Few lives in Swedish medieval history are so amply documented as Birgitta's, or Bridget, as she is known in the English-speaking world.
She was born, it would seem, in 1303. Sweden then was ruled by the Folkung dynasty with bloody feuding between King Birger and his brothers, Dukes Erik and Valdemar. Sweden, meaning Svealand and Götaland—the central and southern parts of the country as we know it today—had been christianized and, ecclesiastically, brought under the authority of Rome; the baptism of King Olof (Skötkonung) at Husaby Spring in 1008 is generally taken to mark the definitive triumph of Christianity. The west of Finland, with Turku as its capital, was ruled by Sweden. There were close links—political, religious and cultural—between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and these relations were sealed politically by dynastic marriages. In 1397, twenty-four years after Birgitta died, the three countries were amalgamated to form one vast kingdom under Queen Margareta of Denmark.
On the Continent, there was a long-standing rivalry between Emperor and Papacy for European mastery. Could the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” function at all without papal benediction or imperial coronation? Who had the last word?
Regularly recurring conflicts on this point led in 1309 to the migration of the Holy See to Avignon, a “captivity” in a golden cage which was to last until 1376, three years after the death of Birgitta.
At about the same time as Birgitta was born, Marco Polo wrote about his travels in China and Petrarch first saw the light of day. A few years before that, in 1300, Dante had reached “the middle of his life's pilgrimage”, getting lost in the dark forest we encounter in the opening lines of The Divine Comedy.
Although Rome found the remote Nordic kingdoms hard to control all through the Middle Ages, Sweden at that time was permeated by a Christian conception of world and time to an extent which, today, is hard for us to imagine. The Church, as a holy community and an organism with an ecclesiastical hierarchy, had, and still retains, quite a different status from its position in Lutheranism. "There is no salvation outside the Church." Grace and the sacraments are administered by the clergy, and the individual can never be saved by faith alone. The Christian's life is in the Church and its community, and he is guided by the servants of the Church. The services, the liturgy, the festivals of the ecclesiastical year are more than reminders; they are like breakwaters in this life, with a single, irreplaceable task—that of glorifying God in the community of the Church, providing the forgiveness of sins and membership of the mystic body of Christ.
It was in this atmosphere of a religion still new to the North that Birgitta grew up, surrounded by a piety which takes on a special hue as a result of her family belonging to the aristocracy and being related, on her mother's side, to the royal family. Christian ethics in this milieu bore the imprint of the romantic chivalry which had evolved on the Continent and in England: the realization of Christian ideals was entrusted to the estate of knighthood, with its vassal-like duty to God and Christ, "the Prince of Bethlehem".
This was all the more self-evident because society, both secular and sacred, was and ought to be strictly hierarchic. The Gothic pointed arch of society was held together by Pope, Emperor and kings, supported in their turn by a narrow circle of faithful vassals. When Magnus Eriksson succeeded to the crown of Sweden in 1330, he was presented with a manual of the art of government which spelt out the sovereign's responsibility to God. The same responsibility devolved on Birgitta's family. The mighty of this world were the building stones of the divine edifice.
At the age of 13, Birgitta was given in marriage to Ulf Gudmarsson, a rather indistinct character who, through kinship connections, became lawman of the province of Västergötland. Already in early years, her life was shaped by the dialectic between spiritual and worldly. She took part in the life of the magnate classes, brought eight children into the world, and seems generally to have had a healthy and sensuous appetite for what was offered her. At the same time she quickly perceived the futility of her way of life and its incompatibility with evangelical demands for renunciation and devotion. The gravity of her nature was perhaps deepened by the premature death of one of her sons. About 40 years old she and her husband went on pilgrimage to the grave of the apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Ulf fell ill on the way home and in 1344, after they had returned to Sweden, he died at the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra, not far from Vadstena. As he lay dying he gave Birgitta his ring to wear as a memento. But a few days after his death the widow threw away the token of their 28-year union. She felt that the ring would too much remind her of the past. She would now begin a new life, wholly dedicated to the imitation of Christ.
Birgitta's childhood, youth and marriage were documented in the biographies accompanying the petition for her canonization around 1390. These had been composed by her confessors, the same men who had edited her Revelations and translated them into Latin. It is these Revelations which, combined with her way of life after Ulf died, give Birgitta her human and religious profile. Together with a number of other surviving documents and prayers, they provide a unique portrait of a medieval, intensely Christian personality, sustained by the certainty of a special, divine vocation. The idea of a mission from God apparently came to her a few years after Ulf Gudmarsson died. At the time—from 1344 to 1349—Birgitta was living in a building next to Alvastra Monastery, which had been founded in the mid-12th century by the Cistercians, then governed by St Bernard.
The Bernardine piety which Birgitta encountered in Alvastra left its mark on her own religious nature. Bernard had emphasized an inward, personal relationship to God. Next to Christ, the figure of Mary stood at the center, with meditation on the humility, virginity and maternity of the Mother of God. He preached the importance of re-living her suffering in connection with the fate of her Son, her reunification with Him after death. And then there was Mary as the Mother of Mercy and an example to humanity. As Birgitta herself was to do later on, he wrote a special Marian liturgy, containing prayers and songs of praise which could equally well have come from her hand.
