13 Powerful Women Mystics Who Helped Shape Christianity

They were on a mission from God.

The women mystics of Christianity lived courageous and often radical lives. They pushed their bodies to the extremes of survival, challenged societal norms and, occasionally, died for their faith. They were rebels and renegades who helped shape Christianity as we know it today. Like their male counterparts, these women sought a connection to God through prayer and devotional action, and in turn, felt themselves to be recipients of divine messages.

Shelley Emling, the senior editor of Huff/Post 50, dives into the life of one of these brave female mystics in her forthcoming book, Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena. For Emling, Catherine and other female mystics demonstrate the challenging but empowering task of being guided by a divine force.

"They made their voices known and held sway over countless followers -- men included -- within a completely male-dominated society," Emling said. "Throughout the Middle Ages, influential people including the pope took these women's visions and prophecies as gospel."

These women mystics frequently spoke of being directed by Christ, but they were by no means passive recipients. They acted "as self-assured individuals who had no doubts about their abilities or the paths they were on," Emling said. "Although their hearts belonged to God, these women were fiercely independent, and their actions and writings have inspired many generations of believers."

Scroll down to learn about these 13 powerful and prophetic Christian women mystics:

St. Catherine of Siena
Heritage Images via Getty Images
The second-youngest of 25 children, Catherine of Siena is one of only two patron saints of Italy. Catherine believed herself to be spiritually wed to Jesus and committed herself to a monastic life as a teenager. She was a peacemaker during the 1368 revolution in Siena and convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome during a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church. One story from her life tells of Jesus appearing to her with a heart in his hands and saying, “Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever.” She was canonized in 1461.
Joan of Arc
WiktorD via Getty Images
Joan of Arc grew up a peasant in medieval France and reportedly started hearing the voices of saints from a young age. At the age of 18, Joan believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its ongoing war with England. The precocious Joan convinced crowned prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a the country’s army to Orléans, where it defeated the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. She was subsequently captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. She was just 19 years old when she died. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1920.
Hildegard von Bingen
Hulton Archive via Getty Images
Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine abbess who lived between 1098 and 1179. Hildegard became a nun as a teenager, though she had received divine visions since early childhood. It wasn’t until her 40s that Hildegard began writing a record of these visions, which came to be known as Scivias (Know the Ways). She went on to write other texts documenting her philosophy and also composed short works on medicine, natural history, music and more. Bishops, popes, and kings consulted her at a time when few women engaged in the political domain. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
St. Teresa of Avila
MatteoCozzi via Getty Images
Teresa of Avila was born in Spain during the 16th century to a well-to-do family. Teresa was fascinated by stories of the Christian saints and martyrs from a young age and explored these interests through mystical games she played with her brother, Roderigo. Her early efforts to join a convent were interrupted by the disapproval of her father, as well as several bouts of malaria. She turned instead to quiet prayer and contemplation and attained what she described in her autobiography as the "prayer of union," in which she felt her soul absorbed into God’s power. She went on to join a convent and was said to have at one point restored her young nephew to health after he was crushed by a fallen wall. The episode was presented at the process for Teresa's canonization, which took place in 1662.
St. Catherine of Genoa
Davide Papalini/Wikipedia
Born in 1447, Catherine of Genoa is perhaps best known for her visions of and treatise on purgatory. She conceptualized purgatory as an interior, rather than exterior, fire which individuals experience within themselves. “The soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God,” Catherine wrote in her book of revelations. She developed a deep relationship with God which Pope Benedict XVI described as a “unitive life.” Catherine also dedicated her life to caring for the sick, which she did at the Pammatone Hospital until her death in 1510. She was canonized in 1737.
St. Clare of Assisi
DEA / G. ROLI via Getty Images
Clare of Assisi shunned a life of luxury in her wealthy Italian family to devote herself to the burgeoning order of Francis of Assisi. When her parents promised her hand in marriage to a wealthy man in 1211, Clare fled for the Porziuncola Chapel and was taken in by Francis. She took vows dedicating her life to God, and Francis placed Clare provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo. Her family, furious at Clare’s secret flight, went there to try to drag her home by force, but Clare was resolute. Clare’s piety was so profound that her sister, mother and several other female relatives eventually came to live with her and be her disciples in her convent outside Assisi. The group came to be known as the “Poor Clares” and walked barefoot, slept on the ground, abstained from meat, and spoke only when necessary. Clare died in 1253 and was canonized two years later by Pope Alexander IV.
