"Everything that has been shown to you at such length, one thing after another, occurs in one single moment before God. But since you are corporeal, spiritual knowledge must be given to you by means of corporeal images." (Rev. VII:48)
In her vision of punishment and reward, Hell and Paradise, Birgitta is again reminiscent of Dante. Man adopts a causal way of looking at things—for the sake of simplicity. But these are self-chosen states of mind, rather than penalties imposed. Paradise and Hell are here and now. Much later, the same thought was to become one of the foundations of Emanuel Swedenborg's doctrine, and we also find it in the words of Dostoyevsky: "Paradise is within us—if we wish."
Birgitta's spirituality is wholly inscribed in the pattern of belief of the medieval Church, which was essentially the same as the papal Church of today. It has been hinted that, through her criticism of the sinful living of the popes as she saw it, she was a precursor of the Reformation and of evangelical Christianity. This is groundless. Her life's work is devoted to glorifying the "Holy Church Universal", and her critical activities referred to what she considered to be abuses, and never to questions of dogma.
The Holy Mass was the fixed point in her life, with special emphasis on the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrament whereby bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is an autonomous mystery, a thing apart from the worthiness or unworthiness of the priests whom she so frequently criticized. She expressed her standpoint on the Eucharist in a letter to a Spanish governor who had asked for a prayer written by her personally. She replied in the following words:
"....I, unworthy sinner, pray Thee, through this the great and wondrous work of Thy mercy—the conversion of the bread into Thy true body and the conversion of the wine and water into Thy blood for our eternal and most salutary refreshment—that Thou might utterly convert my will into Thy will alone, so that all my life I may do all that is pleasing to Thee in thought, word and action...."
The conversion of the will and its active participation were always, to Birgitta, a prerequisite of "good acts" and justification. But the Sacrifice of the Mass, properly performed, was a good deed in itself. It promoted, she maintained, the victory of good and the salvation of souls living and departed.
"The wages of sin is death." Souls alien to unselfish love live on after death in the same darkness that they chose in life. The majority are a mixture of good and evil, and after death they are purified from their dross in the fire of Purgatory. Once their evil has been burned away, they leave their trials for a better life. The process can be shortened, mainly through the liturgical life of the Church.
On several occasions Birgitta dwells on the possibility open to the living of alleviating or abbreviating the torment of purification. The authoress and religious historian Emilia Fogelklou has emphasized that, to medieval people, in a way which is no longer true today, the dead continued to inhabit the world of the living; the notion of immortality made them a part of everyday life. Birgitta implicitly assumed that due remembrance by the living would help to save the dead from "being crushed alone beneath the burden of their past". This, then, is accomplished through the life of the Church, but also through the prayers and good deeds of the individual. An angel speaks to Birgitta:
"Just as the hungry rejoices at the food which enters his mouth, the thirsty at drink, the sorrowful at joy, the naked at rainment and a sick person at a bed, so the souls rejoice at sharing in the good which is done in the world for their sake.... Then many voices were heard from Purgatory, saying: 'O Lord Jesus Christ, Righteous Judge, send Thy love to those who have spiritual power in the world. Then we will be able, more than at present, to share in their songs, reading and sacrifice.' Above the room from which this cry was heard, there was seen as it were a house, from which there came many voices: 'May God reward those who send us help in our powerlessness.' From the house a red light of morning, as it were, was seen to arise, but beneath the light of morning was revealed a sky having none of the brilliance of the red light of morning. From the sky was heard a loud voice, saying: 'O Lord God, of Thy infinite power, reward them a hundredfold in the world who, by their good deeds, lift us up to the light of Thy Divinity and the sight of Thy countenance.'" (Rev. IV:7)
The term "mysticism" is frequently associated with immersion in the transcendental, a sometimes wordless communication, inexpressible experiences. The path to these experiences is often said to be marked by "stations". Speaking from their own experience, the mystics have given names to these staging posts—"destitution", "the dark night", "mystic death", "at-homeness in what is hidden", "fullness". Usually the fruits of immersion are strictly personal. If they are verbalized, it is often in the form of directions concerning a path which in itself seems to be part of the destination. The mystics of the 14th century were often led to something inexpressible, into "a cloud of unknowing", to a God beyond all concepts. A kind of negative theology, one might say.
Birgitta was indeed a mystic: for decades she believed herself to be addressed by or involved in a dialogue with God, Christ, Mary, angels, the dead. It was, judging by the Revelations, a "practical mysticism". Her immersion in God led to Revelations containing advice, direction, messages of a concrete nature. She thought of herself as God's spokeswoman, and the divine messages were concerned with ways in which she herself and her contemporaries could improve their ways, living so as best to promote the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth which was the goal of creation: the earth should mirror the celestial order. But basically, of course, her starting point was the same as for other mystics: "Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
What she experiences, she says, is "so obvious, that everybody, both great and small can understand". The almost twenty years that Birgitta spent in Rome were in practice monastic; services, prayers, confession, seclusion and charitable works filled her days. Although she never took monastic vows, she lived on the whole in obedience to the rules which she herself, at God's dictation, laid down for what was to be the convent in Vadstena.
