Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics

Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics

by Monica Furlong

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The women mystics of medieval Europe represent the very first feminine voices heard in a world where women were nearly silent. As such, they are striking and unusual, strange, powerful and urgent. Monica Furlong uses key selections from among these women's own writings and writings about them by their contemporaries, along with her own assessment of them, to open


The women mystics of medieval Europe represent the very first feminine voices heard in a world where women were nearly silent. As such, they are striking and unusual, strange, powerful and urgent. Monica Furlong uses key selections from among these women's own writings and writings about them by their contemporaries, along with her own assessment of them, to open up their contributions to a wide popular audience. The eleven women represented in this anthology were housewives, visionaries, abbesses, beguines, recluses, and nuns who wrote between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. They include:

  • Héloise,
    the scholar and abbess, whose letters to Abelard are treasure of medieval literature
  • Hildegard of Bingen, the visionary Rhineland nun
  • Clare of Assisi, the close friend of Saint Francis and founder of the Poor Clares
  • Catherine of Siena, an influential spiritual counselor whose book,


    consists of a debate between herself and God
  • Julian of Norwich, the English hermitess who spent the greater part of her life meditating on and coming to understand the striking visions she received as a young woman
  • and many others

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Furlong's anthology is distinguished by the range of material. It not only sharpens understanding of medieval mysticism but also enhances our vision in a world where mysticism and longing remain intimately intertwined."—Booklist

"An excellent guide."—Publishers Weekly

"Mystics are not normal people," opines British novelist and biographer Monica Furlong in this introduction to ten mystics and one wronged woman from the high Middle Ages. Furlong's mystical women defy parents, loathe sex, obsess over distant sins, hear voices, seek pain, and occasionally strip themselves bare in public places. But their abnormalities are not incapacitating—they also establish monastic communities, confront popes, and produce literature that is still published today, centuries after their normal contemporaries have been forgotten.

"Furlong, whose previous biographical subjects include John Bunyan, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, and Alan Watts, writes not only as a scholar but as one who has been personally touched my medieval mystical vision: 'the conviction that there is a reality, a profound meaning, behind or beyond or within the world of appearances.' These strange women fascinate her; she wants to introduce them to readers who might be intimidated by dusty original sources. And so, in her own words and theirs, Furlong sketches rebellious Heloise (the one nonmystic in the sorority), runaway Christina of Markyate, a visionary Hildegard of Bingen, the lovesick Beguines, sickly Clare of Assisi, joyful Angela of Foligno, strong-willed Catherine of Siena, mad Margery Kemp, and optimistic Julian of Norwich.

"Visions and Longings is an anecdotal introduction to mysticism; Furlong has no interest in providing theological history or analyzing these women's stories in light of their tumultuous political contexts. Rather, despite her assertion that her heroines are 'bizarre and extraordinarily unlike ourselves,' she hold them up as contemporary role models: autonomous, subversive, powerful, independent, and adamantly antihierarchical. If this approach occasionally leads toward anachronism, it may also facilitate appreciation and understanding of times past. It may even stimulate critical thinking about today's popular spirituality titles that promise improved health and happiness—a kind of mystical wholeness—as a side effect of divine union. By contrast, the mystical women of Christian tradition sought nothing of the sort, finding union with God in spite of—or even through—illness and suffering. 'It may be,' Furlong suggests, 'that through wounds in the psyche, cracks in the personality, neurotic or psychotic traits, through depression and hysteria and paranoia, a way is made for the transcendent to reach into the human condition.'"—LaVonne Neff, Books & Culture

