Beguines: Medieval Holy Women
The Parish Church in Arnprior was full on that Sunday morning as family and friends joined parishioners in a Eucharistic celebration to mark Sister Nancy’s fiftieth anniversary. The parish loved her for the joy-filled compassionate presence she brought to her work as pastoral assistant, whether in preparing for the baptism of their babies, the marriages of their adult children, offering a listening ear in their struggles, visiting the sick, accompanying the dying or finding material support for those in need of food, furniture, shelter. Many of the adults present remembered Sister Nancy as their school principal decades earlier.
As she approached the microphone to deliver the homily, there was a polite, expectant hush. Sister Nancy expressed her gratitude for the years spent in ministry, for the love that had guided and blessed her life. Then the mood shifted, the silence moved from attentive to rapt, the air in the Church became one gathered, caught breath. Sister Nancy began to speak of a time in her life when the light turned to darkness, when misunderstandings and conflict led to intense suffering, when she tasted the bitterness of defeat and failure.
In opening her heart to reveal her own darkness, Nancy touched the hearts of those present more profoundly than any sharing of her times of light could have done.
Among the medieval holy women whose lives and writings we are encountering, Angela of Foligno shines darkly. When I first read of her failures, her weakness, her desire to be thought well of, I was drawn to her story, far more than to those mystics who lived (or so it seemed) in unshadowed light. Because of her struggles, I have come to trust in the spiritual guidance in Angela’s writings.
Born in 1248, in Foligno, Italy, just a few miles from Assisi, within twenty years of the death of Francis, Angela grew up as Franciscan Spirituality was winning hearts and followers. Like many married women, she was drawn to become a third order Franciscan.
Wealthy, intelligent and beautiful, Angela seemed by nature unsuited to the poverty, privations, humiliations which Francis loved. Yet Angela wanted to be seen as part of this spiritual movement…
I was making it known that I did not want to accept anything except what was sufficient for me, and yet I had things saved for another day. I studied to seem poor externally and to lie down in a poor place; where I slept I had many sheets put down and in the morning I had them taken up again so no one would know. (Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff in Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature Oxford, 1986, p.238)
While meditating on the sufferings of Jesus, Angela experienced a conversion of heart so powerful that she came to regard her duplicity with great shame and contrition.
Revealing a flair for the dramatic, Angela tells of this moment:
…I recognized all my sins with the greatest grief, and I felt that I was crucifying him....there was given to me such a great fire that standing next to the cross I stripped myself of all my clothing, and I offered myself to him completely….
I did not blush to recite before the whole world all the sins that I ever committed. But I enjoyed imagining some way in which I could reveal those deceptions and iniquities and sins. I wanted to go through the squares and the towns naked, with fish and meat hanging about my neck saying, “Here is that disgusting woman, full of malice and deception, the sewer of all vices and lies...’’
(in Petroff, p.7)
After suffering the loss of her husband, sons and mother within a short time, Angela became passionate in the pursuit of poverty, obsessed with having nothing.
While walking on a pilgrimage to the church of St. Francis in Assisi, Angela was met by the Spirit of Jesus:
… He began to speak the following words, to challenge me to love of him. “My daughter, sweet to me, my daughter my temple, my daughter my delight, love me, for you are much beloved by me, much more than you love me.” And very often he called me, “Daughter and my sweet bride,” adding, “I love you more than any other woman in the valley of Spoleto. Therefore, since I have entered you and rested in you, you may now enter me and rest in me.”
When …I came into the church….and saw St. Francis depicted in the bosom of Christ, he said to me, ”Thus embraced shall I hold you, and much closer than you can imagine…And now is the hour, sweet daughter, my temple, that I fulfill what I said to you, for I leave you after this consolation. But I will not ever leave you if you love me”. (Petroff, p.262)
Reflecting on the joy she felt, Angela adds:
And he said to me on the road going to Assisi, “All your life, your eating and drinking, sleeping and all your living is pleasing to me.” (p.263)
All these things Angela dictated later to a Franciscan priest, as a teaching on the steps to holiness. Adding his own running commentary, the priest points out that this vision of love camebefore Angela had attained the total deprivation in her life for which she longed.
Angela instructs us about the need for poverty of spirit:
When love is pure, it…sees itself to be nothing. That which does not permit the soul to be deceived in such things is poverty of spirit. For in a divine locution made to me by God I heard poverty commended with so much proof as such a great good that it completely exceeds our understanding…for pride can only exist in those who think they possess something or believe themselves to have something. (Petroff, p. 26)
Angela became known as a magistra or spiritual teacher. Perhaps her best gift to us is her assurance of the gifts we may discover in our own dark times of loss and suffering:
There was a time… when my soul was exalted to behold God with so much clearness that never before had I beheld him so distinctly. But love did I not see here so fully; rather did I lose that which before I had and was left without love. Afterwards did I see him darkly, and this darkness was the greatest blessing that could be imagined and no thought could conceive aught that would equal this.
