Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Paradoxes of Love

The storming of love is what is sweetest within her,
Her deepest abyss is her most beautiful form,
To lose our way in her is to arrive,
To hunger for her is to feed and taste,
Her despairing is sureness of faith,
Her worst wounding is to become whole again,
To waste away for her is to endure,
Her hiding is to find her at all times,
To be tormented for her is to be in good health,
In her concealment she is revealed,
What she withholds, she gives,
Her finest speech is without words,
Her imprisonment is freedom,
Her most painful blow is her sweetest consolation,
Her giving is her taking away,
Her going away is her coming near,
Her deepest silence is her highest song,
Her greatest wrath is her warmest thanks,
Her greatest threatening is remaining true,
Her sadness is the healing of all sorrow.

These beautiful lines about love by the 13th-century mystic Hadewijch of Brabant seem full of paradoxes. Those paradoxes challenge our sense of reason. How can we arrive if we have lost our way? How can something be revealed if it is also concealed? How can something which is given also be taken away? These statements seem to make no sense. Here are some more lines:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
You who tell the truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, tell the truth about me.
But whenever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear.
For whenever you appear, I myself will hide from you.
I am the substance and the one who has no substance.
On the day when I am close to you, you are far away from me,
and on the day when I am far away from you, I am close to you.

These lines seem to voice the same contradictory paradoxes as those of Hadewijch. How can someone who is barren bear many children? How can one of substance have no substance? How can one who is far away also be so close? These two mystic voices seem to be so similar – and yet the second voice predates the first by several centuries, and was not discovered until centuries after the first. The second voice is that of an unknown writer speaking as Sophia, from the text known as ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’, the Gnostic scripture discovered last century. Clearly there is no way that either writer could have known of the other’s existence, and yet the ideas which they express are wholly sympathetic with each other.

What we seem to encounter in these texts is a common experience: a language of mysticism. We feel that, had she been able to read it, Hadewijch would readily have recognised the experiences described in the older text. But both texts have more in common than apparent paradoxes. Both seem to offer a reassurance, an unstated advice to let go. Not just in the sense of letting go to trust in events, but an urging to let go of forms, of preconceptions, even of a familiar logic. Perhaps this is the clue, the way in to a greater understanding of what this mystic language suggests: that these greater truths are beyond language, beyond the world of forms, of logic, of preconceptions.

Perhaps the marvel in these lines, in both these voices, is their sense of consolation. Both writers convey a sense that ‘all will be well’, in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. For as we know from our own life’s experience, logic is not always present. Sometimes things just happen, and we are left gasping for breath and wondering why. But in the visionary worlds of Hadewijch and the remarkable unknown writer who is the voice of Sophia, consolation is in the letting go of even trying to understand, of even trying to seek for rational ‘answers’. Consolation comes with an acceptance of paradox, and when we open ourselves to a loving spirit that simple acceptance can be enough.

Painting by Bernardino Luini

If you like to read more about Hadewijch, you are welcome to read my post The Eyesight of the Soul.


  1. Emma has very insightfully brought the poetry of Hadewijch and the text from Thunder, Perfect Mind together, and she points to their amazing similarity. This is a wonderful way to show us that although these words were written by different authors and in different eras they are more similar than dissimilar. Emma's work in revealing the similarities is to be commended and valued. Works of mystic literature from the West are little known, or not as well known as their Eastern counterparts, and I feel that Emma is playing an important role in bringing them to light for us.

    Both the poetry of Hadewijch of Brabant and the excerpt from Thunder, Perfect Mind, express a direct inner knowledge of the ultimate Reality and realization of the Self, in the same sense that is conveyed in some of the mystical scriptures such as the ancient Vedas and in many of the Buddhists texts, especially the Prajna Paramita, the Heart Sutra. The Zen koans are also filled with paradoxes. I feel Hadewijch’s poetry and the excerpt from Thunder, Perfect Mind, can both be likened to the Tao Te Ching, one of the greatest books of mysticism. The Tao Te Ching is also filled with paradoxical metaphors. Hadewijch is also in the same tradition as Rumi in pointing to the divine through the use of poetry. This direct inner knowledge transcends religion, culture, language, and all categories and analyses that our logical mind may attempt to impose. Language can be an obstacle in expressing that which transcends logic, and since language is based upon logic it is impossible to express this truth in words accurately. Emma beautifully states this and I find her words worth repeating:

    "What we seem to encounter in these texts is a common experience: a language of mysticism..... Both seem to offer a reassurance, an unstated advice to let go. Not just in the sense of letting go to trust in events, but an urging to let go of forms, of preconceptions, even of a familiar logic. Perhaps this is the clue, the way in to a greater understanding of what this mystic language suggests: that these greater truths are beyond language, beyond the world of forms, of logic, of preconceptions."

  2. I had to comment twice as there is apparently a limit to the number of characters one can place in a comment! So this is Part Two!

