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The Soul is Far Better by Nature than the Body

Written by: Kjerstin Norén |

Birgitta (c. 1303-1373) was the eldest daughter of the governor and lagman (a prominent jurisprudent and district official) of the province of Uppland, Birger Persson, and his wife Ingeborg, daughter of lagman Bengt Magnusson from the province of Östergötland.

Birgitta. Augsburg c. 1480

She was born into a family line of powerful men, lawmakers and writers. The provincial law Upplandslagen was formulated and introduced under the leadership of her father; along with the other provincial laws, it is one of the first Swedish texts of literary interest. Birgitta herself, by virtue of her individuality, is considered to be one of the first Swedish writers.

She emerges as a strong-minded woman who viewed the gradual changes of her day with open eyes, but at the same time she had no clear awareness of her own self. She allowed herself to be encircled and absorbed – her story begins and ends with that paradox – by making God her hiding-place. A sense of self gradually developed, meanwhile, through identification with Christ. He took the place of the mother she had lost at an early age.

“Be not afraid, your son is proceeding towards joy, not towards sorrow. I shall be a father and a mother to him, I shall be both his brother and his sister. I shall weigh out everything for him in such a way that his soul shall grow strong without his body being damaged.”

(Saint Bernard de Clairvaux)

Calling and Duty

Early on in life, Birgitta saw herself as someone who deviated from the expectations which family and a nation in the making had of her. Various testimonies report that she felt ‘called’ to particular undertakings. She articulated her needs through Christianity, in direct contact with the Virgin Mary and Christ. Like a mother, she allowed them both to speak. That was her way of neutralising the restrictions of narrow ties:“As you see, I am like a mother who runs out to meet her roving son. She holds out a light for him on the way so that he can see the road. In her love, she goes to meet him on the way and shortens his journey. She goes up to him and embraces and greets him.”

The young Birgitta dreamt of a peaceful convent life, but her father had decided that she would be given away in marriage to Ulf Gudmarsson. From the age of thirteen she was thus wife and housewife at her husband’s Ulvåsa estate. She bore eight children, of whom five reached maturity, the best known to posterity being a daughter, Katarina (Saint Catherine of Sweden), who accompanied her mother all the way to Rome.

Life at Ulvåsa tested Birgitta’s skills in organisation and solicitude. She demanded a principled life for what was, in a secular sense, a completely normal household. After her final confinement – a difficult and nearly fatal birth – it would seem that married life was interrupted, and Birgitta went to Stockholm to serve at the court of King Magnus and Queen Blanka. She took her son Gudmar with her, but he died shortly after their arrival. This could have been a contributory factor of her 1338 decision to set forth on her first pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Olaf in Trondheim.

Birgitta’s increasing religious commitment influenced Ulf Gudmarsson, and in 1341 they went on a pilgrimage together to the tomb of the apostle Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain. The journey proved to be a turning-point for Birgitta and Ulf. They travelled through a chaotic Europe devastated by war; this experience must have led them both to a sense of cultural and political awareness. Birgitta attained a deeper understanding of the new devotion, devotion moderna, which would henceforth imbue her fundamental outlook.

On their journey home Ulf Gudmarsson fell ill, and in 1344, after they had returned to Sweden, he died. By that time, husband and wife had agreed to lead a life of abstinence in their separate monasteries, but after Ulf’s death Birgitta was able to commit herself entirely to the life that would later be seen as her real calling. Working in close collaboration with her confessor, Master Mathias, who had studied theology in France, Birgitta began to record her revelations or visions.

From then on the revelations came thick and fast – and even included the terms of the monastic Rule for the new order she wished to set up. Her deep desire to put this Rule into practice dictated all her future choices and decisions, and she anticipated their sanction with a mixture of eagerness and patience.

Revelations as Devotion

“I am like a carpenter who chops down trees, carries them back to a house, makes a beautiful picture out of the timber and adorns it with colours and lines. His friends see the picture and imaging that it might be embellished with colours even more beautiful, they each add hues of their own. In the same way I, God, have carved out words from my divine forest and placed them in your mouth. By the grace that was given to them, my friends assembled the words in books, colouring and decorating them. That they may reach the hearts of more people, you shall now turn over all my books of revelation and the words they contain to my bishop Alfons, the hermit, to compile and elucidate and ensure that the catholic intent of my Spirit is observed. And tell him that he shall perform and fulfil the office of the evangelist.”