Then was there given unto the soul an assured faith, a firm and certain hope, wherein I felt so sure of God that all fear left me. For by that blessing which came with the darkness I did collect my thoughts and was made so sure of God that I can never again doubt but that I do of a certainty possess him.
(in Praying with Passionate Women Bridget Mary Meehan, Crossroad, New York 1995 p.81)
The Paschal Mystery, Then and Now…..
What thoughts and feelings arise in you
as we stand together on the threshold of Easter?
The medieval holy women whose lives we have been exploring in recent weeks are sisters to us, kindred spirits in so many ways. Yet their understanding of spirituality was limited by their lack of knowledge of the universe; their lives were held bound in darkness, in ignorance of so much that is now woven into our daily thoughts and experience of life within and around us.
For them the earth, however lovely, was inert. They lacked the scientific knowledge to see the earth as we see it: as a living being, one that can suffer, be harmed grievously, and adapt to change in surprising ways. Their lack of reverence for the living earth was accompanied by a similar lack of reverence for their own bodies, often accompanied by harsh penances they took on themselves to subdue the body to the spirit. St. Francis of Assisi famously referred to his own body as”brother ass” and he treated it as harshly as a stubborn donkey that needed force and discipline to urge it forward.
In the medieval world view, life on earth was a suffering to prepare for a happier life in heaven. Death was all around our friends, the Beguines: in the black plagues that swept through Europe, in the endless wars, in the burnings of those convicted of heresy. It is not surprising that they were deeply drawn to Jesus in his suffering humanity. Many of them desired so strongly to share in his agony that they prayed for and received physical woundings that they saw as signs of love.
Catherine of Siena as a young woman engaged in severe fasting and penance which compromised her health.
She tells of a vision:
I saw the crucified Lord coming to me in a great light….from the marks of his most sacred wounds, I saw five blood-red rays coming down upon me, which were directed towards the hands and feet and heart of my body. Wherefore, perceiving the mystery I straightway exclaimed: Ah, Lord my God, I beseech thee, let not the marks appear outwardly on my body!
While I was yet speaking, before the rays reached me, they changed their blood-red colour to splendor and in the semblance of pure light they came to the five places in my body. So great is the pain that I endure sensibly in all these five places but especially within my heart, that unless the Lord works a new miracle, it seems not possible for me that the life of my body can stay with such agony and that it will not end in a few days.
(Lucy Menzies in Mirrors of the Holy Oxford, Mowbray and Co. 1928; quoted on p.84 in Praying with Passionate Womenby Bridget Mary Meehan Crossroad, New York 1995)
Our way of entering into the life/death/life mystery that we remember and relive each year in these days is affected by our perception of the earth and the human life that is so bound up with her.
For years, decades, I approached holy week with a kind of dread, knowing I must engage once more in the agony of Jesus, his sufferings, his death, the long tomb-time of his absence, before I could even remember the truth of Resurrection….
I would get up during the night after the Holy Thursday Eucharist, and spend an hour in prayer, remembering Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his friends asleep around him, as he faced the certitude of his coming death.
It was a Mystery Play, perhaps not unlike the ancient Greek and Roman Mystery Rituals, but the emotions were manufactured. The darkness I experienced through these intense feelings of grief and loss was real, as was the physical discomfort of fasting.
Yet some part of me knew it was play-acting: both the terrible loss of Good Friday and the exploding joy of Easter. Jesus IS risen, will never die again; the Christ is with us always.
Four years ago, something shifted. I awoke Holy Thursday night as was my practice. Yet I was drawn in prayer, not to the Garden of Gethsemane, but to the earth herself, in agony, dying. I sat through that hour with her suffering.
Later I came upon this lovely meditation by Susan Griffin which spoke to my heart:
As I go into the Earth, she pierces my heart. As I penetrate further, she unveils me. When I have reached her center, I am weeping openly. I have known her all my life, yet she reveals stories to me, and these stories are revelations and I am transformed.
Each time I go to her, I am born like this. Her renewal washes over me endlessly, her wounds caress me. I become aware of all that has come between us, the blindness, of something sleeping between us. Now my body reaches out to her. They speak effortlessly, and I learn that at no instant does she fail me in her presence.
She is as delicate as I am, I know her sentience, I feel her pain and my own pain comes into me, and my own pain grows large and I grasp this pain with my hands, and I open my mouth to this pain, I taste, I know and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst, in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster.
