Hello dear ones! After some time of deep reflection and settling into this exciting 2020 (hope you all had an amazing transition into this year of vision!), I am happy to be back and blogging once again, this month presenting you with a post about a topic that has intrigued me for a few years, and now lies very close to my heart as I immerse myself deeper in the world of divine femininity: female mystics. My ever-growing fascination with the divine, the metaphysical forces underlying the dances of the universe, and all the ways in which I experience this throughout my life as a woman dancing through this earth plane fuels my interest in mysticism. There have been many male and female mystics throughout the course of history who each add special value to the practice of spiritual contemplation. In honour of the rise of the divine feminine, this post is dedicated to female mystics, while reorganizing the conversation in which spiritual and religious structures have typically been male-dominated and as a disclaimer: all while honouring all male mystics equally.
What is understood under mystic? Mysticism refers to the conscious practice of spiritual ecstasy that goes together with the experience of revelations of universal truths and transcendence. Etymologically, the word mysticism has its roots in the Greek word mystikos, meaning “secret, mystic, connected with the mysteries,” and/or mystes, meaning “one who has been initiated” (to that which has been hidden or obscured from human knowledge or understanding. Mysticism is in many ways related to and found in religions, stories, myths, magic, and New Age movements. The definition of this term has changed and evolved throughout history. Contemporarily, the term is used to refer to an ecstatic union with the Absolute/Infinite/God that is described as a mystical experience. “The accepted definition of mysticism involves (a) experience of unity with all beings; (b) a powerful influence on the mystic’s way of thinking; (c) distinct knowledge conferred by the experience; (d) time/space distortion, and (e) a sense of sacredness” (Devlin, 2016). “True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It draws the whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart. Living union with this One . . . is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process.” (Evelyn Underhill, 2018).
In the Middle Ages, the term unio mystica was often used by Christians to refer to a spiritual marriage with God/The Holy Spirit. In the Medieval Ages, there were several female Christian mystics who experienced mystical visions and revelations such as: Angela of Foligno, Angela Merici, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Brigid of Kildare (known for her generosity for the poor and associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid), St. Catherine of Siena, St. Douceline (established beguine/spiritual communities in France), Elisabeth of Schönau, St. Gertrude the Great, Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg and St. Margaret of Cortona (known as the saint of the falsely accused and other perceived underprivileged groups in society who are often shamed). Some of these saints were also authors and became known for having written about their mystical revelations. For example, St. Hildegard of Bingen was a composer, philosopher, writer and visionary whose spiritual awareness was based on what she called the “reflection of the living Light;” and Julian of Norwich who was an ascetic and author of Revelations of Divine Love: the oldest known book in the English language to have been written by a woman.
Besides Christianity, as mentioned before, mysticism is found in other religions. For example: Merkabah Mysticism and the Kabbalah are branches of Jewish mysticism, Sufism is the Islamic branch of mysticism, many sadhanas (spiritual practices) such as Yoga, Vedanta, and Tantra are considered mystical practices related to Hinduism, Buddhism with its view of Nirvana as an attainable transcendent reality, and Taoism, originating in China as a mystic approach of seeing the world as a perfect balance of Yin and Yang. Mysticism was narrowed in the 19th century with the rise of rational thinking and individuality, but continued to live on in spiritual communities and is now in fuller revival.
Mysticism and yoga are connected: various types of literature (religious, philosophical, scientific and medical) about kundalini are closely aligned with literature about mysticism. “The mystics may not have understood the Hindu concept of kundalini, but they certainly were aware of the process they were going through…..the Christian mystics may have known much more than we are giving them credit for, but may have been hampered in explaining what they knew. Perhaps this was because their tradition had no extensive psychophysiological terminology such as we have today. Perhaps the mystics could have been more precisely expressive of their experiences if they had loved in an age of free expression, open investigation and honest investigation of their most sacred secrets….The mystics has learned to sublimate their sexual drives, and as a result, were fulfilled in a manner that science is only beginning to investigate…The writings of the mystics and the yogis give credit to the theory that there is a spiritual force, working within and through the biology of man, expressing itself via the medium of the mind…their writings show that they were trying to describe the transcendental insights they were privileged to enjoy….The Christian mystics experienced a tremendous force, which they termed the Holy Spirit- that has striking parallels with the traditional descriptions of kundalini” (Yoga Journal, January 1979).
