Monday, 4 August 2008


Ok, here we go... Part of what will probably be at the end of the book... Its about a rare and mysterious manuscript of the Middle Ages...


"I have listened to the confession of a person and I am not sure if she is a human being or an angel. Is she is human, then you must realise that all her soul's powers reside with the angels in heaven, for her soul has received an angelic life and being. She knows and loves more than all the people I have ever known.".

"Father, rejoice with me, for I have become God!"

No-one knows who wrote the SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE. In the Nineteenth Century it was attributed to the great Rhineland Mystic Meister Eckhardt and included in the first edition of his collected works by the scholar Pfeiffer. It has since been concluded that it is not by Eckhardt - the style is very different to anything else he wrote and many of the ideas even more radical than his - but it is generally supposed have been written by someone inspired by Eckhardt's teachings to such an extent that his name is included in the full title (roughly translated This Is Sister Catherine, Daughter of Meister Eckhardt of Strasbourg). As many of those tried as followers of the Free Spirit at the time cited Eckhardt as an inspiration it is perhaps not surprising that the work appropriates him in such a way. Indeed, Eckhardt himself was eventually put on trial for heresy, even though he insisted to his death that nothing he said was in conflict with Church teaching. But whatever his involvement, the authorship of the work remains unknown, even to the extent of its gender. For a piece of work which has such a strong female voice, it is possible it can be ascribed to a woman, but there is a curiously sexless, or rather supra-gender quality to it which makes even this disuputable. Whether it was written by a lay person or a cleric is also not clear. There is surprisingly little doctrinal reference. Masters are mentioned, but not attributed (Eckhardt always cited his authorities were important) and although ideas of the Meister appear, these are not referenced either. In terms of the identity of the document's voice, there is only mystery.
A little background: the SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE was written against the background of the Free Spirit Heresy during the 14th Century, a time of immense turmoil in Western Europe. The Black Death had gutted whole areas of the population, the Hundred Years War had devasted France, internal divisions within the Catholic Church had led to the so-called 'Babylonian Captivity' in which rival claims to the title of Pope had lead to the seat of the Church being moved to Avignon. The Cathar heresy which had rocked southern France and led to one of the bloodiest campaigns of violence  between Christian countries in history has barely been suppressed. Its byproduct was the Inquisition, which the Church had set up under St Dominic to root out and annihilate the heresy, the investigations of which were spreading terror across the continent. The Mendicant Orders of the Church - the Dominicans and Franciscans - which had been set up partly in reaction to the Cathars and partly in order to reconnect with the grassroots message of Christ, had already begun to fall into disrepute and corruption with their inspirational leaders now dead and unable to supervise the progress of their followers. Couple this with a real sense in the population that the End Days were coming and you have fertile ground for the sudden eruption of heresies such as the Free Spirit...
So what was this appealing sounding movement? Unlike organised movements such as the Cathars, the Lollards or the Waldensians, the Free Spirit Heresy was more anarchistic and individualistic. It had no central authority, not even a firm set of ideals or doctrines, with modern historians citing it as more a state of mind that a fixed movement, and yet it spread like wildfire across Western Europe. Its particular appeal was to the poor, the unemployed and to women - groups increasingly marginalised by the Catholic hierarchy. At the Council of Vienna in 1312 the Church tried to formalise what it viewed as the Free Spirit, making clear what doctrines it contained were heretical and from then on its days were numbered. Central texts used by the Church in its definition of these views included Marguerite Porete's THE MIRROR OF SIMPLE SOULS and our own text, the SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE... Significantly, both are either by women or have women as their main protagonists. Both are also very different. Where THE MIRROR is all elegance, peace and union with the Divine, SISTER CATHERINE sets out to storm the gates of heaven at whatever cost.
The Free Spirit Heresy was defined by the authorities as being pantheistic, in that it believed that God was present in everything, the natural world, the animal kingdom, the human being itself; antinomian in that it rejected the need for the Church as a means to reach God, dismissing the sacraments, the Holy Days, the Confessional and the authority of the Rome to define dogma or morality; anarchistic in its rejection of temporal and spiritual authority; egalitarian in its belief that God and Revelation was open to everyone, male, female, noble or commoner; and blasphemous in that it believed that everyone could achieve permanent Union with God in this life. This last was particularly controversial as some extreme expressions of the Free Spirit Heresy held that, once this Union was achieved, and the individual experienced the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it was impossible to sin. This, if Church records are to be believed (and often they are not when it comes to denunciations of Heretical Christian sects), saw Free Spirits indulging in all sorts of behaviour, such as rape, group sex, murder, theft and other criminality with the justification that they 'could not sin' as they were now God. Whether this really was the case, and whether everyone lumped under the group heading of Free Spirits actually did indulge in such practises is up for debate as it was customary for the Church to accuse heretics of all sorts of depravity, particularly sexual (resulting in all sorts of insights into the fantasies of Medieval Clerics) in order to defame them. If even half of what they were accused of were true, one imagines that their prayer meetings were pretty interesting... or at least not run-of-the-mill. Individuals, groups and communities were lumped together under the heading of the Free Spirit, from the lay movements known as the Beghards and Beguines (spiritual communities of men and women respectively) to lone preachers. If ideas which coincided with what the Church defined as part of this heresy were expressed by them, then they were condemned if they did not retract their words, whether they professed to be part of the movement or not.