This earth is my sister, I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am, how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget what she is to me, what I am to her.
from “The Body of Earth”
In my new understanding of the life/death/life mystery as part of the Earth’s Mystery, I find this poem by John O’Donohue a magnificent reimagining of the Jesus Mystery:
Through the cold, quiet nighttime of the grave underground,
The earth concentrated on him with complete longing
Until his sleep could recall the dark from beyond
To enfold memory lost in the requiem of mind.
The moon stirs a wave of brightening in the stone.
He rises clothed in the young colours of dawn.
I wonder.... as the Beguines in their time lived the mystery of Jesus' suffering and death, are we, in and for our time, called to live with the same passion, with deep joy,
the mystery of Resurrection?
Marvelous Medieval Women: Catherine of Siena
One pope trembled at her name, while another proclaimed her “Doctor of the Church”. A brilliant light among the medieval women who inspire us today, Catherine of Siena chose a way of life similar to that of the Beguines, becoming in the late fourteenth century a third order Dominican.
The institution of third orders provided women in southern Europe with something similar to the independence of the Beguine movement, for as a tertiary a woman could continue to live in the world and actively help others while being provided with… spiritual guidance and the support of a community for her spiritual practices.
(Elizabeth Alvida Petroff in Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature: Oxford University Press 1986 p.232)
From an early age Catherine was drawn to a life of prayer and asceticism. She is among those great mystics who experienced Sacred Marriage with the Beloved.
Here is how it happened:
One day she suddenly went out of the house and out of Siena by the Porta di Sant Ansano to a region where she thought there were certain dells and caves almost hidden from the eyes of men; there she entered into one, and finding herself in a place where she could neither be seen nor heard, she kneeled on the ground, and in a transport of overwhelming love called the mother of Christ, and with a childlike simplicity asked her to give her in marriage to her son Jesus; and praying thus she felt herself raised somewhat from the ground into the air, and presently there appeared to her the Virgin Mary with her son in her arms, and giving the young girl a ring he took her as his spouse and then suddenly disappeared; and she found herself set back on earth and she returned to Siena and to her home.
Though she was drawn to a life of prayer and solitude, Catherine received a powerful vision when she was about twenty, persuading her that she should be out amongst those in need. An early desire to become a Dominican preacher found fulfillment as her gifts matured with the support and friendship of her mentor, the Dominican priest Raymond of Capua. He matched her in intelligence, spirituality and political wisdom, encouraging her to expand her ministry beyond Siena.
Catherine put her great gifts as speaker, preacher and writer at the service of mediating peace among the warring Italian city-states, and attempting to bring reform to a church entangled in political strife.
In Praying with Passionate Women Bridget Mary Meehan writes of Catherine’s last years:
In 1377, she persuaded Pope Gregory XI to move the papacy from Avignon to Rome. Catherine acted as an advisor to Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban VI. In spite of her deliberations, she was unable to prevent the Great Schism. Exhausted from her efforts to achieve reconciliation and unity, Catherine became seriously ill and died at the age of thirty-three in Rome on April 29, 1380.
Meehan adds that Catherine, whom Pope Paul VI named “Doctor of the Church” in 1970,
as a mystic activist and a peacemaker…is a mentor to women in the church today who advocate change and transformation of sexist and patriarchal structures and seek new possibilities for women in ministry. (p. 84 Crossroad, New York, 1995)
Catherine’s spirituality was focused on truth. In her many letters she counsels her friends to know how great is God’s love for them, and to seek self-knowledge:
…in self-knowledge you will find the gentle mercy of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God that gives and is nothing but love. Whatever the Spirit does is done for love. You’ll find the Spirit’s movement of love within your own soul because our will is nothing but love, and its every affection and movement comes from nothing but love.
(Laura Swan: The Wisdom of the Beguines Bluebridge, Katonah New York 2014, p.133)
In her prayers Catherine compares God to “ a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek” and to “springs of living water”.
She writes, “You are the fire that ever burns without being consumed…you are the fire which takes away cold; with your light you illuminate me so that I may know all your truth.”
In this next prayer, Catherine expresses the desire that she perceives at the heart of the Holy:
you want me to gaze into you
and see that you love me,
to see that you love me gratuitously
so that I may love everyone
with the very same love.
You want me, then,
to love and serve my neighbours gratuitously,
by helping them
spiritually and materially
as much as I can.
(both prayers are from The Flowering of the Soul: A Book of Prayers by Women edited by Lucinda Vardey, Vintage, Canada 1999)
In Catherine we see the power unleashed by the flame of love. We see what our own lives can be when inflamed by that same love in which we are surely, tenderly, unconditionally held.
