You must gaze fixedly at God with the sweet glance of single affection, freely devoting yourself to the One Beloved . . . only then can you rest with St. John who slept on Jesus’ breast, as still must do those who serve Love in freedom. They rest on that sweet, wise breast and see and hear secret ineffable words, whispered by the Holy Spirit - words which can in no way be heard or perceived by ordinary men.
— Hadewijch of Antwerp, Letter XVIII
The sight with which the soul is endowed by nature is Charity. This sight has two eyes: Love and reason. Reason can see God only in what He is not; Love rests not except in what He is. Reason has safe paths along which to proceed: Love feels Her failure, but this failure makes Her advance more than reason does. Reason proceeds towards what God is by what He is not; Love sets aside the things that God is not and rejoices in Her failure, as regards what God is. Reason is more easily satisfied, but Love has more sweetness and bliss.
— Hadewijch of Antwerp, Letter XVIII

She who wears the Grey Mantle endures reason but leans into love for love's sake. . .

            The  laundromat in our local town is a dreary place. Those tossed aside by life’s harshness arrive hauling their dirty laundry behind them like shameful baggage, their chins tucked into their necks, gazing at the soiled linoleum that peels back at the edges making the floor a mottled mine field for the unsuspecting. I arrive this particular morning after my own machines have gone on strike. I have a fist full of change. Money is tight. But today I have a pink fifty-dollar bill and one green twenty for groceries. I fill the machines and sit down at the small child’s desk tucked in the corner beside the dryers to think and write. Here I can drift off in the steamy room, close my eyes, and ponder.

            I wander out into an open and barren field, devoid of life forms. I hear voices off in the distance, bright and brittle party talk cut through with belligerent wails and silent screams but I cannot make out the language. It is a dissonant gurgle in my ears. I am looking elsewhere for my answer, stalking the labyrinth of my mind, a cloudy, messy place, so many detours, so many dead ends. Somewhere here, reason resides, if not rules, or so Descartes and the boys would have me think.

            Gandhi, that intrepid sage, whispers through my consciousness, “Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there, and to be guided by truth as one sees it.” One addict to another, I trust his words, he who shares the battle of the lentils with me, the battle of the flesh. He like I, distrusts the knowledge of this world and the fickleness of the mind, preferring to chart the unknown richness of the heart.

            Alas, I have recently handed mine over to the angels. They have promised to be gentle, but even the sweetest of touches on the tissue paper of my soul sears. The vein of darkness that they pick away at is hopelessly embedded. They make soothing tut, tut noises, drinking endless cups of Earl Grey tea out of impossibly thin china cups as they take breaks from the tedious work, the older ones stretching out the cramps in their liver spotted hands, releasing little sighs of exhaustion like dandelion puffs upon the wind. Tied up in the velvet ribbon of memories my history is an unruly vine, an egregious flirt all but obscuring the rosa rugosa of God’s intended life. But those devoted angels don’t seem to notice the tangle, working tirelessly to pluck the burdock from my heart, leaving nothing but charity and hope.

            It seems simple enough, this search for truth. I start with my hands, my self, my person. Shall I trust in some doctrine of the blood, some inclination through years of breeding that might have produced in me some sense of goodness? I think not. My blood flows thick with Nazi sympathizers, American profligates and nasty Scottish potentates. If I am searching for the rightness of things in my spotty gene pool my only hope lies with my grandmother, brilliant, beautiful and disgraced, a working class woman from Glasgow, who might be dismissed out of hand as any kind of moral savant. But it is she whom I knelt beside as a child to pray. It is she who taught me that truth is often obscured by facts and verity more often found in the lowly and much maligned than in those fattened on the high pasture.  

            And what of my mind? The rationalists have such faith in reason. I have little in mine. Reason seems a rusty and archaic vehicle, cumbersome and plodding. Would it not be best to soar on the wings of some bright imagining, hoping for a glimpse of God’s eternal robes, waiting for a moment of illumination that transforms?

            I am but a bit of thread in a tapestry that stretches through eternity. I know little of what has been and what is to come. Even if I were to study all of history, still I would only know what has been recorded. She who has stood in the middle of the meadow in summer, leaned down to hear the early morning gossip of the katydids, and watched the poppies wiggle into their voluptuous skirts for the afternoon tea dance, must know the sweetness of this time passed cannot be captured in mere words, the clumsy invention of lesser minds than God’s. Why should I then rely on my ungainly wit, so dull, so inadequate, when I can reach up to God and feel the warmth of his breath?