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Little is known of Heloise's early life except that her mother was called Hersinde and that it is possible Heloise was illegitimate. She attended school at the convent of Argenteuil and must have had excellent teachers among the nuns,
since she could write and read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. When she finished school she lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, as his ward.
Fulbert was proud of her intelligence and learning, and when she was seventeen he invited the great scholar Pierre Abelard to become her tutor. Abelard possessed an extraordinary intellectual caliber and a personal confidence that bordered on arrogance, which had already gained him a reputation as a firebrand. The eldest son of minor Breton nobility, he had renounced the life of a soldier to study philosophy, in particular dialectic, or logic. Attending the Cloister School of Notre Dame as a student, he out-argued his master,
William of Champeaux, and set up his own school, which took pupils away from
William. Later he went to Anselm of Laon to study theology, but quickly despising the method of proving theological points as if they were points of law, by quoting the saints and the Bible rather than trying to think ideas through, he fell out as bitterly with Anselm as he had with William. His fearless debating style, good looks, and brilliant intelligence brought him a passionate following among the young but made him a number of enemies in the ecclesiastical establishment, the most serious of whom was Bernard of
Clairvaux, who felt Abelard's questioning style would undermine the basis of the Christian faith.

In a letter Abelard wrote to a friend much later in his life—the Historia
Calamitatum—Abelard suggests that, having led a life of chastity until his thirties, he then made a cold decision to find a woman to seduce, and that his eye fell on Heloise. Their relationship as teacher and pupil gave them unusual opportunities for closeness without chaperonage. Almost immediately they became lovers, and Abelard says that their "desires left no stage of love-making untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more eagerly for our previous inexperience, and were the less easily sated."

Abelard began to neglect his work in the Schools, and songs he had written about Heloise began to be sung all over Paris; gradually the scandal of his love affair with Heloise became known. Belatedly Fulbert discovered what was going on. By this time Heloise was pregnant, and Abelard took her, disguised as a nun, on a journey to live with his family in Brittany, where she would remain until the baby, Pierre Astrolabe, was born. Back in Paris, he went to Fulbert and offered to marry Heloise on condition it could be kept secret. (Although
Abelard was not in orders and so was technically free to marry—and in any case not all clergy were celibate at this period—marriage would have been thought damaging to his reputation as a philosopher.)

It was at this point that the strength of Heloise's intelligence and character became clear. Her response to the idea of a marriage, secret or otherwise, was refusal. Neither she nor Abelard thought highly of marriage—it was widely regarded at the time as a regrettable compromise with the flesh—and her conviction was that they should remain together and give one another love just as long as they both wished to do so, that it should remain a union of total freedom. She feared that the cares of marriage and a family would destroy
Abelard's energies and reputation as a philosopher. She also feared, rightly as it turned out, that Fulbert, who had shown himself full of sexual jealousy, was not to be trusted to keep the secret. She insisted that it filled her with pride to be Abelard's whore, as she put it—she asked no more of life. Although their way of life did not embrace the current form of romance—that of courtly love—the love of Heloise has within it some of the same capacity to live out an extreme, and perhaps to invite self-destruction by doing so.

Persuaded by Abelard, Heloise finally submitted to a secret marriage and afterward went to live at the convent of Argenteuil—her old school—where, at
Abelard's suggestion, she wore the robe of a postulant. These devices were in vain. Possibly because he thought Abelard had discarded Heloise and was now forcing her to become a nun, Fulbert arranged for men to force an entry into the master's rooms and castrate him.

In the uproar that followed this appalling event, Abelard arranged for
Heloise to return to the convent at Argenteuil and, after a relatively short lapse of time, to "take the veil." Perhaps she was too stunned by the scandal and tragedy that had overwhelmed her and Abelard to fully grasp what she was doing, perhaps she merely felt that this was some temporary device and that they would later be together again. As the years went by, she gradually realized the extent of her dereliction. She was appointed prioress of
Argenteuil, the second in command at the convent, responsible for the education of pupils and much else.