Birgitta. From c. 1475, Munich City Library

This is from the prologue to “Åttonde boken” (Book Eight) in which Alfonso Pecha da Vadaterra, Birgitta’s Spanish confessor, gathered all the revelations that had a political content or were addressed to worldly leaders.

In the Catholic tradition, revelation is a way in which God’s word is revealed through a living human. Birgitta’s revelations are visions which she then recorded in collaboration with her confessors: Master Mathias, Petrus Olavi (Prior Petrus, sub-prior of the monastery of Alvastra), Petrus Olavi from Skänninge and Alfonso Pecha da Vadaterra (formerly the Bishop of Jaén in Andalusia). The latter gathered and published the visions as Revelationes coelestes (Celestial Revelations) after Birgitta’s death. They were translated into Old Swedish at the end of the 1300s, but a translation into modern Swedish had to wait until Trygge Lundén published Himmelska uppenbarelser (1957-59; Divine Revelations) in four volumes.

The revelations are recorded in eight books, along with the Rule of her order, some prayers and “Revelationes Extravagantes” (supplementary revelations). These published texts are more or less consistent with the extant manuscripts; a critical edition of the revelations currently being prepared also takes the manuscripts into account. The revelations as written texts were worked on by both Birgitta and her confessors. Certain reservations must be made as to the personal or exclusive nature of the printed versions. They should be read as adapted products that have made allowances for the theological requirements of their setting, and they speak to a well-defined parish: the contemporaneous Christian public.

Moral-philosophical works of a later era, such as those written by Simone Weil, E. M. Cioran and Søren Ulrik Thomsen, for example, can provide us with a perspective for our understanding of Birgitta and insight into how the spiritual abandonment she describes is still possible:

“Why not compare myself to the greatest saints? Have I expended less madness in order to safeguard my contradictions than they to surmount theirs?”

E. M. Cioran: Syllogismes de l’amertume (1952; Eng. tr. All Gall Is Divided: Gnomes and Apothegms).

Struggle for the Expressive Needs of Inner Cognition

Birgitta’s revelations manifest the struggle of identity taking place on the threshold to a new era, a period in which the spirit was to be centre stage. It is likely that through Mathias she had become familiar with Joachim of Fiore’s ideas about an “Age of the Spirit”. According to Fiore this era would dawn in 1260, following on from the two preceding periods: the Age of the Father, which was that of the Rules of God, and the Age of the Son, that of the Gospels. In this new era, the ecclesiastical order would be replaced by a new monastic order, which had similar ambitions to the one Birgitta wanted to establish, and would be imbued with the will to a new understanding of Christianity.

Birgitta. Fifteenth century, Metropolitan Library, Prague

Mathias followed similar lines of thought in his commentary to The Revelation of St John the Divine. He was of an apocalyptic and pragmatic inclination. Humans would be transformed through good habits: “He who does not want to wander through eternal death in the flood brought on by sin and vice must chastise himself so that good deeds become a habit that grows and ultimately turns into second nature,” as he writes in the foreword to Alphabetum distinccionum, an alphabetical concordance of the Bible.

“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”

(Revelation of Saint John the Divine, 2:4)

Birgitta’s revelations consist of descriptions and interpretations of the lives of Mary and Christ, advice and admonitions to secular persons, judgements on deceased persons, and general reflections on life. The voice is primarily that of Christ and Mary, but also of saints and angels; more rarely, we hear the voice of a devil who is, in Birgitta’s universe, a foul and powerless figure.

The revelations are ‘parables of the world’, and are also Birgitta’s way of articulating her desires and needs. They give voice to her conviction of being the rightful improver, God’s true and new representative. Master Mathias supported her in this belief – until they went their separate ways.

She is not only God’s mouthpiece, she ‘is’ God, too, in that the God speaking through her visions is also a parable for that ‘I’ which she could not or would not allow a voice.

