No one has loved the Most High God’s descent to the tiny form of the fetus more than Catherina Regina von Greiffenberg.
Catharina was consecrated to theology long before she had any say in the matter. She relays “the vow of my mother who, when I still lay in her womb (during a dangerous illness, when she despaired of the possibility of keeping me), offered me up and promised me to Thy service and glory, should I be born alive.”
Hannah in the Old Testament had done much the same as Catharina’s mother, Eva Maria, in promising God her firstborn—who turned out to be the prophet Samuel. Eva Maria, of course, had no idea that the child in utero was a girl instead of the more usual boy starring in such accounts.
It would be natural to assume that being a female theologian was Catharina’s biggest difficulty. In fact, it was not; by far the bigger problem was being a Lutheran theologian. For Catharina lived in a time and place where the sheer existence of Lutherans remained very much under question.
Her family belonged to the landed gentry, residing in the Castle Seisenegg in Lower Austria, not far from today’s Czech and Slovak Republics. She was born halfway through the devastating Thirty Years’ War, which started in part because of the Catholic Habsburg empire’s persecution of Lutheran nobles in Bohemia and ended by ripping Europe to shreds along confessional lines.
When the war finally ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, it was a good thing; but insofar as it made Lower Austria Catholic by imperial decree, it was a bad thing for Catharina and her fellow Lutherans. The people of this religious minority were allowed to abide by their beliefs, but they could not have their own clergy, hire Lutheran teachers to instruct their children, and or take communion even in the privacy of their own homes.
The curious result was that communion pilgrimages became an essential part of Austrian Lutheran piety. Families traveled solo outside of Austrian territory—they weren’t allowed to bring their servants along—to the nearest location where a Lutheran liturgy was permitted. The city of Pressburg, today’s Bratislava, was a favorite destination.
It was on one of these pilgrimages, when Catharina was twenty-two and still mourning the recent death of her sister, that she had a profound spiritual awakening. During the sacrament she beheld what she called the “Deoglori-Light” and the “Goddess of Her Soul,” which called her to a public proclamation of the gospel through her writings, making good on Eva Maria’s vow from years before.
Rather unusually for a Lutheran, Catharina also believed that her call to proclaim included a call to celibacy. But within a few years a surprise offer of marriage came from her father’s much younger half-brother, Hans Rudolf. He had taken care of the family after Catharina’s father’s death, fending off creditors and seeing to her extensive education. He personally tutored her in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, law, natural philosophy, science, alchemy, medicine, mathematics, and theology, including the works of Luther, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas à Kempis, and Johann Arndt.
Despite his declarations of love (not the most common motivation for noble marriages at the time), Catharina put him off for a good many years. Her mind was ultimately changed by Hans Rudolf’s wavering confessional loyalty—it would have been very much to his advantage to convert to Catholicism—so finally, at the age of thirty-one, she married him.
As their marriage was forbidden by Catholic laws of consanguinity, they got special dispensation to go through with it in Lutheran Nuremberg. But that didn’t stop the Austrian authorities from promptly arresting him upon their return. Catharina penned numerous passionate letters to the emperor, pleading for her husband’s release—and passionate letters to her husband as well, eager for his return—until at last, a year later, he was released.
By all accounts their thirteen years together were happy ones, and she was heartbroken when he died. And if heartbreak weren’t enough, his death also brought on the creditors again; one even attacked her physically. Within a year she lost everything.
By this time, the writing was on the wall for Lutherans in Austria anyway. Catharina herself had remained loyal to the Habsburgs and wanted to stay in her homeland. She made no fewer than six trips to Vienna during the course of her marriage to try to persuade the emperor to convert to Lutheranism though, not surprisingly, she failed every time.
Clearly, it was time to leave Austria, and the obvious choice was Nuremberg, home to a lively Lutheran literary culture in which women were already active participants.
However sad the circumstances of her departure from Austria, Catharina’s new life in Nuremberg was a rewarding one. She became an important member in literary circles such as the Ister Society of poets and the German-Minded Association, in which she headed up the Lily Guild, an all-female subset.
She had many friends, both male and female, an especially important one being Sigmund von Birken, a prolific poet in his own right. Printers were glad to publish her works, which were received with extraordinary acclaim: one enthusiastic reviewer called her “a miracle of our times.”
Nearly all of Catharina’s works were religious in nature, in keeping with her prenatal dedication. Her mixed prose-and-poetry meditations on “The Supremely Holy and Supremely Salvific Suffering and Dying of Jesus Christ,” “The Supremely Holy Incarnation, Birth, and Youth of Jesus Christ,” and “The Supremely Holy Life of Jesus Christ” totaled up to more than four thousand pages—and she died before she could write an intended fourth volume on Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the Trinity.
