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The Echo of the Book.
Matilda had a friend, called Jutta von Sangershausen. A relation of hers, Anno von Sangershausen, was the Grand-Master of the Teutonic Order of Knights. Other members of the family had offered their services to the order in defence of their country from the invasions of the heathen Prussians.
Jutta’s husband had died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her children entered various convents. Jutta then joined herself to the Béguines, and was employed for a time in nursing the sick, especially those afflicted with leprosy. In the year 1260 she determined to go forth as a missionary amongst the Prussians. She took up her abode in a forest near Culm, where she lived as a hermitess, making known the faith of Christ by word and example.
Matilda for a time resolved to go also as a missionary to the heathen. But she was now growing old, and worn-out by labours and persecutions. It was evident that she no longer had the needful strength. She was grieved to the heart that she could not thus make Christ known, and she laid the matter before the Lord.100
He consoled her, and showed her that as He had sent Jutta to the heathen, so had He also given her His message, which should be sent far and wide in the book which she was writing.
And so it proved, as her book was widely known and read for a considerable time after her death. Even now it may be that the words so lately brought to light in the convent of Einsiedeln may lead some weary souls to Christ. And still the reflection of the light which shone into the heart of Matilda shines forth more faintly in the poem known and read through so many ages, and in so many lands—the great poem of Dante.
It is now more than seventy years ago that a young man travelling in Italy employed himself at Venice in reading the Divine Commedia, for the sake of learning Italian. He had cared till then for the things of this world only, but he left Venice with the first beginning of a love which was to shape his long life, and make him the means of life to many.
It was from the poem of Dante, he said, that he had first learnt to know Christ as his Saviour. He may be known to many as the writer of the hymn so often sung—101
a distant echo of Matilda’s voice sounding in many places still.
What was it that Dante learnt, or believed that he learnt, from the lady whose joyful singing sounded to him across the river of forgetfulness, whose eyes shone with a light greater than that of earthly love?
She explained to him her joy by the words of that psalm, the ninety-second, which forms a key-note to the poems of the Béguine Matilda, of her to whom the Lord had taught “the song and the music of heaven,” whom He had made glad through His work, who triumphed in the work of His hands.
It was in the work “wrought in the land of the Jews,” the great work that “loosed the bolt with which Adam had barred the heavenly door,” that Matilda the Béguine rejoiced, showing forth the Lord’s lovingkindness in the morning, and his faithfulness every night—the work which “the brutish man knoweth not, neither doth the fool understand it,” for “the preaching of the Cross is to them that 102 perish foolishness,” “the foolishness of God that is wiser than men.”
In the work which brought her into the “sweet garden of Paradise,” where she was no more a stranger, which had won for her the right to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God, and to pluck the flowers, which were hers, because they were Christ’s.
It may truly be said that if there is anything distinctive in the writing of Matilda the Béguine, it is that she wrote from her own experience of the gladness of the heavenly place, revealed to her whilst yet in the body on the earth. She had learnt that there is an “earthly Paradise,” earthly not because it is of the earth, but because it is a foretaste and earnest of the heavenly, given to those who are still pilgrims upon the earth.
To reach it the river had to be crossed, wherein the old things pass away, and all things become new; where the things that are behind are forgotten, and the things that are before become the possession, by faith, of the redeemed soul. Her sins were amongst the forgotten things, for God remembered them no more, and the sorrow of the earth was 103 forgotten, swallowed up in the tide of eternal joy, and
Thus, in the poem of Dante, does Matelda draw him through the water of the river at the moment when the remembrance of his sin had stung him at the heart, so that he fell overpowered and helpless and ashamed. It needed that the sin should be left behind amongst the former things that had passed away.
Those who have known the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, the Fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness, will gladly own that this is the true Christian experience of the saints of God—the land of Canaan beyond the river, reached and entered before the warfare and the trial of faith are over; the Father’s house become a familiar place before the murmuring of the self-righteous is for ever silenced.
Did Dante know it as the Béguine knew it? Was it in his case but a vague sense of a place of joy and beauty which the soul might find on this side of heaven? Did he know that the river was a river of death—the death which is the death of deaths, “in the land of the Jews” so long ago?104
We cannot know. It needs the simple faith of those who have become fools that they may be wise. Then does the garden of the Lord become a blessed reality, no dreamland, but an eternal inheritance.
The Béguine had seen by faith her name engraved on the pierced Hands and Feet of Christ. Should she not rejoice and sing? Should she not praise Him that He was wounded for her transgressions, that He was bruised for her iniquities, that the chastisement of her peace was upon Him, that by His stripes she was healed? And thus she knew that her “robe was white, for Christ’s was white, and brighter than the sun.”
How far this was the experience of Dante, his poem does not tell us. But he knew that there was an earthly Paradise, and it seems all but certain that in Matilda’s book he had found one who was rejoicing there with unspeakable joy.
The remarks of Preger in his lecture on Dante’s Matelda confirm the thought that this is the true key to his description of the beautiful lady, whose appearance formed the great era in his spiritual life. The song taken from the words of the fifty-first Psalm, “Wash me and 105 I shall be whiter than snow,” the introduction into the knowledge of heavenly things, are but an echo of the songs of the Béguine.