At the time, people did not see themselves as one-off individuals, but as part of a universal body and soul. Nonetheless, the revelations describe an inner struggle and express ideas about non-predetermination, about individual choice, and about the power of human will.

“We can only know one thing about God – that he is what we are not. Our wretchedness alone is an image of this.”

Simone Weil: La Pesanteur et la Grâce (1947; Eng. tr. Gravity and Grace).

Birgitta’s revelations are not yet literature in the sense of conscious expression of an individual choice, but she is moving towards a breach with contemporaneous anonymity in order to be able to understand and articulate a sense of self. The revelations are heedful only of their purpose; in terms of language they work on an intuitive level. However, this by no means prevents them from expressing the sense of release and the torment involved in the act of creating:

“After that vision my heart was filled with such fervour and such rejoicing that it could not have held any more and still permitted me to go on living, but would have broken from pure joy. For several days, until I told a monk and friend in God about all the articles of the precept and the words that composed them, my heart was like a bubble that had expanded to its limit; and he wrote everything down as fast as he could. Once everything had been recorded, I felt my heart and my body gradually return to their natural condition.”

At the preparatory stage to recognition of the right to have an expressive and active ‘I’, Birgitta is simultaneously occupying the universal, the individual, and the communal spheres. Without Christ she would be a different person, but without her, Christ (i.e. God) would not exist. The ‘Marian route’ taken by Birgitta in the spirit of the Cistercians (a monastic order founded by Saint Bernard de Clairvaux) was characterised by an emphasis on cooperation between humankind and God. Mary acted and chose freely: because she chose to bring Christ into the world, she facilitated God’s historical presence.

Birgitta sees and thinks in a prophetic-literary tradition, which forms the core of her use of language. In essence, the revelations are not an expression of feelings but are ingenious instruments, derived from specific purposes, with which to point out sin and point to the route to blessing.

In addition, they enact an increasingly clear neutralisation of the border between visible and invisible, real and symbolic, in her eventual well-developed ‘transparent’ perception of life and death, and of the existence of humankind in two different worlds.

“When, once in a blue moon, I have written something that I think has turned out well, I am in a state of unrivalled happiness that has nothing to do with how I’m feeling otherwise. This radiant, almost abstract happiness seems as if plucked from the flow of life, just like the work.”

Søren Ulrik Thomsen: Mit lys brænder: omrids af en ny poetik (Copenhagen, 1985; My Light Burns: Outline of a New Poetics).

The Visionary Gift and Methodical Training

The medieval mode of response was corporeally vivid, and linked phenomena of the soul with tangible physical evidence. It was said of Birgitta that she could smell her way to human evil, and that her mouth registered the sulphurous taste of her own evil. Her rich use of metaphor not only has biblical origins: it is also rooted in her life as housewife, wife and mother. Apart from the domestic sphere and the living nature surrounding her, the intellectual and artistic traditions of the times would have supplied her with material for metaphors and parables. Her depiction of Hell, in particular, indicates that she was acutely alert to sensory perception, and that the writer and the visionary view physical punishment as a natural consequence hereof:

“After this, there appeared three women: that is to say, the mother, and the daughter, and the niece, that is, that daughter’s daughter. But the mother and the granddaughter appeared dead, and the daughter appeared to be alive. The said dead mother seemed to come creeping out of a foul and dark clay ditch; her heart was drawn out of her body, her lips cut off, and her chin trembled; her teeth, shining, white and long, ground and chattered together; her nostrils were all gnawn; her eyes were put out, hanging down on her cheeks between sinews; her forehead was hollow; and instead of her forehead there was a great and dark depth. In her head the head pan failed and had fallen away, and the brain boiled up as if it had been lead, and flowed out like black pitch. Her neck turned about like wood that is turned in the instrument of a joiner, against which was set a blade of the sharpest iron, cutting and shaving away without any comfort. Her breast was open and full of worms long and short; and each of them wallowed hither and thither upon each other. Her arms were like the hafts or handles of a grinding stone. Her hands were like keys full of knots and long. The chines or vertebrae of her back were all dissolved, each from the other; and one going up, another going down, they never ceased moving. A long and large serpent came forth from the nether part of her stomach to the other parts; and joining the head and tail together as a round bow, went round about her bowels continually, like a wheel. Her hips and her legs seemed like two rough staves of thorns full of most sharp prickles. Her feet were like toads.”

