Feminine mystical figures. The experience of God as incarnation

Carolina Blázquez Casado O.S.A. and professor of the Faculty of Theology at the San Dámaso Ecclesiastical University, presents in this article the work Feminine Mystical Figures by Louis Bouyer, which deals with the figures of women such as Hadewijch of Antwerp, Teresa of Avila, Teresa of the Child Jesus, Elizabeth of the Trinity and Edith Stein.

Sister Carolina Blázquez OSA-July 8, 2022-Reading time: 10 minutes
mystical figures

Text in English here

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

Among his valuable contributions and responsibilities, we can highlight that Louis Bouyer actively participated in the launching of the Center for Liturgical Pastoral Care in Paris, was professor of History of Spirituality at the Catholic Institute of the same city, was appointed consultant to the Council and member of the ecclesial organism for its application in liturgical matters and the reform of the Eucharistic Canon, was appointed consultant to the Council and member of the ecclesial organism for its application in liturgical matters and reform of the Eucharistic Canon, 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 relevant European theologians of the time, was co-initiator of the magazine Communio.

Gradually, however, from the end of the 1970s and 1980s, he was withdrawn from public activity, especially in Europe, until he was relegated to oblivion. This reaction was provoked by the incomprehension of his harsh critical position in relation to the ecclesial drift, mainly in liturgical, disciplinary and ecclesial matters. His life can be read as a process of identification with the kenosis of Christ in the light of the Paschal MysteryThe work he wrote under the same name was one of the author's most important works on liturgical matters and an invaluable contribution to the rediscovery of Easter and its celebration as a central mystery of Christian life.

Bouyer, throughout his life, lost everything until he suffered, in his last years, 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 of a certain prophecy in Bouyer. He intuited, in advance, some difficulties and problems that, in his present, were not yet so clearly seen. This sharpness in seeing beyond, together with his difficult and ironic character, which was often expressed in a scathing and provocative way, fed this incomprehension and certain reserve towards his person, of which we have just spoken.

It is in this 21st century that his 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 what the future will be in the present.

Bouyer was in love with history, with the development of processes - in all his books he devotes a great deal of space to the historical analysis of the development of content - and with the evolution of concepts. This was an inheritance from his beloved Cardinal Newmann, 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, recognizing in the historical dogmatic and theological development the permanence of an element of perenniality that kept alive and referred to the first and unique event of revelation, the Christ event. In this sense, the discovery and understanding of the authentic meaning of Tradition was key.

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

After a strong personal and spiritual crisis that led him 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 that can be found described and substantiated in his work, also published by Encuentro, From Protestantism to the Church- resigned as a pastor and joined 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 humanistic disciplines in various universities around the world.

His theological and literary output is enormous. He has authored more than thirty volumes on theological topics, a huge list of articles, has written four fictional novels about the quest for the Holy Grail, fascinated by Tolkien's legacy and his work, and has been the author of many other works. The Lord of the Ringsof whom he was a disciple and friend at Oxford.

Within theology, the themes of his works are extremely varied: dogmatic, liturgy, bible, spirituality, history, ecumenism, states of life, pastoral... Many of his writings were conceived as trilogies, such as the Trinitarian trilogy: The Invisible Father. Approches du mystère de la divinité. (Paris 1976); Le Fils éternel. Théologie de la Parole de Dieu et christologie. (Paris 1974); Le Consolateur. The Spirit and Grace (Paris 1980); the economic trilogy: The Church of God. Corps du Christ et Temple de l'Esprit. (Paris 1970); Le Trone de la Sagesse. Essai sur la signification du culte marial. (Paris 1957); Cosmos. The World and the Globe of God (Paris 1982); the trilogy on theological method: Gnosis. The knowledge of God in writing. (Paris 1988); Misterion. Du mystère a la mystique (Paris 1986); Sophia ou le Monde en Dieu (Paris 1994); the trilogy of states of life: The meaning of priestly life (Paris 1962); The meaning of monastic life (Paris 1950); Introduction to the spiritual life. Prècis de théologie ascetique et mystique. (Paris 1960) and, in my opinion, we can also establish a trilogy on the feminine.

This trilogy would be composed of the first volume of dogmatic character, his work on anthropology dedicated to Mary: Le Trône de la SagesseThe second volume has an ecclesiological theme: Mystery and women's ministryParis 1976; and the third, which is the one recently published for the first time in Spanish: Female mystical figures (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 different but complementary motivations.

