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The Book and its Origin.
We have Matilda’s own account of the origin of her book. She says that when she began to live a spiritual life, and “took leave of the world,” she found that the fulness of her bodily life and strength was a danger to her spiritual life, and, therefore, after the manner of her times she regarded the body as an enemy against which she was called to wage continual war.
“I saw that the weapons furnished to my heart were the sufferings and the death of Christ, and yet I was in great and constant fear, and I thought to deal violent blows to my enemy with sighs and confession, and weeping, with fasting, watching, and prayer, and with blows and stripes. And by this means for 45 two and twenty years I kept my body in subjection, and had no illness.
“But after this illness came. And then came to me the mighty power, even the love of God, and filled me to overflowing with His wonders, so that I dared no longer keep silence, though to one so simple as I it was hard to speak. And I said to the Lord, ‘O loving God, what canst Thou find in me? Thou knowest well I am a fool and a sinner, and a miserable creature in soul and body. It is to the wise that Thou shouldst commit Thy wonders, then mightest Thou be praised aright.’
“But the Lord was displeased at my words, and He rebuked me, saying, ‘Tell me now, art thou not Mine?’
“‘Yes, Lord, that hast Thou granted me!’
“‘May I not, then, do with thee as I will?’
“‘Yes, my Beloved; and I am willing to be brought to nought if Thou willest it.’
“Then, poor creature as I was, I went to my confessor, and told him what the Lord had put into my heart, and asked his counsel. And he said I ought cheerfully to do that to which God had called me. And yet did I weep with shame, seeing before my eyes my 46 great unworthiness, and that God should lead a despicable woman to write the things which come from the heart and mouth of God.”
Then Matilda, as is her wont, runs on into rhyme—
And afterwards, she says, “I was warned by some that my book might give much offence, and that it would be burnt as evil teaching. And I turned to my Beloved, as was my wont, and said to Him that if it were so, He had Himself misled me, for it was He who commanded me to write it. Then did He reveal Himself to my sorrowful heart, as if He held the book in His right hand, and said, ‘My beloved one, do not be sorrowful. The truth can be burnt by no man. He who would take it out of My Hand must be stronger than I.’
“And yet I still answered Him, ‘O Lord, if I were a learned clerk to whom Thou hadst shown these wonders, then might I write so as to bring Thee eternal glory. But how can it be that Thou shouldst build a golden house, the house of Thy dwelling place, in a miry pool?’
“And He answered me, that when He gave 47 the gifts of His grace, He sought for the lowest and the smallest and the most unnoticed treasure houses. ‘It is not on the high mountains that men drink of the fountains, for the stream of My Holy Spirit flows downwards to the valleys below. There are many wise in the Scriptures, who are but fools and unlearned in other learning.’”
Further on Matilda says that in the German tongue she found it hard to speak of that which God had shown her, and “of Latin I know nothing. For that which the eye can see, and the ear can hear, and the mouth can speak, is as unlike the truth which is revealed to the soul who loves, as a candle is to the glorious sun. Of the heavenly things which God has shown me I can speak but, as it were, a little word, not more than the honey which a little bee could carry away on his foot from an overflowing vessel.
“And now, Lord, I will commend these writings to Thy tender mercy; and with a heart that sighs, and with eyes that weep, and with a downcast spirit, I pray that they never may be read by a Pharisee, and I pray also that Thy children may so receive them into their hearts, as Thou, O Lord, hast of Thy truth given out of Thy store to me.”48
Matilda’s book grew in an irregular manner from year to year. She wrote from time to time on loose sheets that which she believed she had received from God. There is, therefore, no connection in these writings, nor is there any plan in her manner of writing. Sometimes she wrote in prose, or in prose running from time to time into metre and rhyme. Sometimes she wrote in verse, in irregular measure, and with or without irregular rhymes, each division with a heading.
