- Monasteries also took on the roles of hospitality, particularly for pilgrims. To this day you can stay in monasteries when traveling in Israel.
- Monasteries could be a place of refuge for any person in need, not necessarily conditional on joining the order. Political refugees, prostitutes fleeing abuse, orphans, widows, single mothers, pretty much anyone could seek asylum in a monastery.
Starting especially in the 16th century, we see more non-monastic religious orders (such as the Jesuits and Marianists) that abandon the monastic ideals of isolation in order to go to the people to provide services, rather than waiting for them to come to the monasteries.
Figure 8. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) persuaded Pope Gregory XI to reform the clergy and end the Avignon papacy, the Church scandal of the day.
Finally, it should be noted that while the institutional episcopacy (bishops) was exclusively male, there were many monasteries for women . Most monasteries were under the jurisdiction of a male bishop who could give orders and collect profits. At least on a day-to-day basis, however, these women were independent and autonomous. Women were led by other women and took on many non-traditional roles. Certainly a modern feminist would point out that joining a monastery had strings attached, including abandoning marriage, sex, and children. A vow of obedience limits liberation even if the vow is to obey a woman. Nevertheless, because of monasteries women had at least one choice other than wife and mother. In some monasteries, women could go beyond literacy to advanced studies. Four women have been named Doctors of the Church, joining the rank of thirty-two men.
In the Middle Ages the practice and documentation of mysticism reached a high point in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The practices continue today, and had precedent in older practices. Even though women in the Middle Ages were formally excluded from positions of church leadership, many of the mystics from this period were women. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) is one famous mystic and the first credited female composer of music. Below we will read an excerpt from the writings of Gertrude the Great (1256–1302).
Mysticism can be defined as “the exceptionally vivid intuition of one’s union with ultimate reality” John Haught, What is Religion?
97 [LINK] . Outsiders and skeptics may tend to think of mysticism as other than reality or escape from reality. It is important to recognize that for the mystics, mystical union is more real than any ordinary object. It is not the absence of sensory perception, but the overwhelming of the senses. It contrasts with the mundane in degree of sensation, and in that others around the mystic do not experience what the mystic experiences.
Scholars describe five characteristics of mystical experience John Haught, What is Religion? 99-101 [LINK] , following William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [LINK] .
- Love, often erotic. Sexual sensuality comes bursting through in mystical writings. Mild forms include referring to Christ as groom or lover, described with actions of embracing or kissing. It is not uncommon for language of penetration and climax to be used, and the mystic sometimes experiences orgasm.
- Ineffable. The mystic is frustrated trying to capture the experience in words, and yet often feels compelled to talk about the experience.
- Conscious. Mystical union generally contrasts with dream visions in that the mystic has normal intellectual and rational faculties throughout the experience. The mystic experiences heightened clarity and intellectual understanding, even if the understanding cannot be captured in words.
- Fleeting. The experience is intense but does not last a long time, particularly as seen by bystanders. The mystic is left exhausted but wanting more. Mystics may develop the ability to repeat the experience but not maintain it. Mystics who cannot repeat the experience suffer withdrawal, which is the origin of the phrase “The Dark Night of the Soul.”