It was here, sometime after her husband's death—the Revelations are undated and the chronology uncertain—that Birgitta had the vision of her vocation. It is Christ who speaks:
"I have chosen you and taken you as My bride to show you My secrets.... You have rightly become Mine, because on your husband's death you placed your will in My hands and, after his death, you also pondered how you might become poor for My sake, and you prayed for this. You have been willing to leave everything for My sake, and therefore you have the right to become Mine. For the sake of your great love I should provide for you. Therefore I take you to be My bride and for My own pleasure, such as it befits God to have with a chaste soul." (Rev. I:2)
Thus, a turning point. In terms which can be traced back to the Bernardine bridal mysticism, as she may have encountered it in Alvastra Monastery, she finds herself united with Christ in a sacramental, life-long relationship. Spiritual marriage requires fidelity, the imitation of Christ: a life as close as possible to the love and abstinence distinguishing God made Man. Birgitta is also a child of her time in this emphasis of such imitation. Thomas à Kempis' world-famous work Imitatio Christi, The Imitation of Christ, is now assumed to date from the closing years of the 13th century.
Eventually, while Birgitta was still living in Alvastra, her vocation led to what she interpreted as a command from Christ to found a "new vineyard to His Mother's glory"—a new order, a new convent. She dictated the rules that were revealed to her. Her amanuensis-confessor took them down and translated them into Latin. He noted that the convent was to include both men and women, under the leadership of a mother and abbess.
In 1349 Birgitta left Alvastra with a retinue of five or six. Rome was her destination. 1350 was a jubilee year of the Church, with special indulgences for all pilgrims, and this was presumably one purpose of the pilgrimage. First and foremost, though, she intended to campaign on the Continent for papal approval of her plans for a new order and, if possible, to try and sway the rulers of the Church in favor of greater evangelical fidelity; she had had Revelations about this. The thing now was to try and prevail on the popes to return to Rome from Avignon, in the south of France, where they had been residing since 1309. Rome was the Holy City, to St Augustine the capital and starting point of the foreordained process which would lead one day to the establishment of the City of God, Civitas Dei. It was the place which, once and for all, had been appointed for the popes. This question, the revival of Rome as the center of Christianity, became the main theme of Birgitta's political message. Through letters and representations, supported by her Revelations, she eventually became a figure to reckon with in ecclesiastical politics.
She traveled through the Europe of the Black Death, arriving in Rome in 1350. Apart from travels in Italy and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1372-1373, she remained in Rome all the time until her death in 1373. The house where she lived and died, now in Piazza Farnese, but at that time in Campo dei Fiori, which was then bigger than today, can still be seen. It is now the home of a Bridgettine convent, belonging to the branch of the order which was founded by another Swedish woman, Elisabeth Hesselblad, and approved in 1920.
Birgitta's biography, of course, is mainly interesting insofar as it sheds light on her religious life, her spirituality. Our source of information is in her Revelations—texts which are 600 years old but still quite accessible. Over a period of more than twenty years, she dictated them to her confessors, who then translated them into Latin. These Revelations, Revelationes celestes, are collected in eight books and a supplement, running to something like 1,400 pages in modern print.
They convey the picture of a clearly structured personality. We are confronted with a person of outstanding will power and rare vitality, of a practical disposition and not very interested in theoretical questions. She has striking powers of observation, an acute sense for details and fluency of self-expression. She is also a great lover of nature; the Swedish landscape makes its first literary appearance through her obiter dicta.
Birgitta is religiously gifted, with constant faith and a will to deeper perception; a serious person, capable of attracting other people by her inner strength. There must have been something sympathetic and appealing about her—surviving testimonies tell as much. An English servant girl records that she has a friendly, smiling look—"a laughing face". A "tenera persona" is how her confessors described her—slender and short of stature. We are also told that she was "simplicissima et mansuetissima"—most simple and mild.
The faith in which she grew up and which she never appears to have questioned is based on a divine justice and the polarity between original sin and divine grace. The escape route from punishment and perdition by the canons of justice is through a life in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel, a life in the imitation of Christ. But never by faith alone. The layman depended on the servants of the Church for the conferring of the sacraments: confession, the forgiveness of sins, the Eucharist in accordance with the rules of the Church.
To people of the 14th century, and especially those who had become acquainted with Bernardine piety, insistence on imitatio prompted a will to imitation transcending the bounds of outward, active life. The true Christian should re-live the life of the Savior and, as far as possible, identify with His suffering, His self-sacrifice for the benefit of mankind. A woman, as the bride of Christ, should faithfully follow the Master, united with Him in love and life, just as a wife follows her husband. To those who took it seriously, the demand for imitation was something absolute—and absolutely impossible. It could only be an endeavor. And the best preconditions for the life of purity were to be found in the monastic community, with its carefully regulated days, offices, obedience, chastity and poverty.
