RELIGION
09/17/2015 01:20 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2015

13 Powerful Women Mystics Who Helped Shape Christianity

They were on a mission from God.

The women mystics of Christianity lived courageous and often radical lives. They pushed their bodies to the extremes of survival, challenged societal norms and, occasionally, died for their faith. They were rebels and renegades who helped shape Christianity as we know it today. Like their male counterparts, these women sought a connection to God through prayer and devotional action, and in turn, felt themselves to be recipients of divine messages.

Shelley Emling, the senior editor of Huff/Post 50, dives into the life of one of these brave female mystics in her forthcoming bookSetting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena. For Emling, Catherine and other female mystics demonstrate the challenging but empowering task of being guided by a divine force.

"They made their voices known and held sway over countless followers -- men included -- within a completely male-dominated society," Emling said. "Throughout the Middle Ages, influential people including the pope took these women's visions and prophecies as gospel."

These women mystics frequently spoke of being directed by Christ, but they were by no means passive recipients. They acted "as self-assured individuals who had no doubts about their abilities or the paths they were on," Emling said. "Although their hearts belonged to God, these women were fiercely independent, and their actions and writings have inspired many generations of believers."

Scroll down to learn about these 13 powerful and prophetic Christian women mystics:

  • St. Catherine of Siena
    The second-youngest of 25 children, <a href="http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/8-things-to-know-and-share-about-st.-c
    Heritage Images via Getty Images
    The second-youngest of 25 children, Catherine of Siena is one of only two patron saints of Italy. Catherine believed herself to be spiritually wed to Jesus and committed herself to a monastic life as a teenager. She was a peacemaker during the 1368 revolution in Siena and convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome during a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church. One story from her life tells of Jesus appearing to her with a heart in his hands and saying, “Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever.” She was canonized in 1461.
  • Joan of Arc
    <a href="http://www.history.com/topics/saint-joan-of-arc">Joan of Arc</a>&nbsp;grew up a peasant in medieval France and repor
    WiktorD via Getty Images
    Joan of Arc grew up a peasant in medieval France and reportedly started hearing the voices of saints from a young age. At the age of 18, Joan believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its ongoing war with England. The precocious Joan convinced crowned prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a the country’s army to Orléans, where it defeated the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. She was subsequently captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. She was just 19 years old when she died. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1920.
  • Hildegard von Bingen
    <a href="http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1991/issue30/3031.html?start=3">Hildegard von Bingen</a>&nbsp;was a Benedictine
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine abbess who lived between 1098 and 1179. Hildegard became a nun as a teenager, though she had received divine visions since early childhood. It wasn’t until her 40s that Hildegard began writing a record of these visions, which came to be known as Scivias (Know the Ways). She went on to write other texts documenting her philosophy and also composed short works on medicine, natural history, music and more. Bishops, popes, and kings consulted her at a time when few women engaged in the political domain. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
  • St. Teresa of Avila
    <a href="http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/AVILA.htm">Teresa of Avila</a>&nbsp;was born in Spain during the 16th century to a
    MatteoCozzi via Getty Images
    Teresa of Avila was born in Spain during the 16th century to a well-to-do family. Teresa was fascinated by stories of the Christian saints and martyrs from a young age and explored these interests through mystical games she played with her brother, Roderigo. Her early efforts to join a convent were interrupted by the disapproval of her father, as well as several bouts of malaria. She turned instead to quiet prayer and contemplation and attained what she described in her autobiography as the "prayer of union," in which she felt her soul absorbed into God’s power. She went on to join a convent and was said to have at one point restored her young nephew to health after he was crushed by a fallen wall. The episode was presented at the process for Teresa's canonization, which took place in 1662.
  • St. Catherine of Genoa
    Born in 1447, <a href="http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110112.html">Ca
    Davide Papalini/Wikipedia
    Born in 1447, Catherine of Genoa is perhaps best known for her visions of and treatise on purgatory. She conceptualized purgatory as an interior, rather than exterior, fire which individuals experience within themselves. “The soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God,” Catherine wrote in her book of revelations. She developed a deep relationship with God which Pope Benedict XVI described as a “unitive life.” Catherine also dedicated her life to caring for the sick, which she did at the Pammatone Hospital until her death in 1510. She was canonized in 1737.
  • St. Clare of Assisi
    <a href="https://www.ewtn.com/saintsHoly/saints/C/stclareofassisi.asp">Clare of Assisi</a>&nbsp;shunned a life of luxury in h
    DEA / G. ROLI via Getty Images
    Clare of Assisi shunned a life of luxury in her wealthy Italian family to devote herself to the burgeoning order of Francis of Assisi. When her parents promised her hand in marriage to a wealthy man in 1211, Clare fled for the Porziuncola Chapel and was taken in by Francis. She took vows dedicating her life to God, and Francis placed Clare provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo. Her family, furious at Clare’s secret flight, went there to try to drag her home by force, but Clare was resolute. Clare’s piety was so profound that her sister, mother and several other female relatives eventually came to live with her and be her disciples in her convent outside Assisi. The group came to be known as the “Poor Clares” and walked barefoot, slept on the ground, abstained from meat, and spoke only when necessary. Clare died in 1253 and was canonized two years later by Pope Alexander IV.