Thérèse of Lisieux
Born in France in 1873, Thérèse of Lisieux experienced a mystical union with Christ while undergoing study for her First Communion in 1884. She entered the Carmel of Lisieux, a Carmelite hermitage, in 1888 and made a profession of religious devotion in 1890. She became ill and died at the young age of 24, but her writings and revelations formed the basis for widespread veneration after her death. Affectionately called The Little Flower, Thérèse believed that children have an aptitude for spiritual experience, which adults should model. "What matters in life," she wrote, "is not great deeds, but great love." She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Julian of Norwich
Little is known about Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived from 1342 until roughly 1430. Information about her comes primarily from her Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, the book in which Julian recorded her divine visions. In 1373, she became ill and nearly died within a matter of days. A priest came to her bedside and show her an image of Christ, after which Julian recovered and received the 16 revelations that she recorded in her book. God later revealed to her the meaning of these visions, which she recorded as: “‘Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning.” She chose to live a contemplative and reclusive life until her death.
St. Bridget of Sweden
Unlike many of her counterparts, Bridget of Sweden did not devote herself fully to a religious life until her 40s when her husband died in 1344. Reportedly distraught after his death, Bridget spent long hours in prayer beside her husband’s grave at the abbey of Alvastra. There she believed God spoke to her, telling her to “be my bride and my canal.” He gave her the task of founding new religious order, and she went on to start the Brigittines, or the Order of St. Saviour. Both men and women joined the community, with separate cloisters. They lived in poor convents and were instructed to give all surplus income to the poor. In 1350, Bridget braved the plague, which was ravaging Europe, to pilgrimage to Rome in order to obtain authorization for her new order from the pope. It would be 20 years before she received this authorization, but Bridget quickly became known throughout Europe for her piety. She was canonized in 1391, less than 20 years after her death.
St. Beatrice of Silva
Born in 1424, Beatrice of Silva abandoned a court life with Princess Isabel of Portugal to enter a Cistercian convent in Toledo. She lived at the convent until 1484, when she believed God summoned her to found a religious order. She started the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she lived and served as superior until her death circa 1492. Shortly before Beatrice’s death, Pope Innocent VIII approved a the convent’s adoption of the Cistercian rule, which consisted of three guidelines: be silent and submissive to God’s direction; strive for a life of obscurity and piety; and love everyone with a holy love. Beatrice reportedly received a vision of the Virgin Mary dressed in a white habit with a white scapular and blue mantle, which formed the basis of the dress for her order. Pope Paul VI canonized St. Beatrice in 1976.
St. Angela of Foligno
Angela of Foligno was a Franciscan mystic who was born into a prestigious family and married at the age of 20. A series of events, which included a violent earthquake in 1279 and an ongoing war against Perugia lead her to call upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and instructed her to go to confession. Three years later, her mother, husband and all of her children died in the span of a few months. Angela then sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis. At 43, Angela had a vision of God’s love while she was making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. She dictated her experiences in The Book of the Experience of the Truly Faithful. Pope Francis canonized Angela of Foligno in 2013.
Mechthild of Magdeburg
Like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg was part of the Beguine community. The German mystic decided at age 22 to devote her life to God and authored a text entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead. She entered the convent of Helfta in 1270 and used poetry to express her divine revelations. On the first page of The Flowing Light, Mechthild wrote: “I have been put on my guard about this book, and certain people have warned me that, unless I have it buried, it will be burnt. Yet, I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it.”
Hadewijch was a Flemish mystic who was part of the Beguine movement, a network of ascetic and philanthropic communities of women that arose primarily in the Netherlands in the 13th century. Little is known about her life outside of her writings, which include a collection of letters on the spiritual life of the Beguines, as well as a book of visions. According to Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, a comparative literature professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Hadewijch “believed that the soul, created by God in his own image, longs to be one with divine love again, ‘to become God with God.’”

