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Posted May 23, 2005

Book: Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant
Author: Elizabeth A. Dreyer
Paulist Press, NY, pp. 180

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Passionate Spirituality explores the roots and meanings of passion in Western culture, and then examines how passion is expressed in the works of two medieval women mystics — Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant — and in the lives of contemporary Christians seeking to deepen their own spiritual journeys. Too often, the term “passion” is associated only with steamy films, sexual sin, and emotional excess — cutting off the breath of its meaning and expression for positive good. But the great mystics succeed precisely because they hold together both the affective and the intellectual aspects of the spiritual life in creative and convincing ways. Their accounts of their mystical experience are important resources for information and understanding about how to talk about God more formally, and for what it means to be passionately in love with God and the world.

Passionate Spirituality looks not only to the past, but to the present and future as well. Elizabeth A. Dreyer explores whether and how these mystical texts might infuse contemporary spirituality with new life, and theological thinking with greater insight. She explores how the expression of mystical experience brings fresh perspectives that allow the affections to influence our thinking, our spirituality, and our work as theologians. Developing the passionate dimensions of spirituality has the potential to open the deep structures of one’s personality to the fullness of grace, to contribute to the ongoing creation of a new self as the image of God, and lead to the pursuit of compassion and the commitment to justice on behalf of a suffering world.

An Excerpt from the Book:

What exactly does the term passion mean? . . .To begin, we might see passion as a particularly intense form of love. Perhaps poets best capture the spirit of love’s height, depth, breadth, and width. William Blake writes, “And we are put on earth a little space/That we may learn to bear the beams of love (Songs of Innocence and of Experience).” For Christians, God’s love is most visible in Jesus Christ, the model for generous, tender, honest, joyous, and self-sacrificing disposition and activity. In some cultures, market forces create a pseudo-love through exploitative and pornographic associations linked to sexuality and the commercialization of the body. As a result, university students generally balk at the idea that passionate love might inform their spiritual selves, or that genuine sexual encounter might bear the divine in it.

The narrower term passion also suggests a range of meanings. It has to do with the suffering of pain, such as any painful disorder of the body, mind, or spirit. In Christian terms it refers to the Passion of Jesus or the suffering of the martyrs.

Second, passion, as the word itself suggests, implies passivity, that is, being acted upon by external agency. The derivative, compassion, implies the ability to suffer with another, to empathize with another’s distress and to desire and work for its alleviation.

Third, and perhaps most commonly, passion is connected with sexual desires and impulses, with love, romance, and strong amorous feelings. Less often, we use the term passion to speak of proneness toward hot-tempered irascibility. The term can also be used more broadly to speak of an eager outreaching of the mind toward something, an overmastering zeal or enthusiasm for a particular object. We say, “She is passionate about her work.”

This mosaic of meanings helps us explore the variety of ways in which passion can play a life-giving role in the spiritual life. Theology too can benefit from the presence of passion. If we define theology as ordered reflection on the Christian life — a life eminently characterized by relationship – then theology must attend carefully to human relationships marked by desires, enthusiasms, frustrations, and sufferings in the context of a total life story in which one is both actor and acted upon. The net is widely cast — self, others, the cosmos, and God.

Greek Roots

Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle coined a word, pathe, to refer to a wide range of feelings, from anger and fear to joy and affection. Today, we use the term emotion to cover the same ground, including the term passion, seen as intense or even violent form of emotion. In the West, the meaning of passion has been significantly influenced by Greek thought. Love characterized by eros, and nonmutuality, involved an intense longing to possess a valued object. Reciprocal (but not necessarily sexual) love was called philia, and involved mutual benefit to both parties. Agape was the term used for love that was nonsexual, selfless, and benevolent. The idea of passion was also linked to the divine. There were sacred places set aside for various cults, but in general, the primary locus of the divine was the entire cosmos. We find the second-century Neoplatonist, Plotinus writing, “All the place is holy, and there is nothing which is without a share of soul.” E.H. Armstrong comments, When the perceived environment of worship was the whole town or the whole countryside, it was hardly possible for worshipers to feel that they were a special flock, a people set apart, separate from the whole world of nature and the common society of humanity.

In the Greek pantheon, passionate, sexual love was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her son, Eros. In ancient thought, one version of the creation story held that the world came about as a result of the coupling of divine powers and sexual generation, an event that endowed such coupling with distinctive importance. Aphrodite and Eros embodied sexual charm, and the excitement that sometimes led to divine madness. Their power too was universal and included the wilder and more disorderly passions as well as those of traditional mating and married love. The full expression of love-madness was not a daily occurrence, and Aphrodite and Eros were also felt to be present in a wide variety of ordinary expressions of sexual love. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “the wild as well as the tame, that which breaks all bounds and destroys all order as well as that which maintains order, had its place in the divine nature of things.

Plato’s famous story of the chariot’s winged horses (the passions) being guided and controlled by the charioteer (reason) provides insight into his view of the passions. In the upper world, mighty Zeus holds the reins of the winged chariot, leading the way, ordering all and taking care of all. But in the lower world, weak souls plunge and tread on one another in confusion. But in general, Greek thought regarded the passions as dangerous, less-than-human forces that were to be controlled, circumscribed and subordinated to reason. The godlike quality of reason was the supreme value, and all of life was to be brought under its sway.

For Aristotle as well, true love was governed by reasoned choice, not by feeling or passion. But Aristotle takes Plato’s emphasis on reason a step further. While Plato placed the desiring love of eros at the heart of all love, Aristotle used the term philia to describe genuine friendship and relegated eros to sexual love, a love that he saw as inferior to the love of friendship. Aristotle distinguishes three types of love. The first is the love of utility, in which one person loves another for personal benefit. Using another person for one’s own gain was looked upon as abuse, rather than as a legitimate form of relationship. Second is the love of pleasure, in which persons love each other because it is enjoyable. Both benefit from the fruits of the relationship. The third type of love is a selfless love, the only true friendship, in which one loves others because of who they are in themselves. A true friend is one who cares about the welfare of the other person and wishes her well. Reason has an especially important role in this highest form of love.

Later philosophical forms of Greek piety took on a more austerely ethical nature that severely curtailed expressions of eros. It was only at the highest level of human thought that eros cold be safely admitted. Stoic philosophers in the fourth century BCE included the love of wisdom, as well as feeling and emotion in their concept of reason. They distinguished between good desires and feelings that were part of reason, and passions and mental perturbations that were present in a soul whose reasoning faculty was disordered.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1

Medieval Women Mystics: Weird or Wonderful?

Chapter 2

Passion in the Christian Tradition

Chapter 3

Passion in Hildegard of Bingen

Chapter 4

Passion in Hadewijch of Brabant