  • Thérèse of Lisieux
    Born in France in 1873, <a href="http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19101997_stherese_en.html">Th&
    Born in France in 1873, Thérèse of Lisieux experienced a mystical union with Christ while undergoing study for her First Communion in 1884. She entered the Carmel of Lisieux, a Carmelite hermitage, in 1888 and made a profession of religious devotion in 1890. She became ill and died at the young age of 24, but her writings and revelations formed the basis for widespread veneration after her death. Affectionately called The Little Flower, Thérèse believed that children have an aptitude for spiritual experience, which adults should model. "What matters in life," she wrote, "is not great deeds, but great love." She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
  • Julian of Norwich
    Little is known about <a href="http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20101201.
    Little is known about Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived from 1342 until roughly 1430. Information about her comes primarily from her Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, the book in which Julian recorded her divine visions. In 1373, she became ill and nearly died within a matter of days. A priest came to her bedside and show her an image of Christ, after which Julian recovered and received the 16 revelations that she recorded in her book. God later revealed to her the meaning of these visions, which she recorded as: “‘Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning.” She chose to live a contemplative and reclusive life until her death.
  • St. Bridget of Sweden
    Unlike many of her counterparts, <a href="http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=264">Bridget of Sweden</a>&nbsp;d
    Beao/Wikipedia
    Unlike many of her counterparts, Bridget of Sweden did not devote herself fully to a religious life until her 40s when her husband died in 1344. Reportedly distraught after his death, Bridget spent long hours in prayer beside her husband’s grave at the abbey of Alvastra. There she believed God spoke to her, telling her to “be my bride and my canal.” He gave her the task of founding new religious order, and she went on to start the Brigittines, or the Order of St. Saviour. Both men and women joined the community, with separate cloisters. They lived in poor convents and were instructed to give all surplus income to the poor. In 1350, Bridget braved the plague, which was ravaging Europe, to pilgrimage to Rome in order to obtain authorization for her new order from the pope. It would be 20 years before she received this authorization, but Bridget quickly became known throughout Europe for her piety. She was canonized in 1391, less than 20 years after her death.
  • St. Beatrice of Silva
    Born in 1424, <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=ZXWRgP-0KBkC&amp;pg=PA33&amp;lpg=PA33&amp;dq=saint+beatrice+of+silva
    Bocachete/Wikipedia
    Born in 1424, Beatrice of Silva abandoned a court life with Princess Isabel of Portugal to enter a Cistercian convent in Toledo. She lived at the convent until 1484, when she believed God summoned her to found a religious order. She started the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she lived and served as superior until her death circa 1492. Shortly before Beatrice’s death, Pope Innocent VIII approved a the convent’s adoption of the Cistercian rule, which consisted of three guidelines: be silent and submissive to God’s direction; strive for a life of obscurity and piety; and love everyone with a holy love. Beatrice reportedly received a vision of the Virgin Mary dressed in a white habit with a white scapular and blue mantle, which formed the basis of the dress for her order. Pope Paul VI canonized St. Beatrice in 1976.
  • St. Angela of Foligno
    <a href="https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20101013.html">Angela of Folig
    Wikipedia
    Angela of Foligno was a Franciscan mystic who was born into a prestigious family and married at the age of 20. A series of events, which included a violent earthquake in 1279 and an ongoing war against Perugia lead her to call upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and instructed her to go to confession. Three years later, her mother, husband and all of her children died in the span of a few months. Angela then sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis. At 43, Angela had a vision of God’s love while she was making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. She dictated her experiences in The Book of the Experience of the Truly Faithful. Pope Francis canonized Angela of Foligno in 2013.
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg
    Like Hadewijch, <a href="http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1991/issue30/3031.html?start=3">Mechthild of Magdeburg</a>&nbsp;
    Wikipedia
    Like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg was part of the Beguine community. The German mystic decided at age 22 to devote her life to God and authored a text entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead. She entered the convent of Helfta in 1270 and used poetry to express her divine revelations. On the first page of The Flowing Light, Mechthild wrote: “I have been put on my guard about this book, and certain people have warned me that, unless I have it buried, it will be burnt. Yet, I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it.”
  • Hadewijch
    Hadewijch was a Flemish mystic who was part of the <a href="http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beguine">Beguine moveme
    Wikipedia
    Hadewijch was a Flemish mystic who was part of the Beguine movement, a network of ascetic and philanthropic communities of women that arose primarily in the Netherlands in the 13th century. Little is known about her life outside of her writings, which include a collection of letters on the spiritual life of the Beguines, as well as a book of visions. According to Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, a comparative literature professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Hadewijch “believed that the soul, created by God in his own image, longs to be one with divine love again, ‘to become God with God.’”

 

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