Also on HuffPost:

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

"The Phantom Tollbooth's message is bracing but benign: it calls on us to rise to the challenge of the world by paying proper attention to its wonder and difficulty. Boredom and depression are far from merely childish demons, not least because an adult has to battle them for so much longer. When [main character] Milo thinks at the book's beginning that 'it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty,' it must strike a chord with every reader, young or old." -- The Guardian

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories, by Marina Keegan

"When Marina Keegan wasn’t tapped to join one of Yale’s secret societies, she gave herself less than two hours to wallow in disappointment, then pledged to spend the time she would have spent 'chatting in a tomb' writing a book. Five days after graduation, Keegan was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod. She was 22.

'The Opposite of Loneliness' is a record of that time better spent. The book of nine short stories and nine essays takes its title from Keegan’s last essay to appear in the Yale Daily News, which went viral in the days after her death when it was read by 1.4 million people in 98 countries. In it Keegan writes with an eerie urgency: 'We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.'" -- The Boston Globe

Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder
"Sophie Amundsen arrives home from school to find two cryptic messages in her mailbox: 'Who are you?' and 'Where does the world come from?' Soon she is receiving lectures in the mail on ancient thought from an unknown correspondent. ... A climactic philosophical garden party becomes the novel's most comic and memorable set piece, inserting into this Norwegian book of virtues, with its homage to the Western intellectual canon and its spirit of common sense, a counterspirit of carnival and sexual anarchy." -- The New York Times
Thirst: Poems, by Mary Oliver

"Throughout the poems in Thirst, Oliver explores her sense of God, her understanding of faith... In 'On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate,' one of her best poems, she offers a riff on the 145th psalm, stepping through the thickets of soul-searching, attempting to locate and believe in belief itself... The poem ends with a colloquy with God: 'O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am / not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.'" -- The Guardian

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

"What makes a great advice columnist? The Portland writer Cheryl Strayed has proved during her tenure at the website the Rumpus, where she has helmed the Dear Sugar column since 2010, that the only requirement is that you give great advice -- tender, frank, uplifting and unrelenting. Strayed's columns, now collected as 'Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,' advise people on such diverse struggles as miscarriage, infidelity, poverty and addiction, and it's really hard to think of anyone better at the job." -- SFGate

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Disguised as a children's book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella The Little Prince offers more wisdom in its very few pages than some authors can hope to produce in a lifetime. The fact that it's been translated into more than 230 languages from the original French is proof that its message resonates worldwide." -- The Huffington Post

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
"Joan Didion's memoir 'The Year of Magical Thinking' is about grieving for her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. ... In her memoir, Didion contemplates how the rituals of daily life are fundamentally altered when her life's companion is taken from her. Her impressions, both sharply observed and utterly reasonable, form a picture of an intelligent woman grappling with her past and future." -- NPR
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

"The charming tale of Santiago, a shepherd boy, who dreams of seeing the world, is compelling in its own right, but gains resonance through the many lessons Santiago learns during his adventures. He journeys from Spain to Morocco in search of worldly success, and eventually to Egypt, where a fateful encounter with an alchemist brings him at last to self-understanding and spiritual enlightenment." -- Publishers Weekly

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

"In 'The Red Tent,' [Diamant] imagined a fuller life for Dinah, daughter of Jacob, whose relationship with the prince Schechem led to a brutal massacre carried out on the royal family by two of her brothers. The 'red tent' is the traditional retreat for menstruating women, and a symbol of their mutual love and support in a world dominated by men... Having given voice to one of the Bible’s silent women, she believes both genders can appreciate the perspective: 'We’ve been reading it from men’s point of view for thousands of years.'" -- The Boston Globe

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

"When a consummately articulate, boundlessly bold journalist stricken with stage 4 esophageal cancer reports from the front lines about facing what he calls, among other things, 'hello darkness my old friend,' you sit up and pay attention. Mortality, by virtue of its ultimate unavoidability, raises questions about the very meaning of life, making it as challenging a subject as any tackled by Christopher Hitchens in his brilliant career." -- NPR

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
"This book shows that how small things in life can affect a person's life but there is always a ray of hope sent by the almighty himself. ... A simple story of the complicated Ipe family set in the backdrop of social discrimination, communism and caste system, this book is mainly based on the betrayal and always pops the question into the mind of the reader 'Can we trust anyone? Can we trust ourselves?'" -- The Guardian
Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut

"Howard Campbell, Jr., the narrator of 'Mother Night,' is an American writer living in Germany when the Nazis come to power. He is recruited by United States military intelligence to be a spy when World War II begins. As a respected playwright married to a popular German actress, Campbell easily ingratiates himself to the Nazis and offers his services as an anti-semite... The author reminds us that no matter how righteous our cause, no matter how insane and evil our enemy, we must be careful how we act if we want to keep our souls as artists and humans. True in World War II, true in the sixties, true now." -- Mark Lindquist

The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young

"America often gets lampooned as a nation of Jesus freaks, but it's even more a country caught up in the never-ending search for authenticity. Young's too-weird-for-the-pulpit thoughts about how Adam's rib and the female uterus form a 'circle of relationship' have the appeal of knobby heirloom-produce in a world where much religion arrives vacuum-packed. His theories -- how to believe in Adam while supporting particle-physics research; why the Lord is OK with your preference for lewd funk more than staid church music -- accomplish what mainstream faiths tend to fail at: connecting recondite doctrine to the tastes, rhythms, and mores of modern life." -- Slate

The Dude and the Zen Master, by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

"At a party about 15 years ago, Jeff Bridges found himself seated between spiritual leaders Bernie Glassman and Ram Dass, which led to an unexpected conversation about the parallels between The Dude, Bridges' iconic character in 'The Big Lebowski,' and the tenets of Buddhism... That conversation evolved into The Dude and the Zen Master, a book by Bridges and Glassman that captures their dialogue about the nature of spirituality." -- The Huffington Post

