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Sunday Message for March 12, 2023

Souls on Fire

I've been listening to the news, and it struck me that we are getting 'all up in the air' about all the wrong things. We know that whatever we think about most of the time is what manifests in our lives. And throughout this country we have been feeding energy to a failing economy; and the flu pandemic.

I realize that the news media promotes this kind of thinking - but isn't it time for us to have our own thoughts and to get 'fired up' for something positive? All through history there have been those who stepped outside of the common beliefs and the common thinking to do something extraordinary. These were the 'Souls on Fire' for God. In a world of very limited religious thinking, these people dared to have a new vision.

Their prayer might have been: God of new visions, visit me with your fiery presence. Open me to hear your new word, to receive your new touch, and to delight in your new insight.

Toward the end of the 12th century, women across Europe began to search for new ways to live out their spirituality. These women wanted to embrace a life of simplicity, chastity, and religious devotion, while resisting the cloistered life of the Catholic convent and the authority of the Catholic hierarchy.

Women who had pursued independent religious lives began to organize themselves into groups that focused on shared spiritual disciplines and work. Sort of like an early version of Unity that accepted all.

As the groups evolved into the thirteenth century, many of the communities took on physical dimensions as the women, who became known as Beguines (beg geens), acquired houses and other buildings. At the height of the movement, one such community, the Great Beguinage at Ghent, included "two churches, eighteen convents, over a hundred houses, a brewery, and an infirmary,"a according to Elizabeth Petroff's Medieval Women's Visionary Literature.

Centering primarily in the Low Countries, Northern France, and Germany, the beguinages offered hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of women the opportunity to live in autonomous communities that respected and encouraged their own religious experiences.

Surviving accounts of those experiences reveal a passionate spirituality, sometimes characterized by visions, an intimate relationship with God, deep concern for all souls, and a desire to give voice to the intricacy and power of God's love in human lives.

One of these 'Souls on Fire' was Mechthild (met child) of Magdeburg (mag de berg), a German Beguine born around 1207 to a well-born, possibly noble, family. She received a profound call from God at the age of ten and related that she saw "all things in God and God in all things." When she was about 22, that call led her to Magdeburg, where she lived as a Beguine. There she began to write her book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, a combination of visions, poetry, and theological reflections. She completed the book after moving around 1270 to Helfta, the site of a great Cistercian convent that was an influential center of women's spirituality during the Middle Ages.b Mechthild probably died in 1282.

Another of these 'Souls on Fire' was Hadewijch (hade witch) of Brabant, a Flemish Beguine who also lived in the 13th century. She either founded or joined a group of Beguines and became its leader.

In time, however, her leadership met with opposition, and it seems she was evicted from her community. As the translator Mother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works, the eviction may have come about "because of her doctrine that one must live Love."c

Mother Columba conjectures that after Hadewijch became homeless, "she offered her services to a hospital for the poor, where she could nurse those who suffered and sleep at least part of the night in some corner, with access to the church or chapel always attached to such establishments in her time." Although we know little about Hadewijch's formal education, Mother Columba notes that her surviving writings - poetry, visions, and letters - reflect familiarity with Latin, the rules of rhetoric, numerology, astronomy, music theory, and French.

In time, the autonomous nature of the beguinages and the independent lives of the Beguines aroused suspicion and many accusations of heresy. (Because they had their own idea of spirituality, instead of accepting the churches limited views.) Many beguinages came under the authority of the Catholic church; others disbanded in the wake of persecution or other stresses. By the end of the Middle Ages, few communities remained.

In The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote,

"Can the Son of God not comfort thee?" [the creatures ask of the Bride]
Yea! I ask Him when we shall go
Into the flowery meadows of heavenly knowledge
And pray Him fervently,
That He unlock for me
The swirling flood which plays about the Holy Trinity,
For the soul lives on that alone.
     If I am to be comforted
According to the merit to which God has raised me,
Then [God's] breath must draw me effortlessly into [God]self.
For the sun which plays upon the living Godhead
Irradiates the clear waters of a joyful humanity;
And the sweet desire of the Holy Spirit
Comes to us from both...
Nothing can satisfy me save God alone,
Without [God] I am as dead.
Yet would I gladly sacrifice the joy of [God's] presence
Could [God] be greatly honoured thereby.
For if I, unworthy, cannot praise God with all my might,
Then I send all creatures to the Court of Heaven
And bid them praise God for me,
With all their wisdom, their love,
Their beauty; all their desires,
As they were created, sinless by God,
To sing with all the sweetness of their voices
As they now sing.
Could I but witness this praise
I would sorrow no more.d

It says in (Proverbs 29:18) Where there is no vision, the people perish.e We are challenged to envision and re-vision as the people of God. To re-vision involves taking visions of the past and dreaming them into the future with new eyes in a new context. And because of the situations of the economy, a lot of us need to re-vision our dreams with new eyes in a new context.

