ON PARADOXES IN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY: GOOD OMENS & FRAUENMYSTIK

It’s been a long while since I’ve written anything, owing to the fact that I have been drowning myself in dissertation research lately. But now I have a bit of a break & an excess of knowledge and since I’ve started thinking about beginning writing my diss, I need to explode some thoughts out into the world. The subject of my current diss is the paradox of the body (fr.: chair) in female mystical devotion in the 12th/13th centuries, with a specific focus on the paradoxical sexualisation of chastity in the spiritual process. I will delve into the issues sex & chastity and the complexity of caritas/charité/minne getting profoundly confused with amor/amor/liebe–though I’ll definitely get into these topics a lot more thoroughly in later posts. Today I would like to simply think about the paradoxical nature of that which is considered GOOD (divine) and that which is considered BAD (terrestrial/demonic) in Catholic theology… or, rather, how Catholic theology and doctrine tend to render GOOD and BAD paradoxical. And one of the best modern studies/examples of this theological glitch, as it were, is Good Omens.

Right, so I’ve read the book and watched the series. Both are brilliant, but the series in particular tends to portray the paradox better because it explores the characters of Crowley and Aziraphale in their time on Earth much more closely. Furthermore, the amount of fanart and fanfiction that sprung from the series’ popularity often magnifies the paradox even more. And I will, in fact, study both the series and fan engagement with it.

For anyone who doesn’t know: Aziraphale is an angel, guardian of the Eastern Gate of Eden, and Crowley is a demon, the one who tempted Eve into eating the fruit. They have both been assigned to Earth since the beginning of time (so, 6000 years) and their objective is to carry out the work of God and the devil respectively. The series shows us that they ran into one another time and again throughout the course of history, and eventually made an agreement that neither would hinder the work of the other (because it just made things easier) which eventually evolved into helping one another with a miracle or two for convenience’s sake. We are informed of this explicitly in the scene where the two attend the first showing of Hamlet. They both have to perform a miracle in Edinburgh and they flip a coin to see which of them will go and do both, ’cause after living with humans for up of 5000 years even celestial beings adopt our propensity for laziness.

Az: You cannot actually be suggesting what I infer you are implying.
Cr: Which is?
Az: That just one of us goes to Edinburgh, does both. The blessing and the tempting. Cr: We’ve done it before.
Az: Dozens of times now.
Cr: The arrangement.

The significance of this arrangement is that it’s got an angel doing demonic work, and a demon doing angelic work–which isn’t supposed to happen or even to be possible. After all, one of them is quintessentially GOOD and the other ostensibly BAD. But in the series itself Crowley states that the “higher ups” on both sides don’t really care how the jobs get done, only that they do get done.

To add to this, about 150 years later in Earth’s history, Aziraphale–complete muffin that he is–decides to hop across the Channel during la Terreur for some crèpes dressed like a the classy mofo. Of course, the French mistake him for an aristocrat and nearly behead him, but Crowley shows up in the nick of time to save him. During a brief exchange in which Crowley teases Aziraphale for his lack of common sense, we find out that neither heaven nor hell is responsible for la Terreur, but that humans thought it up all on their own. Notably, Aziraphale seems surprised that Crowley should have been responsible (*gushes*) when he finds out about the latter’s commendation, which implies either that he thought Heaven had set it in motion or had already assumed the humans were the originators.

Cr: My lot sent me a commendation for outstanding job performance.
Az: So all this is your demonic work?
Cr: No. The humans thought it up themselves.

This is not the only time in history that neither of them influenced an event that one could call either GOOD or BAD depending on one’s POV (though I can’t remember the other canonical time this happened and I’m lazy so I won’t give the example). Additionally, we watch them influence certain events collectively (for example, the reason Hamlet gets popular is because Aziraphale loves it, but can’t perform a frivolous miracle to draw crowds, so Crowley performs it for him (*gushes*)–and let’s be real the opinion on Hamlet is decidedly split: one either worships it like the fucking Bible or can’t stand its existence). All of this to say that the morally grey area is a major theme of Good Omens that plays out spectacularly within the Aziraphale/Crowley dynamic and puts to question the particular Christian binary of GOOD/BAD because it uses an angel and a demon (at Armageddon) to explore the theme.