It is this surrender by Birgitta of her will, her private life and her love which Christ acknowledges in the vision of her vocation.
Empathy with the life of the supremely exemplar brings with it a concentration on suffering—the Passion, in all its details up to the Death on the Cross. It was of course the Golgotha pilgrimage, the path of pain, which formed the coda, the intense summarization of the life of Christ, the sacrifice which, in the Biblical narratives, was preceded by the Last Supper. Birgitta visualizes the scourging in Pilate's courtyard, Christ stumbling under the Cross, his protracted death. Towards the end of her life, during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1372, she herself walks along the reconstructed Via Dolorosa, past the famous fourteen stations, resting points on the road to death and resurrection.
So the Precursor's pain had to be kept alive, and life had to be made a continuous "training in Christianity", as Kierkegaard put it. In this the Holy Virgin was the natural guide and example. In classical Christian meditation, Mary has also been portrayed as the person identifying most strongly with suffering. Birgitta, who had herself experienced the death of two children, came to focus more and more on Mary as a mother figure and the incarnation of Christian living. Concentration on Mary became one of the constituents of her spirituality and mysticism.
Stabat mater dolorosa—here stands the sorrowing mother, witness and co-actor in the Biblical tragedy.
In the Revelations, which include three major narratives of the Passion, Mary describes to Birgitta her suffering at the pains afflicting her Son. These narratives are blatantly specific, with no shunning of macabre details. Birgitta listens in her vision to Mary speaking:
"First they fixed His right hand to the tree, in which holes had been drilled for the nails, and they pierced His hand at the point where the bone was firmest. Next they stretched His other hand with a rope.... Then they crucified His right foot with two nails.... After doing this they put the crown of thorns on His head, and it pricked my Son's venerable head so fiercely that His eyes were filled with the flowing blood, His ears were blocked and His beard utterly defaced by the blood running down.... And as He hung there, bloody and stung through, He took pity on me, looked with His blood-filled eyes at my nephew John and entrusted me to him. At that moment I heard somebody say that my Son was a robber, others that He was a liar, others that nobody deserved more to die.... On hearing this, my pain was renewed. And.... when the first nail was driven into Him, I was beside myself with the sound of the first blow and I fell down as if dead, everything went black before my eyes, my hands and legs trembled, and in my agony I was unable to look up until He was nailed quite fast...." (Rev. I:10)
Time and time again, these and other vividly perceived images of torture come forth in the Revelations. To the reader they seem like stage directions, spiritual exercises resembling those of Ignatius Loyola, designed for the intensification of experience—Birgitta's own, that of her contemporaries and that of posterity. Mary could never forget what she had experienced, compassion with the Child was ever-present. This is Birgitta's starting point. Between the lines of the detailed, sometimes excessively detailed, Revelations, there emerges a "Bridgettine" view of womanhood, an assertion of woman's special role in the drama which is the realization of God's kingdom. Woman more than man, Birgitta and all her sisters, within the convent walls and beyond them, have a special opportunity and capacity to enter into the situation of the suffering mother and to hold it constantly in view.
To Birgitta, Mary acquired more than the part of a witness. To no less an extent is she, who was absolved of original sin and made Mother of Christ, an incarnation of mercy. Emblematically, this equals the love which forgives all, sees the child in the adult sinner, understands without judging. In this, presumably, Birgitta is drawing on her own experience.
After her Son's death, Birgitta writes, Mary became both "head and queen" of the twelve apostles and the other disciples. The first Christian community, in Birgitta's view, was a matriarchate. The men/disciples had their practical tasks: spreading the word, administering the sacraments, outwardly directing the growing organization of the Church, headed by Peter and his successors. But Mary, by virtue of her absolute love and her identification with her Son's suffering, is at one and the same time the earthly and heavenly example above all others. This idea was to achieve lasting and practical expression in Birgitta's Rule for life in the convent.
"For there is not one single idea in Heaven which is not in the Divinity, instituted and foreseen by it. And there is not one grain of dust on earth, not one spark in Hell which is beyond His jurisdiction and could hide itself from His prescience.... Perfect wisdom and power are with God, and therefore it is so established that none can prevail against it. Nothing is foolish, all is sensible, fitting for every thing...." (Rev. II:17)
The Bridgettine world is subject to laws, structured, defined once and for all but nevertheless in motion according to an other-worldly plan, slowly unfolding. Everywhere divine justice prevails, softened by mercy but stern nevertheless. The process is administered and supervised by the Holy and Universal Church, given by God.
This is the same conception of the world as we find in Dante. Just like Virgil's companion, Birgitta sometimes trembles at the clockwork-like logic of the divine machinery which she seems to encounter in her Revelations. Lofty prelates, secular magnates, relatives—all departed—have been taken after death to a heavenly court over which Christ presides, with Mary as the Advocate of Mercy. For the evil, the Devil demands the destiny of their souls—the Inferno. Usually the judgment is a foregone conclusion and the soul is already aware of its fate: it knows whether, in life, it chose good or evil. Free will, to Birgitta, is a theological and psychological axiom. Of course, one makes, not one choice but daily, perpetual decisions. As soon as the choice has been made, Man receives the assistance of heavenly—or diabolical—powers.
