The recently published Les Femmes Mystiques is an exceptional book; it is remarkable for the wealth of information it provides about women mystics of all the religions and spiritual movements from antiquity to the present, and it is remarkable from what can be interpreted from the overall impressions it exercises on readers.
It was complied under the direction of the young (37 years old) French specialist of religions Audrey Fella who leads in with a 43-page introduction in which she holds – and it certainly seems to be so – that it is within western Christianity in which there have been the greatest number of female mystics and that this is largely due to the influence of Jesus’ open attitude towards women, although she makes no mention of the influence of Saint Paul who clearly opted for the control and relegation of women to inferior status as all the historical religions have more or less done. Fella defines mysticism “as the union of the soul with God or the absolute” and believes that women mystics have “particularly distinguished themselves in “the affectionate and sometimes sensual mystic of love,” although “mysticism is no more feminine than it is masculine…and is not more natural to women than it is to men.”
More than 900 double-column pages of notices organized as a dictionary-encyclopedia, feature more than 250 women by more than fifty scholars of religion. This of course includes the Catholic women (more than half the total) we would expect to find like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, Thérèse de Lisieux, Héloïse, Bernadette Soubirous, or Edith Stein, but also the Protestants Sarah Edwards or Anne Lee, the Orthodox Xenia de Petersburg and the Copt Mary Kahil. And there are the Hindu Anadamayi Ma, the Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel, the Sufi Fâtima Bint Abî, the Hassid Malka Rokeah, and also Shintos, Taoists and Shamans…and, and the philosopher-scientist Hypathia, the Theosophist Helena Blavatsky, the Don Juan Matus and Carlos Castaneda-influenced neo-Shaman Taisha Abelar, artistic mystics like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf or Isadora Duncan, political mystics like Simone Weill, Wiccans like Starhawk, “pagan” occultists like Lotus de Païni… The book is very usefully completed by a 22-page glossary of selected mystical and spiritual terms.
However, there is a glaring and surprising lack in this book – the quasi-absence of women linked to Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way. There is no mention whatsoever of Jeanne de Salzmann, Olga De Hartmann, Henriette Lannes, Pauline de Dampierre or Louise Welch. This absence doesn’t seem to be a result of unawareness of the Gurdjieff movement because the American painter Georgia O’Keefe’s knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teachings and her links to Jean Toomer are mentioned.
In only six pages and less than 4000 words, the Spanish emeritus professor Bernard Sesé traces the amazing career of Teresa of Avila from somebody who felt that she was “a miserable ruin and sinner” to somebody who came out on the other side of mortifications, the tricks of the devil, extreme torment, pain, suffering, extraordinary visions of enthrallment, constant meditation, prayer and study to joy, bliss, grace, union in her body with Jesus, “peace, quietude and ineffable peace of the soul,” love and service to others and one of the most important roles in the construction of Roman Catholic spiritual theology and a personal example to many other saints and doctors of the Church. There is a full description of how Teresa in her Interior Castle mapped “the seven mansions of the path of the soul until the center of the intimate castle where a spiritual marriage takes place.” This notice is a near-perfect example of what is possible using the way of devotion, a way that the Hindus name bhakti, personal devotion, adoration and loving faith, but it doesn’t adequately address questions which any person aspiring to neutrality must – did Teresa relish in suffering and was her despicience of the ordinary world (in Autobiography, the Way of Perfection she saw “ecstasy” as “making the soul despise the things of this world.”) a price that must be paid for magical religious rapture?
The notice about the Hindu saint and spiritual master Anadamayi Ma by the emeritus professor of INALCO (the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris) France Bhattacharya is especially well done. It tells how Anadamayi rose from a poor village girl in Bengal, subject to ecstatic trances, married off at 13, but refusing sexual relations, who at 22 years old experienced the divine kheyâl – the spontaneous desire for spiritual practice – and without the assistance of any guru became a spiritual master of immense emotional and intellectual intensity with a worldwide following. She respected Hindu rituals and unsurprisingly recommended a Hindu strictly vegetarian diet (without garlic or onions seen among Hindus following a spiritual path as foods which excite desires and favor a lack of mental control), but she was also noted for supporting spiritual equality irregardless of sex and caste.
I must mention that the notice about Anadamayi solved a longstanding personal mystery for me. As a young man I traveled from Paris (by all sorts of means, mostly hitchhiking) to the holy city of Hardwar in northern India to meet Anadamayi and at the end of a long day of rituals and talk I asked her to sign a book of her sayings and she signed with a dot, which I immediately interpreted as an esoteric symbol…and after all these years I learned from Bhattacharya’s notice that quite simply Anadamayi didn’t know how to write.