The fans, of course, took the “is [blank] one of yours or one of ours?” and ran with it, because lbr it’s truly one of the more amazing thematic tropes of the series. Recently I was scrolling through Tumblr and I came across the below drawing which finally pushed me to write this blog post.

For most fans this is probably just a nice saucy temptation mixed with fluff which brings out all the good feels of longing and lust and forbidden love that we all stan so hard. But a huge part of why such a quote associated with this specific (illegitimate) relationship evokes these feelings has everything to do with the fact that yea, in Christian morality, whether or not mistletoe is heavenly or demonic is a totally legit question to ask and the answer is not always the same.

This is where I get into Christian sex ethics, 12th/13th century conventions of love, and mystiques courtoises. Strap in. Get ready. This is going to be an adventure.

First, we need to understand that Christian “ethics” and general thought worked on a binary: masc / fem, superior / inferior, celestial / earthly, spiritual / fleshly, pure / pourri, caritas / amor, virginity / sexual, etc. Second, we need to understand that this binary was fluid with regards to certain things, because people are people and no matter how hard we try to categorise everything perfectly, it’s simply not possible (take gender as a good modern example of this). I am going to give the specific example of marriage in medieval Catholicism to explain further.

I’ve already discussed the origins of Catholic dogma regarding sex and marriage on this blog–remember our main man Augustine? Yea. He’s back. Basically, if you recall, he made sex in marriage for procreation OK because we gotta have sex sometimes if we wanna propagate our species for the love of God. But fornication is super not OK, and virgins will always have a default claim to the moral high ground where sex is concerned. Awesome, but that makes 3 branches of sexual morality–how does that fit into a system of binaries? Well, because marriage belongs to both the spiritual/celestial/masculine/GOOD and to the fleshly/terrestrial/feminine/BAD. It’s fluid. When we juxtapose virginity and marriage, virgins are obviously more spiritual because reasons. But when we juxtapose marriage and fornication, marriage is the way to go because at least that sex is sanctioned by God (and presumably is being had for God’s sake). The table below offers a great visual of what I’m talking about.

GUERREAU-JALABERT, Anita, “Spiritus et caro dans la littérature courtoise: une perspective historique”, L’unique change de scène. Ecritures spirituelles et discours amoureux (XIIe-XVIIe siècle), dir. FERRER Véronique, MARCZUK Barbara, VALETTE Jean-René, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016, pp. 44.

See? Marriage is on both sides of the table. What does this have to do with the mistletoe? WELL. Allow me to tell you about Mechthild von Magdeburg, a 13th century German mystic. She was a Beguine who wrote down her visions in a book (Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit) starting around 1250: it’s a 7 part book that is a little bit lamenting over the shitty state of the world, a little bit instructing people how to love and worship God properly, and a little bit her own spiritual voyage towards union with God. The latter is what we will be looking at. And when I say union, I want your heads to be as much in the clouds of purity as in the depths of the gutters, because this shit gets explicit.

The tldr behind the theory of mystical union with God is that in the 12th to early 13th century male mystics like Bernard de Clairvaux, Hugues de Saint Victor, and Richard de Saint Victor (amongst others) wrote a whole fuckload of confusing shit (that I get to get into for my diss and will probably get into here in the future) about love (caritas) and the cheminement de l’ame vers Dieu (the voyage of the soul towards God)–essentially theorising how to achieve spiritual communion with God and to become One with him (the pinnacle of faith, as it were) through a well ordered and extreme love for God, who is Himself love (ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν οὐκ ἔγνω τὸν θεόν, ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. – et qui non diligit non novit Deum quoniam Deus caritas est – and he who does not love does not know God, for God is love (Epistula Iohannis I, 4 : 8)). What I’m getting at is: love (ἀγάπη / caritas specifically) sits at the epicentre of Christian faith. But a very specific kind of love.

