Knowing full well that I will have forgotten some who are beloved by the faithful, I humbly ask the reader to keep in mind that this is a subjective list; the criteria is based on such aspects as mystical theology, direct experience of God, mystical phenomena, visions, and the like, yes, but it is also based on my own subjective judgment too.
In a sense, we are all mystics if we have a life of prayer that is active. But the following women take mystical experiences of God to a whole new level.
Come along then?
"On the same day another person abstained from Communion without any reasonable cause. She said to her Lord: "Most merciful God, why have You permitted her to be thus tempted?" "What can I do for her," He replied, "since she has herself so covered her eyes with the veil of her unworthiness, that she cannot possibly see the tenderness of My paternal Heart?"1
St. Gertrude of Helfta is a saint that is not nearly known enough in the Catholic world, at least by my reckoning. Her collected writings and biographical works are all, in my mind, required reading for those who feel the dull pull of spiritual despair nagging at their hearts. Her experiences with Christ remind me very much of later saints, and I read that she even laid her head upon Christ's Sacred Heart - the depiction of this in her writings is a most edifying read. In fact, she was really the original saint to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
"His love manifests itself in greater or lesser degree according to the impediments that block His love."2
No actual writings of this saint exist, only the transcriptions of various persons who were with her during her mystical ecstacies. And yet, this saintly woman is one of the most famous in the Church's history - so much so, that her fame and influence have extended into the world of Protestantism and the pragmatic studies on mysticism conducted by the philosopher William James.
Her mystical side was indeed a fiery one: during her life, she experienced Purgatory in a way that few others on earth ever have or will. In a special way, that makes her a patron of the Church Suffering in my opinion, but I don't know whether this is actually the case.
"If the Church is true, all in her is true; he who admits not the one, believes not the other."3
Remember The Passion of the Christ? That was actually largely based on the visions of Christ's Passion and Death had by an Augustinian nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich. Her visions are contained in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and frankly, its not an easy read. But it is an edifying one, one that provokes the heart to great contrition and even greater understanding of what Christ went through for our sakes.
4. St. Faustina
"O my Lord, inflame my heart with love for You, that my spirit may not grow weary amidst the storms, the sufferings and the trials. You see how weak I am. Love can do all."4
In my opinion, the humble St. Faustina is the very greatest of the modern mystics. The Apostle of Divine Mercy, this Polish nun received more visions and direct experiences of Christ than I have ever seen in any other saint in history, and through her, devotion to God's Divine Mercy has spread like a prairie fire across the world. Her diary is one of the best devotional reads available to the faithful - there is not a sentence in it not worth meditating upon.
5. St. Veronica Giuliani
"Do justice, God sees you."5
Here is a saint you may not have heard of. A Capuchin nun, St. Veronica was given to all kinds of mystical ecstacies and visions, all of which culminated in her bearing the wounds of Christ for the rest of her life. Ironically, however, she was quite a practical woman, and allegedly discouraged her fellow sisters from delving into any kind of mystical anything. Her life is well worth investigating.
6. St. Teresa of Avila
"O souls redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ! Learn to understand yourselves and take pity upon yourselves! Surely, if you understand your own natures, it is impossible that you will not strive to remove the pitch which blackens the crystal?"6
The famous Carmelite nun and reformer, St. Teresa presents the more accessible side of Carmelite mysticism. Whereas St. John of the Cross is a poet who also presents his thought in a scholastic manner, St. Teresa is the opposite - her writings are conversational, often practical, and sometimes quite humorous. I can only picture this saint as being a laugh riot to speak with, and yet also a profoundly moving person to be around. Her mystical thought contained in her work The Interior Castle is a great starting point for someone new to mystical writings, as it encompasses many aspects of Christian mysticism in one work.
"You who are the angels' food are given to humans with burning love. You, garment who cover all nakedness, pasture the starving with your sweetness, for you are sweet without trace of bitterness."7
From the beginning of my conversion journey, thanks to the Saintcast of Dr. Paul Camarata, I have had a devotion to this most wondrous of saints. A stigmatist, reformer, visionary, and fearless pillar of the Church, St. Catherine presents to the world a most passionate figure. Her life seems to have been one of constant suffering, be it from persecution by others around her, to her extraordinary mortifications inflicted upon herself, to her death from a mysterious and painful illness at the very symbolic age of 33.
But it was her love of a particular young man sentenced to die that spoke to my heart the most. In one of her letters, she relates how she converted the young man to the faith of Christ, and he received Holy Communion before his death by beheading. She was with him to the very end, right up to the block, and held his head in her hands as the axe fell.
Though her Dialogue is an immense and sometimes difficult work, it is absolutely worth reading.
"If I saw the gates of Hell open and I stood on the brink of the abyss, I should not despair, I should not lose hope of mercy, because I should trust in You, my God."8
I have always found this saint to be particularly interesting. She died at the young age of 25, after a short lifetime of visions, diabolical assaults, and stigmata. I have read that her devotion to Christ was so intense that even the mere misuse of His name was enough to cause her to sweat blood. In a way, I have always found her to be a kind of darker St. Therese of Lisieux - her devotional spirituality was very similar to the Little Flower's, but her sufferings of the stigmata and the Devil's particular interest in tormenting her offer a little bit darker of a tale.
