Around 1377/78, the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) wrote her spiritual treatise, The Dialogue. Throughout this treatise, she emphasizes Christ’s poverty and his humility in choosing to come to earth as a man. Catherine gives examples of Christ’s humility from major events in his life. Her reflection on Christ’s birth provides a wonderful way for us to journey through the Advent season.

In this section of text, God is speaking to the soul (and to us, the reader):

You see this gentle loving Word born in a stable while Mary was on a journey, to show you pilgrims how you should be constantly born anew in the stable of self-knowledge, where by grace you will find me born within your soul. You see him lying among the animals, in such poverty that Mary had nothing to cover him up with. It was winter, and she kept him warm with the animals’ breath and a blanket of hay. He is the fire of charity but he chose to endure the cold in his humanity.

I love the way this text refers to us as pilgrims–as God’s people, we are on a journey through this season of expectation. How is your pilgrimage through Advent going? Are you ready to be born anew?

Read The Dialogue here.

For Reflection:

Catherine of Siena - Advent



Last week, we looked at an extraordinary passage in a letter by the Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp. In her letter, Hadewijch said that most of us think we should get a reward – from God or from other people – for carrying the cross with Christ:

We do not live with Christ, and we do not carry that cross with the Son of God, but we carry it with Simon who received pay because he carried our Lord’s cross (Matt. 27:32).

This passage really made me think. How often do I say, “Do you see, God, everything that I’m doing for you? Have you noticed how hard I’m working?” How often do I hope that other people notice (just a little bit) how spiritual or helpful or humble I am? Pretty often, it turns out. But if we’re seeking recognition for carrying the cross, we’re not really being crucified with Christ. There’s only one reason to carry the cross, Hadewijch says, and that is for love.

That cross which we must bear with the Son of the living God is the sweet exile that we bear for the sake of veritable Love, during which we must await with longing confidence the festival when Love shall manifest herself and reveal her noble power and rich omnipotence on earth and in heaven. In this she shows herself so unreservedly to him who loves that she makes him beside himself; she robs him of heart and mind, and causes him to die to himself and live in devotion to veritable Love.

Love – and not external rewards – is what makes us willing to suffer with Christ and also to do good works:

And thus we must always persevere with renewed ardor: with hands ever ready for all works in which virtue is practiced, our will ready for all virtues in which Love is honored, without other intention than to render Love her proper place in man, and in all creatures according to their due. This is to be crucified with Christ . . .

Have you been crucified with Christ today?


Hadewijch of Antwerp was a writer, poet, and mystic of the thirteenth century. Not much is known about her life. She lived in present-day Belgium, wrote in Middle Dutch, and was probably part of a beguine community.

In her works, Hadewijch wrote frequently about love and about Christ’s humanity. But she wasn’t afraid of showing a little fire, too. In a letter addressed (probably) to a woman in a beguine community, she wrote about the God complex so many people have. When we have a God complex, we want God’s glory and divinity but not his humanity. This has grave consequences, for it means we’re not willing to suffer as Christ suffered. Hadewijch writes:

[P]eople wish to live with God in consolations and repose, in wealth and power, and to share the fruition of his glory. We all indeed wish to be God with God, but God knows there are few of us who want to live as men with his Humanity, or want to carry his cross with him, or want to hang on the cross with him and pay humanity’s debt to the full. Indeed we can rightly discern this as regards ourselves, in that we are so little able to hold out against suffering in all respects. An unexpected sorrow, though slight, goes to our heart; or a slander, or a lie that people tell about us; or someone’s robbing us of our honor, or our rest, or our own will: How quickly and deeply any of this wounds us all!

By this we show plainly that we do not live with Christ as he lived; neither do we forsake all as Christ did, nor are we forsaken by all as Christ was . . . We do not live with Christ, and we do not carry that cross with the Son of God, but we carry it with Simon who received pay because he carried our Lord’s cross (Matt. 27:32).

I’m really struck by Hadewijch’s comment that we carry the cross for pay – we’re always looking to get paid, either by earning God’s favor or the regard of other people:

We hold in great esteem what we do or suffer for him, and we never resign ourselves to being left without recompense, or without knowing and feeling that it pleases God; we very quickly accept from him pay in the hand, namely satisfaction and repose; we also accept pay a second time in our self-complacency; and a third time, when we are satisfied that we have pleased others, and we accept commendation, honor, and praise from them.

Did you catch that? We get paid three times for carrying Christ’s cross! That, at least, is the temptation. If we don’t (or, rather, shouldn’t) carry this cross for pay, why should we do it? How do we carry the cross with Christ rather than with Simon? We’ll look at Hadewijch’s answer next week.

Until then, think on what Hadewijch said and reflect on this quesion: what kind of pay have you accepted for carrying Christ’s cross this week?




Gertrude the Great (1256 – c. 1302) was a German Benedictine nun at the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta. She was a mystic who was known for her devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus. Among her written works is a collection of Spiritual Exercises.

A few weeks ago we saw a comparison of the soul to a housewife by the Flemish nun Beatrijs of Antwerp. Gertrude the Great brings us another striking image. Although Gertrude was especially devoted to the sacred heart of Jesus, the Lord instructed her not to forget the other parts of his body. In the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude, there follows an unusual account of Jesus’ body as a spiritual monastery.

A nun in Gertrude’s monastery writes:

One day, while she was singing Vespers, the Lord said to Gertrude:


Behold My Heart,—let it be your temple; then go through the other parts of My Body, and arrange for the other parts of a monastery wherever it seems best to you; for I desire that My sacred Humanity should henceforth be your cloister. . . .


Then Gertrude, obeying the commands of God, chose the Feet of her Spouse for her lavatory; His Hands for her work-room; His Mouth for her reception-room, or chapter-room; His Eyes for her school, in which she could read; and His Ears for her confessional.

I confess that I would never have thought of a lavatory in relation to Christ’s body. Call me crazy, but it just wouldn’t occur to me.

However, I love this passage in the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude because it is such a beautiful image of intimacy. We draw from it the lesson that wherever we go, we can always be spiritually enclosed — housed, sheltered, protected. I think it helps us inhabit the biblical idea that our life is in Christ. Think about it — if Christ is our cloister, our shelter, then we are always in him. We are always just where we should be. We are always home.

Can you imagine making Christ’s humanity your cloister or shelter today?


Beatrijs of Nazareth (c. 1200 – 1268), a Flemish Cistercian nun, was prioress of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth in Brabant (present-day Belgium). She is often studied in the context of the beguine movement since she received her education from beguines before becoming a nun. In the mid-thirteenth century, Beatrijs wrote The Seven Manners of Loving, a mystical treatise that describes the soul advancing in love for God.

I’m drawn to the striking imagery that mystics often use to describe spiritual growth. Beatrijs of Nazareth does not disappoint! In one passage of her treatise, she likens the soul to a housewife putting everything in order. Although housework seems down to earth, it characterizes a very advanced kind of love in Beatrijs’s treatise.

In the sixth manner, as the bride of our Lord advances and climbs into greater holiness, she feels love to be of a different nature, and her knowledge of this love is closer and higher.

The soul has advanced this far because she has prepared her house for love . . .

And you may see that now the soul is like a housewife who has put all her household in good order and prudently arranged it and well disposed it; she has taken good care that nothing will damage it, her provision for the future is wise, she knows exactly what she is doing, she acquires and discards, she does what is proper, she avoids mistakes, and always she knows how everything should be.

I suppose that calling anyone or anything a “housewife” sounds a little out of date today. I wouldn’t want to be called that! And Beatrijs’s standards for housework seem impossibly high. But I do like the image of the soul bustling around preparing and making room for love.

The rewards of this spiritual work are great. When the inner house is ready, love moves in, and the soul is able to have a “close comprehension of God.”

And then love makes the soul so bold that it no longer fears man nor friend, angel or saint or God himself in all that it does or abandons, in all its working and resting. And now the soul feels indeed that love is within it, as mighty and as active when the body is at rest as when it performs many deeds.

Does Beatrijs’s household imagery resonate with you? Can you picture your soul bustling around preparing an inner home for love? For more examples of this kind of imagery in medieval devotional literature, see the post Finding Christ in the Kitchen by Louise Campion.

For more on Beatrijs of Nazareth, see, among other sources, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff.


In last week’s contemplative profile, we looked at two sources on the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Historically, this prayer has been thought to be a response to Paul’s instructions to “pray continually.”

St. John Chrysostom also advises the Christian to pray constantly because prayer vanquishes our enemy. The Jesus Prayer sounds so gentle; yet many of the Church Fathers speak of prayer as a weapon. In fact, they often use a violent imagery that has mostly fallen out of favor today. If nothing else, this imagery impresses on us the efficacy of prayer in our lives. Chrysostom says:

Prayer is the cause of salvation, the source of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, the unassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects us in the work of righteousness… Prayer is a great weapon, a great protection. Zealous prayer is the light of mind and soul, a constant, inextinguishable light. Therefore during prayer our bitter enemy floods our mind and drenches our soul with a measureless filth of thoughts and collects together qualities of things which had never entered our heads…


By this remembrance (the Jesus Prayer) a soul forcing itself to this practice can discover everything which is within, both good and bad. First it will see within, in the heart, what is bad — and later — what is good. This remembrance is for rousing the serpent, and this remembrance is for subduing it. This remembrance can reveal the sin living is us, and this remembrance can destroy it. This remembrance can arouse all the enemy hosts in the heart, and little by little this remembrance can conquer and uproot them. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, descending into the depths of the heart, will subdue the serpent holding sway over the pastures of the heart, and will save our soul and bring it to life. Thus abide constantly with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one.

Read more.

Reflection: Have you ever thought of prayer in the forceful and passionate terms of St. John Chrysostom?


Most of you are probably familiar with the words of the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This prayer originated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers as a form of unceasing prayer, as Paul urges in 1 Thess 5:17.

How does one pray the Jesus Prayer? Have you ever tried it? St Gregory of Sinai (1260s-1346), an Eastern Orthodox monk, gives many instructions, including these:

Sitting in your cell, remain patiently in prayer, according to the precept of the Apostle Paul. Collect your mind into your heart and send out thence your mental cry to our Lord Jesus, calling for His help and saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’ until you are tired. When tired, transfer your mind to the second half and say: ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ Having many times repeated this appeal, pass once more to the first half.

Centuries earlier, the Church Father John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) indicated that this prayer was to be said not just while sitting quietly but also while going about the many tasks of monastic and daily life. It is to be repeated until it becomes part of one’s very being:

I implore you, brethren, never to break or despise the rule of this prayer… A monk when he eats, drinks, sits, officiates, travels or does any other thing must continually cry: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me!’ so that the name of the Lord Jesus, descending into the depths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over the inner pastures and bring life and salvation to the soul. He should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one…

Read more about the Jesus Prayer at and Orthodox Mysticism.

Reflection: Do you pray the Jesus Prayer? How has it shaped your spiritual life?


I don’t know whether the American writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) can really be called a contemplative — although she did ask God to make her a mystic. She has been described as a devout believer and also as a “turbocharged Catholic.”

Reading O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote in 1946-1947, I was interested in what she says about the intersection of faith and writing. She wrote the journal while studying writing and working on her first novel. In the journal, she begs to know and want God and also to become a “fine writer.” Where do these two desires intersect? In radical dependence on God. O’Connor writes:

My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from.


Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.


If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try — that is the point. And at every dry point, I will be reminded Who is doing the work when it is done & Who is not doing it at that moment.

Read more about Flannery O’Connor here. Read her Prayer Journal here.

For reflection: Where do faith and writing intersect for you?


In last week’s post, we saw that the English mystic Walter Hilton likened prayer to fire. He continues this analogy in a letter to a layperson. He writes a beautiful description of what he calls the “mixed life:” a life marked by a rhythm of labor and prayer.

[T]he will and desire you have toward God is like a little coal of fire in your soul. It gives you a certain amount of spiritual heat and even light, but it is quite little, and threatens to grow cold in idleness and want of fuel. At that point it is good that you should put against it some sticks of wood—good labors of the active life. And if it seems for a time that these duties shroud or overshadow the coal of your desire, that it does not burn as cleanly and fervently as you would want, then do not be fearful, but rather be patient awhile.


Then blow at the fire—after doing your proper duties and service, go alone to your prayer and meditation, and lift up your heart to God, praying him of his goodness that he will accept the work that you have done as unto his pleasure.

I’m encouraged by Hilton’s conviction that the active life is a way to serve God.


Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.


I love the vivid images medieval mystics use to describe God and prayer. A case in point is the writing of the English mystic Walter Hilton. In his treatise providing instruction on prayer and the contemplative life, Hilton writes a beautiful passage likening prayer to fire:


If you pray in this way, you can pray well: for prayer is nothing else than a mounting desire of the heart into God through withdrawal from every earthly thought. And this is why it is compared with a fire, which by its own nature mounts from the earth, always up into the air. In just the same way, your desire in prayer, when it is touched and illumined by that spiritual fire which is God, by nature always mounts to Him from Whom it came.


Notice that Hilton, in the last line of the passage, emphasizes that our desire to pray to God always comes from God.



Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.