Read an Excerpt From "Christian Mystics"

Her depressed state lasted for a number of years but was punctuated by occasional visions or ecstasies. One time she heard God tell her that they would never be separated; another time she received a momentary vision of the Sacred Heart. She also suffered physical torments in addition to her spiritual struggle, including fevers and physical pain. Her ecstasies continued, along with insight into how impossible it was to retain the intensity or beauty of her visions. In 1231, Ida of Nivelles died, causing Beatrice much grief. Meanwhile, Beatrice had developed her own reputation as a mystic and holy woman, but she tried to ignore the adulation she received from others.

Eventually Beatrice was appointed the prioress of the Nazareth convent in Belgium. Little is known about this period of her life, but before her death at age sixty-eight she composed her one written work, which has survived to the present day—a brief mystical treatise, The Seven Manners of Holy Love. This meditation on the dynamics of how mortals respond to God in love offers a poetic exploration of how love for God evolves over time.

Here are Beatrice's seven manners of mystical loving:

  1. Active longing for restoring the image and likeness of God, which proceeds out of love;
  2. Offering oneself to God;
  3. Suffering for God;
  4. Enjoying the splendor of God's love;
  5. Accepting that love includes both ecstasy and agony;
  6. Resting confidently in God's love; and
  7. Contemplating the divine mystery of love, which paradoxically brings us back to an ever-deeper longing.

In this brief treatise (the English translation is only about 3,700 words long), Beatrice has beautifully unpacked the rich dynamics of the process by which mortal humans may respond to God through love. Of course, God is love, so the love we offer to God is merely a return of the gift of love God has given to us. Over the course of the seven manners, the lover of God experiences successive stages of enjoying God's presence and suffering God's apparent absence; of enjoying the beauty of love while also suffering the inevitable pain of love; but after reaching a place of acceptance, the process culminates with a non-dual encounter with love, through an ordinary sense of rest, leading to a rich contemplation of love that bridges the gap between "earthly" and "heavenly"—even while it continues to inspire a sense of longing (it reminds me of Bernard of Clairvaux, who suggested that the more we receive divine love, the greater our longing for it grows). It would be a mistake to assume that Beatrice's map of the seven manners of loving is universally applicable—in other words, just because this is how the dance between divine and human love took place in her life doesn't mean that everyone will necessarily embody these seven manners in this precise sequence. As a general rule, it's wise not to universalize the teachings of the mystics and assume that our journey into the heart of God must look just like theirs (which is a good thing, since the mystics often contradict each other). Nevertheless, Beatrice's map of love is quite compelling, and perhaps most people who long for God's love (which, after all, is manner number one) might recognize many or even all of these seven dimensions of love in their lives. At the very least, this is great material for meditation.

Recommended Reading

The Life of Beatrice of Nazareth (includes the Seven Manners of Holy Love), translated by Roger DeGanck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991).1

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)

Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most respected church leaders of his day, counseled popes, advised kings and commoners, promoted noble causes (his monastic order) and ignoble ones (the Second Crusade), and left behind a literary legacy of beautiful writing and an almost incandescent understanding of God as love. Born into a noble French family, he entered monastic life as a young man and was so charismatic and persuasive that he convinced thirty of his brothers, relatives, and fellow noblemen to enter the cloister with him. After only two years as a monk, Bernard was appointed the abbot of a new monastery in Clairvaux, France. He would hold that position for the rest of his life, inspiring not only the monks under his care but the church at large with his eloquent preaching and writing.

Bernard was not the first Christian contemplative to recognize the heart of mysticism as the union of lovers (divine and human), but he expressed this insight so poetically and beautifully that it is a concept perennially associated with him. His masterpiece is generally considered to be his eighty-six Sermons on the Song of Songs, in which he reflects on the great love poem in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, as a metaphor for the mystical love that flows between God and humanity. He also wrote a philosophical treatise, On Loving God, which reflects on the relationship between self-love (in healthy and unhealthy ways) and love for God.

9/5/2018 3:00:01 PM