Birgitta and Katarina. Veckholm church, Uppland. From the sixteenth century. Unknown photographer

This passage is from a revelation recorded between 1344 and 1349, while Birgitta was still living in Sweden. Having first praised God, Birgitta is shown three women, all of whom have devoted themselves to a life of vanity and pride. Thus the mother and granddaughter suffered the agonies of Hell and Purgatory. By entering a convent, the daughter, who is still alive, is able to help their souls to redemption. This revelation reveals Birgitta’s struggle against her worldly and sensual desires. It can be interpreted as an expression of her personal situation, in the same way as the story of the young snake and its mother and father in “Fjärde boken” (Book 4), chapter 32, which gives an account of how the mother trained the son to defend himself against the temptations of secular power. This might well be about actual, general conflicts, but it also refers to the difficulties Birgitta experienced in relation to her son, the handsome and dissolute Karl, who became her ‘guardian’ after the death of her husband Ulf Gudmarsson. It might also derive from memories of her mother and of a daughter who died, both of whom were called Ingeborg.

“And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”

(Revelation of Saint John the Divine, 2:23).

Like other devoutly religious medieval people, Birgitta ‘trained’ her receptiveness to extraordinary experiences by means of devout practices and asceticism: fasting, mortification of the flesh and sexual abstention. At a young age she had already become familiar with the realm of visions in a dual experience of identification with Mary’s life and compassion with Christ’s sufferings. After the death of her husband, her visions became more intense and of greater significance. Through them she struggled with her own past.

There is no reason to suppose that her marriage with Ulf was unhappy. Moreover, she was extremely tender in relation to the well-being of her children, both in life and in the hereafter. She was always using terms to suggest that her departure from ‘ordinary’ life was not easy, but in fact very difficult. Her course of action could almost be seen as the result of an act of willpower that verged on over-exertion. In her papal bull of canonisation (1390), issued in the name of Boniface IX, we read, for example, that while she was in Rome she knelt so much that her knees became as hard as a camel’s. And thus she had prepared herself to be deserving of Christ’s final words to her, when he says “it pleases me to spare you from your labours and to accept your will in place of the completed action”.

Birgitta’s longing for intellectual work and practical results gave her no other choice than the absolute. She wanted to see the Rule of her order fulfilled, she wanted to unite the Church, and she wanted to prevail upon the Pope to return to Rome from the dissipated life in Avignon. Her longing for absorption led her away from any run-of-the-mill commonplace life; by putting aside her earthly goods she also took a step to release herself from Karl’s ‘guardianship’. That her search for truth was not without complications can be seen in the brutal sensual images in a story recounting the fate of the bad mother. The torments suffered after death are a repetition and multiplication of what in her life was once her pleasure. In the story of animals as mother and father, Birgitta writes about the snake that winds its way into her:

“This snake experienced passion beyond measure, an unquenchable craving, and was consumed by lust for the female. She saw that he was wise, brave and pleasing to the eye, and she burned with the same love for him.”

The autobiographical points of reference return with renewed strength in the pivotal text “Frågornas Bok” (The Book of Questions), the fifth book of her revelations. This is her process of mourning, and the beginning of her way out, in which she is testing herself by challenging all the ‘male’ shortcomings she has observed in Ulf, Karl, Mathias and undoubtedly King Magnus too.

Convinced of her Doubts, thereafter Liberated

“Fifth, I gave you feet that you might leave behind the love of the world and go toward your soul’s rest and love and toward me, your Creator and Redeemer” is Christ’s answer to the fifth question in Interrogation 1 of “Frågornas Bok”.

