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God’s Scribes

Written by: Eva Hættner Aurelius |

Christian Europe has a long tradition of religious autobiography going back to Augustine’s (354-430) Confessions (397-400). In his book Augustine codified a central tenet of Christian theology and psychology: it is inside, in the mind, that humans can seek and meet God. That is where we find knowledge of God, knowledge or confirmation of our individual relationship to the divine. In many respects Augustine followed Plato’s tradition, above all the idea that love or desire leads us to God. In Augustine, however, this love is actual and down-to-earth; lust or desire emerge in the theft of a pear or in the sexual encounter. In short, it is in the life of the emotions, in the universe of desire, that Augustine discovers the truth about himself – and God. When, led by the grace of God, he eventually finds faith, the truth of this faith is witnessed by the intensity of emotion, the overwhelming strength of the feelings that sweep over him.

Misericordia volo et non sacrificium. 109,156, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

This exemplar had literary consequences: Confessions displays a hitherto unseen psychological realism, a constant questioning of what is going on in Augustine’s soul. However, questioning how the self is constructed, what goes on in the psyche, is in itself of no value. Augustine’s purpose is to show the way, his route, to God, and to argue the case of the truth in his faith.

Augustine’s conversion occurred in 386 in a garden in Milan. He describes the critical moments thus: “Suddenly I heard the voice […] chanting over and over again, ‘Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.’[…] I snatched [the book] up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell […] I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” (author’s italics).

Medieval Christian theology gradually formulated concepts and theories for these inner processes. It was thought — continuing in Augustine’s vein — that the spark of the soul, “scintilla animae”, “synteresis”, “Seelenfünklein”, is the element of the conscience that enables the inner union between God and human. This spark can ignite love of God and can cause us to turn our desire to God instead of turning it to that which is base and mortal. The medieval theologians also spoke of “the inner self”, “homo interior”, “se ipsum”, “oneself”. With these words they did not mean ‘the self’ or ‘the personality’, but the original, good human being, the one who was created in God’s image and who was to be found deep in the soul of each and every one of us. The inner self was what would be called the non-individual, the divine. Based on the notion of the inner self, Christian thinking was thus very interested in what it is that happens when someone has a radical change of mind. This is when the grace of God reaches the sinful human being, and the moment of conversion becomes the mysterious moment to which that person returns time and again: at that moment something completely incomprehensible and decisive occurred. This moment thus constitutes the epic climax in the religious autobiographies.

Augustine accepts the grace shown him by God with wonder and gratitude – in the Confessions there is no doctrine of those receiving special grace, “saints”. The Middle Ages developed just such a doctrine, however, and thus there were three routes by which to attain knowledge of God: the symbolic route, by which we perceive via the senses in the proper way; the actual route, by which we perceive comprehensible things in the proper way: and the mystic route, by which we are inspired to ecstasies in an altered state of consciousness. The mystics were the specially favoured who, via “scintilla animae”, “Seelenfünklein”, encountered God in their innermost souls where they succeeded in seeing his image, hearing his words, experiencing his being. The Augustinian route had become that of the chosen few. There are no extant actual Augustinian autobiographies from the Middle Ages – the medieval stories of conversion deal with conversion from a worldly life to an ascetic life, not from paganism to Christianity. Nor can the writings of the mystics be classified as Augustinian: meticulous analysis of the inner, the psychological realism, is almost completely lacking. What we are reading is: the image of God.

However, both the Augustinian tradition and the mystic theory guaranteed that women, too, could meet God in their innermost recesses and that women, who had indeed long been spurned as priests and preachers, could serve as God’s mouthpiece, God’s scribes. Medieval Christian literature boasts a number of women mystics. In the writings of some female mystics – for example, in Mechtild of Magdeburg’s (Beguine, 1212-c. 1282) Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit (c. 1250-64; The Flowing Light of the Godhead) – we come across the occasional mention of the woman herself, but these cannot be taken as any kind of narrative on, for example, Mechtild’s searching and conversion; the comments are a response to those who have questioned whether her experiences were from God, whether she really was God’s mouthpiece: “Then, a wretch trembling in humble confusion, I went to my confessor, told him the whole story, and begged for his advice. He said I should boldly go forward with a light heart; God, who had been leading me, would certainly preserve me. Then he gave me a command that often makes me ashamed and causes me to weep because my utter unworthiness is obvious to my eyes; that is, he commanded me, a frail woman, to write this book out of God’s heart and mouth. And so this book has come lovingly from God and does not have its origins in human thought.”