After Heloise had made her vows, Abelard himself became a monk at the Abbey of Saint Denis. His troubles, severe enough already, became worse. He was appalled by the laxity of life there and made himself unpopular by protesting.
When he began to teach again, his enemies plotted against him, and his book about the Trinity was condemned and burned at the Council of Soissons. Abelard withdrew to a secluded rural area near Troyes, where he built a hermitage of reed and thatch, first dedicated to the Trinity but later to the Paraclete, the
Comforter. There he was pursued by hundreds of students until he was obliged again to withdraw, and he became abbot of a monastery at Saint Gildas on a remote seacoast of Brittany.

In the meantime the Abbey of Saint Denis had evicted the nuns of Argenteuil,
having found a claim to their land, and the sisters were homeless and destitute. Hearing of this, Abelard offered a group of them the use of the
Paraclete, with Heloise in charge as abbess; he traveled to Troyes to hand the property over to them. It was ten years since the couple had parted.

In a letter to Abelard from this period (the first letter, which follows)
Heloise describes reading Abelard's account Historia Calamitatum, which somebody, not Abelard, had sent to her, and she complains bitterly of the way
Abelard has abandoned her and the longing for him that still assails her. She accuses him roundly of having used her to fulfill his lust, and there is a coldness in the way he writes about her in the Historia that supports this view. As he recovered from the physical and mental trauma of his castration,
Abelard had undergone a conversion process that led him to feel that his mutilation was deserved. Heloise senses that he has moved away from her, but she has remained in the same place, loving and wanting Abelard just as she did before. Only her circumstances have changed, forcing on her the life of the convent but leaving her central passion untouched.

Of the two of her letters printed here, the first one contains an angry upbraiding of Abelard in which the pain of ten long, uncomprehending years spills out. It brought a reply from him not denying his love for her but making it clear that he could now only tolerate a rather distant brotherly relationship. In later letters Heloise slowly began to recognize how total was the change in Abelard.

As she gradually accepts this she seems to move out of a state of helpless grieving, but it is important to her still to maintain contact with Abelard,
and she defers to him in a number of ways, particularly in trying to work out how, as abbess at the Paraclete, she should adapt the Benedictine Rule intended for men for the use of her sisters. Some sort of regular contact with Abelard was established, with him occasionally visiting and writing to her. Her new role of abbess gave scope for her intellectual and other gifts. She invited
Abelard to write hymns and commentaries for the community.

Not only did he write hymns for them that later became famous, but he also offered detailed suggestions about the Rule as she had asked. The later Rule that was adopted by the nuns was in some ways stricter than Abelard suggested,
but it is interesting that it did not accept his idea of the nuns being ruled by a male superior (as part of a double monastery of men and women) but rather placed the abbess in charge of her sisters. The influence here is plainly
Heloise's. In her rejection both of total enclosure and of male jurisdiction she prefigures Clare's reforms.

Perhaps partly because of guilt over "the calamity," Heloise feels a need to deplore being a woman. She lectures Abelard about the women in history who have brought about the downfall of great men (ironically, since she need look no further than her own life to see that women were equally ruined by unlucky association). Abelard makes no attempt to counter her deprecation of women in his letters—it must have seemed an entirely natural way to speak. He himself repeatedly mentions the "weakness" of women (he means psychological and spiritual weakness as well as the physical kind).

All the same, as befitted a well-known abbess, Heloise actually writes with great confidence, shrewdness, sometimes with truculence—there is nothing timid about her—and judging by her written style she must have been a formidable woman, partly because of her fine intelligence and perhaps partly because of the baptism of fire in her youth. Abelard selected a woman who could hold her own with him.

Her spirituality is not of the mystical kind. She is frank about the fact that when she entered the convent she did it not for the love of God, whom she believed she had deeply offended, but for the love of Abelard. In that spirit she had taken her vows. Yet in caring for the sisters, designing the framework of manual work and prayer that made up their life, supervising the school,
caring for the poor and sick who came to the sisters for help, she seems to have found a way for herself, a way of distinction and grace. She was clearly admired by contemporary men of spiritual gifts, such as Peter the Venerable.