Thus, Birgitta claims that the self-knowledge ascribed to the soul after death also exists during life. Ethics, like justice, are divine, part of the celestial order. Christian sin, to Birgitta, is a life without any attempted imitation in one's state of mind and actions. The Revelations relate sin to the Passion of Christ, which of course is universal: His voluntary sacrifice of His own person means a path to salvation for everybody. Sin, by the same token, is universal. In Birgitta's world, therefore, the Crucifixion is something permanent, happening here and now. She listens while Mary relates:
"But now perhaps you ask, how do they crucify Him? Well, first of all they fix Him to the cross which they have prepared for Him by not heeding the commands of their Creator and Lord but insulting Him: through His servants He has called upon them to obey Him, but this they despise.... Then they crucify His right hand when they hold justice to be injustice.... Furthermore they crucify His left hand when they turn virtue into vice and wish to go on sinning right to the end, saying the while: so long as we pray at our last.... Have mercy upon me, oh God.... that we may be forgiven. But this is not virtue—wishing to sin and not to mend one's ways, wishing to receive wages without labour...." (Rev. I:37)
In terms of concretion, the depictions of punishment are on a level with the Passion scenes: she enlarges on many shades of ghastliness, the eternal raging of torment in bodies possessed, turned away from the Light. In one vision, probably from her Alvastra years, she tells us the suffering of one of those who were punished:
"Her heart was torn out, lips cut away: her chin trembled and the long, shining white teeth rattled.... There was no flesh on her head.... Her neck rotated like wood which is turned in the lathe and against which the sharpest iron is held...." (Rev. VI:52)
The fury of these depictions of punishment has puzzled her biographers. How are they compatible with their author—the slender, gentle lady with "the laughing face"? Did her character include an element of aggressiveness and cruelty? It has been pointed out that she lived in a cruel age, one in which suffering, death and decay were more blatant than now, when fearful punishments were meted out to offenders, and carried out in public as a warning to others. Like everybody else, it has been said, she was a prisoner of her time. Perhaps here again, as with the sanguinary descriptions of Christ's suffering, we find a manifestation of the importance which she attached to empathy, identification.
She is no less incisive in her self-reproof, declaring that she too deserves the same infernal torments as other sinful souls. During one period in her married life she had been far too worldly, the Revelations tells us. On one occasion she is reminded by Christ of her own voluptuousness, vanity and sensuality—and also of greed, gluttony, blindness to the sufferings of others. Christ pronounces on the judgment she then deserved:
"For your debauchery it would be fitting that all your limbs were loosened in their joints, that your flesh was consumed by rot.... For your contempt for the poor and for my friends, and for your avarice, it would be fitting that you were afflicted with such great hunger that you would gladly eat up your own limbs...." (Rev. Extr. 75)
But, she stresses on several occasions, the pictures of the torments of sinners are merely images to make her and others understand the meaning of sin:
"Everything that has been shown to you at such length, one thing after another, occurs in one single moment before God. But since you are corporeal, spiritual knowledge must be given to you by means of corporeal images." (Rev. VII:48)
In her vision of punishment and reward, Hell and Paradise, Birgitta is again reminiscent of Dante. Man adopts a causal way of looking at things—for the sake of simplicity. But these are self-chosen states of mind, rather than penalties imposed. Paradise and Hell are here and now. Much later, the same thought was to become one of the foundations of Emanuel Swedenborg's doctrine, and we also find it in the words of Dostoyevsky: "Paradise is within us—if we wish."
Birgitta's spirituality is wholly inscribed in the pattern of belief of the medieval Church, which was essentially the same as the papal Church of today. It has been hinted that, through her criticism of the sinful living of the popes as she saw it, she was a precursor of the Reformation and of evangelical Christianity. This is groundless. Her life's work is devoted to glorifying the "Holy Church Universal", and her critical activities referred to what she considered to be abuses, and never to questions of dogma.
The Holy Mass was the fixed point in her life, with special emphasis on the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrament whereby bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is an autonomous mystery, a thing apart from the worthiness or unworthiness of the priests whom she so frequently criticized. She expressed her standpoint on the Eucharist in a letter to a Spanish governor who had asked for a prayer written by her personally. She replied in the following words:
"....I, unworthy sinner, pray Thee, through this the great and wondrous work of Thy mercy—the conversion of the bread into Thy true body and the conversion of the wine and water into Thy blood for our eternal and most salutary refreshment—that Thou might utterly convert my will into Thy will alone, so that all my life I may do all that is pleasing to Thee in thought, word and action...."
The conversion of the will and its active participation were always, to Birgitta, a prerequisite of "good acts" and justification. But the Sacrifice of the Mass, properly performed, was a good deed in itself. It promoted, she maintained, the victory of good and the salvation of souls living and departed.