Mechtild validates her revelations and her writing alike with reference to the ecclesiastical authorities and to God, and she also ensures us that she is but a weak and unworthy woman. Statements such as these were frequently necessary in order to counter more or less articulated accusations of being the mouthpiece of the depraved power rather than of God. Identity is revealed in dialogue with an accusatory voice.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich, anchoress, c. 1342-c.1420, depicted herself in A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich (c. 1373), just as Margery Kempe, visionary, pilgrim, 1373(?)-1440(?), wrote about herself in The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436-1438).

Another important element of the Augustinian tradition also thrived into the Middle Ages, this being the strong feelings concerning the experience of God; the experience of meeting God is one enveloped in love, whereas meeting Satan is an experience bound in fear and dread. Mechtild’s picture of hell conjures up a feeling of fear and disgust:

“I have seen a city, its name is eternal hate. It was built in the deepest abyss from all kinds of stones of huge capital sins […]. This place is so perverted that the highest are consigned to the lowest and basest place. Lucifer sits bound by his guilt in the deepest abyss. There flows forth unceasingly out of his fiery heart and out of his mouth all the sins, torments, sickness, and shame in which hell, purgatory, and the earth are so wretchedly entangled.”

When Mechtild witnesses God and Christ, she uses the erotically-tinged language of bridal mysticism, and her writing is injected with lyrical rhythm:

Lord, you are my lover,
My desire,
My flowing fount,
My sun;
And I am your reflection.

Naturalism and concretion have no value as such – their role, aided by that which is familiar, that which is part of human nature, is to conjure up something that cannot actually be depicted in words.

The Reformation and Counter Reformation change the nature of the religious autobiography. The Augustinian pattern becomes more dominant: there is a return, primarily in the Protestant sects, to psychological realism, to everyday experience.

Monogram AG: Gravsättningen, c. 1500, etching 19a,32, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Conversion becomes a central element, both theological and epic. Accounts of what has happened in the mind again become testimony to God’s remarkable ways. The background to this is partly theological: from the 1500s onwards there was growing doubt as to the truths of the faith. The material route and the rational route to knowledge of God were becoming more and more problematic, and the authority of the Church faltered. There was thus only the inner route left, it seemed. Answers to dangerous questions could be sought in the inner being. Sects influenced by the Calvinist mindset were particular adherents of this way of seeking knowledge of God. Calvin saw but one reliable route to knowledge of God, and that was along the existential path: acquaintance with God is only possible through knowledge gained personally and existentially in what is known as the calling. God mainly made himself known indirectly, via the individual’s outer life and inner experiences. This view is one of the factors underlying the wave of religious autobiographies written in communities under Calvinist influence: for example, the English Puritans, the Dutch Labadists and the German and Nordic Pietists. In only a few exceptional cases can these autobiographies be called mystic in the narrower sense, given that, like Augustine, they depict a meeting of the individual and God interpreted from a psychological perspective.