The Treatise takes the form of a dialogue between a lay woman, possibly a Beguine, taken to be Sister Catherine and a Confessor of the Roman Catholic Church, taken to be Eckhardt. There is a third voice, a narrator, who provides the details of what is happening beyond the discussion. That we are dealing with something unorthodox in its thinking is clear from the opening passage of the second part of the piece, in which the Narrator writes:

"The masters speak of hell. I will tell you what hell is: It is nothing other than a mode of being. Whatever your mode of being is here on earth, it will be the same eternally - that is hell."

Hell is thus not a physical place but a spiritual state, an idea which, although not unfamiliar, was not common in Medieval Times, when the threat of Hell and the reality of eternal damnation was very real. Already the TREATISE is pushing its discourse into arenas which are mental and spiritual rather than physical, showing a radical mode of thought which seems very ahead of its time (more of this later) - and beyond the conception of many Christians, or so-called Christians now.

The opening sections of the Treatise, written almost in the form of a script, with lines of dialogue spoken by the two main protagonists interspersed with short, economical narrative descriptions by the narrator, reveal that Sister Catherine is caught up in an almost obsessional quest for the fastest route to heaven and Union with God:

SO SHE ASKS: "Father is this the shortest way?"
AND HE SAYS: "No, but what I have told you must necessarily be."
SHE SAYS: "Father, show me the shortest way!"
HE ANSWERS: "Wait until you possess in your life all that I have advised you of. Wait until you have rid yourself of all your sins, and return to me often."

It is the staccato insistence of the dialogue which gives the TREATISE its breathless, almost hallucinatory, urgent quality. There is no small talk between its two protagonists. The issues are too important. There is no time to waste. Salvation is too important. For Sister Catherine truth must be forced to obey her call and she will not be satsified with anything less than total disclosure. As the TREATISE unfolds, the Confessor finds himself bombarded by questions from her which he finds increasingly hard to answer, so intense is her desire for Oneness with the Divine. Initially, his answers are conventional, urging her on to purity and truth, to take up her Cross, to suffer for Christ's sake. He even, at one point, tries to head her off because of her gender ("Do not be presumptuous, it is not meant for women."). Nevertheless the influence of Eckhardt's teachings can be seen in these opening salvoes, as the Confessor explains his own vision of the Unio Mystica:

"A loving soul you must understand like this: that the soul loves what is like itself - which is God. You shall unite yourself with him in such a way that it will seem wrong to you that your heart does not break from overflowing love... Do as I tell you. Put aside all that makes your soul gloomy so that the light of truth may shine for you. Thus the soul can indeed return on the path from which it flowed."

This image of the Soul and God being of the same material is central to Eckhardt's vision and shares much with the mysticism of the Upanishads, Kabbalah and many other traditions, as does the notion of the Soul's flowing from and return to the Godhead. Indeed these were central doctrines of the Meister's which were condemned by the Church as heretical. This would be remarkable enough in the SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE, were it not that the journey of the Sister goes far beyond it, turning the Confessor's theory into a reality

The Sister leaves the Confessor to follow his advice and pursue her quest for Union. Years pass and the Confessor forgets her until she reappears before him in a ecstatic state. Almost immediately the balance of power between them has changed, beginning the process of a reversal of spiritual status that makes the TREATISE so unusual:

HE SAYS: "Where do you come from?"
SHE SAYS: "From distant lands."
HE SAYS: "Where were you born?"
SHE SAYS: "Father, don't you recognise me?"
HE SAYS: "God knows, I don't!"
SHE SAYS: "That shows me that you have never known yourself."
HE SAYS: "That is true. I know very well that if I knew myself perfectly, the way I should, I would know all creatures to the highest degree."
SHE SAYS: "That is true. Let us stop this conversation and hear me for God's sake!"
HE SAYS: "Gladly, please begin."

From this point on the Confessor starts to learn from the Sister, beginning the total reversal of spiritual authority that makes the TREATISE so remarkable. The lay woman has travelled far further than the Confessor could have dreamed. Given the status of women in the Church hierarchy at the time, the idea that a woman outside holy orders should be able to achieve a spiritual connection with God that outstrips the experience of a Priest is extraordinary. But even then the Sister is not satisfied:

"My soul ascended without any obstacles, but it did not find a permament place. You must understand that a brief visit is not enough for me. If only I knew what I could do to be permanently established in eternity."

This was a central tenet of the Free Spirit set of ideas. Church teaching at the time, and now, is that Union with God is impossible in this life except in its most fleeting aspect. The Beatific Vision of the Lord is reserved for the afterlife. Only glimpses can be had in this world. For the Free Spirits, this was not only not the case, but the connection with God could be established permanently on this side of the existence. As God was immanent everywhere, there was no obstacle. The individual could 'walk in the Light' on earth. Those who had achieved this Union and carried the Holy Spirit around with them were referred to as 'the Spiritualised', filled with the 'Indwelling Spirit'. If such a connection were possible, by extension there was no need for the Church as intermediary, something which was, understandably, shocking to the authorities, who had barely recovered from uprooting and destroying the Cathar movement. Our speaker from the SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE does not go so far as to reject the Church in her spiritual quest (she still takes the Confessor's advice and confers with him), but as she continues on her journey the intensity of her experience is not only profoundly individualistic but rapidly leaves the experience of the Confessor behind, to the extent that he has to admit that he is himself almost out of his depth with her:

"And she puts herself into a state of emptiness. There God draws her into a divine light so that she thinks she is one with God as long as it lasts. Then she is driven back into herself with a superabundance of divine experience so that she says: 'I know well that there is no help for me!'
The Confessor goes to the daughter: 'Tell me, how are you now?
SHE SAYS: "I am not well. Heaven and earth are too small for me!"
...HE SAYS: "Realise that this is foreign to all people. Were I not so learned a priest that I had myself read about divine wisdom, it would also be foriegn to me."

And it is here that Catherine makes her most radical statement - one for which both Christians and Sufis had lost their lives for making - the statement which takes the TREATISE beyond even Eckhardt:

"Father rejoice with me, for I have become God."

From hereon in the Confessor learns from the Sister. The traditional roles of Church and Layperson, male authority and female subordinate are reversed. Catherine slips into a coma for three days, in imitation of the death and resurrection of Christ, to return to consciousness with the permanent connection with God she had sought. On her return the Priest knows that her experience and understanding of the Divine are far beyond his own. Something radical has taken place. The spiritual journey has gone way beyond the boundaries of the Church and now the teacher must learn from the student. As the main meat of the TREATISE opens, the Confessor has become as hungry for truth as Catherine had been in her turn. When their discussion resumes, he has pursued her to 'a foreign land' for answers of his own...

1 comment:

Sam Smith said...

Do you have a copy of this treatise? I've been looking for one forever.