Women mystics: the experience of God as Incarnation

Carolina Blázquez O.S.A., professor of the Faculty of Theology at the San Damaso Ecclesiastical University, presents here the book Women mystics by Louis Bouyer, which deals with the figures of Hadewijch of Antwerp, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Elizabeth of the Trinity and Edith Stein.

Maria José Atienza·21 de julio de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 10 minutos
figuras misticas

Original text in spanish

Louis Bouyer is an extremely interesting figure in 20th-century theology. He actively participated in the movement of theological renewal that preceded the Second Vatican Council and also lived—it might be better to say in his case, suffered—the difficult post-conciliar era in the Church.

Among Bouyer’s valuable contributions and responsibilities, we can highlight that he was actively involved in launching the Liturgical Pastoral Center (Centre de Pastorale liturgique, CPL) in Paris; he was professor of History of Spirituality at the Catholic Institute in the same city; he was appointed consultant to the Council and member of the ecclesial organism for its application in liturgical matters and for the reform of the Eucharistic Canon; he was elected by Paul VI as a member, for two terms, of the International Theological Commission; and, together with Balthasar, Rahner and Ratzinger, among other of the most important European theologians of the time, was co-founder of the review Communio.

However, little by little, from the end of the ’70s and ’80s, Bouyer’s public activity was curtailed, especially in Europe, until he was relegated to oblivion. This reaction was provoked by the lack of comprehension of his harsh critical position in relation to trends in the Church, particularly in liturgical, disciplinary and ecclesial matters. His life can be read as a process of identification with Christ’s kenosis in the light of the Paschal Mystery, a central theme in his personal life and in his theology: the book he wrote under this title has been one of his most important works on liturgical matters, and an invaluable contribution to the rediscovery of Easter and its celebration as the central mystery of Christian life.

Bouyer, throughout his life, gradually lost everything until, in his last years, he suffered an extreme situation of loneliness and isolation, tragically aggravated by the Alzheimer’s disease from which he died and which completely veiled his capacity for reflection and interrelation.

There are traces in Bouyer of a certain prophetism. He intuited beforehand some difficulties and problems that were not yet so clearly seen at the time. This sharpness in seeing beyond the present, together with his difficult and ironic character (which was often expressed in a biting and provocative way), fed this incomprehension and a certain reserve towards his person, of which we have been speaking.

It is now, in the 21st century, that Bouyer’s figure and his theological thought are being rediscovered and re-understood much more favorably. Probably, his tendency to always present a diachronic perspective of all issues explains this audacious capacity to interpret reality. The past always offers clues to foresee, in the present, what the future will be.

Bouyer was a lover of history, of the development of processes (he devotes a great deal of space in all his books to the historical analysis of the development of contents), and of the evolution of concepts. This was an inheritance from his beloved Cardinal Newman, of whom he always considered himself a disciple, and from his common Reformed education.

This was also, paradoxically, the compass that led him to Catholicism, as he recognized in the historical development of dogma and theology the permanence of an element of perenniality, that kept alive and pointed to the first and only event of Revelation, the ‘Christ event’. In this sense, the discovery and understanding of the authentic meaning of Tradition was key.

Bouyer was born into a Lutheran family in Paris in 1913. It was in Protestantism that he found and grew in his personal experience of faith and his vocation, and he was ordained a Protestant pastor in 1936. He exercised his pastoral ministry in Strasbourg and Paris. He had as his professors the best Lutheran theologians of the 20th century, and also had many contact with members of other Christian confessions, which awakened in him an admiration and esteem for the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, especially for the liturgical and mystical dimension of the faith.

A strong personal and spiritual crisis led Bouyer to recognize that the principles of the Protestant faith—grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone—could only be lived in fullness within the Catholic Church (a theme described and substantiated in his work Du protestantisme à l’Église, published in English as The spirit and forms of Protestantism). As a result of his crisis he resigned from his position as pastor and passed to the Catholic Church. In 1944 he was ordained a priest and, from then on, he dedicated himself to the study and teaching of theology and other humanist disciplines in various universities around the world.

Bouyer’s theological and literary production is enormous. He authored more than thirty volumes on theological themes, an enormous list of articles, has written four fictional novels on the search for the Holy Grail, fascinated by the legacy of Tolkien and his work The Lord of the Rings, of whom he was a disciple and friend at Oxford.