Even though the Protestant autobiographies represent a return to Augustine, they also follow in the footsteps of medieval mysticism, particularly in the areas of bridal mysticism and pietist passion. The Protestant sects also have an excellent hold on the idea of “the spark”, “das Seelenfünklein”. Another feature of these sects is similar to the medieval layman’s Pietism: all these currents are, in a sense, marginal movements on the borders of what was accepted – and with a quite substantial component of women participants. These circumstances relate one to the other and to mystic theology and its core thesis: God has the freedom to approach anybody, independent of social or ecclesiastical status. This view also holds a certain, potentially revolutionary or anarchistic, explosive force, because the highest criterion of truth was the mystics’ subjective and above all emotional experience, not the authority of the Church or command from the State authorities. In reality, mysticism could supply ammunition both to Luther’s and the reformers’ onslaught against the claim of the Catholic Church for absolute authority, and gradually also to the radical Protestant sector’s rebellion against the Lutheran alliance with the governing powers of the principalities.

Pietism gradually spread to the Nordic region; first, in the late seventeenth century, to the highest social strata and, in Denmark and Sweden, also to the royal court. It would seem that women in particular were drawn to this movement. Two features of Pietism should be highlighted: the emphasis on conversion and expectations of a ‘pious’ life in the sense of a life of moral purity. These are the very aspects against which the successor to Pietism, Herrnhutism, was reacting. One source of Herrnhutism was a personal rebellion, coloured by mysticism, against Pietism. The founder of Herrnhutism, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), brought with him the anti-intellectualism of his Pietist background; he was also an adherent of subjectivism, belief in the idea of the devout community, belief in the importance of upbringing and education and belief in the significance of the ethically pure life. On the other hand, he did not share Pietism’s confidence that it really was possible to lead a morally pure life after conversion. He thus also distanced himself from the belief in the one and only definitive conversion. In his opinion conversion was a constant ongoing process. Zinzendorf strongly disavowed radical Pietism’s subjective teaching of atonement: that Jesus dying on the cross was an example of how we as individuals should be reconciled with God. Christ had once and for all reconciled God with humankind. The individual must now with his mind and in his mind, in the depths of his feelings, comprehend the magnitude and power of this action for himself. In order to present Christ’s sacrifice in as moving a way as possible to the emotions, and the deepest depth of the soul, it had to be depicted as clearly and shockingly as possible. Herrnhut hymns exhibit, like no others – except medieval passion mysticism – an intense meditation on the wounds and blood of Christ. Zinzendorf’s theology was one aimed at the senses and the emotions.

In the Catholic world, too, a number of female mystics provided accounts of their lives and thoughts; for example, Teresa of Avila (Carmelite, 1515-1582) with Libro de la Vida (composed 1562–1565, published 1588; Book of Her Life); Antoinette Bourignon (Church critic, 1616-1680) with Sa vie extérieure 1616-1661 (c. 1668; The Outer Life) and La parole de Dieu ou sa vie intérieure 1634-1663 (c. 1663; God’s Word or the Inner Life); Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (Quietist, 1648-1717) with La vie de Mme J.M.B. de la Mothe Guyon, écrite par elle-même, qui contient toutes les expériences de la vie intérieure publ. posthumously, Cologne 1720, Paris 1790; Life of Madame Guyon, Written by Herself, Containing All the Experiences of the Inner Life).

Like the Pietists, Zinzendorf was of the opinion that living belief begets belief – the personal testimony of the route to God was just as important as sermon and sacrament. The autobiographies that could be written upon admission to the community, or when death was imminent, were part of the communities’ libraries. They might be read aloud at the so-called Gemeintage, monthly Congregation Days, which could also include Bible readings and hymn singing. The autobiographies were also read aloud at the funerals of community members. The idea was that reading the autobiographies aloud would reinforce the ties and sense of community between the dead and the living. The finely transcribed fair copies of the autobiographies could be gathered together in small bound books and sent round to other communities on loan. All this shows that Herrnhut autobiographies did not, any more than Augustine and the mystics, depict the self for its own sake: they are all actually talking about God.