The friar Henry of Halle collected the loose leaves, and before the death of Matilda he divided them into six books. A seventh book was added by Matilda after the death of Brother Henry. Five of these books appear to have been written before Matilda entered the convent of Hellfde, and some can be dated by allusions to contemporary events.55The contents of the seven books may be thus summarised:— 1. Disconnected passages—visions, or parables related as visions. 2. Disconnected parables, visions, and prophecies. With regard to one of these visions Matilda remarks, “That this so happened is not to be understood literally, but spiritually; it was that which the soul saw, and recognised, and rejoiced in. The words sound human, but the natural mind can but partly receive that which the higher sense of the soul perceives of spiritual things.” Commendations of the preaching friars of the order of S. Dominic. References to passing events and contemporary persons, or persons lately departed. 3. Refers chiefly to ecclesiastical matters. Contains prophecies of the last days, of the Antichrist, of the return of Enoch and Elijah. In these prophecies occur passages reproduced in the Divine Commedia. 4. The book of love, between God and the soul. 5. Practical. 6. Descriptions of hell (the City of Eternal Hate) and Purgatory, with which the Divine Commedia may be compared. Preparation for death. 7. Various and disconnected. References to contemporary persons and events.49
Apart from all that is interesting in these books, as literature or as history, there remains for the Christian reader who “is not a Pharisee” the far more interesting field of research into their value as spiritual teaching. The Pharisee will find much to blame and to despise in the ignorance and superstition of this Béguine of the Middle Ages.
And in sifting Matilda’s writings, as indeed the writings of any man or woman, the gold, if there be any, has to be separated from the dross. The dross which had been accumulating for twelve centuries formed a large amount of that which Matilda believed she had learnt from God. We can recognise the gold by the one test furnished to us by Him who despises not 50 any, but teaches the most ignorant who come to Him. If we apply to the writings of Matilda this infallible test, of conformity to the Word of God, we may be enriched by the gold without being encumbered by the dreary heaps of dross from which we have to sift it.
The book is supposed to be the expression of the intercourse of the soul with God. That it is really so in part, can be verified by any Christian reader who will compare it with the Bible and with the experience common to Christian believers. That this true Christian teaching should be mixed with the errors of her time is natural, and we know that the errors of each successive age leave their traces in the books that are the most enlightened, and that our own age is no exception.
The object in view in making the following extracts from Matilda’s book is not to present it as a literary or historical study. Were it so, it would be needful to give extracts from the false as well as from the true teaching, so as to give a correct idea of Matilda and her times. But writing simply with a desire that the truth taught to Matilda by the Spirit of God should be made available for those in these later days who are glad of spiritual food, the false and the imaginary will 51 be passed over, and the remainder given as much as possible in Matilda’s own words.
It must be remarked, however, that certain expressions which in mediæval German conveyed no impression of irreverence would sound painfully familiar in modern English. An equivalent has, therefore, to be found conveying to readers now the same sense which the original words would have conveyed to the readers of the thirteenth century.
It may also be remarked that the chief errors to be noted in Matilda’s book are a tendency to the worship (in a lower sense of the word) of the Virgin and the Saints, a belief in Purgatory, and a certain weight attached to the merit of human works.
Of the first of these, it may truly be said that Matilda’s references to the Virgin Mother stand in remarkable contrast to the writings of later times. If compared with “the Glories of Mary,” now in popular use, they serve as a landmark showing the downward course of error and superstition in the Church of Rome during the past six hundred years, though there were already those, such as Bonaventura,66Author of the “Psalter of the Blessed Virgin.” who hastened the fall.52
It must be observed, too, in reference to Matilda’s allusions to the Virgin Mary, that the chasm between the mother of the Lord and all ordinary believers is very much reduced if compared with that which exists in modern Roman Catholic books of devotion, from the fact that the place assigned to every redeemed soul in Matilda’s writings is far higher than in most Catholic or Protestant teaching. Even amongst Protestants it is not uncommon to regard the redeemed as in a place below the angels, or on a level with them. But to Matilda the power and the value of the work of Christ were so fully recognised, that she regarded the Bride of the Lamb, or the individual who is made a member of the body of Christ, as in the highest place next to the Bridegroom, the Head of the Body.
As regards human merit, Matilda only appears occasionally to attach some weight to it in speaking of others; of herself, she says she has nothing to bring to God but her sin.
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