Letter from Heloise to Abelard

This letter contains the outpourings of ten years in which Heloise has not seen or spoken to Abelard, and until she reads his

she has no idea of how he has lived with the catastrophe that engulfed them both. Reading it, she is appalled at the coldness toward her that she finds there; it contrasts unbearably with the love and longing she has felt for him in the years in the convent. She has an acute sense of the unfairness of his attitude, since everything she has done, including entering the convent, she has done out of loyalty to him.

To her master, or rather her father, husband, or rather brother; his handmaid, or rather his daughter, wife, or rather sister; to Abelard, Heloise.

Not long ago, my beloved, by chance someone brought me the letter of consolation you had sent to a friend. I saw at once from the superscription that it was yours, and was all the more eager to read it since the writer is so dear to my heart. I hoped for renewal of strength, at least from the writer's words, which would picture for me the reality I have lost. But nearly every line of this letter was filled, I remember, with gall and wormwood, as it told the pitiful story of our entry into religion and the cross of unending suffering which you, my only love, continue to bear.

In that letter you did indeed carry out the promise you made your friend at the beginning, that he would think his own troubles insignificant or nothing in comparison with your own. First you revealed the persecution you suffered from your teachers, then the supreme treachery of the mutilation of your person, and then described the abominable jealousy and violent attacks of your fellow students, Alberic of Rheims and Lotulf of Lombardy. You did not gloss over what at their instigation was done to your distinguished theological work or what amounted to a prison sentence passed on yourself. Then you went on to the plotting against you by your abbot and false brethren, the serious slanders from those two pseudoapostles, spread against you by the same rivals, and the scandal stirred up among many people because you had acted contrary to custom in naming your oratory after the Paraclete. You went on to the incessant,
intolerable persecutions which you still endure at the hands of that cruel tyrant and the evil monks you call your sons, and so brought your sad story to an end.

No one, I think, could read or hear it dry-eyed; my own sorrows are renewed by the detail in which you have told it, and redoubled because you say your perils are still increasing. All of us here are driven to despair of your life,
and every day we await in fear and trembling the final word of your death. And so in the name of Christ, who is still giving you some protection for his service, we beseech you to write as often as you think fit to us who are his handmaids and yours, with news of the perils in which you are still storm-tossed. We are all that are left you, so at least you should let us share your sorrow or your joy.

It is always some consolation in sorrow to feel that it is shared, and any burden laid on several is carried more lightly or removed. And if this storm has quietened down for a while, you must be all the more prompt to send us a letter which will be the more gladly received...

You wrote your friend a long letter of consolation, prompted no doubt by his misfortunes, but really telling of your own. The detailed account you gave of these may have been intended for his comfort, but it also greatly increased our own feeling of desolation; in your desire to heal his wounds you have dealt us fresh wounds of grief as well as reopening the old. I beg you, then, as you set about tending the wounds which others have dealt, heal the wounds you have yourself inflicted. You have done your duty to a friend and comrade, discharged your debt to friendship and comradeship, but it is a greater debt which binds you in obligation to us who can properly be called not friends so much as dearest friends, not comrades but daughters, or any other conceivable name more tender and holy. How great the debt by which you have bound yourself to us needs neither proof nor witness, were it in any doubt; if the whole world kept silent, the facts themselves would cry out. For you after God are the sole founder of this place, the sole builder of this oratory, the sole creator of this community. You have built nothing here upon another man's foundation.
Everything here is your own creation. This was a wilderness open to wild beasts and brigands, a place which had known no home nor habitation of men. In the very lairs of wild beasts and lurking-places of robbers, where the name of God was never heard, you built a sanctuary to God and dedicated a shrine in the name of the Holy Spirit. To build it you drew nothing from the riches of kings and princes, though their wealth was great and could have been yours for the asking: whatever was done, the credit was to be yours alone. Clerks and scholars came flocking here, eager for your teaching, and ministered to all your needs; and even those who had lived on the benefices of the Church and knew only how to receive offerings, not to make them, whose hands were held out to take but not to give, became pressing in their lavish offers of assistance.