M. Tuscher. Td 519,40, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Women held an unusually strong position in the Herrnhut communities. In some periods they were almost the men’s equals, particularly during the so-called Sifting Period in the 1740s. There were several reasons for this, one being that Zinzendorf wanted like to lead like; this meant that women should be brought up and led by women. Another reason was that Zinzendorf had himself been brought up by strong women and had been strongly influenced by female religious figures: by Jeanne de la Mothe Guyon (1648-1717), quietist mystic; by Johanna Eleonora Petersen, née Merlau (1644-1724), radical Pietist; by Jane Lead (1624-1704), founder of the ecumenical Philadelphian Society in North America. Zinzendorf’s second wife, Anna Nitschmann (d. 1758), was an extremely gifted and leading figure in Herrnhutism. A third reason for women’s strong position was a matter of theory: Zinzendorf set great store by knowledge based on emotion, and as he thought that women were more gifted in this province than were men, he drew the conclusion that women had a greater facility than men to draw near to God. However, despite thisargumentation, women were never really equal to men: Zinzendorf considered women’s primary assignment to be that of marriage, and in this marriage she was subordinate to her husband – which limited women’s sphere of activity.

Herrnhutism arrived in Sweden in the 1720s. The Stockholm Herrnhut community, which still exists today, has preserved autobiographies written in the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century. Of these, thirty-six were written by Swedish women; the earliest dates from 1761, the latest from 1810-20. By and large, most of the female autobiographies were written between 1760 and 1790, after which the numbers fall off. The women come from all social strata; we have aristocrats and servant girls, bourgeoisie and beggars. There is perhaps some over-representation of women whose fathers or husbands come from the lower middle classes. A surprising number – eleven in all – are from the aristocracy, either by birth or by marriage. Half of the women had been spinsters when they entered the community. Eight of them had, after a relatively short period, married a male member of the community.

Their autobiographies often exhibit the features that have here been described as Augustinian: the women seek God in their inner being, primarily in emotion, in normal psychological processes (dreams, strong feelings). Furthermore, they have mystic features: the women abandon themselves to inner meditations on the cross and to erotically-charged meetings with Christ; they know that the depths of the soul contain the spark that makes these meetings and experiences possible. Finally, the autobiographies also have Herrnhutic features: they repudiate the strict regimentation of Pietism, and its demand for the one and only totally revolutionising conversion. The following examples will serve to illustrate these features.

By far the majority of the women struggled with an extremely strong sense of sinfulness, guilt, fear of judgement and hell. The pietist influence is often clear; a father, an older relation or a priest with pietist tendencies has equipped them with a formidable super-ego: “But my father was awakened and seized by the separatist idea. I had a rather strict upbringing in my childhood,” recalls Margareta Stenman (1739-1811). The consequence of this strict upbringing is often an intense anxiety at the thought of the Day of Judgement, an anxiety described by Anna Dorotea Wessman (1717-1787), thus: “It was constantly close to my heart that I had an immortal soul for which I was responsible, and a God who sees everything and judges and sees into the most hidden corners, and also that an infinite Eternity awaited […] And so it became clear to me that I did not know our Saviour, and I felt a great dread in my heart. Some nights I dreamed that I saw my whole list of sins and hell and the gaping abyss before me. I flew into such fear and distress that I wept and cried out for help.”

This state of dread, that in a theological reading is considered to be God at work deep in the soul via “Seelenfünklein”, is later followed by a feeling that someone was “drawing”, “calling” or “crying out” to the self. The verbs indicate that the self cannot do anything – now it is God or Christ who is taking effect, the latter particularly in the shape of the crucified Christ. The inner contemplation of the crucified Jesus contributes throughout the whole process, throughout the entire life of the woman writing her autobiography, to awakening faith by convincing the writer of the true, actual and unique reality of this event. “So it pleased our Saviour with sheer pulsation of love from His wounds to call me back,” as Margareta Stenman writes.

O.N. Flint: Förgäves Clores nu sin lilla fågel beklagar, etching 712,42a, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

The process takes place in “the heart”, this being the emotional centre of the soul. The degree of happiness felt is a yardstick of the depth of faith, a measure of trust in the belief that the Atonement also applies to wretched little me: “My state of being, I cannot describe. I felt inside me a light and a life, the like of which I had never previously experienced. All sin had vanished. An overwhelming peace of God consumed my soul and turned and melted it […] I awaited, like a child of God and a reprieved sinner, always to be allowed to possess this well-being, and did not bear in mind that I still carry around this body of death, which carries the old person or the parable of the first Adam,” writes Christina Charlotta Hiärne (1722-1804).