Within theology, the themes of his work are extremely varied: dogma, liturgy, the Bible, spirituality, history, ecumenism, states of life, pastoral… A number of of his writings were conceived as trilogies, such as the Trinitarian trilogy: Le Père invisible. Approches du mystère de la divinité (Paris 1976); Le Fils éternel. Théologie de la Parole de Dieu et christologie (Paris 1974); Le Consolateur. L’Esprit et la Grâce (Paris 1980); the soteriological trilogy: L’Eglise de Dieu. Corps du Christ et Temple de l’Esprit (Paris 1970); Le Trône de la Sagesse. Essai sur la signification du culte marial (Paris 1957); Cosmos. Le monde et la Gloire de Dieu (Paris 1982); the trilogy on theological method: Gnosis. Le connaissance de Dieu dans l’Ecriture (Paris 1988); Misterion. Du mystère a la mystique (Paris 1986); Sophia ou le Monde en Dieu (Paris 1994); the trilogy on the states of life: Le Sens de la vie sacerdotale (Paris 1962); Le sens de la vie monastique (Paris 1950); Introduction à la vie spirituelle. Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique (Paris 1960). 

In my opinion, we can also establish a trilogy on the feminine, composed of the first volume of dogmatic character, his work on anthropology dedicated to Mary: Le Trône de la Sagesse; the second volume of ecclesiological theme: Mystère et ministères de la femme (Paris 1976); and the third, Figures mystiques féminines (Paris 1989), with a more existential, testimonial and vital orientation.

His interest in the feminine

Why this interest in the subject of women in Louis Bouyer?

We can find two very diverse but complementary motivations.

The first is of a strictly theological nature. Louis Bouyer came to the conviction that, in the history of Revelation, of God’s relations with the created order, God—who, in speaking of himself, never allows himself to be linked to either sex, so as to defend his transcendence—relates to creation, and especially to human beings, by assuming the masculine role. We see this above all in the spousal metaphor; and it will find its fulfillment in the Incarnation of the Word. To describe God’s relationship with man through this metaphor, God identifies himself with the male, while the created being assumes the feminine role. God always sees Mary before him when he looks at the creature, from whom he expects a free ‘yes’ of love—a ‘yes’ that allows him to pour out the love that precedes each one of us from all eternity and is the reason for our existence and, at the same time, waits to be accepted and consummated in interpersonal communion. Thus for Bouyer, the feminine, as an expression of the freedom that consents, receives, and welcomes the first gift, becomes the paradigm of the Christian soul.

There is another reason to explain this predilection for women in Bouyer, and it has to do with his own life journey. He was an only child, being the only survivor of the four children of the Bouyer couple. Louis describes his childhood marked by a very special relationship with his mother, who died young, leaving the boy an orphan at the age of twelve.

Such was the shock that this event provoked in little Louis that he lost his speech and his connection with reality; his father had to send him out of Paris, to the countryside, to the Lorraine region, where he spent a year in the house of a family close to his mother. There, thanks to the contact with the beauty of the environment that surrounded him and the company of a young girl with whom he fell madly in love—the youngest daughter of this family, Elisabeth—Bouyer was able to come out of this dark night and begin to love life again.

The beauty and tenderness of the feminine was always for him an accompaniment of grace and life and a healing reminder of the presence and tenderness of his mother. In fact, several women accompanied Bouyer’s life through a deep and time-tested friendship; he spoke expressly of Elizabeth Goudge in his Memoirs, and dedicated his book Mystère et ministères de la femme to her. The link between Louis Bouyer and Hedwige d’Ursel, Marquise de Maupeou Monbail, to whom he dedicates the book Women Mystics, is completelly unknown to us.

Women Mystics

Title: Women Mystics: Hadewijch of Antwerp, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Edith Stein

Author: Louis Bouyer

Translator: Anne Englund Nash

Pages: 200

Publisher: Ignatius Press

City: San Francisco

Year: 1993

The book

The book was written in 1989 and republished several times in France. The author presents it as an attempt at critical dialogue with the women’s liberation movement that had awakened with great force in the United States and Europe during the 20th century.

In the prologue, the author clearly presents his starting points. On the one hand, he distances himself from the attempts to seek recognition of the dignity and capacity of women by fighting for equality with men. He gives a very negative assessment of this as a real failure, because it means the renunciation of the peculiar and unique way of living the human from the feminine condition.

For Bouyer, women are endowed with a special way of seeing and interpreting reality and, therefore, also of living the religious experience. Hence, the objective that women should be and act like men, renouncing the perspective of complementarity between the sexes, does serious harm both to woman and to man: man needs her, in the fullness of her uniqueness and specialness, in order to become himself and thus build society and the Kingdom together.