As so it is yours, truly your own, this new plantation for God's purpose, but it is sown with plants which are still very tender and need watering if they are to thrive. Through its feminine nature this plantation would be weak and frail even if it were not new; and so it needs a more careful and regular cultivation, according to the words of the Apostle: "I planted the seed and
Apollos watered it; but God made it grow." The Apostle, through the doctrine that he preached, had planted and established in the faith the Corinthians, to whom he was writing. Afterward the Apostle's own disciple, Apollos, had watered them with his holy exhortations and so God's grace bestowed on them growth in the virtues. You cultivate a vineyard of another's vines, which you did not plant yourself and which has now turned to bitterness against you, so that often your advice brings no result and your holy words are uttered in vain. You devote your care to another's vineyard; think what you owe to your own. You teach and admonish rebels to no purpose, and in vain you throw the pearls of your divine eloquence to the pigs. While you spend so much on the stubborn,
consider what you owe to the obedient; you are so generous to your enemies but should reflect on how you are indebted to your daughters. Apart from everything else, consider the close tie by which you have bound yourself to me, and repay the debt you owe a whole community of women dedicated to God by discharging it the more dutifully to her who is yours alone.

Your superior wisdom knows better than our humble learning of the many serious treatises which the holy Fathers compiled for the instruction or exhortation or even the consolation of holy women, and of the care with which these were composed. And so in the precarious early days of our conversion long ago I was not a little surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when neither reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy
Fathers made you think of trying to comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was by prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when we had parted. Yet you must know that you are bound to me by an obligation which is all the greater for the further close tie of the marriage sacrament uniting us,
and are the deeper in my debt because of the love I have always borne you, as everyone knows, a love which is beyond all bounds.

You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you, and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you. Surely the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for the help of consolation, and this no one can bring but you; you are the sole cause of my sorrow, and you alone can grant me the grace of consolation. You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself. I did more, strange to say—my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and my will alike. God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding,
but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me,
that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more gratitude I should win from you, and also the less damage I
should do the brightness of your reputation.

You yourself on your own account did not altogether forget this in the letter of consolation I have spoken of which you wrote to a friend; there you thought fit to set out some of the reasons I gave in trying to dissuade you from binding us together in an ill-starred marriage. But you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress but your whore.

For a man's worth does not rest on his wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but worth on his merits. And a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale.
Certainly any woman who comes to marry through desires of this kind deserves wages, not gratitude, for clearly her mind is on the man's property, not himself, and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could. This is evident from the argument put forward in the dialogue of
Aeschines Socraticus by the learned Aspasia to Xenophon and his wife. When she had expounded it in an effort to bring about a reconciliation between them, she ended with these words: "Unless you come to believe that there is no better man nor worthier woman on earth you will always still be looking for what you judge the best thing of all—to be the husband of the best of wives and the wife of the best of husbands."

These are saintly words which are more than philosophic; indeed, they deserve the name of wisdom, not philosophy. It is a holy error and a blessed delusion between man and wife, when perfect love can keep the ties of marriage unbroken not so much through bodily continence as chastity of spirit. But what error permitted other women, plain truth permitted me, and what they thought of their husbands, the world in general believed, or rather, knew, to be true of yourself; so that my love for you was the more genuine for being further removed from error. What king or philosopher could match your fame? What district, town, or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you, or crane his neck and strain his eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl, desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.

You had besides, I admit, two special gifts whereby to win at once the heart of any woman—your gifts for composing verse and song, in which we know other philosophers have rarely been successful. This was for you no more than a diversion, a recreation from the labors of your philosophic work, but you left many love songs and verses which won wide popularity for the charm of their words and tunes and kept your name continually on everyone's lips. The beauty of the airs ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you. And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me. For your manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body, and among the women who envied me then, could there be one now who does not feel compelled by my misfortune to sympathize with my loss of such joys? Who is there who was once my enemy, whether man or woman, who is not moved now by the compassion which is my due? Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know,
wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done. What my intention toward you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge. I submit all to your scrutiny, yield to your testimony in all things.

Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence? Tell me, I say, if you can—or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection,
which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone's. There is nothing personal or private about it; it is the general view which is widely held. I only wish that it were mine alone, and that the love you professed could find someone to defend it and so comfort me in my grief for a while. I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap.

I beg you then to listen to what I ask—you will see that is a small favor which you can easily grant. While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words—of which you have enough and to spare—some sweet semblance of yourself. It is no use my hoping for generosity in deeds if you are grudging in words. Up to now I had thought I deserved much of you, seeing that I carried out everything for your sake and continue up to the present moment in complete obedience to you. It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone, and if
I deserve no gratitude from you, you may judge for yourself how my labors are in vain. I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I
have done nothing as yet for love of him. When you hurried toward God I
followed you; indeed, I went first to take the veil—perhaps you were thinking how Lot's wife turned back, when you made me put on the religious habit and take my vows before you gave yourself to God. Your lack of trust in me over this one thing, I confess, overwhelmed me with grief and shame. I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of Hell. My heart was not in me but with you, and now even more,
if it is not with you it is nowhere; truly, without you it cannot exist. See that it fares well with you, I beg, as it will if it finds you kind, if you give grace in return for grace, small for great, words for deeds. If only your love had less confidence in me, my dear, so that you would be more concerned on my behalf! But as it is, the more I have made you feel secure in me, the more I
have to bear with your neglect.

Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me.
While I enjoyed with you the pleasures of the flesh, many were uncertain whether I was prompted by love or lust; but now the end is proof of the beginning. I have finally denied myself every pleasure in obedience to your will, kept nothing for myself except to prove that now, even more, I am yours.
Consider then your injustice, if when I deserve more you give me less, or rather, nothing at all, especially when it is a small thing I ask of you and one you could so easily grant. And so, in the name of God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in the way you can—by writing me some word of comfort, so that in this at least I may find increased strength and readiness to serve God. When in the past you sought me out for sinful pleasures, your letters came to me thick and fast, and your many songs put your Heloise on everyone's lips, so that every street and house echoed with my name. Is it not far better now to summon me to God than it was then to satisfy our lust? I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love.

Letter from Heloise to Abelard

In her second letter, replying to Abelard's response to her first, Heloise is still full of unruly feelings—"unbounded grief," as she says. The renewal of contact between them has unloosed a flood of pain and recrimination. She is determined to keep the link between them open by one means or another, and her method is to seek Abelard's advice on many matters to do with the life of the

would not want to give you cause for finding me disobedient in anything, so I
have set the bridle of your injunction on the words which issue from my unbounded grief; thus in writing at least I may moderate what it is difficult or rather impossible to forestall in speech. For nothing is less under our control than the heart—having no power to command it we are forced to obey.
And so when its impulses move us, none of us can stop their sudden promptings from easily breaking out and even more easily overflowing into words which are the ever-ready indications of the heart's emotions: as it is written, "A man's words are spoken from the overflowing of the heart." I will therefore hold my hand from writing words which I cannot restrain my tongue from speaking; would that a grieving heart would be as ready to obey as a writer's hand! And yet you have it in your power to remedy my grief, even if you cannot entirely remove it. As one nail drives out another hammered in, a new thought expels an old when the mind is intent on other things and forced to dismiss or interrupt its recollection of the past. But the more fully any thought occupies the mind and distracts it from other things, the more worthy should be the subject of such a thought and the more important it is where we direct our minds.