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

"Heti has cited 'The Hills,' the bygone MTV show about young people in Los Angeles, as one of the primary influences on 'How Should a Person Be?'... The novel shares with much reality television a kind of episodic aimlessness, and a focus on young, self-­involved characters who spend a lot of time thinking about how they look to other people. In the hands of another novelist, this debt to reality television might lead to a biting indictment of the shallowness of the culture. But that is not what happens here. Heti sees the silliness in the desire for fame that drives such fare, but she also knows that same desire is involved in the impulse to make art." -- The New York Times

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts

"Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls 'a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.' Though strictly nonreligious, the book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address -- the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an 'I' at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be." -- Brain Pickings

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

"Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' is the latest and one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book... Satrapi's book combines political history and memoir, portraying a country's 20th-century upheavals through the story of one family. Her protagonist is Marji, a tough, sassy little Iranian girl, bent on prying from her evasive elders if not truth, at least a credible explanation of the travails they are living through... The book is full of bittersweet drawings of Marji's tête-à-têtes with God, who resembles Marx, 'though Marx's hair was a bit curlier.'" -- The New York Times

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

"The book was a brilliant combination of scientific speculation, sociological treatise and exciting storytelling. It not only gave popular culture the notion of time as a physical dimension; it also offered a parable of class warfare in which two futuristic races, the above-ground Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks, stood in for the working and leisure classes of Wells's time... The novel is a pessimistic look into the future and a downbeat statement about human evolution." -- The New York Times

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

"[This] last lecture, which Pausch entitled 'Really achieving your childhood dreams,' takes as its theme his youthful ambitions: how he achieved them, and how he helped others to achieve theirs. He doesn't discuss spirituality or religion, but speaks with the simple authority of a man who is looking death in the face and assessing what's really important about life. 'Never lose the childlike wonder,' he advises. 'Show gratitude... Don't complain; just work harder... Never give up.'" -- The Independent

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

"A letter written to Rilke by a young man entering a military career who secretly wished to become a poet himself forms the basis of this slim, jewel of a volume of ten letters, written in response by the Bohemian-Austrian poet over six years in the early 1900s when he was still cementing his reputation... The letters capture an enduring warmth and wisdom (be patient, he advises, write as if you have an eternity) that will give heart to aspiring poets today." -- The Independent

Long Day's Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neill
“By common consent, Long Day’s Journey into Night is Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece. ... The helplessness of family love to sustain, let alone heal, the wounds of marriage, of parenthood, and of sonship, have never been so remorselessly and so pathetically portrayed, and with a force of gesture too painful ever to be forgotten by any of us.” -- Harold Bloom, from the foreword to the Yale University Press edition
Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda

"Yogananda is best known for his groundbreaking memoir, 'Autobiography of a Yogi.' It has sold well over four million copies since its publication in 1947, and I suspect it has been read by two or three times that many, because it is the sort of book people lend to their friends. This was especially true in the 1960s and '70s, when Baby Boomer seekers were thirsty for Eastern wisdom and couldn't afford the five bucks to buy the AY, as it has come to be known... The AY prompted more Americans to explore Indian spirituality than any other text." -- Philip Goldberg, The Huffington Post

A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, by Santideva

"This book is a translation of a famous and universally loved poem for daily living composed by the 8th century Buddhist Sage Shantideva. It charts the spiritual journey of a Bodhisattva, one who is committed to attaining full enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. The poem is written from the point of view of a practitioner and provides an extraordinary insight into the process of inner transformation one goes through while traversing the Bodhisattva path." -- Kadampa.org

A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"This volume of sermons. ... is important because here we encounter King the preacher," writes the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the foreword to this volume. In one of the sermons, "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life," Warnock says that King issued "the clarion call of a spiritual genius and sober-minded sentinel who insists that we pray with our lips and our feet, and work with our heads, hearts, and hands for the beloved community, faithfully pushing against the tide of what he often called 'the triplet evils of racism, materialism and militarism.'" "In a divided world," writes Warnock, "and amid religious and political pronouncements in our public discourse that erroneously divide the self, we still need that message."
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

"The book begins with a lengthy, austere, and deeply moving personal essay about Frankl's imprisonment in Auschwitz and other concentration camps for five years, and his struggle during this time to find reasons to live. The second part of the book, called 'Logotherapy in a Nutshell,' describes the psychotherapeutic method that Frankl pioneered as a result of his experiences in the concentration camps. Freud believed that sexual instincts and urges were the driving force of humanity's life; Frankl, by contrast, believes that man's deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose... 'Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is,' Frankl writes. 'After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.'" -- Amazon review

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown

"Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, is the first to admit that vulnerability makes her uncomfortable, but posits that daring to fail is the only true way to be wholeheartedly engaged in any aspect of life. 'Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice -- the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk and emotional disclosure,' she says." -- Publishers Weekly

Popular in the Community


What's Hot