, Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism; and Vern Bullough, "Transvestism in the Middle Ages" in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundate (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982) 43-54. For a Freudian interpretation, see M. Delcourt, "Female Saints in Masculine Clothing" Hermaphrodite: Myths and Rites of the Bisexual Figure in Classical Antiquity, tr. J. Nicholson (London: Studio Books, 1961) 84-102 .

57. See, especially, John Saward, Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ's Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). Palladius, for instance, described one such holy woman [sale] who was apparently mad, a nun, whose sanctity was recognised by the anchorite Piteroum only after many years of vilification by her community (The Lausiac History 34, Butler ed., 99. The Irish "wild men" were another example, the most famous example of which was Buile Suibhne who has reappeared in modern guise and with an anglicised name in the Sweeney poems by T.S. Eliot. The original can be found in Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne); being, The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt: A Middle Irish Romance, ed. and trans. J.G. O'Keeffe (London: Published for the Irish Text Society by David Nutt, 1913). Christina shares many of the characteristics exhibited by the Irish gelta and listed by O Riain in an article entitled "A Study of the Irish Legend of the Wild Men," Eigse 14 (1971-1972), 182 ff.: "(B) the state of madness: The madman (i) takes to the wilderness; (ii) perches on trees; (iii) collects firewood; (iv) is naked, hairy, covered with feathers, or clothed with rags; (v) leaps, and/or levitates; (vi) is very swift; (iv) is very swift; (vii) is restless and travels great distances; (viii) experiences hallucinations; (ix) has a special diet" (quoted by Saward 41). Christina's pattern of behaviour is almost identical to this description except for (iii) and, depending on one's point of view, (viii). See my article, "The Sacramental Witness of Christina Mirabilis."

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