Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Hadewijch of Brabant

We continue to explore the overlap of faith, freedom, and “worthy women” from the centuries and from around the world. We met a few beguines last year in this series. Let’s meet another standout.

We have to admit that we have very little information on Hadewijch. She was something of a contemporary of Francis of Assisi, perhaps a few years to a generation older. We can place her locale in what is today Belgium and the Netherlands. We have a good deal of her poetry, and she seems to have been well-known to her contemporaries in the Low Countries and to Church scholars for a few centuries after her death. By the 1600’s she was forgotten.

Her work was revived in academia in the 19th century, and today Hadewijch enjoys a certain regard in various Christian circles: literary, musical, mystical, feminist, and such.

As a beguine, Hadewijch was engaged in an apostolate of service, but without leaving the world for the cloister. Beguines were among the most attractive options to 13th century European women: the benefits of community, learning, and ministry in the world, but without the submission to men or the life behind monastery walls.

As with many apostolic and mendicant women, beguines were suspect in many church circles. We don’t know if Hadewijch was persecuted by clergy or bishops. Scholars do suspect that her personal rigor and single-mindedness may have been the catalyst for a possible ejection from her own community. But we are not sure.

What we are sure of is that her poetry is suggestive of love songs of the day. Hadewijch takes the voice of the knight, and God is the lady wooed. Elizabeth Dreyer explores some of the aspects of a conflicted expression in her book Passionate Spirituality (reviewed here):

The loving soul wants Love wholly, without delay;
It wishes at all hours to delight in sweetness,
In opulence according to its desire.
Reason commands it to wait until it is prepared;
But liberty wishes to lead it instantly
Where it will become one with the Beloved.
Storms of this kind
Impart a calm resignation.

This struggle–or is it a balance?–between Love and Reason has always been with us. Perhaps women have enough of a different approach (sociologically, biologically, etc.) that men in charge are natural skeptics about it.

Hadewijch trusts both. Or at least she trusts them enough to give her a better balance in her dealing with God, the Beloved.

Reason has more satisfaction than love, but love has more sweetness of bliss than reason. These two, however, are of great mutual help one to the other; for reason instructs love, and love enlightens reason. When reason abandons itself to love’s wish, and love consents to be forced and held within the bounds of reason, they can accomplish a very great work. This no one can learn except by experience.

Hadewijch suggests that the Church is stronger when we apply two or more approaches simultaneously. Maybe that’s why she possibly drove people crazy. Men and women. Contemplatives and apostles. Music and lyrics. Artists and theologians. All worthy..

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Hadewijch of Brabant

  1. As you know Todd, I am very interested in the Beguines. This is a great post; I’m glad that you included her.

  2. Brendan Kelleher svd says:

    Her complete works were published in the Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality series, and there was a fairly accessible study of the Beguines by Saskia Murk-Kensen, “Brides of the Desert”, (Orbis), in their Traditions in Christian Spirituality series. Sadly not much else I’m aware of.

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