    In spite of the difficulties inherent in language one method is to use poetic metaphors and paradoxes, not to define truth but to point to a greater Reality. Hadewijch’s words are truly vibrant and her creative imagery is refreshing. I would like to offer my personal perspective for some of the lines, one from Hadewijch and two from the Thunder, Perfect Mind, to illustrate as examples the possible spiritual meaning underlying them:
    “Her imprisonment is freedom.”
    She (the ultimate Reality) has no form and is not bound by space or time. Therefore Her imprisonment is impossible, and whatever imprisonment we perceive is not real. True freedom and everlasting liberation is the inherent state of the ultimate Reality.
    “I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband.”
    The ‘wedding’ refers to the absolute Oneness where all separation vanishes in the realization of the ultimate Reality, therefore the duality as represented by husband and wife, is transcended. Only the One remains.
    “I am the barren one and many are her sons.”
    As the ultimate Reality, She is the Creator or Creatrix of all, yet the fundamental reality is the Oneness, and the separation between the “creator” and the “created” dissolves. It is not that the two, the “creator” and “created,” were in existence and at some point in time merged together, but rather that the two were always fundamentally the Oneness all along, hence the reference to “the barren one.” In other words, there is no other reality than the ultimate Reality. The inner meaning of both Hadewijch’s poetry and the text from Thunder, Perfect Mind point to the highest and truest knowledge of existence and dive deep to its very core.

    The use of paradox serves several purposes. The primary purpose is that what is expressed points to the truth of ultimate Reality, but the answer to the seeming riddle of the paradox can only be solved by what may be termed ‘transcendent knowing.’ The second purpose of the use of paradox is to jolt the rational mind so that we sever the ties to logic and strip away our preconceived ideas. A third purpose of the use of paradox is to escape religious persecution thereby ensuring the survival of the message. The use the motif of love to describe the ultimate Reality, or God, also allows the message to pass unnoticed through the religious or political censors who may scrutinize the words for anything blasphemous or seditious. However, this certainly is not the only reason for the subject of love. The “Love” that Hadewijch speaks of is not the love that is based upon separation but the infinite love that is in absolute Oneness. The relationships we experience in the phenomenal world, the relationships of family, friends, lovers, etcetera, are all but reflections of the infinite Love that emanates from Oneness. This Oneness is Love.

  3. Joseph, your words here are so much more than a 'blog comment': they are a supplementary commentary, an extended reflection on what I have written in my post. You throw further light on the ways in which this mystical 'language' is really universal, transcending not just centuries of time, but also forming a bridge between Eastern and Western mystic traditions. This in turn serves to reinforce the idea (which is really a fundamental truth!) which I describe: that these things are really a common experience which unites rather than divides.

    Although this common experience might lie beyond language, we still must use language, both to communicate it to others and to help us to articulate it for ourselves. The point is, of course, that it is all down to how we use language - and that 'how' seems to lie in the direction of using these paradoxical statements as a way (as you mention) of 'jolting' the mind out of thinking too rationally, of pushing things to go that one step beyond the world of forms which we mistake for 'reality'.

    I particularly appreciate that you mention the focus of my blog: to give more attention to Western mystic traditions. Whether these traditions are represented by the poetry of Hadewijch or by the writings of Etty Hillesum, they are a source of wonderful richness and inspiration.

  4. Joseph, both Emma's post and your own deeply perceptive comments offer such valuable insights into the poetry of the mystic traditions. In her own comment to you Emma mentions the focus of her blog. You happen to mention one focus of my own writing: the awareness and interpreting of those mystic teachings which remain 'hidden in plain sight' in scripture. As you rightly point out, so many of these valuable lessons and insights were forced to 'fly below the radar' of those who sought to expunge them from the texts which became orthodox and canonical. Disguising their message within these texts in the form of stories or doctrines became a way of surviving these purges - and they did!

    How many today realise that such concepts as the Logos and the Trinity actually stem from the traditions of the ancient mystery schools? And (a favourite example of mine!) that the story in the Gospel of John of the disciples' catch of 153 fishes (John 21:10-11) is a direct reference to the teachings of the mystery schools of Ancient Greece! This very specific number of the catch references the Pythagorean 'measure of the fish', which gives the proportions of the 'vesica piscis' diagram of two overlapping circles which Emma discusses in her post 'The Goddess in the Well'. And the net which mysteriously does not break in the story refers to the infinite 'net of light' of Western Gnostic teachings - which I am sure you will recognise as the story of Indra's net in Eastern traditions, in which each pearl of light at the intersection of the net's weave perfectly reflects the whole. Now there is another nice 'bridge' between East and West!

  5. Thank you Emma for your comments and for sharing and honoring the great mystical poetry of Hadewijch. Hawkwood, thank you for sharing remarkable examples of the transmission of mystical knowledge through orthodox dogma and traditions. I did not know about the connection of the 153 fish in the Bible story and the vesica pisces diagram! It seems that the mystery schools in the West realized that symbolism, mathematics, poetry, and paradox were methods of transmitting mystical knowledge pass the censors of their days. There is indeed a bridge between East and West in that what is pointed to, and referred to in both counterparts of mysticism, beyond differences of time, language, and culture, is essentially the same.