On the other hand, the author affirms that—contrary to what many believe and proclaim—Christianity has within itself a potential to safeguard and respect women, which has made it possible for many women throughout the history of the Church to open new paths of spirituality, starting from their personal and genuine experience of encounter and communion with Christ. From here, they have exercised a significant leadership in the Church, often from a paradoxically hidden life.

Many other names could have been chosen, but Bouyer opts for these five figures, of whom only the first—the Beguine Hadewijch of Antwerp—is not a Carmelite. Through them, we are offered a diachronic perspective on the theme of the role of women in the Church, since the first mystic places us in the 13th century and, with Edith Stein, the last witness, we reach the middle of the 20th century.

In fact, in the various chapters of the book we do not find a biographical account or a hagiography in the usual sense. Although there is always a brief reference to the most outstanding events in the life of each of these women, Bouyer dwells rather on the particular spiritual experience that each one lives, in her concrete context and with her own circumstances. This personal experience of encounter with the love of God manifested in Christ is what amazes and surprises the author, and what manifests that particular way in which women live their religious experience.

In these women, Bouyer says, the event of grace of the love of God giving himself to man is welcomed and received with a woman’s heart that captures the life of God with such a capacity for acceptance that it renews the event of the Incarnation: God becomes present in the world through them as, by recognizing themselves as daughters and accepting to be moved by Love to be spouses, they become mothers of Christ himself, giving birth to him for and in the world; the concrete world in which they live and for which they care and to which they give themselves.

Bouyer wants us to recognize, in each of them, this particular relationship with God; a relationship that, being deeply personal, opens a path of grace for all men. They are the teachers of the great schools of spirituality in the Church; schools in which it has often been men, their disciples, who then formulated them conceptually and made them known in a methodical and expository way.

Louis Bouyer’s writing style is not easy. He uses a serious academic theological language, in which he takes for granted a mass of information that he handles with ease but that most readers, much less cultivated than him (he enjoyed a tremendous intellectual capacity and a vast theological and humanistic culture) do not know so well; but all this he mixes with a direct, colloquial, ironic language. For example, some of his opinions about St Teresa of Avila and about Spain—statements made, moreover, by a Frenchman (although Bouyer had Spanish heritage and showed a special sympathy for the Spanish character that he claimed to know well, as well as the country)—may seem somewhat proud.

Another, very positive aspect of the book is the frequent bibliographical references to these women and quotes from their works. The selection of texts that the author makes of each one awakens in the reader the desire to know more, to come into contact with the direct words of each of these women and thus get to know them first hand.

Features common to these women

In conclusion, I would like to highlight three elements common to these five women, which each lives in a particular way but in which they coincide and which may be the reason for Bouyer’s choice of these five figures:

Unique experience of God

Each one of them has lived a unique experience of encounter with God in which her feminine disposition has been the key to grasp something of the divine Mystery: Hadewijch’s communion with Christ that introduces us to Trinitarian love; Teresa’s contemplation of God through contemplation of Christ’s humanity; Thérèse of Lisieux’s relationship of total trust and abandonment in the love of God the Father; Elizabeth’s call to live in praise of the Glory of the Trinity; and Edith Stein’s recognition of God’s Love and Wisdom as manifested in its fullness in Christ’s redemptive cross.

Boldness in responding to the challenges of their time

Each one of them traces an itinerary of encounter with God for the man and woman of their time, of the present in which they live, assuming some aspects proper to that historical moment; and at the same time, with unique audacity, they break the molds, schemes or clichés that could oppress the newness of the Spirit, so as to maintain alive the actuality of the ‘Christ event’, so that they themselves become renovators of Christian spirituality.

Guided by the sources of revelation: Scripture and Tradition

The light that guides this path is not the genius of a philosophical or theological preparation; it is not an abstract academic discourse: it is the experience of a life confronted with the Word of God, guided by it and nourished by the Tradition of the Church, especially liturgical life. The constant return to the origin of Christian life allows for an attractive originality that connects with the source of Revelation—the love of God—and the object of Revelation: the restless heart of man who seeks, still groping, the God for whom he was made.

In short, the author’s objective, and the value and timeliness of this publication is that, through it, the constant interior rebirth that women have provoked in the Church can be reawakened and kept alive; and so it points out a way to clarify the always important and delicate question of the role of women today, in the world and in the Church, in the face of the challenges of our time.

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