The Mystics
Meister Eckart

The Mystics : an Overview

In the 14th century, the phenomenon of the MYSTICS appeared in Latin church history. MEISTER ECKARDT, a German theologian (ca. 1260 - 1327/28) claimed that a human being, by negating his personality, could experience the identity of his soul and god. Later mystics such as GERARD GROOTE further developed his theory; the most famous publication of this theological school being THOMAS A KEMPIS' IMITATIO CHRISTI (imitation of christ).
The mystics mentioned before regionally originated from Germany and the low countries, have studied, are associated with the DOMINICAN ORDER respectively with the new order founded by Gerard Groote, the BRETHREN OF THE COMMON LIFE.

A number of women - ST. BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN, ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA, Christina of Stommelen, Dorothea of Montau, Julian of Norwich, further developed mysticism by giving up their secular careers, living an ascetic lifestyle, corresponding with dignitaries near and far, expressing concern about what was wrong in their eyes and giving advice, urging them to correct what needed to be corrected. They all claimed not to speak for themselves, but, by divine inspiration, in the name of god. One woman, ST. JOAN OF ARC, even went further, directly interfering in politics and warfare, taking command of the French army, inspiring it and leading it to victory.
More amazing than the lifestyle of these women is the respect with which they were treated by their contemporaries. Dorothea von Montau - she had herself immured in her cell, with only a small window left for food, ventilation and communication - was frequently visited by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order for political advice. Pope Gregory VII., at the urging of St. Birgitta and St. Catherine of Siena, in 1377 returned the papacy to Rome (against the will of the King of France), and King Charles VII. of France permitted Joan of Arc, a mere teenager, to tell him and the French grandes how they should rule and fight.

The papacy had moved to Avignon (1309-1377); the period is often described as the BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH. The crusades had ended in 1291 with the fall of Acre, the last christisan bastion in the holy land. Both events plainly showed that the church was experiencing a crisis.
Feudal society also was in a crisis, as the old strategy of having noblemen on horseback attack and fight it out in close combat in a great melee did not work anymore - several French armies, widely superior in numbers, were defeated by the English because of the Welsh archers. The archers were not noblemen.
In addition, the Black Death was interpreted as God's punishment, which hit everybody. In order to overcome the situation, it was felt that mankind as a whole had to improve, had to come to terms with it's sins.

The mystics, in their attempt to find the truth, trusted in their own instincts, in 'inspirations' rather than in the church hierarchy and in the official teachings. Here we find an element critical to the condition in which the church was, a prereformatorical criticism. The organized church, however, was at a loss regarding how to deal with the mystics. They were difficult critics, hard to influence. Meister Eckart was accused of heresy; the biographies of St. Catherine and of Geert Groote report of the church being sceptical regarding the legitimacy of their claim as speaking in the name of god.
The problem of legitimacy was real. In case of St. Catherine of Siena, it is stated that she received the STIGMATA (the wounds afflicted to Jesus at the cross) as a last prove of the IMITATIO CHRISTI.

Many of the mystics were both religious and political figures. St. Birgitta came from one of Sweden's leading (noble) families, St. Catherine from a family politically engaged in the Republic of Siena. From their family background and education, they were thus familiar with politics. The mystics tried to live the lifestyle of saints, and Catherine's disappointment on the occasion of a failed attempt to assassinate her, to have lost the opportunity for martyrdom, can be taken for real. Most mystics did not write their revelations themselves, but had them written down by others. St. Catherine even claimed not to be able to write until she reached old age, and then to have acquired the ability by miracle.

The German Mystics, ch.IV of History of the Church, from

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on May 30th 2001