"The kind of apostolate which by this time she exercised in Rome was very remarkable; and her power over men's minds and hearts scarcely short of miraculous. There was a subduing charm, an irresistible influence in her words and in her manner, which told on every variety of persons. The expression of her countenance, the tones of her voice, her mere presence, worked wonders in effecting conversions, and in animating to virtue those whom she approached. Her gift of reading the thoughts of others, which had increased ever since the archangel had become her companion, enabled her in several instances to bring about conversions, several of which are related at length by her biographers."9
This is one of those saints who would probably put those new to Catholicism off, but she warrants this list. According to one book I own, she "wore a hair shirt and a horsehair girdle, which replaced the iron one that her confessor had ordered her to take off because it so damaged her flesh. She ate almost nothing, and drank only water - it is said, from a human skull," and yet she "worked tirelessly for the destitute of Rome, and was loved for her kindness by all she met."10
To her name, she has 97 mystical writings, especially concerning visions of Hell.
"It is sweet to think of Jesus; but it is sweeter to do His will."11
I spoke of her in a previous post, and she merits inclusion in this one as well. One of the most famed saints of the Eastern Catholic world (a Melkite Catholic), Bl. Mary experienced visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, bore the stigmata, had the gift of prophecy, levitated, and all the rest like mystical phenomena - everything but the kitchen sink, as they say. She definitely deserves to be better known.
11. St. Bridget of Sweden
"If their Lord endured beatings and torture, it is not too much for them to endure words and contradictions."12
Another one of the shining lights in the great pantheon of medieval mystics, St. Bridget had many visions concerning the crucifixion of Christ, and was supremely devoted to His Passion. She had visions of Christ, and revelations concerning everything from Purgatory to the Nativity. Fr. Alban Butler writes that "To have the knowledge of angels without charity is to be only a tinkling cymbal; both to have charity and to speak the language of angels was the happy privilege of St. Bridget."13
12. Bl. Julian of Norwich
"But in all things I believe what Holy Church teaches, for in all things I saw this blessed showing of our Lord as one who is in the presence of God, and I never perceived anything in it that bewilders me or keeps me from the true teaching of Holy Church."14
It's funny because I am never sure if Bl. Julian of Norwich is really formally a "Blessed" - I heard rumors that she was up for being a possible Doctor of the Church some months ago though, so this must count for something. For now, let's assume that she is a Blessed - she certainly deserves to be in my view.
I read the writings of this English anchoress when I was in the first year or so of my conversion journey, and they had a lasting effect on me. Throughout my used copy of her Revelations of Divine Love, little pencil marks made by a previous owner declared her to be a universalist heretic. To be sure, strands of universal salvation can be found in her writing, but they could arguably also be found in St. Gregory of Nyssa as well, though I know people who dispute this.
Regardless, her mystical writings proved to be a great comfort to my own soul. Neither difficult nor especially wild, they provide a great introductory read in the world of Catholic mysticism.
"Look at this Heart which has loved men so much, and yet men do not want to love Me in return. Through you My divine Heart wishes to spread its love everywhere on earth."15
Though St. Gertrude was the saint who originally propagated devotion to the Sacred Heart, it was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who caused the devotion to be extremely well-known across the world. Like many mystics, this nun was scrutinized for being a charlatan very much during her life, but the truth of her visions won out, and today, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most popular and well-known elements of Catholic piety.
14. St. Hildegard of Bingen
"And again I heard the voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Speak therefore on these wonders, and, being so taught, write them and speak.'"16
In many ways, I see St. Hildegard as being to mystics what St. Thomas is to the scholastics. Her works are immense, apocalyptic, spiritually profound, and eschatologically complex in the extreme. Mirroring the visions of Ezekiel the prophet and the Apocalypse of St. John, her work entitled Scivias is a smorgasbord of apocalyptic visions and theological excursions that can prove to be fairly intimidating to read. Not only was she a visionary of the first rank, but she was also an adept student of natural medicine, a reformer, a dramatist, and a composer of immaculate hymns. She is soon to be declared as a Doctor of the Church by the Holy Father this year.
"The grace of the Holy Spirit shone out in her face from the fullness of her heart to such a degree that many people were spiritually refreshed by her appearance and moved to devotion and tears."17
In the world of medieval Beguines, it is easy to find many mystics, but few actually formally approved by the Church. I would have loved to have included such writers as Hadewijch or Mechtilde of Magdeburg, but alas, they just aren't formally beatified or canonized in any way. Bl. Mary of Oignies, however, is - and her life presents quite an extraordinary portrait of holiness.
Although, I suppose I should add that prudence is really called for when reading the life of such a figure, which her biographer advises as well. She practiced some very extreme forms of mortification and ascetism, but was also known for her immense piety, gifts of prophecy, and visions.
1 - From the Revelations of St. Gertrude, found here.
2 - Treatise on Purgatory
3 - From HERE.
4 - Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 94
5 - From HERE.
6 - The Interior Castle, I:2
7 - The Dialogue, 167
8 - From HERE.
9 - Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Saint Frances of Rome, VIII
10 - Michael McMahon, Saints: The Art, the History, the Inspiration, 140
11 - From HERE.
12 - Prophecies and Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden, I:6
13 - Qtd. in One Hundred Saints, pg. 220
14 - Revelations of Divine Love (short text), 6
15 - From HERE.
16 - Scivias, Declaration
17 - James of Vitry, The Life of Mary of Oignies, III:4