Oct 01 2012
Peace of charity in the annihilated life
by Marguerite Porete
English version by Ellen L. Babinsky
Of this life, says Love, we wish to speak, in asking what one could find:
1. A Soul
2. who is saved by faith without works
3. who is only in love
4. who does nothing for God
5. who leaves nothing to do for God
6. to whom nothing can be taught
7. from whom nothing can be taken
8. nor given
9. and who possesses no will
— from Marguerite Porete: Mirror of Simple Souls (Classics of Western Spirituality), by Ellen Babinsky
/ Photo by TheGost4u /
This poem has several surprising statements that overturn our common notions of spirituality and striving and the need to help others. Marguerite Porete seems to be almost taunting us with the bluntness of her words. So let’s look a little more deeply…
There is a debate that has gone on for centuries in virtually all spiritual traditions. In Christianity, the question is formulated as, “Is one saved through faith or through works?” (In Eastern traditions, the question might be rephrased as, “Does enlightenment require effort and service, or are those a distraction from the ever present truth?”)
Here Marguerite Porete gives us a checklist of qualities of the awakened soul. It is a vision of the Self utterly at rest. It is “only in love” — nowhere else. The soul is so complete in itself that “nothing can be taught” to it and “nothing can be taken / nor given” to it.
And, for her, activity has nothing to do with the soul in its wholeness. Action, effort, even service, imply an externalization of awareness and a dualistic view of the universe. It implies a creation of multiplicity and separation and incompleteness, while the soul in communion with Love only witnesses completeness. This is how she can say that the awakened soul “does nothing,” not even “for God.” It is because the soul “leaves nothing to do for God;” the soul, in fact, sees nothing undone that must be done. Every noble action is a form of ritual, an attempt to awaken wholeness and holiness within by enacting it externally. When that unity is finally found within, the outer world is not seen as separate from that wholeness.
The soul, overcome with this vision of unity, within and without, “possesses no will.” That is, it has no self-will, no will to action. Love is its will.
Marguerite Porete states plainly that, in her view, the soul “is saved by faith without works.”
Having said all this, I’ll add a little more of my own perspective to this question. Even in the deepest, most still communion, one does not become inactive or cease to be of service to others. In fact, this is where service truly begins. But action is no longer performed through self-will. Instead, action naturally flows through you, free from self. There is simply expression that passes through you. It is not even truly action or “works” anymore, because that suggests ‘you’ are ‘doing’ them — and you are not; it just naturally comes through you as warmth and light naturally radiate from the candle flame, without effort. One naturally works and wills for the wellness of the world — but there is no feeling of work or will.
Not much is known about the life of Marguerite Porete (also known as Marguerite of Hainaut) other than what is recorded of her heresy trial in Paris — which eventually led to her death by being burned at the stake.
Marguerite Porete may have been a Beguine, like Hadewijch of Antwerp and Mechthild of Magdeburg, but this is questionable. Her accusers called her a Beguine, but apparently meant it as an insult. In her own writings, Marguerite lists the Beguines as being among her critics.
Her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls (or The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, a reference to ecstatic annihilation in God), survived her death and was translated into many European languages, attributed initially to “an unknown French mystic.” The book is a collection of poetry and prose that suggests a profound experience of mystical union which resulted in a complete loss of personal identity in which only the Divine remains.
Marguerite wrote: “God has nowhere to put his goodness, if not in me…no place to put himself entire, if not in me. And by this means I am the exemplar of salvation, and what is more, I am the salvation itself of every creature, and the glory of God…” (tr. by Peter Dronke).