Birgitta was perfectly well aware that it was difficult to implement a new monastic Rule. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council had forbidden the founding of new religious orders, a ban that had been corroborated by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. In spite of this, both Birgitta and Mathias were convinced that they would succeed, and in 1340 King Magnus had donated a building in Vadstena to be used for her future Abbey. Mathias’ judgement of Birgitta from a theological perspective was that, as God’s revelation, she was even more “amazing” than Christ, given that his presence among humankind had been corporeal whereas Birgitta’s was spiritual. In his prologue to the revelations, Mathias writes:

“This apparition is even more amazing than the one by which he showed himself in the flesh. His body presented itself outwardly to bodily eyes, but in this apparition the God and man are presented to spiritual eyes.”

When Bishop Hemming of Åbo and Prior Petrus returned empty-handed from France in 1348, without the Pope’s ratification of the Rule of her order and having failed in the attempt to mediate peace in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, Mathias began to have doubts as to Birgitta’s real status. Birgitta’s position at court was also weakened; she had hitherto been King Magnus’ advisor in all important issues. All of this must have provoked a personal crisis, and in “Frågornas Bok” Birgitta tried to come to terms with both her own misconceptions and motives and also those of the world around her.

While out riding in Östergötland, Birgitta sees a ladder ascending from the earth to heaven, and she hears a learned but doubting monk ask questions of Christ who, with his mother and “a countless host of angels and a vast multitude of saints” at his side, answers these questions. The questions, posed in an “uncontrolled and agitated way”, give a clear indication of Birgitta’s state of mind. Above all, they bear witness to her renewed struggle against worldly desire and lust for pleasure.

“Frågornas Bok” is not fashioned on the same organic principles as the other revelations. It is based on a traditional rhetorical form, the disputation. The questions are divided into sixteen interrogations with answers, and thirteen revelations to the listening and observing bride: Birgitta. These revelations are designed to underpin the expediency of overcoming the monk’s confusion and naivety.

His questions are reasonable and straightforward, as though God’s requirements were on the whole absurd; why, for example, does the monk feel desire when he is not allowed to enjoy it, why have riches when one ought not keep them, why do animals not have souls, and why is it not as light at night as it is during the day?

The answers acknowledge the individual’s capacity for choice and volition – God’s motives for giving the individual the possibility to live life in more than just one way – but, on the other hand, the individual must submit to God’s omnipotence. God requires us to face the challenges of the world in order to renounce them, he requires us to attain maturity in order to achieve the capacity for submissiveness. He tests us in order to give us the freedom to make the right choices, and he organises these trials in a way that makes it possible to follow Him from love, not from fear.

Humankind is thus given the chance to discover that the ‘pure’ spirit is, deep down, rooted in free will. The idea is that insight without resistance is just as impossible as it is worthless, and that by means of well-chosen actions and good practices the individual comes closer to reality, deepens the sense of belonging and develops wisdom (as the second nature about which Mathias spoke). The work takes place via the individual’s own tools: the facility of the body, which we must protect as much as necessary, and the facility of the soul, which we must develop to the utmost. The text reflects the transitional period in which it was created, and points out the contradiction in Birgitta’s life. Her first dream was the protection of cloister life, but when she put the dream into action she did not choose a stationary existence, but one in motion. While advocating Mary, she was first Martha and then Mary when she wrote:

“Third, Mary ought not to be idle any more than is Martha […] So in spiritual life he who perfectly desires to be Mary must first be Martha […] For he who is unproved and tempted, and he who has not overcome the lusts of his flesh, how may he continually heed and choose heavenly things?”

“But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.“And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

(Saint Luke, 10:40-42).

Birgitta. Vadstena abbey church, fifteenth century, unknown photographer

In “Frågornas Bok” Birgitta subjects herself to this trial, and is eventually instructed in the five sacred places: Mary’s body, Bethlehem, Calvary, the garden where Christ was buried, and the Mount of Olives from which he ascended into heaven. This is the second time that Birgitta is told she should leave Sweden; the first time was in Arras, on her way home from Compostela, when Saint Dionysius told her that she must come to Rome and Jerusalem. The Fifth Book of the Revelations concludes with the words:

“Therefore, whoever comes clean and with a good and perfect intention to these places will see and taste the sweetness and goodness of me, God. And when you come to these places I will show you more.”

