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The Dark Side of Hellfde.
That to Christian life in each of the past nineteen centuries there is a dark side, is an obvious fact. But as the dark side has been constantly regarded as the bright side by the Christians of each century, our task in discovering it must not consist merely of a study of old records. We have to compare the facts related, and the praise and blame attached to them, with something less variable than the human conscience and human opinion.
The “piety,” attributed to the mediæval saints, even when, as in the case of the nuns of Hellfde, it actually existed, included a mass of heathenish superstition, of unwholesome excitement of the brain and nerves; of blank ignorance of the true meaning of a great part of the Word of God; and in most cases, of abject submission to a fallen and heretical Church.
The “best books” of which the Abbess Gertrude formed her convent library contained grains of truth in masses of error, and some true facts smothered beneath piles of legendary rubbish. To find the pearls at the bottom of the sea of superstition and senseless 15 legend, is at times a despairing endeavour. Yet the pearls are there, and must have been there; for the gates of the grave have never prevailed against the true Church of God. Some there always were taught by the Holy Spirit of God, and believing in the midst of their errors and wanderings the great eternal truths of the Gospel.
If we are to find true faith, if we are to find truth at all in the Middle Ages, we must find it amongst innumerable human inventions, and shining like a gem in the dark caverns of human folly. Can we say that in the nineteenth century it is otherwise? It were well to consider, and use for the search-light we so deeply need, the unchangeable Word of the living God.
Apart from the error taught by “the Church” in those past ages—saint-worship, purgatory, the merit of human works, and many more—a bewildering element of confusion presents itself in the atmosphere of visions and revelations in which the “pious” perpetually lived, or desired to live. For to live what has been called in our times “the higher Christian life,” meant at that time to be a seer of visions, and a dreamer of dreams. The seeing of visions 16 was an attainment as much to be desired as to live in temperance, or godliness, or honesty.
Whilst in our days the wholesome fear of being sent to a lunatic asylum serves as a check upon the wild imagination of undisciplined woman kind, the strangest performances and utterances might in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries procure for the unfortunate woman a halo in the pictures which perpetuated her memory.
It is well to look at the matter of visions and revelations in the light of Holy Scripture. That the servants of God have seen visions divinely shown to them, no one can doubt who believes the Bible; nor that they have from time to time received direct revelations from God. Also, we read as a promise made to Christian people, that “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; and on My servants and on My hand-maidens I will pour out in those days of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
In the first place, therefore, we must admit that visions and revelations are, in the cases here mentioned, a reality, and a special gift of God, in consequence of the exaltation of Christ to the right hand of God, This is the explanation 17 of these facts given by the Apostle Peter in the 33rd verse of the 2nd chapter of the Acts.
But when we read the various accounts in the Acts of the fulfilment of this promise, or the accounts in the Old Testament of similar visions and revelations, we find one marked distinction between these accounts and those given in mediæval legends. In the Bible the point is, not the state of exaltation to which such and such a man or woman attained, but, leaving them out of the question altogether, we are simply told what it was God showed or revealed to His servants. The seeing of visions is never spoken of as being the highest state of Christian life in the New Testament, or of spiritual life in the Old Testament. On the contrary, God on some occasions gave revelations to the most unworthy, and simply used them to speak the words He put into their mouths, whether they would or no—a truth which he taught to Balaam by using an ass as an example.
But in mediæval times, a state in which the man, or more frequently the woman, became liable to visions, was the thing mainly to be desired. It was not as in the case of Amos, 18 who was content to go on herding his cows and picking his figs till the Lord gave him his message. The mediæval saint was trained and wrought upon by fasting and watching, by the study of the wildest legends, and by a conviction that the seeing of visions betokened a state of special holiness. This preparation of the mind, and one may say mainly of the body, for an unnatural and unwholesome condition produced the desired effect. The attacks of catalepsy, of convulsions and other diseased symptoms, were hailed as supernatural signs, and the disorder of the brain as a work of the Spirit. And from one to another the infection spread, as the convulsions and delusions excited envy and admiration, and a straining of the mind after something of like sort.