“Female yoga practitioners, known as yoginis, have practised yoga for millenia. Archaelogical evidence points to the practice of yoga as a part of ancient fertility rites. Medieval miniature paintings depict yoginis wandering the forest, playing music, and as ascetics sitting with disciples and animals in meditation. These female mystics played an important role in the spiritual life of the community and wielded a certain amount of authority” (365 Yoga, J. Rappaport).
FEMALE MYSTICS THROUGHOUT THE ERAS
As I dove deep into researching this topic, I found that the list of female mystics in history is almost inexhaustibly extensive. I have selected the most prominent ones and added the most relevant highlights.
Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (d. 801)
One of the founders of Sufi mysticism, she loves God for His own sake instead of because of a longing for heaven or fear of going to hell.
Umm ‘Abdallah (9th century)
Sufi mystic and scholar who received deep mystic knowledge through appearances of symbols and visitations in her dreams. What is known about her is only known through the memoirs of her husband (The Beginning of the Matter), who describes some of her mystic experiences. They shared a spiritual relationship in which they supported each other and treated each other as equals, which was unusual for their time.
Sun Buer (1119–1182)
Chinese Taoist Priestess, poet and author of A Personal Tao. She left her husband and children at the age of 51 years-old to further her spiritual studies, and founded the Taoist lineage called the ‘Purity and Tranquility’ tradition. She is known as one of the few female Taoist ‘Immortals,’ a title that stands for spiritual realization and occult mastery.
Clare of Assisi (1194-1253)
She was St. Francis’ student, nurse, assistant, and in time founded her own order. In 1212, she (like many other female mystics did) escaped an arranged marriage and dove into the mystics of life. It was after she heard Francis of Assisi that she experienced a big spiritual awakening. They shared a beautiful spiritual friendship. When writing about her mystical experiences, she speaks of eternity, love, and light visions. She had a deep relationship with nature, and wild animals had a tendency to become soft and gentle in her presence.
Margery Kempe (1373 – 1439)
Mother of fourteen children, this woman’s spiritual journey started when she gave birth to her first child. She was interested other medieval female mystics (such as Julian of Norwich and St. Bridget of Sweden. After her fourteenth child, her husband and her embraced a life of chastity and went on serval pilgrimages to sacred spots in Europe during which she experienced mystic states.
Julian of Norwich (d. ca. 1416)
Author of a theology in which she writes about divine motherhood and mutual intimacy flowing between God and the soul which is healing and restorative. She celebrated divine love as an infinite flow of toward creation and believed that the macrocosmic universe rested In this mutuality of love.
Teresa of Avila (d. 1582)
Throughout her young adulthood, she found prayer difficult, until at the age of 40 she devoted herself more committedly to her spiritual practice.She describes mystical union as the soul’s marriage to Christ, in which spiritual love dissolves all differences between lover and beloved as they merge together like a drop of water merges into the ocean. She taught that spiritual love is about compassion for others, and not self-interest.
Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179)
This woman was truly multitalented: she was a healer, writer, composer and theological critic. Having experienced visions throughout her life, it was in her early forties that she truly grasped the spiritual meaning of the scriptures she had been studying.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431)
She was a true warrior. When she was 12 years old, she saw visions of saints calling her to drive the British, who were occupying France, to give back the crown to the French prince. She was met with much societal resistance and marks a moving hallmark in history, which is why so many playwrights have been made about her trial. She was burned at the stake at the age of 19 and declared a saint many years after.
Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Often called the mother of New Age Thought, she travelled the word seeking spiritual lessons after escaping a marriage in which she was unhappy. After receiving many spiritual insights, she wrote Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, and also founded the Theosophical Society. Though some have called her a fraud, there is no question that her mystical revelations have greatly influenced the New Age movement. (Devlin). She moved to New York in 1873, established herself there as a medium and psychic, and connected many themes from all the world’s religions, esoteric teachings and new science ideas which in many ways laid the foundations of the New Age movement which in time led to the rise of Western metaphysical trends.
Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973)
She found herself deeply engrossed in meditation from a very young age, and grew up experiencing mystic visions, trance revelations, and past life experiences. She studied the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita. She is the co-founder the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and is adept of several types of advanced yoga. Her teaching to the world can be summarized as: Do Yoga!
There are many, but it seems the most well known one is history is Mirabai, the Hindu saint (d. 1550). Passionate lover of Krishna and devotee of Vaishnava teachings, she is a Shiva worshipping mystic who sings and writes about the divine love for Krishna she feels in her heart. Having escaped a forced marriage (her husband died at a young age and she was commanded to commit suicide – a legally common practice at the time -, an order which she refused under the argument that she had received different orders from Lord Krishna), she represents a special force in women’s empowerment and emancipation and reached states of enlightenment.
There are also many female mystics from the Buddhist tradition, such as Pajapati (600 B.C., Buddha’s Stepmother and first Buddhist nun), Sukhasiddhi (11th century Tibetan Buddhist Dakini), Mugai Nyobai (13th century Japanese Buddhist nun and first female to head a Zen Order), Yeshe Tsogyal (757-817, Tibetan Princess and Buddhist Master, author of her autobiography Lady of the Lotus Born. She had a relationship with Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism in Tibet), Machig Labdron (11th century, Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who taught the Chod: aiming to transform the four ‘demons’ tha thinder enlightenment), Jomo Memo (13th Century Tibetan Terton, “discoverer of teachings;” she taught about overcoming ignorance and is considered to be an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal)
Morrnah Nalamaku Simeona (1913-1992)
Hawaiian Healer who introduced Hawaiian healing tradition of Ho’oponopono to the wider world, a holistic healing modality that has had great healing benefits and a boost in the personal for many people.
FEMALE MYSTICS TODAY
Today, there are several female mystics who are considered gurus/spiritual leaders. From Hindu origin there are for example Ammachi, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Mother Meera, Mata Amritanandamayi and Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. There are also various western female spiritual teachers such as Evelyn Underhill (Christian); Joanna Macy (Buddhist), Starhawk and Vicki Noble (pagan) and others such as Marianne Williamson and Teal Swan (holistic/metaphysical).
ECSTATIC LOVE AS YOUR PATHWAY TO THE DIVINE
Some inspiring contemporary quotes written about female mystics feel as a beautiful way to begin concluding this post.
“The greatest gift female Mystics can give to Humanity and the World at this time, is to model the Truth of who they are, and through example, blaze a Path of Love back to God for everyone to follow.” (Patricia Cota-Robles). “The most important ‘Truth’… is one that is absolutely and totally unprovable: we are all sons and daughters of the Living God. We will not find this truth in a particle accelerator. We can only prove it to ourselves by direct experience of the other side.” (Carol Huffstickler). “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” (Emily Dickinson). “An ecstatic love for the Beloved, or Divine, unifies feminine mystics across multiple wisdom traditions and lineages, and now the bliss and sense of wholeness these remarkable women experienced can nourish your own heart and soul” (Mirabai Starr)
I hope you have gained some fresh inspiration from these female mystics. May the contemporary interspiritual movement in which we find ourselves serve as a force to awaken the healing energy of the sacred fire of the feminine within us all, melting the heart of a world which is all too frozen. Let us all say yes to the ecstatic pathway of love toward the divine in our daily lives. Let us all claim the beauty of spiritual desire and allow it to transform the world.
It is now time to awaken the feminine mystic within you, and start to see the Divine in everything around you as you move through this world with devotion, stepping on this Earth – Our Mother – with the reverence She deserves.