It is not known if this latter revelation was originally part of the collected Östergötland vision, or if it was entered later. It bears out a new form of synthesis between her sense of God and ‘I’, and thereafter she never moved in any way unless she had received a divine call to do so. Where previously she would have believed herself in charge of events, she was now changed in such a way that the conclusion to “Frågornas Bok” expresses her greatest wish: to be allowed to visit and become acquainted with all those places – primarily Jerusalem – which, above all others, would lead her closer to the ultimate destination.

The Way Out

When she decided to leave Sweden in 1349, Birgitta had several failures in her baggage: her message of peace to the warring kings of England and France had gone unheeded; her authority at the court had dwindled; King Magnus’ position had weakened; and the thwarting of her plans for a new religious order had also led to the departure of Master Mathias.

We do not know whether Birgitta was disappointed or angry, resigned or full of confidence, when she left the country in which she had not been able to achieve what she wanted and set forth to Rome, travelling through a landscape devastated by war and plague.

“Now this visitation occurred in a society that felt secure, that had acquired a certain easy pleasure in the ‘good things of life,’ Suddenly everything vanished: security, hope, friends, neighbors, fortune, life itself: vanished almost overnight, in foul disorder and hideous misery. The Black Plague had the effect of a prolonged Blitz. The breach thus opened marks a line between two ages: on one side, unity and on the other disintegration.”

(Lewis Mumford: The Condition of Man, New York; Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944.)

Aim of the New Monastic Rule

In Rome, Birgitta was afforded easy access to influential circles. Her incessant moral propaganda caused no little annoyance; she received recognition and attention as a unique individual, but at the same time she provoked disputes that threatened to isolate her.

She was preparing to set out on the journey from Rome to Naples, the route she had to take in order to travel on to the Holy Land, her final destination.

Her goal was not least to seek ratification of her monastic Rule. She became even more politicised through her relationship with her new confessor, Alfonso Pecha da Vadaterra, who was involved in the ongoing disputes between the ruling Italian families.

Birgitta’s monastic Rule was never ratified as an independent order, but in 1370, helped by the detailed plan she had drawn up, it was authorised on the basis of the Augustinian Order. The verdict was, in other words, a success full of disappointment.

The Rule, Ordo Sancti Salvatoris (Order of the Holy Saviour), was not innovative in its theological perspective. It was permeated with bridal and Marian mysticism, inspired by the Cistercians and by the apocalyptic ideas that Birgitta had shared with Master Mathias.

The Order would include a community of women and men under the authority of an Abbess. The model was the most radical double-monastery concept of the day. Life in the community would be based on obedience, humility and poverty. The Order was primarily a manifestation of Birgitta’s moral and political acumen. She insisted on spiritual and intellectual work at a time when such endeavours were either in decline, or the religious communities in which they should take place had become little more than institutions for the needy and were thus mainly occupied with practical assignments.

Birgitta did not see the Church and the world as two separate entities. Her monastic idea is a metaphor for the world as it ought to appear in a Europe, and therefore also in aSweden, which in both a literal and a figurative sense seemed diseased.

The Pilgrim’s Ultimate Insight

Birgitta’s life is comparable with a continually interrupted pilgrimage. It would seem, however, that the most substantial interruption – marriage – was the starting point for her lasting undertaking: the ‘literature’, in the form of her recorded revelations, which she could no more prevent finding expression than she could prevent the existence of the children she bore.

The births of her eight children were not all uncomplicated, and her relationships with her adult children were far from straightforward. Conflicts with man-of-the-world Karl were the most turbulent. Birgitta’s ultimate showdown with his – and thus also with her own – conceit culminated in intercessory prayers, followed by the visions she received after his death in Naples while they were on their way to the Holy Land. Karl was tempted to enter into a bigamist relationship with the city’s Queen Giovanna, who

had fallen in love with him. His death prevented the consummation of their relationship, but Birgitta was anxious about him. The Virgin Mary came to her aid and showed Karl mercy, which Birgitta took as a sign that she too was forgiven. This prepared the way for the revelation about the birth of Jesus, an event which Mary had repeatedly promised Birgitta she would be allowed to “see”.

