Religious Orders

Religious orders provided an important context within which women could provide communal leadership and spiritual guidance during the Middle Ages. Some individual female spiritual writers of this period achieved eminence, and were widely regarded as authorities by those looking for religious guidance. Among these, we may note Hilde- gard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant (early thirteenth century), Mechthild of Magdeburg, Angela of Foligno, and Julian of Norwich. Each of these writers developed an approach to spirituality which attracted a following across Europe.


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The term “mystic” is often used to refer to such writers, and it is important to understand what this word really means. In everyday use, the term means something like “someone who is seen to possess spiritual wisdom.” However, “mysticism” has a more technical sense in the history of Christian spirituality, meaning a spiritual approach which aims to deepen the direct human experience of God. The term derives from the Greek word mystikos, which has overtones of discovering something that is concealed or inaccessible, or being initiated into certain practices. A “mystic” thus means someone who is recognized as developing methods or ideas that help the believer deepen this direct relationship with God.