Many medieval mystics describe a dramatic personal experience in which they are first awakened to the full reality of the divine life. Once the experience has occurred, the mystic is never the same again. He or she has been allowed to experience, as a matter of direct cognition rather than intellectual speculation, the ultimate reality of life, its spiritual essence. After this experience, the mystic can never go back to the old way of understanding, and they may also find that the direction and purpose of their life is dramatically altered.
Sometimes the experience of awakening comes spontaneously and unsought; at other times it represents a deepening of a religious life already chosen. An example of the first category is Catherine of Genoa, who had no interest in the religious life until the age of twenty-six. At that time, as it is recorded in her biography, written by one of her followers:
Her heart was pierced by so sudden and immense a love of God, accompanied by so deep a sight of her miseries and sins and of His Goodness, that she was near falling to the ground; and in a transport of pure and all-purifying love she was drawn away from the miseries of the world.
As a result of this experience and others that followed in the ensuing days, Catherine embarked on her life of contemplation and service.
In the case of Henry Suso, he had already entered the Dominican Order when he had his dramatic awakening. The experience happened when, as he puts it, he was still a beginner. One early afternoon after the midday meal, he was alone in the chapel. He was feeling sad and oppressed by suffering, when suddenly “his soul was caught up,” and he experienced something that he later, writing of himself in the third person, struggles to describe:
It was without form or definite manner of being, yet it contained within itself the joyous, delightful wealth of all forms and manners. . . . He did nothing but stare into the bright effulgence, which made him forget himself and all else. Was it day or night? He did not know. It was a bursting forth of the delight of eternal life, present to his awareness, motionless calm.
The experience lasted for perhaps an hour. When Suso came to himself again, he felt as if he were coming back from a different world, and as he reflected on the experience it seemed as if he were floating in air. He knew intuitively that he could never forget what he had just known.
Descriptions of awakenings can be found also in Julian’s Revelations, which is the record of one long experience of seeing into the divine essence and the divine plan. Rolle’s The Fire of Love is another example, in which Rolle experienced, like Suso, a profound illumination while sitting one day in a chapel.
Purification and Penance
Having had a taste of the divine essence, the medieval Christian mystics undertook spiritual exercises involving purification and penance. The purposes of these practices were to make the mystics worthy vessels for further revelation of the divine, and to enable them to be of greater service to God. Some of the penance was through prayer, study of scripture, or solitude, in which the mystic turned away from the things of the world. The mystic also cultivated the traditional virtues of the religious life such as humility, obedience, and poverty. Sometimes penance involved bodily deprivation or self-inflicted physical pain. Some mystics took this to extreme lengths. Catherine of Siena regularly flagellated herself with an iron chain and fasted to the point where she was unable to eat. (She died of starvation.) Suso described in his autobiography how he would wear an undergarment to which were fastened a hundred and fifty pointed nails. He would tighten the garment until the...
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