By Elizabeth Prata
Julian of Norwich (1343 – after 1416) Book: The Showings of Divine Love
Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380). Book: The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179). Book: Scivias
Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303 – 1373) Book: Celestial Revelations
The mystics I’ve been looking at this week lived in the Middle Ages, are all women, and were all Catholic.
Birgitta of Sweden was born sometime in 1303, no exact date known. Her lineage was exalted- her father was one of the richest landowners of the state and her mother was distantly related to the kings of her state. But Bridget did what gals at that era were supposed to do, she married at age 14 and bore 8 children. Six of them survived infancy to become full grown. Her daughter Catherine also became a Catholic Saint.
At some point in Bridget’s adulthood and prior to her husband’s death, Bridget became known for her acts of charity. She was also summoned to the Queen’s Court to become Mistress of the Robes, AKA Lady in Waiting. There, Bridget got an eyeful and was not hesitant about proclaiming the King and Queen in later manifestos as unfit. King Magnus was heavily rumored to be homosexual and refused sexual relations with his queen. But he somehow still managed to bear two sons, one who became king of Norway and the other king of Sweden. Queen Blanche later endowed Bridget’s Order and asked for her and her husband to be buried there. Bridget accepted the money but refused the request of burial at her monastery, explaining that Blanche was “She is a snake with the tongue of a harlot, the bile of dragons in her heart and the most bitter poison in her flesh. Therefore all her eggs became poisonous. Lucky are those who never experience their burden”.
In 1341 Bridget and husband Ulf went on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain which was the thing to do. After their return, in 1344, Ulf died. Bridget decided to enter a Cistercian monastery in Sweden and dedicate her life to acts of charity toward the poor, homeless, and “sinners” AKA unwed mothers. Bridget tended them with great compassion, it is told. She only remained at the monastery for a short while, founded an Order of the Brigittines in Sweden, (Most Holy Savior) then decided to move to Rome, where she remained until her death in 1373.
Bridget’s visions had been occurring since her mother’s death in 1315 when Bridget was 11 years old but had been told to keep them quiet by her aunt. The visions grew more frequent as she aged and a year after Ulf died she had a whole series of them. She had been recording them all along, calling her journal Celestial Revelations. Both her confessor and her Abbott became interested and translated them into Latin.
There were two religious traditions in the medieval times, one was that in art, the Virgin is depicted in the Nativity as kneeling over the Babe. The other is the excessive focus on Christ’s Passion, with all hyper-attention to His wounds, the blood, and even gore. Catherine of Siena was fixated on this, so was Hildegard. Now comes Bridget with the same interest.
In addition to advising kings, queens and popes, another way Bridget was an Influencer, was that when her visions were published her view of the Nativity changed the depiction of the scene in all future art. In the past, Mary had been shown as reclining during birth. After Bridget’s vision, the Virgin is kneeling, has a spontaneous birth from that position, and kneels to pray to Him, who is not in swaddling clothes but naked on the ground. An ox and donkey usually accompanies her visionary scene, as does Joseph with a candle. An unearthly light emanates from the Babe. This scene with those elements as described above has become known as “The Adoration of the Child”.
The episode of the Virgin’s Adoration of Christ, which does not appear in the gospel account of the Nativity, derives from Saint Bridget of Sweden’s fourteenth-century vision of the birth of Christ. This widely read account narrates how, with the newborn still naked on the ground, the Virgin knelt in worship.
One has to be pretty popular to have universally changed the way we view the Nativity scene FROM the Gospel account TO a woman’s alleged vision. If you research “The Adoration of the Christ Child” you will find most paintings arrange the scene as Bridget ‘envisioned’ it, and Museum statements attributing this arrangement to Bridget.
The other focus in Medieval times was on Christ’s Passion. For some reason Bridget wanted to know how many blows were on Christ’s body. She prayed constantly to be told this. Thus, ‘Christ’ allegedly came to Bridget and instructed her to the fact that he had 5475 blows. He told Bridget that if she said 15 Hail Marys and 15 Our Fathers, plus a series of prayers He would teach her, she would have honored every one of His blows after one year was concluded.
As we might enjoy Spurgeon’s devotionals today, in the Middle Ages the devotional book of prayers Christ allegedly taught Bridget, called the Fifteen Oes, was the one to have. Oes because each prayer begins with O Jesu (“O Jesus; O King; O Lord Jesus Christ”). The devotional was supposed to be a sort of catechism to educate people on the Passion, and also penitential, to inspire sorrow for his beating and death. Sadly after publication, promises became attached to them. Promises that if one says the prayers regularly then souls will be relieved from Purgatory. And after that, Indulgences became attached, too. The popularity of Bridget’s prayer book declined during the 1500s Reformation since Indulgences were a key point on which Martin Luther opposed the Catholic Church.
Here is an excerpt of one of Bridget’s revelations:
But you, my daughter, whom I have chosen for myself, and with whom I now speak in spirit: love me with all your heart – not as you love your son or daughter or parents, but more than anything in the world – since I, who created you, did not spare any of my limbs in suffering for your sake! Yet, I love your soul so dearly that, rather than losing you, I would let myself be crucified again, if it were possible. (Source)
Here is another, where Bridget was allegedly an eavesdropper on a conversation between Christ and His mother Mary:
Then Mary, the Mother of God (who until now had remained silent) spoke: “Oh, my Lord and most dear Son, You were in my womb as true God and man. By your grace you sanctified me, who was but an earthen vessel. I beg you, have mercy on them once more!” Then the Lord answered His Mother: “Blessed be the words of your mouth that ascend like a sweet fragrance to God. You are the Queen and glory of angels and all saints because, by you, God and all the saints are made happy! Because your will was as my own from the beginning of your youth, I will do as you wish once more.“ (Source)
This is blasphemy. Jesus said His will was the Father’s (not the Mother’s) and by the Father’s will Jesus obeyed all that was to be done:
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in the same way. (John 5:19).
And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)
For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 6:38)
So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and I do nothing on My own, but I say these things as the Father instructed Me. (John 8:28)
Bridget influenced much of Europe, urging people to live a pious and moral life, even boldly chastising them if they did not (as she did with Sweden’s Queen Blanche and homosexual husband King Magnus). Bridget campaigned against church corruption. She, like Catherine, urged the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon. He did, but returned to Avignon three years later. Bridget didn’t hold back, and chastised Pope Urban V through a supposed revelation from Virgin Mary given to the upset Bridget. She predicted he would die if he returned to Avignon. And he did die three months later.
Bridget’s Order became famous and well endowed. Her book of revelations and the Fifteen Oes were widely circulated. As she was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, Cardinal Adam Easton wrote the Defensorium Sanctae Birgitta in Norwich, 1389-1391, defending the three women’s visionary and prophetic writings.
Saint Bridget is worshiped in the Catholic Church, (shrine and all), in the Anglican Communion, and in Lutheranism, where Bridget is celebrated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) on her feast day on July 23.
Tomorrow: Conclusion. If you have read all four of these essays on the Medieval Mystics, you might have noticed similar strains. These women were all noted for pushing the bounds of womanly roles, they were discontent to remain in spheres the Bible outlines, they were mouthy, and seemed to use illness AND revelations to proclaim their visions and get their way. I’ll explain this further in the Conclusion, as well as compare them to modern mystics today.