Longing and Letting Go: Christian and Hindu Practices of Passionate Non-Attachment, written by Holly Hillgardner

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Longing and Letting Go: Christian and Hindu Practices of Passionate Non-Attachment, New York: Oxford University Press 2017, 174 p., isbn: 978-0-19-045553-8.

Holly Hillgardner teaches religious studies and philosophy at Bethany College (West Virginia). Recently she published an interesting and thought-provoking book about a relevant theme in the history of mystics. It is a comparative study in the tradition pioneered by Francis Clooney. Works of two mystical authors, from completely different backgrounds, are read together and brought into conversation with each other.

Hillgardner first choses the poems of the 16th-century poetess Mīrābāī, that represent a form of ‘prem (love) bhakti’ in which Kṛṣṇa appeared as her divine husband. According to legendary tradition, Mīrābāī was a princess who gave up courtly life in order to join a band of itinerant Kṛṣṇabhaktas. A remarkable aspect of Mīrābāī’s mystical poetry is the experience of separation, in which the devotee is confronted with the absence of the Lord and in that situation realises the intensity of her longing for Him.

A parallel of this viraha bhakti finds Hillgardner in the writings of Hadewijch of Antwerp, a beguine living in the 13th century. Indeed, it is remarkable that both mystics are only partially directed at the blissful state of the realisation of the mystical bond with God. They are more fascinated by the way in which one has to cope with the absence of the Beloved One. Hadewijch is convinced that the strongest way in which longing is felt, is brought about by the experience of God’s distancing.

The author is especially interested in these ‘middle spaces’ in which the desire for God is felt but the grief over his absence is painfully realised. This is not only an academic interest but a personal drive as well. She writes openly about this autobiographical aspect of her study, stemming from the loss of her first husband at young age. I appreciate such a personal touch; it demonstrates what relevance age-old texts could have, both to an author and to her readers.

We understand easily that the author tries to find an attitude of passionate non-attachment, in which justice is done to desire and longing whilst the pain of letting go is not denied. She collected valuable material from the works of Mīrābāī and Hadewijch which reveal the possibilities of such a fruitful position in the ‘middle spaces’.

The author made a sympathetic and illuminating use of the comparative method. Obviously, Mīrābāī and Hadewijch can complement each other. Reading the works of both mystics alongside results in a new insight into the handling of longing and letting go.

However, some critical remarks must also be made. Following the comparative method, it is of the utmost interest not to interrupt the speakers from long ago. They must be heard in their own language, within their own context, without mixing their words with our likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, Hillgardner does not always let the women from the past have their say.

Regarding Mīrābāī, it is striking that Hillgardner does not present her own translations of the pads. She copies translations of others, often rather old-fashioned and not too accurate (Caturvedi; Alston). On the basis of these translated texts, conclusions are drawn, sometimes much too eager. For example, she states that pad 68 ‘might be read as Mirabai’s ritualistic preparation for sati, or widow burning’ (p. 38). However, the Hindi text does not provide any ground for that interpretation.

In the case of Hadewijch, as well, it would have been rewarding to pay more attention to the original text. Admitted: Middle Dutch is one of the most difficult of the Germanic languages; ever since I wrote my first article about Hadewijch, fifty years ago, I have been convinced that her treatises belong to the most complicated writings in that language. But that should be a reason to observe restraint! When Hillgardner writes about Hadewijch’s imagery as ‘not seen in either the speculative or affective traditions of male medieval mystic spirituality’, it seems to have more to do with feminist dogmata than with knowledge of the history of mystics in the Lower Countries. The imagery of Hadewijch’s younger contemporary Jan van Ruusbroec, for instance, could have revealed to the author quite some interesting parallels.

Especially the treatment of Hadewijch’s central notion of ‘edele ontrouwe’ is problematic. The translation ‘noble unfaith’ is simply awkward. This suggests some postmodern idea of an atheist attitude which would help to attain the godhead. But, the ‘ontrouwe’ is not an attitude which the human devotee chooses. Rather, it is the result of a divine initiative. Hadewijch herself characterises it as a trick or trap made by God: ‘al die list gods’ (in the 13th vision). This act of God results in human fear and feelings of shortcoming: ‘soe dunket hem, datten Minne altoos verladet en hem te luttel helpet’ (so he thinks that Minne, i.e. God in his loving aspect, overloads him always and does not help him enough, in the 8th letter). Finally, that distrust leads to an even stronger desire.

I hope that Holly Hillgardner will continue her study of mystics. On the basis of texts, she could certainly offer us many more stimulating examples of comparing theology.

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