Mary was a favorite theme of Catharina’s writings, a happy confluence of the theologian’s desire to uphold the dignity of women against male detractors and the equal desire to exalt the mystery of divinely-fashioned unborn life dwelling with mothers. Catharina imagines her way into Mary’s joy at harboring the divine-human life within her using her characteristic startling metaphors:
“This chord of delight touched the strings of [Mary’s] heart, making them spring, sing, and ring. This flame made the heated-up sugar of the praise of God rise, effervesce, and boil over. Indeed, this oil of the Holy Spirit, poured into the fire of ther love, rose with glory and thanks toward heaven; as little as gunpowder, when it is lighted, can keep from blowing up, so little can a spirit moved by the Spirit keep from shooting upward when the fuse of assurance draws nigh.”
Mary also gets to deliver speeches of her own, as Catharina imagines them:
“Holiness is not diminished when it takes up sin and takes on the sinners and takes away their frailties. It becomes only that much holier in the hearts of those made holy when it swallows up their unholiness, heals their frailties, and brings about sanctification in them, namely, through precisely that spirit that undertakes to form the Savior’s body in mine. Oh, holy miracle! God makes a cloak for God within me so that He can make the cloak of righteousness for me and all poor sinners.”
Love for the mother of God spills into love for the tiny life that she and all mothers shelter within them. Catharina relates with delight that experience of a friend of hers whose child “quickened”—that is, perceptibly moved for the first time—while she was receiving the Lord’s Supper: a sign of the Spirit’s working in the least of these.
The faith of the unborn is, in fact, a demonstration of the gracious initiative of God in drawing all people to Himself. As Catharina argues,
“The Holy Spirit is not bound to human reason, age, tongue, or mouth but so free in His movements that He can communicate them to children before they have acquired reason and the use of their mouths and tongues.”
Such concern of the Lord for these tiny lives was reason, in Catharina’s judgment, for pious parents to lay aside all worries about their unbaptized stillborn or miscarried children. God was at work in them before they were born; He will draw them to Himself even without baptism.
The foundation for this is the incarnation of the Son of God—not just as a full-grown man, or a twelve-year-old in the temple, or even a baby in the manger, but first of all as a fetus. Living as she did at a time when medical science was just beginning to understand the developmental process in the womb, Catharina exulted in Jesus’ taking on each of these tiny forms, as this extract from a much longer devotion illustrates:
“Blessed be every little morsel of the brain, every little coil of the blood vessels, every little spark of spirit, every little piece of the brain, from which the inner part of the head is composed! …
“Blessed be the charming little nose, the face’s ornament, which commandeers the air and its vital spirits in and out by means of its air tubes and canals; the tool of smell, the watering can of the brain, and the one who ushers out all superfluity. Who, however, can venerate the Most High with sufficient laudation for the fact that the eternal Primal Being of all air and life, who blew the breath of life into the nose of the first person in the creation, now takes on a nose Himself so that He, as that very life, can communicate to us the scent of life…
“Above all, infinitely blessed, consecrated, and praised be the charming little mouth of Him whose word without a mouth created our mouths to praise Him, and when Eve was seduced through the mouth of the serpent and we through hers, He determined, as Heavenly Wisdom, to take on a human mouth from a woman to make us taste Him Himself as the eternal truth in our mouths…
“Blessed and praised be all the veins that like strings of sapphire run through these heavenly hands and arms. The median or middle vein, the pulmonary, cephalic, hepatic, and purple veins, and all the other veinlets and lesser little blood vessels, whatever they are called. A thousand times blessed be each little droplet of blood that flows in these most noble veins and that later will flow from them on the cross for the sake of the forgiveness of our sins and finally will flow even in Holy Communion in our mouth for the purpose of sealing that forgiveness.
“Lauded and honored be all sinews, nerves, spindle bones, limbs, pulses and bones, also all air and marrow in them, all flesh, fat, and skin, from which the most splendid construction of the arms and hands is composed by the hand of God…
“Be no less blessed the little fingers too of the Greatest of All who became small for us. Be praised and thanked for all the little members and joints that make them move and stir. Be likewise blessed the dear fingernails that are the horns, helmets, and little shields of the fingers. The blessed fingernails, on which our bliss blooms, that later on will turn pale from pain and that will be dead before the dying is over…
“Blessed be the dear, darling ribs that fit in the backbone so neatly and close up the most beautiful body and hold it together: the dear ribs, I say, of the second and true Adam, from which I am edified. Blessed be the wisest and most miraculous dispensation of God: just as He formed a woman from the first man’s rib, He now takes from a woman the ribs of the first or premier man in heaven and on earth…
“Praise be all it cartilage, little bones, and layers of fat, which constitute the roof of the most noble innermost part, the treasure chest of the spirit, the Ark of the Covenant, the jeweled casing of the soul, in sum, all of that which eternity will in future reveal to us…”
Catharina died on April 8, 1694, which was Easter Monday. No longer kept from the sacrament, she had received the Lord’s Supper for the last time on Good Friday.
For Further Reading
Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, Meditations on the Incarnation, Passion, and Death of Jesus Christ, ed. and trans. Lynne Tatlock (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Kathleen Foley-Beining, The Body and Eucharistic Devotion in Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg’s “Meditations” (Columbia: Camden House, 1997).
Joy Schroeder, “The Prenatal Theology of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg,” Lutheran Forum 46/3 (2012): 50–56.