But her own days were also full of activity. As we have already seen, she was politically and politico-ecclesiastically active. Not only did her Revelations tell her how Christians should order their lives, and the consequences of disobedience and compliance, she also felt called upon to admonish kings and popes, to negotiate peace between England and France, and to reprimand the aristocrats of Sweden and the Continent. She condemned abuses in the ecclesiastical world—always with the same absolute fearlessness. This constant involvement in secular and ecclesiastical affairs can be left aside for present purposes: it is her religious, "spiritual" profile which is most important and, to our own age, most interesting.
One may ask whether there was a polarity between inward and outward life, between contemplation and outgoing activity. Birgitta herself raises this problem in her Revelations. She looks on her worldly activity as a direct consequence of her own religious empathy. The contradiction between inward and outward, she seems to tell us, is an illusion:
"If a fire is kept in a closed vessel with no opening, then it will die and the vessel grow cold. The same is true of Mary, for even though she does not wish to live for anything but the honor of God, it behooves her to open her mouth. The flame of her love then darts forth.... and gives birth to spiritual children of God." (Rev. VI:65)
The idea of forming a new order, with a new monastic Rule, came to Birgitta when she was still living at Alvastra, after her husband's death. This too was a case of divine inspiration. Later, in Rome, rules for the "new vineyard" were dictated to her and, as always, her confessors wrote down what she professed to have heard from "His beloved mouth".
Birgitta's order, Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris, the Order of the Most Holy Savior, was approved by a Papal Bull in 1370, three years before her death. Her monastic Rule was, by papal ordinance, to be appended to the so called Augustinian Rule, a number of generally worded precepts for monastic life. In addition, then, the rules which she herself proposed were also to apply.
The most distinctive feature is Birgitta's stipulation that the convent was to be a "dual community" of both men and women. Monks and nuns were, however, to live in separate buildings and should meet only in connection with confession and services of worship, which the two communities later celebrated in the convent church designed by Birgitta. Strict rules of enclosure applied to both groups—that is, they were forbidden to leave the confines of the convent without special permission.
Birgitta's idea of Mary as "head and queen" is perhaps reflected by the stipulation that her convent was to be headed by a woman. The actual idea of a convent for both men and women was not intrinsically new; a community of this kind existed at Fontevrault in France, and also among the Benedictines. The unusual concept was that Birgitta's creation was to be a convent of nuns with men, subordinate to the abbess, serving as priests. The subsequent history of the convent shows, in point of fact, that the men belonging to it had difficulty in submitting to a woman's authority. But the Revelations make the relationship quite clear. Birgitta writes, as dictated:
"Out of veneration for My most blessed Virgin Mother, to whom this order is dedicated, the abbess is the head and ruler. For after My ascent into Heaven, the Holy Virgin, whose vicar she is here on earth, was head and queen to My apostles and disciples." (Reg. 14)
The convent was to admit up to 60 sisters. The male members were to consist of 13 ordained monks, four "Mass deacons"—for whom ordination was not obligatory—and eight lay brothers. Thus the community would have a total of 85 members. In this way, numerically, it would correspond to the twelve apostles (Paul added) and the 72 disciples.
Birgitta seems to have decided quite early on that her convent would be established in Vadstena, on the northeast side of Lake Vättern. The royal Folkung dynasty owned a castle near the lake, and in 1346 the royal manor had been bequeathed to Birgitta as a gift to the foundation she was then planning. Building work apparently began early, but it was suspended and did not get seriously under way until the end of the 1360s. Nuns and monks moved in in 1384, but the church was not completed until much later, being finally consecrated together with the convent in 1430.
Life in Vadstena, as in the houses which came to be established elsewhere later on, was dominated by a great number of liturgical duties. Here as in all other monastic houses, the Office, Opus Dei, was to be sung seven times daily. This is a very extensive ritual, the performance of which must have required at least three or four hours. According to the classical timetable they began at cockcrow. The actual time of this morning service, matins, depended on the season of the year, but was usually at three or four in the morning. It was followed by prime at six o'clock, terce at nine, sext three hours later, nones at three in the afternoon, and finally vespers and compline at six and nine p.m. respectively. All these "hours" were occupied by singing, Bible reading and prayer.
During her first years in Rome, Birgitta, assisted by her confessor, Master Petrus Olai of Skänninge, composed a sung ritual of her own, to be performed by the nuns after the brothers in her convent had sung and recited their Office according to the rules of the diocese of Linköping, to which Vadstena belonged. The thought was that brothers and sisters were to sing in rounds, for their prayer to be continuous. http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6111