            Our minds, our reason looks always for parameters, for ‘normal’. There is no error is this, only a stifling smallness, a confinement. There are those who think it is our greatest possession, this reason. I am not so sure. Perhaps it was only given because we did not have the courage to live in the spacious and terrifying residence of our hearts, which are neither God’s nor ours, but some eclectic mix of life and love where God, ourselves, and all the precious others are jostled together in a effervescent cocktail.

            It is hard to live in the heart. I have tried. I try still. But with such a vengeance this world will yank me back, as though dragging an errant child who has played too long in the woods, back, back, back to the stiff backed chairs of the cold classroom where reason rules and I can only remember the sunshine by smelling the fading warmth upon my skin.

            Ah, but here we are, I no longer struggle through the maze, I am no longer confined by the Gordian knot of boxwood thoughts. I am seemingly in some glorious place, pale mauve with the early morning light and the scent of lavender. The artist’s palate draws me to the carmine lupines poking up between the peonies and as I walk toward them I feel ever so gently a hand upon my right shoulder. I do not have to turn to know who it is. I have traced his flowing robes with my child’s hand too many times not to know his presence. I am surer that he walks beside me than I am of my own heartbeat.  How glad I am to have so good a guide, for left to my own devices I might surely wander from the garden, lost forever in the delights of this world, chit chatting with those clever philosophers who draw me with their bright minds, lured by those audacious scholars with their scathing wit and quick banter, seduced by the soothing sounds of those pious theologians who appear to hide the secrets of faith in the deep pockets of their robes.

            I am not naïve. I have sojourned with Christ before. It is not all astilbe and hollyhocks, for his way is filled with dreadful things that go bump in the night, large sad eyed impostors that screech in the darkness, passages through the forest where nefarious creatures nip at your heels and the faces of the lonely and lost are carved deep into the twisted bark of the beech trees.

            But I will go with him never the less, for all else now seems intolerable dullness. I shall choose this glorious and uncertain romance where right is never known but in the moment and wrong not often seen until it is done and understanding illuminates it. No doubt the angels will work overtime and I will be much in need of divine grace. But to love is to stumble into the unknown joyfully, hoping to be caught in the beloved’s arms.

            I finish folding my laundry in perfect peace when she starts to bang furiously on the large silver washing machine that takes twelve quarters. "Fucking machine," she shouts, as she bangs away, a thin whippet of a girl with long brown hair. Her toddler sucking on a straw nearby stands on unsteady feet wide-eyed with fright. I ask her what the difficulty is. Apparently the machine took three of her quarters. I offer her three of mine but her sullen looking husband has already trudged off to their truck, where supposedly there is a bucket of silver coin. To my offer of help she is sweet, embarrassed, perhaps thinking her language has offended me. Having raised three teenagers and worked in the film industry for years, that’s not likely.

            I am in need of a quick trip to the washroom, a small dirty room with garbage spilling from the wastebasket. I flush the toilet, turn out the light and there I am leaning against the door in the dank room crying.

            What do you want? Here? I close my eyes and feel the mantle being laid upon my shoulders. They have lovely long hair, loose and wavy, their slender bodies swaddled in silks of glorious colours, their waists belted in jewels. The pink one? No, not the pink one. 

            I dry my tears and return to the florescent aggression of the room. How? ‘You can ask the husband to help.’ He is a large lump of a person drawing furiously on a cigarette, sitting on a washing machine and banging his heels against it to some imagined tune in his head. I can’t.

            How about the girl? She sits reading a five year old People magazine, oblivious of her youngster who stares blankly at the box of dirty, broken toys that have been set out for lost children like himself.  I wonder briefly if their presence only adds to the sense of grief that has already moulded the curve in his small back. All his energy is directed to the dirty straw that is the lifeline to his father’s shadow.

            I want to flee this place full of despair and brokenness, but I have promised. Oh, Father, will the girl do? I ask her to help me carry my laundry to the car. She jumps up quickly to help and as she does I tuck the fifty-dollar bill in her hands. She stares. You don’t have to do this, she says. Yes, I do, I reply.

            Later I am in the grocery store with one green twenty left. I have given away what little grocery money there was to a slim girl with brown hair I do not know. I wonder what God knows that I do not. I wonder at the mystery I live in. You can’t tell people about it really, because if you aren’t living in the middle of it you would not understand. I wonder as I push my grocery cart around the empty store if there are other ordinary looking people who are wearing soft grey mantels, only visible to God.

            So I smile at everyone I meet, because, well, you never know.

And I hope my beloved is pleased. 

Learn to know
What Love commands;
Heed the love of nobody,
For Love covers
Those She teaches
As if with seraphim wings.
— Hadewijch of Antwerp, Poem XIX
And I understood that, neither in heaven nor when taken up in the spirit can one enjoy one’s own will unless it is in accordance with the will of Love.
— Hadewijch of Andwerp, 11th Vision