And so all we handmaids of Christ, who are your daughters in Christ, come as suppliants to demand of your paternal interest two things which we see to be very necessary for ourselves. One is that you will teach us how the order of nuns began and what authority there is for our profession. The other, that you will prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be suitable for women, and also describe fully the manner and habit of our way of life, which we find was never done by the holy Fathers. Through lack and need of this it is the practice today for men and women alike to be received into monasteries to profess the same Rule, and the same yoke of monastic ordinance is laid on the weaker sex as on the stronger.

At present the one Rule of Saint Benedict is professed in the Latin Church by women equally with men, although, as it was clearly written for men alone, it can only be fully obeyed by men, whether subordinates or superiors. Leaving aside for the moment the other articles of the Rule: How can women be concerned with what is written there about cowls, drawers, or scapulars? Or indeed, with tunics or woolen garments worn next to the skin, when the monthly purging of their superfluous humors must avoid such things? How are they affected by the ruling of the abbot, that he shall read aloud the Gospel himself and afterward start the hymn? What about the abbot's table, set apart for him with pilgrims and guests? Which is more fitting for our religious life: for an abbess never to offer hospitality to men, or for her to eat with men she has allowed in? It is all too easy for the souls of men and women to be destroyed if they live together in one place, and especially at table, where gluttony and drunkenness are rife, and wine which leads to lechery is drunk with enjoyment...

To pass over these provisions of the Rule which we are unable to observe in detail, or cannot observe without danger to ourselves: What about gathering in the harvest—has it ever been the custom for convents of nuns to go out to do this, or to tackle the work of the fields? Again, are we to test the constancy of the women we receive during the space of a single year and instruct them by three readings of the Rule, as it says there? What could be so foolish as to set out on an unknown path, not yet defined, or so presumptuous as to choose and profess a way of life of which you know nothing, or to take a vow you are not capable of keeping? And since discretion is the mother of all the virtues and reason the mediator of all that is good, who will judge anything virtuous or good which is seen to conflict with discretion and reason? For the virtues which exceed all bounds and measure are, as Jerome says, to be counted among vices. It is clearly contrary to reason and discretion if burdens are imposed without previous investigation into the strength of those who are to bear them,
to ensure that human industry may depend on natural constitution...

Certainly those who laid down rules for monks were not only completely silent about women but also prescribed regulations which they knew to be quite unsuitable for them...

Consider then how far removed it is from all reason and good sense if both women and men are bound by profession of a common Rule, and the same burden is laid on the weak as on the strong. I think it should be sufficient for our infirmity if the virtue of continence and also of abstinence makes us the equals of the rulers of the Church themselves and of the clergy who are confirmed in holy orders...

As regards fasts, which Christians hold to be abstinence from vices rather than from food, you must consider whether anything should be added to what the
Church has instituted, and order what is suitable for us.

But it is chiefly in connection with the offices of the Church and ordering of the psalms that provision is needed, so that here at least, if you think fit, you may allow some concession to our weakness, and when we recite the psalter in full within a week it shall not be necessary to repeat the same psalms. When Saint Benedict divided up the week according to his view, he left instructions that others could order the psalms differently, if it seemed better to do so, for he expected that with passage of time the ceremonies of the Church would become more elaborate, and from a rough foundation would arise a splended edifice.

Above all, we want you to decide what we ought to do about reading the Gospel in the Night Office. It seems to us hazardous if priests and deacons, who should perform the reading, are allowed among us at such hours, when we should be especially segregated from the approach and sight of men in order to devote ourselves more sincerely to God and to be safer from temptation.

It is for you then, master, while you live, to lay down for us what Rule we are to follow for all time, for after God you are the founder of this place,
through God you are the creator of our community, with God you should be the director of our religious life. After you we may perhaps have another to guide us, one who will build something upon another's foundation, and so, we fear, he may be less likely to feel concern for us, or be less readily heard by us; or indeed, he may be no less willing but less able. Speak to us then, and we shall hear. Farewell.

Meet the Author

Monica Furlong is the author of numerous books, including Merton: A Biography, Therese of Lisieux, and Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts.

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