The storming of love is what is sweetest within her,
Her deepest abyss is her most beautiful form,
To lose our way in her is to arrive,
To hunger for her is to feed and taste,
Her despairing is sureness of faith,
Her worst wounding is to become whole again,
To waste away for her is to endure,
Her hiding is to find her at all times,
To be tormented for her is to be in good health,
In her concealment she is revealed,
What she withholds, she gives,
Her finest speech is without words,
Her imprisonment is freedom,
Her most painful blow is her sweetest consolation,
Her giving is her taking away,
Her going away is her coming near,
Her deepest silence is her highest song,
Her greatest wrath is her warmest thanks,
Her greatest threatening is remaining true,
Her sadness is the healing of all sorrow.
These beautiful lines about love by the 13th-century mystic Hadewijch of Brabant seem full of paradoxes. Those paradoxes challenge our sense of reason. How can we arrive if we have lost our way? How can something be revealed if it is also concealed? How can something which is given also be taken away? These statements seem to make no sense. Here are some more lines:
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
You who tell the truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, tell the truth about me.
But whenever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear.
For whenever you appear, I myself will hide from you.
I am the substance and the one who has no substance.
On the day when I am close to you, you are far away from me,
and on the day when I am far away from you, I am close to you.
These lines seem to voice the same contradictory paradoxes as those of Hadewijch. How can someone who is barren bear many children? How can one of substance have no substance? How can one who is far away also be so close? These two mystic voices seem to be so similar – and yet the second voice predates the first by several centuries, and was not discovered until centuries after the first. The second voice is that of an unknown writer speaking as Sophia, from the text known as ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’, the Gnostic scripture discovered last century. Clearly there is no way that either writer could have known of the other’s existence, and yet the ideas which they express are wholly sympathetic with each other.
What we seem to encounter in these texts is a common experience: a language of mysticism. We feel that, had she been able to read it, Hadewijch would readily have recognised the experiences described in the older text. But both texts have more in common than apparent paradoxes. Both seem to offer a reassurance, an unstated advice to let go. Not just in the sense of letting go to trust in events, but an urging to let go of forms, of preconceptions, even of a familiar logic. Perhaps this is the clue, the way in to a greater understanding of what this mystic language suggests: that these greater truths are beyond language, beyond the world of forms, of logic, of preconceptions.
Perhaps the marvel in these lines, in both these voices, is their sense of consolation. Both writers convey a sense that ‘all will be well’, in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. For as we know from our own life’s experience, logic is not always present. Sometimes things just happen, and we are left gasping for breath and wondering why. But in the visionary worlds of Hadewijch and the remarkable unknown writer who is the voice of Sophia, consolation is in the letting go of even trying to understand, of even trying to seek for rational ‘answers’. Consolation comes with an acceptance of paradox, and when we open ourselves to a loving spirit that simple acceptance can be enough.
Painting by Bernardino Luini
If you like to read more about Hadewijch, you are welcome to read my post The Eyesight of the Soul.