"The wages of sin is death." Souls alien to unselfish love live on after death in the same darkness that they chose in life. The majority are a mixture of good and evil, and after death they are purified from their dross in the fire of Purgatory. Once their evil has been burned away, they leave their trials for a better life. The process can be shortened, mainly through the liturgical life of the Church.
On several occasions Birgitta dwells on the possibility open to the living of alleviating or abbreviating the torment of purification. The authoress and religious historian Emilia Fogelklou has emphasized that, to medieval people, in a way which is no longer true today, the dead continued to inhabit the world of the living; the notion of immortality made them a part of everyday life. Birgitta implicitly assumed that due remembrance by the living would help to save the dead from "being crushed alone beneath the burden of their past". This, then, is accomplished through the life of the Church, but also through the prayers and good deeds of the individual. An angel speaks to Birgitta:
"Just as the hungry rejoices at the food which enters his mouth, the thirsty at drink, the sorrowful at joy, the naked at rainment and a sick person at a bed, so the souls rejoice at sharing in the good which is done in the world for their sake.... Then many voices were heard from Purgatory, saying: 'O Lord Jesus Christ, Righteous Judge, send Thy love to those who have spiritual power in the world. Then we will be able, more than at present, to share in their songs, reading and sacrifice.' Above the room from which this cry was heard, there was seen as it were a house, from which there came many voices: 'May God reward those who send us help in our powerlessness.' From the house a red light of morning, as it were, was seen to arise, but beneath the light of morning was revealed a sky having none of the brilliance of the red light of morning. From the sky was heard a loud voice, saying: 'O Lord God, of Thy infinite power, reward them a hundredfold in the world who, by their good deeds, lift us up to the light of Thy Divinity and the sight of Thy countenance.'" (Rev. IV:7)
The term "mysticism" is frequently associated with immersion in the transcendental, a sometimes wordless communication, inexpressible experiences. The path to these experiences is often said to be marked by "stations". Speaking from their own experience, the mystics have given names to these staging posts—"destitution", "the dark night", "mystic death", "at-homeness in what is hidden", "fullness". Usually the fruits of immersion are strictly personal. If they are verbalized, it is often in the form of directions concerning a path which in itself seems to be part of the destination. The mystics of the 14th century were often led to something inexpressible, into "a cloud of unknowing", to a God beyond all concepts. A kind of negative theology, one might say.
Birgitta was indeed a mystic: for decades she believed herself to be addressed by or involved in a dialogue with God, Christ, Mary, angels, the dead. It was, judging by the Revelations, a "practical mysticism". Her immersion in God led to Revelations containing advice, direction, messages of a concrete nature. She thought of herself as God's spokeswoman, and the divine messages were concerned with ways in which she herself and her contemporaries could improve their ways, living so as best to promote the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth which was the goal of creation: the earth should mirror the celestial order. But basically, of course, her starting point was the same as for other mystics: "Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
What she experiences, she says, is "so obvious, that everybody, both great and small can understand". The almost twenty years that Birgitta spent in Rome were in practice monastic; services, prayers, confession, seclusion and charitable works filled her days. Although she never took monastic vows, she lived on the whole in obedience to the rules which she herself, at God's dictation, laid down for what was to be the convent in Vadstena.
But her own days were also full of activity. As we have already seen, she was politically and politico-ecclesiastically active. Not only did her Revelations tell her how Christians should order their lives, and the consequences of disobedience and compliance, she also felt called upon to admonish kings and popes, to negotiate peace between England and France, and to reprimand the aristocrats of Sweden and the Continent. She condemned abuses in the ecclesiastical world—always with the same absolute fearlessness. This constant involvement in secular and ecclesiastical affairs can be left aside for present purposes: it is her religious, "spiritual" profile which is most important and, to our own age, most interesting.
One may ask whether there was a polarity between inward and outward life, between contemplation and outgoing activity. Birgitta herself raises this problem in her Revelations. She looks on her worldly activity as a direct consequence of her own religious empathy. The contradiction between inward and outward, she seems to tell us, is an illusion:
"If a fire is kept in a closed vessel with no opening, then it will die and the vessel grow cold. The same is true of Mary, for even though she does not wish to live for anything but the honor of God, it behooves her to open her mouth. The flame of her love then darts forth.... and gives birth to spiritual children of God." (Rev. VI:65)
The idea of forming a new order, with a new monastic Rule, came to Birgitta when she was still living at Alvastra, after her husband's death. This too was a case of divine inspiration. Later, in Rome, rules for the "new vineyard" were dictated to her and, as always, her confessors wrote down what she professed to have heard from "His beloved mouth".
Birgitta's order, Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris, the Order of the Most Holy Savior, was approved by a Papal Bull in 1370, three years before her death. Her monastic Rule was, by papal ordinance, to be appended to the so called Augustinian Rule, a number of generally worded precepts for monastic life. In addition, then, the rules which she herself proposed were also to apply.
The most distinctive feature is Birgitta's stipulation that the convent was to be a "dual community" of both men and women. Monks and nuns were, however, to live in separate buildings and should meet only in connection with confession and services of worship, which the two communities later celebrated in the convent church designed by Birgitta. Strict rules of enclosure applied to both groups—that is, they were forbidden to leave the confines of the convent without special permission.
Birgitta's idea of Mary as "head and queen" is perhaps reflected by the stipulation that her convent was to be headed by a woman. The actual idea of a convent for both men and women was not intrinsically new; a community of this kind existed at Fontevrault in France, and also among the Benedictines. The unusual concept was that Birgitta's creation was to be a convent of nuns with men, subordinate to the abbess, serving as priests. The subsequent history of the convent shows, in point of fact, that the men belonging to it had difficulty in submitting to a woman's authority. But the Revelations make the relationship quite clear. Birgitta writes, as dictated:
"Out of veneration for My most blessed Virgin Mother, to whom this order is dedicated, the abbess is the head and ruler. For after My ascent into Heaven, the Holy Virgin, whose vicar she is here on earth, was head and queen to My apostles and disciples." (Reg. 14)
The convent was to admit up to 60 sisters. The male members were to consist of 13 ordained monks, four "Mass deacons"—for whom ordination was not obligatory—and eight lay brothers. Thus the community would have a total of 85 members. In this way, numerically, it would correspond to the twelve apostles (Paul added) and the 72 disciples.
Birgitta seems to have decided quite early on that her convent would be established in Vadstena, on the northeast side of Lake Vättern. The royal Folkung dynasty owned a castle near the lake, and in 1346 the royal manor had been bequeathed to Birgitta as a gift to the foundation she was then planning. Building work apparently began early, but it was suspended and did not get seriously under way until the end of the 1360s. Nuns and monks moved in in 1384, but the church was not completed until much later, being finally consecrated together with the convent in 1430.
Life in Vadstena, as in the houses which came to be established elsewhere later on, was dominated by a great number of liturgical duties. Here as in all other monastic houses, the Office, Opus Dei, was to be sung seven times daily. This is a very extensive ritual, the performance of which must have required at least three or four hours. According to the classical timetable they began at cockcrow. The actual time of this morning service, matins, depended on the season of the year, but was usually at three or four in the morning. It was followed by prime at six o'clock, terce at nine, sext three hours later, nones at three in the afternoon, and finally vespers and compline at six and nine p.m. respectively. All these "hours" were occupied by singing, Bible reading and prayer.
During her first years in Rome, Birgitta, assisted by her confessor, Master Petrus Olai of Skänninge, composed a sung ritual of her own, to be performed by the nuns after the brothers in her convent had sung and recited their Office according to the rules of the diocese of Linköping, to which Vadstena belonged. The thought was that brothers and sisters were to sing in rounds, for their prayer to be continuous.
Birgitta's liturgical creation is of great poetic beauty, essentially a homage to the Virgin Mary, reflecting different phases of her life, always with reference to her being the Mother of the Son of God. Thus the lives of Mary and Christ were followed from day to day during the week, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion on Friday, the waiting and sorrowing of Saturday, to Sunday and the Resurrection. The basis, of course, was Bible passages, above all from the Prophet Isaiah, the Psalms and from the New Testament. The ritual also included songs of the early Church, adapted by Master Petrus. There were also new hymns, written by Petrus and, with Birgitta's approval, included in the devotional hours. Excerpts from Birgitta's Revelations were added. The singing and the pattern of the sisters' movements during the services were regulated in detail. The best-known of these hymns, though, was written after Birgitta's death, namely Rosa rorans bonitatem, stella stillans claritatem—Rose fragrant with goodness, star with a light like clear drops.
The Bridgettine Office, which to this day is sung in most of the Bridgettine convents, was translated into Swedish as Jungfru Marie örtagård (The Virgin Mary's Arbour). Master Petrus appears also to have written the melodies. In musical terms these are Gregorian: monophonic, free-flowing and asymmetric.
Otherwise Birgitta's Rule does not differ essentially from the Rules of most other orders in the Middle Ages. She prescribed moderate asceticism, a life of work and prayer, and help to those in need. In addition there were detailed rules governing the admission of new members, discipline and apparel. To this day, the sisters wear the habit prescribed by Birgitta: grey and white, with a black veil, and above this a crown of white fabric, adorned with five small red dots-symbols of the wounds of Christ. Nuns and monks naturally came to see in Birgitta an example of fidelity, perseverance and charity. But the essential thing was—and remains—Marian spirituality and the determination to lead, as far as possible, a life of imitatio Christi.
The imitation of Christ under the sign of Mary, integrated with a closely regulated monastic life, the graphic images of the states of the soul in sin and in godliness-these, then, are aspects of Birgitta's religious achievement. They also reflect distinctive characteristics of her spirituality. But perhaps the main emphasis of her personality is her moralism, founded on Christian conviction. Her God was embodied by the suffering Christ. The Crucified was also Judge and Ruler of the World, Emperor Upon the Heavenly Throne, surrounded by saints and angels. Majestas Domini, the majesty of the Lord, governed everything and everybody—and Birgitta felt herself to be His spokeswoman and prophet.
