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German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture


Ulrike Wiethaus

Probing deeply into texts by and about prominent Christian mystics, religious authors, and saints, German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture challenges the reader to rethink the medieval past as a contemporary presence. This «presence of the past» shapes memory of place, valorizes the trope of ecstatic sexual union as death, and continues the religious marginalization of female voice and authority. The chapters focus on the works and lives of Hadewijch, Marie d’Oignies, Dionysius of Ryckel, Heinrich Seuse, Margarete Ebner, St. Elisabeth, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, and the stigmatic Therese Neumann. Part One of the volume examines the dynamics of cultural memory and forgetting as they relate to issues of sexuality, female authority, and national politics; Part Two explores themes of love and death, erasure and displacement. Medieval Christian mysticism, the author argues, cannot be narrated as a story of great cultural accomplishment but, rather, as a fundamentally agonistic scenario shaped by actors whose impact still affects us today.
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Chapter 1. Unio Mystica

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“Mother and daughter the whole of the day in unanimous humor/Thereupon gladdened each other in heart and in mind very greatly/Clinging together in love till their spirits abated their sorrows.” Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Mysticism’s spiritual bedrock is a mystical process of radically collapsing Self and Other into what has been termed unio mystica.17 Unio mystica, as narrated event, spiritual goal, and metaphor is usually described as an experience wholly dependent upon grace rather than human effort, yet it is a process shaped by human actors, made intelligible through geographical and social specificity, and syncopated by psychological forces and activities such as passionate anticipation, assiduous preparation, and the complex layering of memory and reflection. Of a duration that is described as passing yet timeless, mystics experience unio mystica’s cognitive impact as it unravels in time. A profoundly somatic event, unio mystica has been ritually reproduced in devotional exercises since its first appearance in Christian discourse. Remembered as ritual identification with Christ, it continues to be mimetically experienced in that most provocative of Christian rites, the Eucharist.

The experience of merging with Divinity in an act of love is claimed to move the human subject beyond common categories of knowing. An opening and a widening of Self, unio mystica is the gate through which the Christian ← 11 | 12 → subject can enter into greater being and wholeness, if not self-transcendence. When stripped of its otherworldly trimmings, does unio mystica offer a viable blueprint for implementing the ideals of...

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