“I cannot dance, O Lord” by Mechthild de Magdeburg

Abramishvili, Merab_Dancer
Merab Abramishvili (Georgian, 1957–2006), Dancer, 2006. Tempera on plywood, 76 × 52 cm.

I cannot dance, O Lord, 
Unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—

Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.

There I will stay with You, whirling.

from The Flowing Light of the Godhead I.44, trans. Jane Hirshfield, in Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994)

Mechthild de Magdeburg (ca. 1207–ca. 1297) was a medieval Christian mystic from a wealthy German family. In 1230 she entered a local house of the Beguines, independent communities of laywomen devoted to leading a life of good works, poverty, chastity, and spiritual practice; and around 1272 she joined the Cistercian convent at Helfta, where she lived until her death. Her seven-volume book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead), written in Middle Low German over the course of three decades, is a compendium of visions, prayers, and dialogues that centers on her experience of God as lover. Her feast day is November 19.

Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953) is an American poet, essayist, and translator whose nine collections of poetry have won multiple awards. Her work encompasses a large range of influences, drawing from the sciences as well as the world’s literary, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual traditions. She lives in California.

Addendum, 9/5/22: Composer Thomas Keesecker has just alerted me to a choral setting he wrote of this passage, “Unless You Lead Me, Love.” Lovely!

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