The notice about the neo-Shaman Taisha Abelar by Audrey Fella is particularly instructive for the questions it raises about the relevance of the abundance of criticism of the American Toltec shaman Carlos Castaneda (notably by William Patrick Patterson in The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda in which he gives us a catastrophic portrait, especially of Castaneda’s last days, or his disappearance). While Fella mentions the widespread charges of fraud which Castaneda’s writings have provoked, notably the culminating magical practice of jumping off a cliff leading “to the passage from ordinary reality to another reality,” the notice about Abelar’s experiences seems to corroborate Castaneda‘s experiences and at the very least indicates a coherent spiritual system no different from what goes on in many other systems, and notably Tibetan Lamaism, and opens the question about is really possible using extreme methods and how all this can be divided into reality, imagination, self-suggestion or symbolic-metaphorical meaning. It brings to mind the definition of mythology by the British scholar of religions S.H. Hooke, in Middle Eastern Mythology : “The right question to ask about myth is not, ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What is it intended to do?’ ”
However, for anybody who believes that any wee particle of truth which we can find is in science and art rather than in religion or for anybody who is an atheist, it has to be acknowledged that what we have in Fella’s book is a huge accumulation of the usual mystic stuff about sexual abstinence, anorexia, stigma, lacrymations, possession, demonology, angelology, relics, visions, prophecies, premonitory dreams, dictated writing, healing and of course various mortifications. It is easy to interpret all this as psychosomatic phenomena born from an incapacity to accept reality as it is, or a refusal of reality, or a wishful, unquenchable thirst for a meaningful life, but one of the paradoxical and remarkable interpretations which can be made from Fella’s book is the overall impression that whatever one accepts or refuses about the truth of what is related it is impossible not to conclude that what we often have here are authentic spiritual adventures and the mystery of people who truly believe in spiritual fulfillment…and above all that often the genuine result is consolation, a consolation which rarely can be found in the spiritual paths which are less centered on mysticism.
This is turn raises a question which Gurdjieff addressed – as quoted by Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous; Gurdjieff states that monks are frequently “naïve”, but their essence, “the truth in man”, is more developed than in “an average cultured man”, a factor which opens the way of the fakir or the way of the monk to him…but “the method and means which are possible for a man of developed intellect are impossible for him.” Gurdjieff underscores that the way of the monk is “the way of faith, the way of religious feeling, religious sacrifice. Only a man with very strong religious emotions and a very strong religious imagination can become a monk. …All his work is concentrated on…feelings…But his physical body and his thinking capacities may remain undeveloped. …In order to be able to make use of what he has attained, he must develop his body and his capacity to think. …Very few get as far as this; even fewer overcome all the difficulties. Most of them either die before this or become monks in outward appearance only.” And so what one might venture to assert – and what we see in Fella’s book – is that the mystic, the monk, does indeed often find consolation, but that it is far less often than he or she goes far down the path towards unified growth, what Gurdjieff called “a real I am”, that is of course if one believes that any of the esotericisms or religions do in fact provide the means for a radical transformation rather than just constituting the fulcrum for a magnificent failure.
On the whole, Audrey Fella’s book is remarkably evenhanded and can be used for reference needs or even read from A to Z as fascinating biography. It is a sincere attempt to relate facts, or apparent facts, sprinkled with doses of criticism and even skepticism, but of course it has to be said that that like any book compiled by dozens of people with varied sensitivities it is also riddled with notices which make no attempt to separate possible legend from possible fact, an example of this being the notice about the Virgin Mary, Mother of God in which the usually related tale of Mary and the standard interpretation and meaning of her role are spun out by Thérèse Nadeau-Lacour, a professor of moral theology at the université Laval in Québec.
I hope that this book will soon be translated into English.
Fella, Audrey, (Directeur de la publication), Les Femmes Mystiques: histoire et dictionnaire, 1 vol (1087 pages), Notes bibliogr., Glossaire, Index, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2013.
Simson Najovits is a writer and former Editor-in-Chief of Radio France Internationale where he broadcast on lifestyles, religion and politics. His stories, poems, essays and articles have been published in Canada, the United States, France and Britain. He is the author of the two-volume, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, published by Algora in New York and translated into Arabic by Shorouk in Cairo. He has been awarded Canada Arts Council and Quebec Arts Council grants. He has lived in Paris for many years and spent many years in the Work.