In modern tongues, we don’t distinguish between a sort of platonic/spiritual love–which is caritas (latin) or minne (mittelhochdeutsch)–and carnal love–which is amor (latin & ancien français) or liebe (mittelhochdeutsch). We just waltz around being like LOVE – AMOR – AMOUR – LIEBE! Cool. But what’s interesting about the mystiques courtoises is that they (with influences from courtly literature of the time) bring a sexual, carnal element into caritas which really only existed in the Vulgate Canon in the Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs) up until this point. And damn is Mechthild a good example of this. An exemplary quote which is representative of the kind of union she envisions herself having with God is the following:

« …er durkússet si mit sinem gotlichen munde … Er trútet si mit voller maht in dem bette der minne. So kumt si in das hoehste wol und in das minnenklicheste we, wirt si sin reht inne. Eya liebú, nu la dich minnen und were dich nit mit grimme » (II, 23).

In this passage, the soul explains to minne (Mechthild here, though usually minne is God) how God effects a union with his “bride” and instructs her that this is the blessed and desired result of having gone through the (internal) voyage towards God. The first (and decidedly most shocking) couple of sentences translate thusly: “he kisses her passionately with his Godly mouth…He makes forceful and passionate love to her in the bed of love.”

Yeah.

She’s hardcore banging God.

Let that sink in.

Right. So. That’s sex. With God. But let’s note that the German specifies that 1/ Mechthild is minne (the beloved), and 2/ this is happening in the bette der minne. So while this is some seriously explicit sex (WHICH WAS TOTALLY SANCTIONED BY THE CHURCH I WILL HAVE EVERYONE KNOW), Mechthild also insists that we understand it in the context of a spiritual rather than carnal love. Now, I think we are meant to understand that at this point, the union is kind of like the marriage of the soul to Minne, and blah blah except Mechthild engages in many unions with God throughout the book–and I’m not even going to get started on Hadewijch von Antwerp’s relationship with God… not yet… Besides which, God breaks the rules of monogamy, because he officially has infinite spouses/brides (basically anyone who tries to achieve spiritual union with him) not to mention mistresses. This is dogma. Yea. So, we kind of have to doubt that Mecthild and God’s sexual encounters happen under the blanket of marraige (hah, blanket, see what I did there?).

Our girl Tilde, waking up to record the crazy sex she had with God last night, just in case no one believes her later.

So the question that this specific mystic leaves us with is: is sex (or love-making, as it were) God’s invention, or the devil’s? Which is, to bring it back around to the mistletoe, the same question that fans of the Ineffable Husbands ask A LOT in their art, writing, etc. concerning the relationship.

As I see it, the very nature of Mechthild’s paradox insists that Christian faith actually accepts fornication, breaking vows of chastity, etc but only insofar as it happens under the guise of caritas and total chastity. Because God’s law is love and God is love, any act of love–spiritual or carnal–must be sanctioned by him, or must at least be allowed a legitimate place in the practice of devotion and faith. Nevertheless some expressions of love remain condemned. But that, I believe, is neither work of heaven or of hell; either humans invented it (I place misogyny & homophobia here), or the celestial extremes collectively created it. (The latter of which, by the way, is my theory about the mistletoe: the Ineffable Husbands needed a loophole to express a love that was both divine and degenerate to Christian morality, just the same as Mechthild, just the same as sex in marriage).

-HANNAH VICTORIA


Further Reading:

Primary Sources

Mechthild von Magdeburg, Das Fließende Licht der Gottheit: Zweisprachige Ausgabe, Trad. Gisela Vollmann-Profe, Verlag der Weltreligion, Insel Verlag Berlin, 2010.

Bernardus Claraevallensis, De Diligendo Deo.

—, Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, Ms. Paris, BNF, Latin 14510, 1101-1200.

G. Epiney-Burgard, E. Zum Brunn, Femmes troubadours de Dieu, Editions Brepols, 1988.

St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trad. Par D.W. Robertson Jr., Patience Hall, 1997.

, De civitas dei.

Secondary Sources

ANDERSEN-WYMAN, Kathleen, Andreas Capellanus on Love?: Desire, Seduction, and Subversion in a Twelfth-century Latin Text, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

BALADIER, Charles, Erôs au Moyen Âge : Amour, désir, et « dilectatio morosa », Les éditions du Cerf, 1999.