She was as firm in her faith as she was uncompromising. Her admonitions were addressed to both ecclesiastical and secular rulers, wherever she perceived abuses and disregard of the essential ideas of the Gospel. In her dealings with popes and kings, she displayed a complete absence of opportunism, even though for the sake of her order she stood to benefit a great deal from being on good terms with those in power. All other considerations were cast aside for the truth as she saw it. The many court scenes in her Revelations, with the inevitable, definitive victory of justice, are reminders of a belief in God converted into a passion for justice.
This absence of calculation and tactics, of course, is bound up with Birgitta's total absorption in her Christian belief. Her Revelations convey the picture of a life centering completely on God in a practical mysticism, anchored in reality. Aron Andersson, a Swedish medieval historian, has, from a Christian viewpoint, summed up his reading of her writings in the following terms: it conveys, he writes, the picture of a life in the service of God, a life of close intimacy with Christ and Mary, "so full of grace that every step, every thought, every act apparently proceeds under heavenly guidance".
"Amazing and wonderful things have been heard in our land," one of her confessors wrote in a preface to her Revelations. That preface, a biography and the 700 or so visions were presented a few years after her death to the Roman Curia, as the basis of a request for her canonization Several Papal Commissions were appointed. From Sweden, representations were made to three popes; King Albrekt of Sweden and, later, Queen Margareta as well wrote to the Emperor Charles IV and Queen Joan of Naples, requesting their support. Canonizations, even today, are preceded by protracted legal proceedings, testimonies are given, arguments for and against are put to papal judges. In Birgitta's case the petition was successfully prosecuted and her solemn canonization was pronounced on 7th October 1391 in a Papal Bull, Ab origine mundi, From the Beginning of the World. Three years later, at a church meeting in Arboga, the Swedish clergy declared Birgitta to be Sweden's patron saint.
Long before this, under the direction of her daughter Katarina, Birgitta's remains had been brought to Vadstena, where in the summer of 1374 they were placed in the still uncompleted convent church. As we have already seen, she herself had drawn the main outlines of that church, stipulating that it was to be "of plain construction, humble and strong". It is in the Gothic style, built of limestone from Omberg in the vicinity of Vadstena.
In church too, brothers and sisters were segregated; the monks' chancel was at the west end, while the nuns occupied the place of honor in the east, on a gallery dominating the church. Lay people were referred to the middle of the church, separated from the sides by an iron grating. The wide corridor thus formed was reserved for the brothers. Along the walls there were altars dedicated to various saints, but these were torn down at the Reformation.
The solemn translation and deposition of Birgitta's remains took place on 1st June 1393. That date and the day of her death, 23rd July, were declared holy days in the church calendar.
On her return from Rome, Birgitta's daughter Katarina entered the Vadstena Convent, and although not formally installed as abbess she took charge of it until her death in 1381. She was in Rome between 1375 and 1380, promoting her mother's canonization The convent was consecrated in 1384.
The first fifty or sixty years saw the real flowering of the convent. Generous indulgence privileges were awarded by Rome and the convent acquired great revenues, a famous library, and, later, its own printing press. The personality and Revelations of Birgitta had been known already during her lifetime, and her fame now spread throughout Europe. Her practical, down-to-earth mysticism evidently appealed to the people of the time. She herself was of exalted birth, and men and women from the same social class were attracted to her order.
New Bridgettine houses were already founded during the 14th century in Danzig and Florence. Early in the 15th century two houses were set up in Denmark—Mariebo and Mariager—and one at Nådendal in Finland. By the end of the century there were Bridgettine houses in England and the Baltic countries, in Germany, in the Low Countries and in France. The house in Piazza Farnese, where Birgitta had lived while in Rome, was presented to Vadstena Convent by its owner Francesca Papazurra, a lady of the Roman nobility, ten years after Birgitta's death, and it was used as a pilgrims' hostel.
The Reformation brought the dissolution of the Bridgettine houses in the Nordic countries, but in Sweden itself Birgitta's creation lived on, albeit under adverse conditions, in spite of sequestrations elsewhere in the country. Birgitta was Sweden's patron saint, firmly rooted, presumably, in the hearts and minds of the people, and the authorities bided their time. The still extant Memorial Book of Vadstena Convent contains a number of pathetic entries from the reign of Gustav Vasa. The persecutions began in earnest in 1543:
"(This) year, King Gustav sealed both the book presses in the library and his soldiers removed innumerable books from the same, together with a stone image on the altar of the Holy Virgin and innumerable other things they took away.... On the day following that of the canonization of St Birgitta, at 8 o'clock, the Bishop of Linköping, Master Nicolaus, came to our chapter house.... and held a church assembly in the presence of many who were called, without us knowing anything, with many mutilations, for example of the host, the consecration of water, confession, the cope and habit and much besides, and abolished the service of worship.... Pray for us; may his days be few, and may his episcopal office be taken by another."
