A Skeptic Inside the Nunnery

Aelred wrote that God was performing miracles daily at the Gilbertine Priory of Watton: “In the midst of daily manual labor and the customary psalmody,” the handmaids of Christ were devoted to “spiritual offices and heavenly theories. Many, as if saying farewell to the world and all things which are of the world, are often rapt in certain undescribable departures and seem to be among the choir of angels.” . . .

In a sermon, Aelred used as an illustration a story about another Gilbertine nun. Able to exclude from her heart all love of the world, desires of the flesh, concern for the body, and anxiety about exterior things, this nun began to burn with longing for heaven. Sometimes when she knelt for prayer, she was overcome with a certain wondrous sweetness that extinguished her other thoughts and affections. While in this state, she seemed to be snatched from the world; and in an ineffable and incomprehensible light, she saw Christ, seemingly in a corporeal form but actually in a spiritual vision. After she spent more than an hour in this departure from her body, the other nuns struck her so that she returned to her senses. . . .

The mystical experiences of one became the aim of the others. When they tried to imitate the first nun, they too began to receive this grace, some even unwillingly.

One nun, a virgin and woman “of great distinction,” objected. She attempted to dissuade her sisters on the grounds that the “knowing” was not spiritual but the result of illness or illusionary phantoms. Criticizing the others for paying more attention to these visions than to virtues, the skeptic asked God to make it plain to her if the visions were from him. Although she wanted the gift of discernment, she insisted that she did not want mystical experiences herself: she did not want her soul to be seized from her body and lifted from her mind, nor did she want to be separated from all the things she loved.

Finally, in Lent, while contemplating the passion of the Lord, the skeptic was “snatched up.” In a spiritual vision, she saw Jesus hanging on the cross—bound with nails, pierced by the lance, profusely bleeding from his five wounds—and looking at her with tender eyes. Returning to herself, she broke into tears. According to Aelred, this experience convinced her that she had simply been less worthy than the others, and hence she had earlier been denied the same light they had enjoyed.

Aelred’s portrayal of Gilbertine nuns shows a spiritual vitality that otherwise goes unmentioned in the records.

By Aelred of Rievaulx

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #30 in 1991]

Aelred of Rievaulx (1110–1167) was an influential abbot who has sometimes been called “the English Saint Bernard.” In his letters and sermons he described life inside a nearby priory. This account is taken from Holy Women of Twelfth-century England by Sharon K. Elkins (North Carolina, 1988).
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