As in “Frågornas Bok”, Birgitta’s wonder is both specific and banal: how did it happen, from which part of the body was he born? The response she receives in Bethlehem from Mary is brief, and includes the following account:

“And so, with raised hands and with her eyes intent on heaven, she was as if suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation, inebriated with divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the One lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. Nor did that candle that the old man had put in place give light at all because that divine splendor totally annihilated the material splendor of the candle. And so sudden and momentary was that manner of giving birth that I was unable to notice or discern how or in what member she was giving birth.”

The painstaking preparations that Birgitta had just described – for example, when Mary “drew out two small cloths of linen and two of wool, very clean and finely woven” – could be compared with her life of long preparation towards attaining insight into the nature of the source, the moment of inspiration. For Birgitta this is synonymous with ‘revelation’, in which the individual is receptive to the inspiration from which literature originates.

Her development describes the route towards self-knowledge, having gradually found the solution to the problems she has herself defined and depicted: her relationship with her mother, Ulf, Mathias, King Magnus, and Karl. Through meditation on the Passion of Christ she was gradually released from the complication of gender and the scourge of class affiliation, and she could thus formulate a monastic Rule laying down the prerequisites for a different and better life. God, Christ and Mary become one in Birgitta, who breaks through her shell towards a timeless Christianity without scholasticism. This is borne out by, for example, her lack of sentimentality.

Comprehension of God coupled with equilibrium in the self puts ‘I’ on a par with ‘God’ when the issue of individual guilt is resolved. The individual can thus be creative and need no longer live a life already lost or doomed. In her spiritual life Birgitta can be regarded as a mystic, but her daily practical life shows her to have been a woman of action who intervened in the dealings of the world. This characteristic endowed her with humanist commitment, and at the same time put her somewhat at odds with mysticism; mystics of later eras have generally dismissed ideals of active hands-on participation in the outside world.

“We should be indifferent to good and evil but, when we are indifferent, that is to say when we project the light of our attention equally on both, the good gains the day. This phenomenon comes about automatically. There lies the essential grace. And it is the definition, the criterion of good.“A divine inspiration operates infallibly, irresistibly, if we do not turn away our attention, if we do not refuse it. There is not a choice to be made in its favour, it is enough not to refuse to recognize that it exists.”

Simone Weil: La Pesanteur et la Grâce (1947; Eng. tr. Gravity and Grace).

An Indescribable Notion

These reflections on Birgitta’s revelations started out by looking at the ‘speaker’ or ‘author’ and the question of whether or not her revelations should be classified as ‘literary’; but the reflections concluded by looking at her way of rendering conviction in word. Our contemporary concepts of literature are seen in a new light, thanks to the provocation of inner compulsion and prophetic aspiration revealed in her words.

The origin, rather than the finished form, takes centre stage. In the sense of traditional history of literature, the text relating to the birth of Christ is distinctive of Birgitta’s genre: repetitive, spelt out with extra clarity, brimming with images, and not particularly sophisticated. But as ‘images’ in the figurative sense – of that which is indescribable in the forces that compel the articulation of vivid experience, of identification between calling and self – it is an exemplary text; and it turns on understanding one of the core problems of the artistic endeavour. The timeless feature of Birgitta’s personality is thus substantiated – the feature by means of which she broke through the constraints of her era and could reach us.

Following her return to Rome, Birgitta fell ill. She died on 23 July 1373, and her mortal remains were taken to Vadstena. In 1391, eighteen years after her death, she was canonised and thereafter known as Saint Birgitta. Her daughter Katarina was the first Abbess of the new Birgittine convent at Vadstena Abbey. Permission was later given for the veneration of Katarina as a saint, but her canonisation process was interrupted by the Protestant Reformation.

“Bernhard speaks to us most forcibly, however, in his capacity as the man of prayer. If any era, in order to survive, has really needed to discover and rediscover contemplation, silence and stillness, then it is our day. But not even stillness is a goal in itself: Bernhard seeks it because it is there that he can first find himself, his true self, thereafter God, to love him and let his self be absorbed in him, become one with love and find the perfect peace of mind, the one that can miraculously live amidst suffering and struggle.”

Gunnel Vallquist: Helgonens svar (Stockholm 1963; The Saints’ Answer)

Translated by Gaye Kynoch