The final entry, from 1545, is just one sentence:
"The townspeople demolished the whole of our convent rampart on the south side, as can be seen."
Forty years later, with Duke Karl (subsequently Charles IX) ruling Sweden, after Johan III, known for his Catholic sympathies, had left the scene, the convent was dissolved by royal decree. Some of the order members fled across the water to Germany and Poland.
Today there are three branches of the Order of the Most Holy Savior Firstly, there is a branch dating back to the first convent in Vadstena, with houses in Sweden, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Altogether there are five houses belonging to this medieval branch.
Secondly, there is a Spanish line, founded in the 17th century, which has five houses. During the 18th century these convents in turn opened four daughter foundations in Mexico, of which three are still active.
The third branch was created in 1911 by a Swedish convert, Mother Elisabeth Hesselblad. The center of this branch is the Bridgettine house in Piazza Farnese in Rome, which had passed into the hands of the Vatican after the Reformation and was acquired by the new Bridgettine sisters in 1934. Elisabeth Hesselblad died in 1957, and was beatified on Papal decision in spring 2000. She and her successors have founded a large number of new houses, under the direct authority of the convent in Piazza Farnese. There are now two in Sweden, one in Turku in Finland, and others in England, India, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and the USA. Altogether today there are 23 convents belonging to the Hesselblad branch.
Bridgettine influence, of course, is first and foremost religious. But the Revelations, which spread throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, also came to play a notable iconographic role. This applies above all to Birgitta's way of depicting the birth and death of Christ. The year before her death, she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to the Biblical places in Galilee. Arriving in Bethlehem, she had a vision of Mary giving birth:
"With hands uplifted and gaze fixed upon Heaven she stood as it were in contemplation and ecstacy.... While she was immersed in prayer in this way, I saw the Child move in her womb, and at the same moment, indeed in an instant, she brought forth her Son, from whom there emanated such an inexpressible radiance that the sun could not be compared with it.... And so rapid and instantaneous was this birth, that I could not observe or distinguish how or with what part of her body the Virgin gave birth. However, I did immediately see the glorious Child lying naked and brightly shining on the ground.... When she felt that she had given birth, she prayed most courteously and reverently to the Boy with her head bowed and hands together, and she said to Him: 'Welcome, my God, my Lord, my Son!'" (Rev. VII:21)
Birgitta's way of depicting the birth, emphasizing the supernatural aspect of what happened in Bethlehem, was to have distinct consequences in art. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Christ child was often portrayed lying on the ground, with the Madonna kneeling in humble supplication. This matter was raised at the Council of Trident in 1564, when the pious delegates found that Birgitta's manner of depicting the birth of Christ should be taken as the norm. Previous to that, artists had depicted the holy birth more or less realistically, thereby involuntarily profaning an event staged by superior powers.
Birgitta's way of depicting the Crucifixion and the sufferings of Christ also left its mark on art. The death of Christ was at one and the same time torture and triumph—and suffering caused his triumph to be seen in the proper light. Before and after the Council of Trident, painters inspired by Birgitta depicted the Crucifixion with the same realism. A maxim coined by Dante said that art should be the language translating Christian dogma into form. Perhaps the most eloquent example of a pictorial reproduction of Birgitta's view of the Crucifixion is to be found in the famous painting by the 16th century artist Matthias Grünewald, in the museum in Colmar in France. Here we see all the details from the Bridgettine Revelations: the sunken cheeks, the half-open mouth and bleeding tongue, the body greenish-white from loss of blood, the beard discolored.
The sixth centenary of Birgitta's canonization was celebrated in October 1991 with scientific conferences in Vadstena and Rome, book publications and a papal commemorative Mass in the Basilica of St Peter's. In late autumn 1999 the Pope John Paul II declared Birgitta Patron Saint of Europe together with Katharina of Siena and Edith Stein.
Birgitta's life and achievements are being discussed and updated. In one of her Revelations she is urged by Mary to honor the saints, for they stand near to God:
"For they are like innumerable stars, whose light and brilliance cannot be compared with any light of the world. The light of the world differs from darkness, but still more does the light of the saints differ from the light of this world. I tell you in truth that, if the saints were to be seen clearly such as they are, no human eye could stand it but would be deprived of its corporeal vision." (Rev. I:20)
Today, then, she would seem to have been living in light and clarity for six hundred years. Her earthly contribution is more concrete, and relevant to many. The Danish ecclesiastical historian Fredrik Hammerich, author of one of the best biographies of Birgitta, argued that her work resembled a Gothic cathedral. The Revelations open the doors to a world of pointed arches with an endless row of demons, leering figures, tormented souls, blessed ones, angels and a smiling Mary. All is nakedly presented, without reservations. And all these figures support and form part of a single, heavenward-soaring idea.
Lars Bergquist is former ambassador to the Holy See and he is the author of several literary works.
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