Spiritual paths from the past to the present

Ever since human beings started to ask questions about their existence and their fate, women and men from all over the world have pursued various spiritual paths in order to find a connection to the divine.

In the history of the traditional world religions, it is easy to get the impression that religious leaders consisted of men alone. But when you study the early history of Christianity or the subsequent development of the Church, you find that there were many spiritual women whose work was of great importance to their present time as well as to future generations.

These spiritual women leaders often experienced God’s callings in a mystic way and wrote down their spiritual insights. Many of them tried to improve the social conditions of their time, and some of them even engaged in diplomatic dialogues with popes and other church leaders in order to work for reforms and spiritual development.

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One example of an important woman who followed her spiritual calling was Saint Bridget of Vadstena in Sweden (1303−1373), born in a time when Sweden did not even exist as a unified nation. This summer my partner and I and some family members visited Saint Bridget’s town, Vadstena, today an idyllic small town in the southeast of Sweden that lives mainly on tourism.

But in the past it was different. In Saint Bridget’s time and after her death, the town developed into an important spiritual centre to which many pilgrims from Europe travelled. Following a strong religious calling with messages from, and visions of,  what she perceived to be Jesus Christ himself, Saint Bridget dedicated her life to founding her own religious order, the Brigittines, as well as creating a nunnery and an adjacent monastery for monks. She also planned a great church that was built after her death as meeting place for pilgrims.

Being a woman, Saint Bridget had to deal with a great deal of resistance from her contemporary monks and bishops. They had difficulties accepting that a woman could act independently in accordance with her own spiritual calling. And when she travelled to Rome in order to get her order approved, the Pope Urban V was not living in Rome at the time and did not want to meet her.

Strong in her spiritual conviction, Saint Bridget stayed in Rome, learnt Latin, practised following the rules of her future order, and received and wrote down spiritual messages and sermons. She also wrote a number of letters to the Pope and other church leaders about the need to reform the Church. Saint Bridget waited in Rome for a long period of 20 years until the Pope finally did agree to meet her. With some restraints, he approved her order in the year 1370. A few years later, she died after having completed a spiritual journey to Bethlehem.

Saint Bridget never returned to Sweden, but after her death, the church in Vadstena was built and her nunnery and monastery were organized on the basis of “true humility, purity and voluntary poverty”[1]. During the Reformation in the 16th century, the king, Gustav I of Sweden, closed all Catholic monasteries and nunneries. However, in the 20th century a small number of nuns re-founded the Brigittine order inspired by the old traditions. If you visit Vadstena today, you can stay for a retreat in the home of the Brigittines and buy their handicrafts in their shop.

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Continuing the old tradition of spiritual pilgrimages to Vadstena, the Swedish Protestant Church has also recently founded a centre for pilgrims serving as an ecumenical meeting place for all people regardless of their religion or spiritual world view. Most people today visit Vadstena for historical reasons and for recreation, even though its church is still very active for its members.

But with all the picturesque buildings I almost felt that I was walking around in a museum or perhaps visiting shadows of my own past, reading inscriptions and looking at old ruins of some parts of the monastery.

Above all, you sense the importance of spiritual meeting places, today as well as in the 14th century. In spite of all societal and religious restraints in the Middle Ages, we can imagine that many women and men spent a lot of time and effort searching for a true spiritual, cultural and intellectual life adapted to the circumstances that they were born into. In Saint Bridget’s order a true spiritual life meant a monastic discipline with a great deal of ritual prayer and obedience and a strict separation between men and women.

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In Vadstena you can still see the remains of a grid for oral conversation and a “communication box” that the nuns and the monks used for sending each other small messages, when they needed to settle practical things in their everyday life. You cannot help wondering what kind of messages were sent and if they sometimes contained other signs than just spiritual or practical information.

Today, in 2018, most people pursue other spiritual paths than those pursued by Saint Bridget and other medieval mystics. Nunneries and monasteries are no longer the first goal for people looking for spiritual nourishment, education and humane ideals. We walk in other directions.

Our experiences, our intellectual needs and our surroundings are different. Many aspects of traditional world religions do not appeal to logic and have lost their power to support people in need of guidance. Having become more individualistic, we need to find our own, personal path to the divine.

But most of us still need meeting places, perhaps more than ever now that we no longer wish to follow an authority.

For me and my partner, one of the most inspiring and beautiful spiritual meeting places is the Martinus Centre, in Klint, Denmark, founded by Martinus in the 1930’s.

Here, summer courses are held every year as well as shorter courses and lectures during the rest of the year. The courses are based on Martinus’ spiritual literature and cosmic analyses, but without any memberships or collective traditions whatsoever. On the contrary, Martinus explicitly encouraged that everybody should test his analyses in real life and compare what he writes with their own experience.  “This is a place where the teachers encourage your scepticism”, I heard one of the young participants say at dinner. “They never make fun of your own thoughts even if you are sceptical.”

For me, the Martinus Center Klint is a place of deep spiritual reflection. You can read quietly on your own, listen to lectures, discuss in study groups and share your thoughts with others. But it is also a holiday camp with recreation and fun, where men and women of all ages with different backgrounds are together.

People live together in a relaxed atmosphere, sharing meals and taking part in creative meetings.

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The sea is close and this summer, everything was very dry and the water was unusually warm.

In the 21th century, I believe that everybody needs to find inspiration and guidance wherever it is true and right for that individual. Here, many people find spiritual inspiration in Martinus’ literature about the invisible principles behind the cosmos and the divine part within ourselves. Below you see Solveig Langkilde giving a lecture about our human longings and about the primitive and humane sides of our human nature.

And sometimes the spiritual paths of the past and the present seem to meet, bridging time and space. In the past, Saint Bridget’s own personal prayer was: “Lord, please show me the way and make me willing to walk it.” That is a wish that many spiritual people have uttered in different ways and in different languages.  In Martinus’ book The Mystery of Prayer he states that true prayer reveals itself through total unselfishness expressed in the words “Father, thy will be done, not mine.” He also explains why this can be seen as the utmost logic:

Through experience, we come to understand what “God’s will” is. “God’s will” is “the transformation of the animal” or terrestrial Man’s acquisition of the highest and most beautiful virtues of intellectuality. “Heaven” is precisely a mental state in which all these, the highest and most perfect abilities of consciousness, culminate so that one hundred per cent harmony prevails among living beings. (ch.12)

Understanding God’s will and trying to follow your own spiritual path can be a difficult and time-consuming undertaking, at least in my experience. But reflecting on this in the beautiful surroundings of Klint is certainly a rewarding part of the journey.

[1] The information about St. Bridget is mainly taken from the Swedish anthology Kyrkomödrar (Church Mothers), edited by Ann-Ida Fehn and Hedvig Larsson. Artos & Norma Bokförlag 2017.

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