The atmosphere, therefore, of the convent of Hellfde, and of many other convents of Germany and Belgium, was scarcely a wholesome one; and we must disentangle the spiritual teaching, which truly came from God, from the “revelations” which, if spiritual at all, and not wholly the result of disease, were the work of the evil one.
But whilst amongst facts well known to 19 medical scientists, and amongst facts belonging to still unexplored and unknown regions of psychology, there may be quite enough to account for the stories, if really true, of the mass of mediæval visions, we must remember, also, that a great many of these stories were the inventions of those whose interest it was to compose them.
The disastrous fact remained that, by means of these fables, or of real hallucinations, errors in belief and in practice were taught and encouraged. It would not occur to those brought up in a belief of superstitions, which had descended, under other names, from heathen times, to sift or examine the legends which were their daily food. It is for us to sift out from amongst the working of disordered brains, and the inventions of ignorant people, the true teaching which they received from the only Wise God, who cared for His loving, but ignorant, children of the Middle Ages, as He cares now for His more enlightened, but alas! more lukewarm, children of the nineteenth century.
There is one more remark to be made with regard to the accounts given by really holy people of their visions and dreams. Occasionally, 20 it was merely a form of writing in symbol, as when John Bunyan describes having seen in his dream Christian escaping from the City of Destruction. There were two reasons for this in the case of the mediæval “Friends of God.” It was, in the first place, dangerous to say in plain words that which would have brought down upon them the curse of the Church. They spoke, therefore, largely in symbol, whether by word or by forms and devices of architecture. This language was common to them, and it was well understood by those who had the key in their common faith.
In the second place, the want of adequate words to express spiritual truths must always be felt, and much can be said in symbol which could not be said at much greater length in plain speech. In how many words could that be taught us which we learn from the one expression, “The Lamb of God”?
And that many of those of whom the histories remain, were truly God’s children, truly taught by the Holy Ghost, and in continual communion with Him as a real and solid fact, we cannot doubt. They lived a true life of intercourse with Him, clouded and bewildered by the errors 21 of their times, by their unnatural bodily conditions, and by the fear of sinning against the authority which some of them believed to be from God—the fatal power of the Roman Church.
In this dreamland of visions and revelations the nuns of Hellfde lived—or rather, into it they frequently wandered. They certainly at times trod the solid earth, and fulfilled their various duties in a practical manner. They also spent much time, more, no doubt, than many spend now, in “the good land, the land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valley and hills, and that drinketh water of the rain of heaven.” It was a familiar land to those who abode in Him who is there.
And it is a relief to find that, in spite of their extreme love and reverence for the Abbess Gertrude, they had no visions to report as seen by her. She probably had more to do with creatures of flesh and blood, with the strong wills and natures of the girls sent to her from the castles of the nobles, than with creatures of her own imagination; and she looked for revelations, and found them in the Word of God. “She undertook the most menial work,” 22 writes one of the compilers of the Mechthild Book, “and took a considerable part in the common employments of the sisters. Sometimes she was the first and the only one at work till she called others to help her, or led them to do so by her example and her pleasant, friendly words. However busy she might be, she always found time to visit each one who was sick, and inquire if there was anything she needed. And with her own hands she waited upon them, either bringing them refreshments, or soothing and comforting them.
“She read the Holy Scriptures very diligently, and with great delight, as often as she could, and required of those under her care that they should do the same. In prayer she was very fervent and reverent, she seldom prayed without tears. She had a wonderful quietness of spirit; and at her hours of prayer her heart was so peaceful and free from care, that if she were called to speak to any one, or to other business, she went back afterwards and prayed as quietly as if she had not been disturbed. Amongst the children she was the gentlest and kindest, and with the older maidens the holiest and most sensible of friends, and with the elder 23 women the most affectionate and wise. She was never to be seen idle; either she had a piece of work on hand, or she was reading, or teaching, or praying.”
It can, therefore, easily be imagined that the Abbess Gertrude suffered neither from catalepsy nor convulsions, but that she was a wholesome and cheerful woman. In her last days she had a paralytic seizure, which deprived her of the power of speech for some time before her death; but she appeared to be fully conscious, and interested as before in the sisters of the convent.
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