What visions and re-visions do the words of this foremother, written hundreds of years ago, spark in you? Mechthild writes, "Can the Son of God not comfort thee?"

Sometimes we forget that God is always there, and we get caught up in the opinions we hear on the news. It is time to remember and to re-vision our lives.

How do you re-vision this song of praise, one that encompasses even the animals, into a world where the creatures of God often live in danger at our hands?

Don't forget the animals. With many people losing their homes, there are many, many animals that have been taken to shelters. So, if you are looking for a companion, I encourage you to adopt from a shelter - or to contribute to the financial welfare of our animal shelters.

Again, Mechthild writes:

Therefore shalt thou [a Prior, Prioress, or other Superior] speak thus to each Brother or Sister with the deep humility of thy pure heart:

Beloved! I, unworthy
Of merit, am thy servant;
I am not thy master
Power is made for service!
Go forth in God's true love.
Suffer? I too suffer!
Wound? And I have wounded!
Merit God's praise? I sing!
Now I send thee forward
In god's name, as Jesus
Went out seeking lost sheep
Till He died of loving.
Love of God teach thee too
To be kind and useful,
Take with thee my prayers,
Take my soul's desire,
Take my sinful tears,
God in mercy home thee
Brimmed with love and goodness
Home thee safe to me. AMEN.

Thus shalt thou comfort thy brethren
As they go forth, and rejoice with them
When they return.f

How do you re-vision this vision of power as service, love, prayer, desire, and tears into a world that bases power on economics, gender, race, and other measures of status?

Power is an attribute that a lot of us need to explore. With our current economic situation, we are challenged to look at power in a different and truer way. Jesus showed us that Love is the true power in our lives. Prayer allows the power of God to work through us.

(Mark 12:29-30) Jesus said, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."g

Perhaps it is time for us to claim our power by becoming Souls on Fire for God.

Again, Mechthild writes:

An unworthy creature thought simply about the nobility of God. Then God showed him in his senses and the eyes of his soul, a Fire which burned ceaselessly in the heights above all things. It had burned without beginning and would burn without end. This Fire is the everlasting God Who has retained in [God's self] Eternal Life from which all things proceed. The sparks which have blown away from the Fire are the holy angels. The beams of the Fire are the saints of God for their lives cast many lovely lights on Christianity.

The coals of the Fire still glow; they are the just who here burn in heavenly love and enlighten by their good example: as they were chilled by sin, they now warm themselves at the glowing coals. The crackling sparks which are reduced to ashes and come to nothing are the bodies of the blessed, who in the grave still await their heavenly reward. The Lord of the Fire is still to come, Jesus Christ to whom [God] entrusted the first Redemption and the last Judgment. On the Last Day He shall make a glorious chalice for the heavenly [Creator] out of the sparks of the Fire; from this chalice [God] will on the day of [God's] Eternal Marriage drink all the holiness which, with [God's] Beloved Son, [God] has poured into our souls and our human senses.

Yea! I shall drink from thee
And Thou shalt drink from me
All the good God has preserved in us.
Blessed is he who is so firmly established here
That he may never spill out
What God has poured into him.

The smoke of the Fire is made of all earthly things which [we use] with wrongful delight. However beautiful to our eyes, however pleasant to our hearts, they yet carry in them much hidden bitterness. For they disappear as smoke and blind the eyes of the highest, till the tears run.

The comfort of the Fire is the joy our souls receive inwardly from God, with such holy warmth from the Divine Fire, that we too burn with it and are so sustained by virtues that we are not extinguished. The bitterness of the Fire is the word God shall speak on the Last Day, (Matthew 25:41) You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire.h The radiance of the Fire is the glowing aspect of the Divine countenance of the Holy Trinity, which shall so illumine our souls and bodies that we may then see and recognize the marvelous blessedness we cannot even name here.

These things have come out of the Fire and flow into it again according to God's ordinance in everlasting praise.

Wouldst thou know my meaning?
Lie down in the Fire
See and taste the Flowing
Godhead through thy being;
Feel the Holy Spirit
Moving and compelling
Thee with the Flowing
Fire and Light of Godi

How do you re-vision this vision of the fiery dynamism of God and community into a world that often narrowly defines God and community?

Perhaps we need to relight our fire from that of these old mystics. Our religion has become too calm, too quiet - we need to rekindle our passion and allow our souls to be on fire for God. Because when we are passionate for all things positive in our lives, we have no time for the negative.

THE SOUL IN PARTNERSHIP WITH GOD In Hadewijch: The Complete Works, Hadewijch of Brabant wrote,
Now understand the deepest essence of your soul, what "soul" is. Soul is a being that can be beheld by God and by which, again, God can be beheld. Soul is also a being that wishes to content God; it maintains a worthy state of being as long as it has not fallen beneath anything that is alien to it and less than the soul's own dignity. If it maintains this worthy state, the soul is a bottomless abyss in which God suffices to [Godself]; and [God's] own self-sufficiency ever finds fruition to the full in this soul, as the soul, for its part, ever does in [God]. Soul is a way for the passage of God from [God's] depths into [God's] liberty, that is, into [God's] inmost depths, which cannot be touched except by the soul's abyss. And as long as God does not belong to the soul in [God's] totality, [God] does not truly satisfy it.j

How do you re-vision this vision of the soul in partnership and contentment with God into a world frayed by discontent? In Unity we understand that it is our perception that defines and creates the world around us. So, we can put our attention on the nonsense around us or on the perfection of God within. Then we become co-creators with God.

Again, Hadewijch writes,

On a certain Pentecost Sunday I had a vision at dawn. Matins were being sung in the church, and I was present. My heart and my veins and all my limbs trembled and quivered with eager desire and as often occurred with me, such madness and fear beset my mind that it seemed to me I did not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfill my desire, so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must die.

On that day my mind was beset so fearfully and so painfully by desirous love that all my separate limbs threatened to break, and all my separate veins were in travail. The longing in which I then was cannot be expressed by any language or any person I know; and everything I could say about it would be unheard-of to all those who never apprehended Love as something to work for with desire, and whom Love had never acknowledged as hers.

I can say this about it: I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste him to the full. I desired that his Humanity should to the fullest extent be one in fruition with my humanity, and that mine then should hold its stand and be strong enough to enter into perfection until I content him, who is perfection itself, by purity and unity, and in all things to content him fully in every virtue. To that end I wished he might content me interiorly with his Godhead, in one spirit, and that for me he should be all that he is, without withholding anything from me. For above all the gifts that I ever longed for, I chose this gift: that I should give satisfaction in all great sufferings. For that is the most perfect satisfaction: to grow up in order to be God with God.k

How do you re-vision this vision of intimacy with God into a world wounded by separatism and division? I think she said it all in that last statement, "we need to grow up in order to be God with God." Jesus told us (John 10:34) You are gods. And we still haven't understood our oneness with all there is.

Then Hadewijch continues,

Then he came from the altar, showing himself as a Child, and that Child was in the same form as he was in his first three years. He turned toward me, in his right hand took from the ciborium his Body, and in his left hand took a chalice, which seemed to come from the altar, but I do not know where it came from.

With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave us his Body for the first time; looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another. Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is.

After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So, I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported. Also then, for a short while, I had the strength to bear this; but soon, after a short time, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form. I saw him completely come to nought and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me. Then it was to me as if we were one without difference. It was thus: outwardly, to see, taste, and feel, as one can outwardly taste, see, and feel in the reception of the outward Sacrament. So can the Beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in all full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one in the other.

After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself; and I was changed and taken up in the spirit, and there it was shown me concerning such hours.l

How do you re-vision this vision of communion with the holy into a world that draws sharp distinctions between clean and unclean, sacred and profane? Because we need to learn to trust our own spiritual intuition, to know that we can commune with God without following a church prescribed ritual.

How does the sensual imagery used by Hadewijch and Mechthild challenge, stretch, or affirm your understanding of God? And if you have never connected the concepts of God and sensuality - then pick up your Bible and read the Song of Solomon.

Again Hadewijch writes,
I know well that if Love wanted to,
She would be able to console my sad mind.
Alas! Did she think any harm of me,
Thus to send me to wrack and ruin?
She holds me with great woe,
     Wholly without success, desperate.
     Unless she quickly has mercy on me
     And lets me become wiser in her,
     She will come to me perhaps too late.

However painfully I stray in Love's path -
And for me, experience of her has been delayed too long -
However deep I wade in her dangerous waters,
I will always give her thanks.
For I depend wholly on her,
     If I shall ever ascend clear to her summit.
     Whatever else I did,
     My hunger would remain as strong as ever:
     Did she not give me full satisfaction in her.

So I remain on Love's side,
Whatever may happen to me after that:
The pain of hunger for her, the joy of satisfaction in her,
     No to desires, or yes to delight.m

How do you re-vision this vision of union with Love into a world where much is unlovely? After all, living Love got Hadewijch thrown out of her community.

But, in truth, we have no choice if we are to save this world or ourselves from destruction. We need to 'remain on Love's side' in all things. We need to be Souls on Fire for the Love of God in our world.

May the Fire of God consume you. May the Burning of wisdom renew you. May the Flame of Love transform you and bring new vision to your soul. Amen

aElizabeth Petroff Medieval Women's Visionary Literature
bMechthild of Magdeburg The Flowing Light of the Godhead
cMother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works
dMechthild of Magdeburg The Flowing Light of the Godhead
eProverbs 29:18
fMechthild of Magdeburg The Flowing Light of the Godhead
gMark 12:29-30
hMatthew 25:41
iMechthild of Magdeburg The Flowing Light of the Godhead
jMother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works
kMother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works
lMother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works
mMother Columba Hart notes in Hadewijch: The Complete Works

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