Hadewijch II, “You who want knowledge…”

The briefest description of my life: “in exile.” In some ways, it’s not so bad. I can’t say I lack materially, though I would like better economic security, e.g. a real job. I certainly have some very good friends and support. In other ways, I wouldn’t wish what I am going through on anyone. Today, I sat alone at a place where a number of people know me and was completely gripped by anxiety, feeling like I was not welcome in the least, like I had nothing to offer, like the opportunity to prove myself was doomed to failure. I don’t want to get into details here, but suffice to say I’ve started a private journal, one which I have high hopes for. I think the unusual experience I’ve had with not quite belonging, being taken for granted, being neglected by those obliged to me is worth noting down. I need to remind myself that there are situations where you really are being ignored or looked down upon, because those situations allow people who would be social rejects elsewhere to feel like they’re superior. I needed to know this years ago, when I was torturing myself more, accusing myself of selfishness.

Everything I’m complaining about above, of course, is indirect. I don’t know how I would survive in the Middle Ages, where discrimination was direct, where your role, according to everyone else, was dictated by God. I mean, I have an idea of how this works, unfortunately. But I can’t imagine being Hadewijch II. She’s resolved not only to survive, but to convey her mystical message, her inner truth. Hirshfield tells us that she was a Beguine, “laywomen who, prevented from joining convents, gathered together under their own authority, taking voluntary vows of chastity, poverty, and good works.” Later Beguines, Wikipedia claims, were persecuted if not executed by the Church for their mysticism. They would, in some cases, only beg for a living, like early Franciscans.

Let’s look at this poem, which Hirshfield feels demonstrates a truth about “spiritual maturity,” that “spiritual fulfillment is not to be found outside the door of the self:”

"You who want knowledge..." (from Poetry)
Hadewijch II (tr. Jane Hirshfield)

You who want
knowledge,
see the Oneness
within.

There you
will find
the clear mirror
already waiting.

I will readily confess that You who want knowledge, see the Oneness within is not something I am eager to write myself, despite my New Agey rhetoric, and probably something I wouldn’t take too seriously from a book written nowadays. Again, I imagine the potential price Hadewijch II could pay for this sort of activity is death. Persecution does not depend on what you say, write, or do. It depends on whether someone wants to make you a target or not. When you make yourself more visible, you’re more of a target.

However, the first stanza does contain a bit more than high-sounding common sense. There are plenty of people I know who think knowledge is simply being right about a number of trivial issues. You can see this especially with people who don’t read or read badly. I knew a professor who gave exams which asked about authors and issues from the footnotes of texts he assigned. If you’re with a spiritual community, perhaps one in large part that doesn’t read, I would think a few people still believe they have to prove themselves right all the time. On a slightly higher level, people who are more earnest about knowledge can often forget what unites their endeavors. Not so much a theory about the nature of things, but their “Oneness within.” This could be whatever they think links what they know, whatever desires they’ve been unconsciously acting from. It could also be remembering that you exist independently of what you know.

So what exactly is that Oneness? Without the second stanza, I might be tempted to say “a sense of self.” Hadewijch II radicalizes that notion: There you will find the clear mirror already waiting. All that happens when you look inward is that your surface reflects back at yourself. This seems strange — learning how we physically look in public, what looks of ours work and which don’t, takes time. It takes practice with an actual mirror. Learning how we appear to others in a fuller sense, how we react, how we cultivate certain feelings, how we communicate and reason aloud: that not only takes more time, but an incredible presence and self-awareness. The latter is a form of knowledge, sure, but it does not seem to be the same thing as asking what kind of properties liquids have, what the best regime would look like, or what knowledge of God is.

But Hadewijch II is on to something. The unknowable self is the heart of things. When you look inward, you ask how you know, and are reflected to yourself a certain way. You can use the question of unity of appearance to advance self-knowledge. In her brief account, it draws you inward, gets you to seek yourself as a unity, and then shows you yourself from a certain perspective. You get relevant, almost certain knowledge from that mirror.

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