The erotically-tinged picture of the union of Soul and Christ, which characterises medieval mysticism and Herrnhutic hymns, is not as prevalent in the autobiographies as might be expected. The writers often try to give a direct description of the feeling of salvation, the experience of being redeemed and being of faith, or else they say that the feeling is “indescribable”. Here and there, however, erotic imagery emerges, as in this passage written by Hebba Christina Lejonancker (1746-1789):

“The blissful moment arrived, when the Saviour assured me of the forgiveness of all my sins in a most compelling way. He showed me that my name is written in the Book of Life. It was as if I found myself in a different delight, indeed, I thought everything around me was joyful and bright, I felt an indescribable sweetness in my heart, I embraced my dear Lord, and he embraced me.”

The Augustinian model, with its psychological realism, is mixed with the medieval, symbolic model in what we would consider a strange blend: the boundary between words describing actuality and words used as metaphor is by and large hazy. What does the word “Saviour” actually mean here? Is it a term for a vision, or is it an emotional experience of religious certainty?

One element of medieval mysticism that really persists is meditation on the Crucifixion, on Jesus’ blood, wounds and tormented body. Maria Elisabet Hörnberg (1750-1796) writes in her autobiography:

“I am worthy of nothing but punishment. That was though the intent right up until the redemption of my soul. I was silent and forsaken, until the blissful moment when the Saviour revealed himself to my mind’s eye in the blood-stained figure of Atonement and Crucifixion. And then I heard in my wretched heart: ‘See your Saviour, how he for your sake hung bleeding on the cross! All this was done for you; you are mine, I am yours, you must live!’”

The formula ‘you are mine, I am his’ in various wordings stems from “The Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament (“My beloved is mine, and I am his”, ch. 2, v. 16). Via medieval bridal mysticism it has come to signify the union between Christ and the soul. Maria Elisabet Hörnberg translates this meaning into normal psychological phenomena.

In accordance with the Augustinian model, introspection is complemented by the writers’ belief in God’s intervention in the smallest details of their life stories. It is perfectly justified in these autobiographies to speak of an unwavering belief in Providence. God’s plan for them applies to the most trivial of matters, and his solicitude also concerns the whole spectrum of their lives; of God’s intervention, Sara Holmsten (1713-1795) writes:

“Then we walked on to seek out other people who had hidden in the forest, but before we knew what was happening we were surrounded by a forest fire that the Russians had set off; I would certainly have been engulfed and perished had not the Saviour commanded it thus that a woman came to my rescue and, in great mortal danger, led me to my mother.”

The writers of the autobiographies have also learned the mystic words “heart” and “spark” and what they mean: that one can become acquainted with God deep down inside, and that there in the depths of the soul lies the potential for a new self in the image of God. Many, like Märta Elisabeth Hallblad (1729-1808), dream of being “formed” or “educated”, i.e. formed in the image of a new and better person: “As we poor sinners by our Lord being made man, life, suffering and death can even in this life be saved in the heart and also be formed according to Jesus’ disposition” (author’s italics).

We here see the beginnings of a concept of Bildung: here ‘formation’ is primarily to be like unto God after death, to be the creation in God’s image that the human being once was. The Herrnhutic writer – who was, incidentally, a teacher at a school for girls – has here started the translation of this Christian idea into a more profane, worldly variant: it is also possible in this life to be formed into the person one was meant to be. Women, too, should have the opportunity to be formed into the people they actually, fundamentally, are.

It gives pause for thought that three of the earliest Nordic advocates of a woman’s right to Bildung and to her own life – Camilla Collett (1813-1895), Thomas Thorild (1759-1808) and Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866) – all came from a Herrnhutic background.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch