The Fine Line Between Mysticism and Insanity

Just to add to my geek factor, I admit to having a fascination with historical mystic women.  I owe this obsession to being raised in the Catholic faith…

and to PBS.

I’ve dabbled in novels, biographies (PBS even had a series entitled “Mystic Women of the Middle Ages) and the English interpretations of writings from two such women: Saint Teresa of Avila and Blessed Hildegard of Bingen.  And after everything I’ve read I’m beginning to formulate a conclusion that unarguably both women were devout in their faith,

but ensuring the label of “mystic” undoubtedly made it easier for them as women to participate in a society built and enforced by men.

Let’s face it, during the times of Middle Ages, and the Spanish Inquisition, any woman who not only openly displayed her learning, but also influenced those around her with it would be deemed as “insane” or “heretical” or a witch.

But if such inclinations were considered divinely inspired …

well then, to the society of that time that woman is not a mere woman,

but obviously a “saint”.’s definition of mystic is “a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy”…

…without the use of hallucinogens.

When I was growing up I was given several little books on saints for my first communion, first confession, confirmation.  My favourite was the story  of St. Teresa of Avilla.  On the cover a striking picture of Teresa by Francois Gerard where even though she was hidden by a nun’s habit, she was depicted as being beautiful.

image from

Stereotypically innocent, mournful eyes and a Mona Lisa I-know-something-you-don’t –know smile.  And at that time I didn’t know about Bernini’s sculpture yet but I have seen pictures and  I WILL get to Cornaro Chapel in Rome and appreciate it in person before I die.  Even if you’re not an art aficionado you can’t help but be intrigued by Bernini’s depiction.  Spiritual?  Or Blasphemous?

Image from

As a young adult I read Timothy Findley’s “Pilgrim”.  A section of the book has the protagonist, Pilgrim, meet and interact with a young Spanish girl who just happens to levitate.  Her name is Teresa.  Now this obviously was a fictional Teresa portrayed in Findlay’s novel, but her depiction was captivating enough to want to know who exactly Teresa of Avilla was.  So I read, and researched.  I learned that a colleague of Freud’s dubbed her the “patron saint of histrionics”…this morsel gave me an emotional connection with her (hey, we’ve all had our “moments”).    She was a vibrant personality who wasn’t only deeply spiritual, but a keen administrator a writer and a leader.  This, and the fact she lived during the time of the Inquisition AND she was female , makes her an amazing historic figure.  In 1622 Teresa was canonized “having been praised in the papal bull for ‘overcoming…her female nature’”(Medwick pg. 248).

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FYI, pope at the time, Teresa had wisdom.  Teresa had influence, and one of the reasons was BECAUSE she was a woman.

But off of my soapbox and back to the ideas of mysticism and insanity.

Blessed Hildegard of Bingen is another woman who fascinates me.  A writer a musician and a doctor living during the Middle Ages.  Did she have to claim divinity in order to achieve the attention and the opportunity to continue her education, expand upon it and create the masterpieces she did?  Would she have left such a legacy if she hadn’t been deemed “mystic”?

No.  I think not.

Hildegard constantly “belittled women” in public and referred to herself as the “weaker sex” but I don’t think she really meant it.  It was an ingenious way to lend credibility to her words.  If society believed she “viewed” herself as a mere woman, they would be more inclined to believe her genius came from divine inspiration.  And if society believed this, her opinions on theology and politics could not as easily be condemned.

Maybe that’s why we don’t have nearly as many artists and writers and poets that are female.  The only way to get “published” or validation so to speak is to achievement a reputable reputation through mysticism.

Now, I don’t doubt the devotion and depth of faith these women had with God, but I can’t help but wonder if being “identified” or labeled as a mystic during this time was intentional.  It was a way in which their thoughts, philosophy and wisdom was heard and validated by a society and an organized religion, dominated by men.  Women were NOT listened to unless they were deemed mouthpieces of God.

How many strong “spiritual” woman leaders do we have today?  What type of journey was it for them to achieve validation from their community? How many of them can we name?  Personally I know of several who go about their day gently dispensing wisdom and grace, but I’m embarrassed to say I know of very few who have been recognized by a society that claims to be progressive in so many areas, yet so medieval in others.

Books to check out:

Teresa of Avila::  The Progress of a Soul by Cathleen Medwick

Hildegard of Bingen:  A Visionary Life by S. Flanagan

Pilgrim by Timothy Findlay


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