The first is of a strictly theological nature. Louis Bouyer has come 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 any sex as a way of defending his transcendence, relates to creation and, especially, to the human being, 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 that allows him to pour out the love that, from all eternity, precedes each one of us, is the reason for our existence and, at the same time, waits to be accepted and consummated in interpersonal communion. The feminine, as an expression of the freedom that consents, that receives, that welcomes the first gift, becomes, therefore, for Bouyer, the paradigm of the Christian soul.

There is also another reason to explain this predilection for women in Bouyer and it has to do with his own life journey. He is 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 him an orphan at the age of 12.

Such is the shock that this event provokes in little Louis that he loses his speech and his connection with reality and his father has to send him out of Paris, to the countryside, to the Lorenne region, to the house of a family close to his mother. There, for a year, thanks to the contact with the beauty of the environment that surrounds him and the company of a young girl with whom he will fall madly in love, the youngest daughter of this family, Elisabeth, will come out of this dark night and will begin to enjoy life again.

The beauty and tenderness of the feminine will always be for him a companion of grace and life and a healing reminder of the presence and tenderness of the mother. In fact, several women accompanied Bouyer's life through a deep and time-tested friendship, he will expressly speak of Julien Green and Elisabeth Goudge in his Memoirs. To the latter he dedicates the book Mystery and ministry of women. The bond between Louis Bouyer and Hedwige d'Ursel, Marquise de Maupeou Monbail, to whom he dedicates the book of Female mystical figuresis totally unknown to us.

Female mystical figures

Title: Feminine mystical figures
AuthorLouis Bouyer
Pages: 172
Editorial: Encounter
City: Madrid
Year: 2022

The book

This book, written in 1989 and republished several times in France, is the first time it has been translated into Spanish. 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 throughout the twentieth century.

In the prologue, the author clearly presents his starting points. On the one hand, he distances himself, with a very negative assessment, from attempts to seek recognition of the dignity and capacity of women by fighting for equality with men. This is 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 she be and act like men, renouncing the perspective of complementarity between the sexes, is a serious harm to both woman and man, who needs her, in the fullness of her uniqueness and peculiarity, 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 of custody and respect for women that 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 from the paradox, many times, of a hidden life.

Many other names could have been chosen, but Bouyer opted 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 move to the middle of the 20th century.

In reality, 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, in reality, Bouyer dwells on the particular spiritual experience that each one lives, in her concrete context and with her own circumstances. This personal experience of encountering 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 them, Bouyer will say, the event of grace of the love of God giving himself to man is welcomed and received with a woman's heart that grasps 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 who become, by recognizing themselves as daughters and accepting, moved by Love to be wives, 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 which, 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 which, in many cases, have been formulated conceptually and made known in a methodical and expository way by men, their disciples.

Louis Bouyer's writing style is not easy. He mixes a serious academic theological language, in which, in addition, he takes for granted a lot of information that he handles with ease but that most of the readers, much less cultivated than him -he enjoyed a tremendous intellectual capacity and a vast theological and humanistic culture-, do not know so much, with a direct, colloquial, ironic language. For example, some opinions about "our saint", Teresa of Jesus, 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 our country)- may seem somewhat proud.

Another very positive aspect of the book is the constant bibliographical references about these women and about themselves. The selection of texts that the author makes of each one awakens the desire for more, to come into contact with the direct words of each one of these women and thus get to know them first hand.

Traits 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 of them has lived a unique experience of encounter with God in which her feminine disposition has been the key to grasp something proper to the divine Mystery: Hadewijch's communion with Christ that introduces us to Trinitarian love, Therese's contemplation of God through the contemplation of Christ's humanity, Therese 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 manifested, in its fullness, in the redemptive cross of Christ.

Boldness to respond to the challenges of his time.

Each one of them traces an itinerary of encounter with God for the men and women of their time, of the present in which they live, assuming some aspects proper to that historical moment and, at the same time, breaking with a unique audacity with the molds, schemes or clichés that could oppress the novelty of the Spirit to keep alive the actuality of the event of Christ, to the point of being themselves renewers 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, but 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 an attractive originality that connects with the source of revelation: the love of God and the object of this: 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 its reading, the constant interior rebirth that women have provoked in the Church can be awakened and kept alive, thus pointing 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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