Paraclete Press has just published a book of daily devotions edited by Carmen Acevedo Butcher, A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics. I'm not a fan of the devotional genre, though I've written two such books myself--but this one is unusual. There are no canned prayers, no chirpy little inspirational thoughts, no Scripture texts taken out of context, and no--thanks be to God--application questions. Instead, each day offers a few lines, freshly translated, from a woman writer who lived sometime between 1098 (the birth year of St. Hildegard of Bingen) and 1582 (the death year of St. Teresa of Avila).
When I first picked up the book, I narcissistically turned to my own birth date and read words by Gertrude the Great that seem to turn today's common wisdom on its head. Acknowledging the close relationship between body and soul, she sees an inverse relationship between them:
When your body is touched and troubled by pain, it’s like your soul is bathed in air and sunlight, coming to it through the painful body, and this gives the soul a wonderful clarity. The greater the pain, or the more general the suffering, the more purification or clarification goes on in the soul.
I've long been familiar with the slogan mens sana in corpore sano, "a healthy mind in a healthy body"--I think it was the motto of a school I once attended--that goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal. I've always thought it meant that the healthier the mind (and the soul), the healthier the body, and vice versa. Want to increase your resistance to disease? Practice gratitude! Want to lift depression? Exercise!
But Gertrude the Great turns this relationship around. I doubt if she ever suggests that a sick soul produces a healthy body (though I haven't read the whole book yet), and yet here she seems to be saying that a troubled body produces a pure soul. Would Juvenal approve?
Possibly. I checked out the source of his bon mot, and it turns out that he wasn't expecting good health and comfort to follow him all the days of his life:
It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.
Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,
which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings,
which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,
does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes
the hardships and savage labors of Hercules better than
the satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king.
Short life, suffering, hardship, hard work--these are givens, and one can only pray for the strength of mind and body to endure them. That's a long way from my usual way of thinking, but it's not so far from Gertrude's call to endurance as a means of purification:
This is especially true of the painful problems of the heart. When these are endured, humbly and patiently, they give the soul a splendid luster, the nearer and better and closer they touch it.I like the way Gertrude sums up her counsel. After observing that suffering leads to clarity, she suggests another route to the same end:
But remember that kind actions—more than anything else—cause the soul to shine with brilliance.Kind actions under any circumstances are virtuous. Kind actions while suffering are saintly.
In my experience, most devotional books do not plant little ideas in my mind that keep popping out and making me examine my assumptions. This one does.
I have only one minor complaint about A Little Daily Wisdom. It has those dumb little fold-back flaps that keep the book from lying flat but definitely do not work to mark one's place. I've hacked off the front flap and am using it as a bookmark. If the back flap keeps getting in the way I'll hack it off too, though I hate to do so because it bears a lovely picture of the author, plus the information that she has a Ph.D. in medieval studies, teaches at Shorter College, and has written books about Benedict (of Nursia) and Hildegard of Bingen. It also gives directions to her website.