Fervid Faith

Lutherans have always had a distrust of mysticism, or at least of the particular form of mysticism we’ve called “enthusiasm” (from the literal Greek meaning “god-within,” not excitement). True, Luther may have had a certain respect and love for some German mystics, including Eckart, Tauler, and the author of the Theologica Germanica (for which Luther wrote an introduction), but there is no doubt that when it came to knowing God, Luther was as externally focused and anti-mystical as they come. To those who share his name as a description of their theology, that extra nos character of Lutheran theology—that God comes to us by His own chosen means and from outside of us—is essential. It is essential because it is the sine qua non of our religious certainty. We do not trust ourselves enough to be confident distinguishing between which feelings or thoughts inside me are God, and which are only my own desires, or even the devil’s tempting.

Bruno Dumont’s film Hadewijch (2009; streaming on Kanopy) takes its title from the 13th century mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp, about whose life is known little to nothing. I’ve only read excerpts of her religious poetry, but I would not be surprised if Dumont incorporated pieces of it into the dialogue for Hadewijch/Céline (Julie Sokolowski). Several times throughout the film, Céline addresses God as “Love,” and the central tension is between her love for God and human romantic love.

That connection itself, of course, is not foreign to Christianity, nor to the Scriptures. The relationship between God and His people is often depicted using the image of husband and wife, or bridegroom and bride, in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the problem arises when the corporate image of bride is taken over as an individual one; when an individual views him- or herself as the bride, rather than as a member of a community, which as a body is called the Bride. (The same problem is evident in the New Testament conception of priesthood, which is a corporate designation, and not an individual one, except as applied to Christ Himself.)

The nature and ends of this sort of fully inner mysticism and religious fervor are at the center of Hadewijch. It is, the film suggests, a powerful and dangerous conception of the world. And it doesn’t seem to matter which religion is the source of the passion. Céline will pursue (and be pursued) by God wherever He may lead, including to religions other than Christianity, as well as “action” on behalf of oppressed people, in the form of vengeful death and destruction. The climax of the film is one kind of death—that of the world in which Céline grew up—and then she gives an image of her own death. She is rescued, and Dumont in one interview suggests that this is the ideal: death of God and death of religious devotion to divine beings, to be replaced with a form of religious  (in this case, romantic) devotion to another human being. In this way, it reminds me of the ending of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.

The difficulty for Hadewijch/Céline is that she can only feel God’s absence, and that feeling of absence leads her to the extreme of inner devotion and asceticism for which she is sent out of the convent, as well as to the extreme of religious violence justified by appeal to divine imperatives. It is an intriguing conversation with Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) that opens her connection to Islam. Nassir is teaching a class on Islam, and he discusses the invisibility of God, and says that God is present in absence. He both reveals and hides Himself at the same time.

This sounds, actually, not too dissimilar to the Lutheran “theology of the cross.” The difference, however, is crucial (no pun intended): in Christianity, God hides Himself in specific places and means which are, above all, tied to His hiddenness in the crucified Christ. In the discussion that Nassir and Céline have, God is hidden and it is up to the believer’s action to make God present. Everything depends, for the Christian, on God being the instigator of His presence and proclaiming to the ears of faith where He will be found. He is not hidden to faith; instead, believers “find” Him exactly where He has promised to be—hidden, but hidden to reason and wisdom and every form of enthusiastic or mystical searching.

The reason He is hidden to those forms of religious devotion is because mystics and enthusiasts of all stripes often search for Him where He has not promised to be found. God hides Himself because He wants to be found where He wills it, and not where we will Him to be present (usually in our own experience or emotion or desires, which reshape God in our own image, and therefore make of Him a mere idol—an idol, it can be said, who drives us to enact our own judgment in destruction, as well as driving us to despair and suicide, as the film shows). God’s hiding under the opposite (sub contrario) of where we would expect Him to be allows Him to be present in certainty and for our assurance, because it is based on His promise, and not on our ability (rational or emotional) to find Him.

Hadewijch is an interesting experiment in translating a medieval form of mysticism into the world of modern France, in the same way that Shakespeare has been translated into more modern settings. Dumont wants to use cinema to find the presence of an absent God, and it seems that he finds that “presence” in purely mundane, human love. Mysticism of some kind is an easy refuge for the religious impulse in our time (and probably in all times), where rationalism and scientism have made spirituality unrespectable. I happen to agree that enthusiasm is destructive; where the alternative lies is the difference between Hadewijch and me.