But the heavenly things of Dante are far more clouded with the evil teaching of his age than the heavenly experiences of Matilda of Magdeburg. The glory of the Catholic Church, rather than the glory of Christ, is the light that lightens his heavenly Paradise. It was the Lamb who was the light of Matilda’s heaven. In the bewildering medley of Catholic and heathen mythologies in Dante’s poem, it is only here and there that a gleam of the true light can make its way. But Matilda the Béguine rose above the clouds and mists of man’s imagination, and she saw Jesus.
Preger refers us to the ordinary explanation of Matelda and Beatrice; namely, that like Leah and Rachel in mediæval theology, they represent the life of action and the life of contemplation.
This theory as regards Matelda was, as Preger observes, founded on the idea that the Countess Matilda of Tuscany was the Matelda of Dante. That the warlike countess was a fair specimen of activity, we cannot doubt; but that it had any resemblance to Christian 106 activity, is more than doubtful. Probably the identity of name was the only foundation of this idea.
“It is true,” writes Preger, “that Dante saw these two women prefigured in a dream as Leah and Rachel, and that Leah said, referring to her sister, ‘Her seeing, and me doing, satisfies.’ But that therefore doing and seeing are the only characteristics of these women is a conclusion to which Dante did not advance, nor need we do so. They both looked in the mirror, but Leah first crowned herself with flowers; and it was after hearing the call, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ that this dream presented itself to Dante.”
Matelda, who corresponds to Leah in the dream, conducts Dante into the earthly Paradise, and the place accords with the guide. She was not yet in heaven, the working-day was not yet over, but Matelda was rejoicing, not in her work, but in the work of God. She was glad that the flowers of His garden were her crown of beauty.
So wrote Matilda the Béguine—
It was a place in which the flowers of the earth had never grown, and it needed the washing which makes whiter than snow to fit the soul for that garden of God upon the earth. Therefore the song which came to Dante across the river was the ancient song of the soul that is washed from sin: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” Virgil never crossed the river.
However clouded may have been the faith of mediæval Christendom, the need of Christ was felt. The distinction between a Christian and a heathen was acknowledged as one which told upon the eternal destiny of men. By means of Christ the Saviour could the Christian man pass on, washed and sanctified, into the land beyond the river. A “land beyond,” was that Paradise to men of the world of sense and of earthly knowledge, but without the knowledge of God, and of Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. And singing the song of the forgiven, whilst she made garlands of the flowers, Matelda appeared to Dante, separated from him at first by the river of forgetfulness. She drew near to him as one who dances. She spoke to him of the nature of the mysterious wind that moved the branches of the 108 trees which grew in the land “given as the earnest of eternal peace”—the earnest whilst here on earth of heavenly things, of the flowers that grew from no earthly seed, and of the river that flows from no earthly source, and of the other river which divides the earthly Paradise from the heavenly, as the river Lethe divided it from all that was before.
And we see that Matelda is to Dante the medium of supernatural revelations, just as afterwards, Beatrice.
Matelda, then, in the earthly Paradise appears as the representative of the insight into the heavenly joy whilst still on earth, Beatrice as the beholding of it when the earthly life is past. And this knowledge of the heavenly things was to be brought back by him who had seen them whilst still in the body, as the palm-leaves upon the staff of the pilgrim who had been within the boundary of the holy land.
And it was Matelda who drew Dante through the river into that land whilst still upon the earth—the land where he should hear the singing, and know the sweetness, and learn more in the Paradise here of the Paradise hereafter.109
It was the earnest of the inheritance which was given to him through Matelda.
And truly this is the message and mission of the Béguine, not as Matelda’s, to Dante only, but to us also, who can receive the message without the bewildering counter teaching of the corrupted Church. It is true the message, more clearly given, is in the Bible we have known so long; and it was through the blessed teaching of that Bible that Matilda the Béguine learnt it. But it is well for us not only to read the glorious promises of God, but to meet with those to whom they have been fulfilled, the sharers of the like precious faith with us, who now believe in Jesus. Now, from the holy women of Hellfde have the clouds passed away which at times hid from them the brightness of the glory, but the words of love spoken to their hearts by the mouth of their Beloved remain to them as an everlasting possession.
And are not the same words still spoken day by day to those who have ears to hear? And in the midst of this sorrowful world, is there not still a blessed company who have entered the same Paradise, and learnt the same songs, taught by the lips of Christ?110
It will not render us less fit for the common earthly life, that we have been there, in the garden where the Lord God walks, and His own are not afraid. In truth, it is only those who have been there who have the healing leaves for the sick and the suffering ones around them. It is only those who see the Son, and believe on Him, who are thus brought back to the garden of the Lord, to feed upon the fruit of the tree of life. And these are they who are again sent forth as His messengers into the world of man’s exile.
“As My Father hath sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.”
Thus the Lord spake of all who believe on His Name. The message sent long ago by Matilda the Béguine has been heard again after the silence of ages, and it is once more a call to the sinful, the sorrowful, and the fearful, who have been living in ignorance of the marvellous love which is unchanged, and which answers to the great need of our age, as to that of the thirteenth century. May God the Holy Ghost open the hearts of many to hear and to rejoice.111
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