BALADIER, Charles, DAVID-MENARD, Monique, IOGNA-PRAT, Dominique, LUCKEN, Christopher, « L’amour au Moyen Âge. Autour du libre de Charles Baladier, Erôs au Moyen Âge. Amour, désir et « delectatio morosa », Médiévales, no. 40, 2001 : pp. 133-157.

BITBOL-HESPERIES, Annie, « Connaissance de l’homme, connaissance de Dieu », Les Etudes philosophiques, no. 4, 1996 : pp. 507-533.

BROWN, Peter, « Augustine: Sexuality and Society », The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Columbia University Press, 1988: pp. 387-427.

BYNUM, Caroline Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, University of California Press, 1988.

COAKLEY, John, « Gender and the Authority of Friars: The Significance of Holy Women for Thirteenth-Century Franciscans and Dominicans », Church History, vol. 60, no. 4, 1991: pp. 445-460.

GAIMAN, Niel & PRATCHETT, Terry, Good Omens, dir. MACKINNON, Douglas, Prime Original, 2019.

HALARY, Marie-Pascale, La question de la beauté et le discours romanesque au début du XIIIe siècle, Paris, Honoré Champion éditeur, 2018.

HASENOHR, Geneviève, « D’une ‘poésie de béguine’ à une ‘poétique des béguines’. Aperçus sur la forme et la réception des textes (France, XIIIe-XIVe s.) », Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 150, no. 2, 2006 : pp. 913-943.

KNAUSS, Stefanie, « Aisthesis: Theology and the Senses », CrossCurrents, vol. 63, no. 1, 2013 : pp. 106-121.

L’Unique change de scène. Ecritures spirituelles et discours amoureux (XIIe-XVIIe siècle), dir. Ferrer (Véronique), Marczuk (Barbara), Valette (Jean-René), Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016.

Medieval Lyric: Genres in Historical Context, dir. William D. Paden, University of Illinois Press, 2000.

MOLLER, Herbert, « The Meaning of Courtly Love », The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 73, no. 287, 1960 : pp. 39-52.

—, « The Social Causation of the Courtly Love Complex », Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 1, no.2, 1959 : pp. 137-163.

MOORE, John C, « ’Courtly Love’: A Problem of Terminology », Journal of the History of Ideas, vol 40. No, 4, 1979 : pp. 621-632.

MOULINIER, Laurence, « Quête de Dieu et recherche de modèles. Naissance d’une tradition féminine dans la mystique allemande (XIIe-XIVe s.) », Quête de Dieu et naissance d’une tradition féminine dans la mystique allemande, Mai 2003, Nanterre, pp. 15-55.

NEWMAN, Barbara, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

PAYER, Pierre J, The Bridling of Desire: Views of Sex in the Later Middle Ages, University of Toronto Press Inc., 1993.

POOR, Sara S, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

—, « Transmission and Impact: Mechthild of Magdeburg’s Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit », A Companion to Mysticism and Devotion in Northern Germany in the Late Middle Ages, dir. Elizabeth Andersen, Henrike Lähnemann, Anne Simon, BRILL, 2013: pp. 73-102.

POUIVET, Roger, « Christianisme, épistémologie et sciences humaines.” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, vol. 60, no. 169 (2015) : pp. 143-156.

RASMUSSEN, Ann Marie, « Medieval German Romance », The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, dir Roberta L. Krueger, Cambridge University Press, 2000 : pp. 183–202.

RUH, Kurt, « Beginenmystik. Hadewijch, Mechthild von Magdeburg, Maguerite Porete », Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 106, no. 3, 1997 : pp. 265-277.

SAOUMA, Brigitte, Amour sacré, fin’amor : Bernard de Clairvaux et les troubadours, Leuven, Peeters, 2016.

TARRANT, Jacqueline, « The Clementine Decrees on the Beguines: Conciliar and Papal Versions », Archivum Historiae Pontificae, vol. 12 (1974): pp. 300-308.

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