For centuries the Church’s preferred method of dealing with troublesome women was to burn them as witches. But comparatively few women have shared the fate of Marguerite Porete, an obscure French mystic who was branded as a heretic in 1310. Little is known of her life apart from the Inquisition’s record of her trial, where she was condemned for having published a book whose title was not given. Porete might have disappeared from history altogether had not some 20th-century literary sleuthing identified her as the author of a heretofore anonymous spiritual work called The Mirror of Simple Souls. This book, which had circulated for more than 600 years after her death with no effort to suppress it, had probably been the one introduced as evidence against her at her trial. Porete did herself no favors by refusing to recant or to cooperate with her interrogators in any way. With a commission of 21 theologians and a panel of three bishops lined up against her, the outcome was never in doubt. Porete was convicted of “the stain of heretical depravity” and burned at the stake.
What exactly did the Church find so troublesome about Marguerite Porete? The Mirror of Simple Souls is a devotional work, largely unconcerned with theological niceties, which may have been the problem. The book describes seven stages in the “annihilation” of the soul as it is drawn into mystical union with God. Once absorbed into God, the soul no longer has a will of its own. Porete writes: “This soul lives in the peace of God's Love; is saved by faith without works; knows only Love; does nothing for God; leaves nothing to do for God; cannot be taught; possesses no will; and to whom nothing can be given or taken.” This is where Porete got into trouble, because she made it clear that souls abiding in God’s love did not need to play by the church’s rules. Her statement that “the soul is no longer a servant of the Virtues; but the Virtues flow out of her without a thought” was somehow interpreted as a license to sin.
Nothing in Porete’s book differed radically from the writings of other medieval mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart – none of whom fell victim to the Inquisition (although Eckhart came close). However, Porete was believed to be a member of the Beguines, a lay religious community for women that spread throughout Northern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Beguines aroused the suspicions of ecclesiastical authorities because they believed in a personal experience of God and were not under the direct supervision of the church. Had Porete’s book been written in Latin for a clerical audience, it might have escaped condemnation. But it was written in French and enjoyed a popular following in various vernacular translations, thereby threatening the church’s franchise in godly matters.
The use of the term “annihilation” to characterize the soul’s union with God may sound startling to modern ears. However, Porete had no violent intention in mind but merely sought to convey the complete disappearance of the soul once it is absorbed into God. In modern terms, she was talking about the dissolution of ego or self. Spiritual seekers rarely consider what it might mean when the object of all their devotions and exertions no longer exists apart from themselves – or perhaps I should say, when there is no longer anyone apart from God seeking to be unified with him. They imagine themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek in sublime oneness with God, not realizing they would vanish without a trace. There is no opportunity even to surrender to God’s will, since there is no one left to do the surrendering. As Porete warned, “Know that in God there is nothing but God.”
It is not hard to see why the Inquisition sought first to burn copies of Porete’s book and then to burn its author. All the ministrations of the church – prayers, penances, sacraments, good works and every other form of spiritual striving – are essentially means to an end, which become superfluous once the end is reached. Not only are they superfluous, but at a certain point they hinder the progress of the soul by subtly reinforcing the illusion that there is progress to be made. How exactly do we get closer to God if God is all there is? As the spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade later expressed it, “Those who damn their souls do so by attempting to achieve through their fantasies what those who save their souls achieve through submitting to [God’s] will.”
There is a gospel story that speaks to the hindrance of spiritual striving. A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him he must keep the commandments, to which the young man replies, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” At this point, Jesus throws him a curve. "If you would be perfect,” he says slyly, “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Jesus, of course, is testing the rich young man. He recognizes that his young friend isn’t really interested in eternal life; he wants to be perfect, which is not the same thing. So Jesus instructs him to give away all he has, which is the one thing that the rich young man is not prepared to do.
The disciples who witness this exchange are thoroughly appalled. If someone as righteous as this young man fails to measure up, then who can be saved? "With men this is impossible,” Jesus replies, “but with God all things are possible." Salvation doesn’t come by trying to measure up but by giving up. Or as it says quite plainly in the Book of Proverbs: “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” To know God is to know that God is all there is, which means we are nothing. And that leaves just one final thing for us to do: absolutely nothing.
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment