Chapter 8: Musings on the Mystics’ God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 8: Musings on the Mystics’ God

The prevailing understanding of the subordination of Love under the dominant role of divine Power that we have been encountering in the history of western Christian thought not only failed to resolve what the philosopher Leibniz termed the “theodicy” problem but, in fact, explicitly gave rise to it. It is precisely in the context of a God whose power is omnipotent and is uninfluenced by any factors outside Godself that the conflict between the reality of God and the sometimes horrific suffering that occurs within God’s creation becomes a barrier to belief, a conflict succinctly captured in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.:

I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
“If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could.”1

The allusion to the biblical Job can easily be recast thus: If God is Power, God is Not Love; if God is Love, God is not Power. That is the dilemma with which twenty centuries of predominant theological construction has left us.


What follows here are a number of investigations into deconstructive activity that varyingly challenge the inherited consensus with what I am calling the church’s counter-testimony. Only after that survey has been accomplished are we in a position to visualize an alternative synthesis that returns to the central theme of the biblical witness, of a living God whose love is preeminently powerful as love, not an overpowering God whose love is one divine attribute among others and often in contradistinction to that power.

Structurally, Parts I and II have proceeded according to historical chronology. Part III departs from this orientation, proceeding topically but with some degree of chronology also present, while attempting to surface the varying challenges with attention to when they first arose.

I begin with luminaries in the arena of Christian mysticism—both male and, especially, female.



The written work of Dionysius “the Areopagite” became the primary source behind almost the whole of Christian mysticism for centuries. Originating early in the sixth century,2 and now often referred to as “pseudo”-Dionysius to distinguish it from any earlier period, the writings convey a “Godhead” that is, strictly speaking, absolutely beyond all possible distinctions. Dionysius’ Godhead, in bringing the world into being, participates in an “emptying process of Differentiation.”3 The Supreme Godhead “is One in an unchangeable and super-essential manner, being neither a unit in the multiplicity of things nor yet the sum total of such units.”4 The Godhead embraces and maintains all unity and plurality, yet in itself is beyond that distinction—as, of course, beyond any other. Dionysius the mystic wished to limit all perceptions of God to the fundamental conviction about God as undifferentiated. Dionysius the rational thinker was not bound by that. He proceeded to talk indeed about God as differentiated—Trinity, divine attributes, creativity, etc. The value of unpacking “divine names” is that they variously inform our feeble efforts to stumble toward the all-encompassing Ineffable. [111] Although never genuinely true in any explicit sense, they nevertheless point us in helpful directions.

In that spirit, then, Dionysius could affirm that love, as applied to the Godhead, “means a faculty of unifying and conjoining and of producing a special commingling together in the Beautiful and Good . . . and holds together things of the same order by a mutual connection, and moves the highest to take thought for those below and fixes the inferior in a state which seeks the higher.”5

[God] moves and leads onward Himself unto Himself. Therefore on the one hand they call Him the Object of Love and Yearning as being Beautiful and Good, and on the other they call Him Yearning and Love as being a Motive-Power leading all things to Himself, Who is the only ultimate Beautiful and Good—yea, as being His own Self-Revelation and the Bounteous Emanation of His own Transcendent Unity, a Motion of Yearning simple, self-moved, self-acting, pre-existent in the Good, and overflowing from the Good into creation, and once again returning to the Good.6

So God moves creation not through any direct or conscious activity on God’s part but by the power of attraction that Love actualizes.

As we have encountered elsewhere, evil is identified here as the absence of the Good, having no existence in and of itself.7 Dionysius enthusiastically surpassed Augustine in his attack on evil’s substantiality:

Unto evil we can attribute but an accidental kind of existence. It exists for the sake of something else, and is not self-originating . . . Thus evil is contrary to progress, purpose, nature, cause, principle, end, law, will and being. Evil is, then, a lack, a deficiency, a weakness, a disproportion, an error, purposeless, unlovely, lifeless, unwise, unreasonable, imperfect, unreal, causeless, indeterminate, sterile, inert, powerless, disordered, incongruous, indefinite, dark, unsubstantial, and never in itself possessed of any existence whatsoever.8

Dionysius elevated the centrality of love for God without really integrating this in some way with God’s power, though he did offer reflections in that direction. The Godhead “transcends and exceeds every [112] mode of Power however conceived.”9 How that is so, he did not elucidate, beyond the following observation:

God is Power because in His own Self He contains all power beforehand and exceeds it, and because He is the Cause of all power and produces all things by a power which may not be thwarted nor circumscribed, and because He is the Cause wherefrom Power exists whether in the whole system of the world or in any particular part. Yea, He is Infinitely Powerful not only in that all Power comes from Him, but also because He is above all power and is Very Power, and possesses that excess of Power which produces in infinite ways an infinite number of other existent powers.10

Dionysius did comment at one point about something he called “the omnipotent goodness of the Divine weakness,”11 but he did not elaborate on the implications of this insight.

All in all, his provocative notion of love as a power of attraction, engendering in that which emanates from God (or is created by God) a desire for reunification—the mystic’s goal—is intriguing but insufficiently fulfilling. Love is no purposive activity on the part of a God who is beyond all entanglements of interrelationship.

BONAVENTURE, 1221–1274

Dionysius was one of the major influences on Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, as was Richard of St. Victor whom we met earlier. Denis Edwards credits Bonaventure with having developed a trinitarian theology that is fully dynamic and relational—both within the Trinity and toward creation.12 He was the first to speak of a circumincessio, a “mov[ing] around one another” that brings to mind the image of a “divine dance . . . of unthinkable intimacy and mutual love” that overflows into the universe.13 More recently, he has become a major focus in the writings of the Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio, whose interpretive work aids the summary undertaken here.

Bonaventure could use “love” as the name for the third person of the Trinity,14 Pairing this with God’s essential goodness, he saw God and God’s love to be “self-diffusive,” a key concept; God diffuses Godself [113] throughout creation: “The pure actualization of the principle of Charity” pours forth “free and due love, and both mingled together, which is the fullest diffusion according to nature and will.”15

This understanding starts in the interrelationships of the persons of the Trinity but then constitutively flows out from there. As Ilia Delio has expressed it:

Love cannot exist in isolation or autonomously because love shares itself with another. Love requires a lover and a beloved, a giver and a receiver. It is the receptivity of love that makes it a gift. The Father who is the fountain fullness of love is always moving toward the Son in the sharing of love, and this sharing of love is the Spirit . . . If we really believe that God is love and this love is the love of the Father for the Son united in the Spirit, then we must also believe that we are part of this wonderful, awesome, incredible relationship of love.16

This diffusion of love is powerfully expressed in Bonaventure’s second “Sermon on the Nativity of the Lord”: “‘The Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14]. These words give expression to that heavenly mystery . . . that the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.” Because we are finite creatures, God “bends over in love to embrace us.”17 The God who is “Most High” is the God who is “most intimately related to us.”18 Delio concludes:

What Bonaventure points out is that the cross reveals the mystery of God’s overflowing love. Unlike finite human love that draws up conditions for its wants and needs, God’s love is unconditional and totally self-giving . . . In Bonaventure’s view, the mystery of cruciform love leads us into the very heart of the mystery of God.”19

What we have encountered here, in both Dionysius and Bonaventure, is a turning away from God the powerful to God the loving, without actually attempting any fresh explanation of the relationship between these two facets of God’s being. But it is an important step in the right direction, correcting the prevailing overemphasis on power and introducing us to an alternative begging to be explored further.



Had male theologians paid serious attention to the recorded visions and voices of the women mystics of the High Middle Ages, Augustine’s folly might well have been overturned centuries ago. Their writings were never systematic in nature, so that hints and allusions without conceptual integration abound. For today, that remains both their tantalizing charm and their incompleteness. There are six who merit inclusion here.


Hildegard was a visionary prophetess and not so much a mystic per se. Serving as a prophet was a safe way for a woman of that time to share her theological insights out loud. Barbara Newman writes in her introduction to Hildegard’s Scivias (1141–51), “If Hildegard had been a male theologian, her Scivias would undoubtedly have been considered one of the most important early medieval summas . . . it is a prophetic proclamation, a book of allegorical visions, an exegetical study, a theological summa.”20

For the most part, Hildegard was quite traditional. In every cosmic development “God continues immovable, without any change of any mutability in His power.”21 God is “Omnipotent God.”22 “No weak, mortal sinner can understand the serenity and beauty of the power of God or attain a likeness to it, for God’s power is unfailing.”23 God’s omnipotent power is “incomprehensible.”24

In contrast to this traditional supremacy of God’s immutable power, Hildegard went on to take a sharp right turn. In The Book of Divine Works (De operatione Dei, 1163–73), at the very end of her commentary on her second vision, of the cosmic wheel, she entitled section 46: “On love as the vital power of the universe.”25 The first of three figures in Vision 8 is “Love, the splendor of the living God.”26 Love speaks of the second figure, Wisdom, as one whom “nothing can resist . . . Out of her own being and by herself she has formed all things in love and tenderness.”27 “The bubbling source of the living God is the purity in which God’s splendor is revealed.”28 “Everything God has made has been made in love, humility, and peace.”29


There is, alas, no real wrestling with any conceptual integration of divine love and power here. God the Almighty is still comprehended in traditional terms of omnipotence and total foreknowledge. Love and wisdom are seen as significant female attributes of a God who remains, in the final analysis, decidedly male. Hildegard represents but a beginning in a retrieval of the theme of love as central to the being of God. Deeper insights were to follow.


Very little is known about the life of Hadewijch. She lived in the Netherlands and wrote in Flemish. She was a beguine, a member of a woman’s religious community but without taking a nun’s vows. A contemporary of Aquinas, she was very committed to the works of Augustine.

Hadewijch was a poetic mystic. According to Bernard Brady, she was “consumed by love.”30 The word she used for love was minne, “the dynamic love of a person for God,”31 giving one the impression that Hadewijch took the medieval tradition of courtly love and spiritualized it.

In her Letters, Hadewijch wrote of “omnipotent Love.”32 God orders the world properly, from the indigent to the commoner to the noble knight to the peer of the realm. God is “powerful and sovereign above all power.”33 Love is “God himself by Nature.”34

Hadewijch continued, in her poetry, to juxtapose without integration or explanation the themes of love and power in God.

For Love’s rich power
Is new and indeed friendly.35
Love “renews itself in all.”36
Oh, Love is ever new,
And she revives every day!37

Were anyone ready in Love’s service,
He would receive from her a reward:
New consolation and new power;
And if he loved Love with the power of love,
He would speedily become love with Love.38


“Love’s nature . . . conquers all powers . . .
Love’s nature is . . . powerful in its activity . . .
In it is all the power of God.”39

The phrases are tantalizing and provocative. Even in their lack of full integration they dance in the mind with promises of possible conjunctions not hitherto observed. They leave the reader with the question, “Yes—but how so?” It is precisely the question of how love is powerful in God, in contrast to traditional understandings of the nature of divine power, that continues to whet the theological appetite.


Gertrude of Helfta was a German Benedictine nun who wrote, mostly for the benefit of her younger monastic sisters, as the result of the experiencing of numerous visions. Of the five books of the surviving The Herald of Divine Love, only Book Two was actually written by her.

God, for Gertrude, is love above all else. Indeed, her visions often took the form of a spousal mystical union with the Son in the Trinity, as Bride of Christ. And this love is characterized, once again, as qualifying the nature of God’s power: “Not that you, Divine Omnipotence and Eternal Wisdom, gave unwillingly, as though compelled by some sort of necessity, but rather that you freely bestowed your love, out of the boundless flood of your loving generosity, upon an unworthy and ungrateful creature.”40 In an earlier paragraph she recited her inference of what God had disclosed to her:

How would my infinite power be extolled if I did not reserve to myself the power, in whatever place I might be, of keeping myself to myself, so that I might make myself felt or seen only in the way that is most fitting according to places, times, and persons? For from the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, and in the whole work of the Redemption, I have employed wisdom and goodness rather than power and majesty. And the goodness of this wisdom shines forth best in my bearing with imperfect creatures till I draw them, of their own free will, into the way of perfection.41


Love, then, as we have observed previously, appears to be an “attractive” power, drawing God’s creatures godward of their own free will. But so much remained undeveloped that we can only thank Gertrude of Helfta for her visionary insights and probe further into their underlying implications.


Catherine was the second woman to be named by the pope a doctor of the church, in 1970, though she was earlier than the first, Teresa of Avila. Refusing marriage but not becoming a nun, she lived an active, engaged life outside a convent’s walls as a Dominican laywoman, even interceding on Pope Gregory XI’s behalf to end his exile in Avignon and return to Rome. She was said to have had her first vision of God at age six. She had no formal education in matters theological and, in fact, did not learn to write until late in life, even then writing in her own Sienese dialect and not in the Latin of the church’s scholars.

Other than her collected letters and prayers, Catherine’s body of work consists of a running conversation between her and God, simply entitled The Dialogue (1377–78). Very often the “I” as well as the “you” of the text is understood to be the God Catherine is “hearing” in her meditating. And the central theme that runs all through this recorded experience is none other than love. It puts in an appearance on almost every page, whereas power appears hardly at all.

Catherine’s notions about divine power break no new ground. But she waxed enthusiastic, with vivid imagery, about the centrality of love in God’s way with us. God can be said to be “drunk with love,”42 “madly in love” with us.43 It is an “immeasurable” love,44 a “gratuitous” love,45 an “unimaginable” love. It constitutes the “why” behind God’s act of creation: “With unimaginable love you looked upon your creatures within your very self, and you fell in love with us. So it was love that made you create us and give us being just so that we might taste your supreme eternal good.”46

The work of Catherine of Siena contains little of interest to add to our discussion with the singular and very important exception that she is in that select number of early voices to counsel the church to consider, in [118] its theology, what it means to take seriously the biblical notion that God is love. It has taken a long time for that counsel to bear fruit, but the bestowing of her “doctor of the church” status gives added ecclesiastical weight to her contribution.


Julian was an English anchoress who, at the age of thirty and before entering a convent, suffered a nearly fatal illness. While apparently on her deathbed she experienced sixteen intense visions of Jesus Christ, and wrote down her recollection of them immediately after her recovery. That initial transcription is known as the “Short Text” and is the earliest surviving instance of a woman writing in the English language. The “Long Text,” not used here, was completed twenty years later with further reflections on the initial visions.

Once again we encounter emphases on the pivotal role of love in God’s relations with us. God is “the maker, lover, and keeper.”47 God is “almighty, all wise, and all loving . . . every created thing has been made for love, and is sustained by that same love.”48

But this understanding of love is extremely complex. There is in Julian a touch of spiritual masochism, in her mystical union with Christ in his sufferings. “God freely gives pleasure when he chooses, and other times he leaves us in pain. Both are done for love.”49

Why does the good God allow sin to occur? It is to manifest to human beings the great love of God, poured out for us in the passion of the Christ, so that we will be led to love God in return and not take God’s love for granted.50 Jesus tells her in her visions, “I shall make all things well . . . All shall be well.”51 In other words, the power of God’s love is manifest in the saving, for the bliss of eternity, of all those souls whose “natural will” never actually “assented to sin.”52 “When it comes to our salvation, God is as eager as he is powerful and wise . . . Thus we can see that he is love itself.”53 “The love of God is so great that he considers us to be partners in his good deed.”54 God takes pleasure in our willing (in prayer, especially) what God already desires and intends.

This overarching focus on divine love has not entered, thus far, into any inquiry into how this relates to divine power. But Julian had one [119] final surprise in store for her readers. As she reflected on her visions, at the very end, she had this to say:

Many men and women believe that God is all mighty and may do all, and that he is all wisdom and can do all; but that he is all love and will do all—there they stop . . . Of all the properties of the blessed trinity, God wants us to feel the greatest confidence and pleasure in love, for love makes power and wisdom humble before us.55

This is a very strong statement. For love to make power humble is a bold assertion indeed. But it requires further unpacking if it is to be helpful.

Sheila Upjohn summarized her perceptive study of Julian in these words:

But the fact that Christ became man, so that God could know evil by experience, and not only intelligence, means that every sorrow, every grief, every agony has been experienced by God himself—and that there is no place so dark and painful that God has not been there before us and stays there with us. And the fact of the resurrection means that there is no evil so bad that he cannot turn it into good.56

Upjohn goes on to say: “the God who can lack nothing—who has everything, is in everything, does everything—is shown to be the God made needy by love.”57 Reasons for the recovery of the importance of Julian of Norwich for contemporary theology are obvious, given the powerful direction in which her interpretation of her visions pointed.


Teresa appeared on the historical scene two centuries later in Spain, in the midst of the sometimes bloody and repressive Catholic Counterreformation that included the Inquisition. Her own work unquestioningly accepted the absolute omnipotence of God: God is “all-powerful” and can do whatever God wills to do.58 The final chapter in The Book of Her Life includes reflections on God’s “majesty and power”59 as “all-powerful Lord.”60 And in the Soliloquies, she expressed to God: “O Lord, I confess Your great power. If You are powerful, as [120] You are, what is impossible for You who can do everything? . . . I firmly believe You can do what You desire.”61

Her focus on God’s love is present though less developed. It is also hardly benign. “Oh, powerful love of God, how different are your effects from those of the world’s love!”62 The great love of God comes to undeserving sinners in a transforming way that is piercingly painful as well as spiritually soothing. In one instance she shared a vision in which an angel is holding “a large golden dart” with a fire blazing at the end of the iron tip. “It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God.”63

The six women mystics reviewed in this section punctured the prevailing limitations on the full nature of divine love, although there does not appear to have been any concomitant focus on how this might help redefine divine power. A major facet of the contributions of the medieval women mystics is their daring to lift up aspects of the being of God that are unabashedly characterized as more feminine than masculine in character, a direction that will be pursued heartily in the fresh voices of women theologians in the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. The initial lack of fulfillment of that “opening up” of the being of God is seen in not taking the further step, of reclothing male virtues of power and control and implacability in new alternative understandings.


  1. Archibald MacLeish, J.B. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Riverside Press, 1956), Prologue, 11. The words are spoken by the character Nickles, representing Satan.
  2. The first recorded reference to Dionysius is from the Council of Constantinople of 533 CE.
  3. Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, 2.11, tr. CE. Rolt (Berwick, Maine: Ibis Press, 2004; orig. pub. 1920), 79. The translator is the same Clarence Edwin Rolt whom we will encounter later in the chapter on “Breakthroughs to a Loving God.” Rolt’s footnote to this topic a bit further on is apropos: God “creates the world as being the [121] Object of its desire. He attracts it into existence.” (Rolt, 87, ft. 1.)
  4. Ibid., 2.11 (Rolt, 79).
  5. Ibid., 4.12 (Rolt, 105.) In an earlier footnote regarding this subject, Rolt wrote that, for Dionysius, “Love is the most perfect manifestation of God. Yet God is in a sense beyond even love as we know it. For love, as we know it, implies the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘thee’, and God is ultimately beyond such distinction.” (Rolt, 57, ft. 2.)
  6. Ibid., 4.14 (Rolt, 107).
  7. Ibid., 4.19-20 (Rolt, 111–17).
  8. Ibid., 4.32 (Rolt, 127).
  9. Ibid., 8.1 (Rolt, 155).
  10. Ibid., 8.2 (Rolt, 155).
  11. Ibid., 3.2 (Rolt, 84).
  12. Denis Edwards, “The Discovery of Chaos and the Retrieval of the Trinity,” in Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur R. Peacocke, eds., Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Berkeley: The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1995), 160.
  13. Ibid., 161.
  14. Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind into God, 3.5. Online: God_St._Bonaventure.html
  15. Ibid., 6.2.
  16. Ilia Delio, The Humility of God: a Franciscan Perspective (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2005), 41, 44.
  17. Ibid., 51, emphasis Delio’s, quoting from What Manner of Man? Sermons on Christ by St. Bonaventure, tr. Zachary Hayes (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), 57.
  18. Ibid., 52.
  19. Ibid., 54.
  20. Barbara J. Newman, “Introduction,” in Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, tr. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 23, 25.
  21. Hildegard, Scivias, Book I, Vision 2, Para. 1 (73 in Paulist Press ed.).
  22. Ibid., I.3.2 (94).
  23. Ibid., I.6.5 (141).
  24. Ibid., II.1.1,6, (150, 152). See also III.1.11 (316f.).
  25. Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, ed. Matthew Fox, tr. Robert Cunningham (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1987), Appendix, 395.
  26. Ibid., 8.2 (204).
  27. Ibid., 8.2 (206).
  28. Ibid., 8.2 (207).
  29. Ibid., 8.3 (208).
  30. Bernard V. Brady, Christian Love (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 141.
  31. Ibid., 141.
  32. Hadewijch, Letters, 1, 18, in The Complete Works, tr. Columba Hart (New York:Paulist Press, 1980), 48, 87.
  33. Ibid., L18 (85).
  34. Ibid., L19 (89).
  35. Hadewijch, Poems in Stanzas, 7.1, in The Complete Works, 144. This novelty is asserted in striking contradiction to God’s essential immutability.
  36. Ibid., 7.2 (145).
  37. Ibid., 7.3 (145).
  38. Ibid., 8.1 (147). This renders poetically an understanding in process theology, in the twentieth century, of how our openness to God’s initial aim for us moment by moment empowers us for further and greater responses to even higher aims. This will be pursued in later chapters.
  39. Hadewijch, Poems in Couplets, P10, in The Complete Works, 336f.
  40. Gertrude of Helfta, The Herald of Divine Love, 2.19, tr. and ed. Margaret Winkworth (New York:Paulist Press, 1993), 120.
  41. Ibid., 2.17 (118).
  42. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, ch. 17, tr. Suzanne Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 55.
  43. Ibid., ch. 25 (63).
  44. Ibid., ch. 4 (31).
  45. Ibid., ch. 64 (121).
  46. Ibid., ch. 13 (49).
  47. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 4, tr. Frances Beer (Rochester, New York: D.S. Brewer, 1998), 30.
  48. Ibid., ch. 5 (Beer, 31).
  49. Ibid., ch. 9 (Beer, 37).
  50. Ibid., chs. 13–18 (Beer, 43–50).
  51. Ibid., chs. 15–16 (Beer, 45f.).
  52. Ibid., ch. 17 (Beer, 47).
  53. Ibid., ch. 18 (Beer, 50), emphasis mine.
  54. Ibid., ch. 19 (Beer, 52).
  55. Ibid., ch. 25 (Beer, 58f.), emphases mine.
  56. Sheila Upjohn, Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 93.
  57. Ibid., 94f.
  58. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies, 29, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications; Vol. 1, 2nd ed. rev., 1987; Vol. 2, 1980), 1:401.
  59. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 40.3, in The Collected Works, 1:355.
  60. Ibid., 40.4 (1:356).
  61. Teresa of Avila, Soliloquies 4.2, in The Collected Works, 1:447.
  62. Ibid., 2.1 (1:444), emphasis mine. Were it not for this remark, Teresa would probably not appear at all in this chapter.
  63. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 29.13 (1:252).