Beguines: Unbounded Creativity
The Beguines were welcomed as holy blessing and persecuted as heretics. In France, in 1310, the mystic visionary Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake. Here is an excerpt from her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls:
Truth tells my heart I am loved by Someone who cares for me unconditionally. This gift delights me past the point of thinking. It transforms me, too, and I become one with divine Love, who reminds me. She enters me and loves in me, and gives me the strength to do whatever She wants. The divine Lover gives me this spiritual power.
(Laura Swan in The Wisdom of the Beguines Bluebridge Katonah New York 2014)
How did such a lover of God merit burning? For one thing, Marguerite wrote of the Trinity as ”Power, Wisdom and Goodness”; as “Lover, Loved and Love”, which she expanded to “eternal substance, pleasing fruition and loving conjunction”.
This, writes Swan, was a “no go” area for women:
When beguines spoke publicly of the Holy Trinity, it usually earned them especially harsh criticism, since medieval theologians considered Trinitarian theology --- among all areas of theology--- the one area women were least capable of teaching. (p. 130)
More than that, Swan notes that “Marguerite had the bad fortune of living at a time when both the French king and the church in Rome were aggressively attempting to stamp out what they saw as heresy”. (p. 156) Stamping out heresy was the purpose for which the papacy had created the Inquisition in the 1200’s.
Though some theologians approved of her writings, Marguerite lacked what other Beguines, such as Marie d’Oignies, had: a powerful male theologian as protector. She was pursued by the Dominican inquisitor, William of Paris, confessor to the French King Philip IV.
Though not the only beguine who was harshly critical of church hierarchy, Marguerite’s condemnation as a heretic related to the implication in her writings that “the church as provider of the sacraments and guarantor of salvation was not essential to a person’s relationship with God” (Swan p. 157). Though she acknowledged that the church could make an important contribution to one’s spiritual health, “it was possible for a person to grow spiritually so mature that the church’s sacraments were no longer necessary nor even essential for that person.”
For Marguerite, as for the beguines generally, “Love alone is shown to be the proper relationship between the human and the Divine – a relationship that propels the soul toward God. “ (p.157)
The medieval Church emphasized the need for “Divine Justice” preaching about the fire of Hell and of Purgatory. For the beguines, this was out of harmony with their belief in a God of Love. They did not dispute the existence of Hell and Purgatory, which formed part of the worldview in which their lives were contained as in a glass globe.
Instead, they reconfigured Purgatory as love-inspired: a place where the soul was cleansed to prepare for an infusion of Divine Love. They prayed unceasingly for those who had died, were looked to for support in this by grieving relatives.
They bargained with the Justice of God that they might relieve through their own suffering the pains of those who were in Purgatory; however, their belief in Love would not allow them to accept the idea of anyone being eternally separated from God.
God is Love. Beguines understood the depth of this reality to the point that they could, with Hadewijch, say that no one need to fear hell because even the path into hell ultimately leads to God. Beguine writing revealed some women “negotiating hell away from God” because they could not imagine God who is Love tolerating souls suffering in hell.
The Beguines clearly had an understanding of God that was in significant ways at odds with the official church view. But they did not court martyrdom. Rather, they lived in the courage of their convictions, wisely finding ways to nourish the souls and hearts of the common people, using puppets rather than pulpits, as Swan tells us:
Beguines and their medieval audiences were familiar with dramatic performances, both to entertain and to educate….Miracle plays, morality plays, plays enacting stories from the Bible (especially Christmas pageants and Passion plays), as well as mystery plays were common.
Beguines were adept at using this interactive medium to present their teachings and to exhort their audiences to a deeper spiritual life. Mechtild of Magdeburg and Marguerite of Porete wrote in the form of dialogue, with the probable intent of sacred performance. Beatrijs of Nazareth and Hadewijch described their visions in such a way that they could be enacted as sacred theater. Other beguines took familiar gospel stories and performed them for small groups, at chapel gatherings, and on public squares. A particularly popular choice was the re-enactment of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion.
Beguines walked the streets, calling people to reform their ways, sometimes carrying a crude wooden cross. They created elaborate puppet shows, read their poetry aloud, and were gifted storytellers. People would have experienced a preaching beguine as a flesh-and-blood sermon, as a performed commentary or homily on the gospel story. Beguines were preaching in every creative form they could conceive. (pp. 124-5)
The Beguines elude any attempt to contain them in definitions, categories or descriptions. They were each unique women of Spirit, a Spirit that, like fire, burned through them to warm a world of incredible complexity and harsh judgements, of religious divisions created by political ambitions, of religious persecution fueled by fear of freedom.
Bearers of light and nourishing water for their times, they were women so afire with love for God and for those around them that, like light, like water, they flowed to hearts that called out for assurance of love.
They were also fearless in their condemnation of power, whether political or religious, that was not nourishing those whom God loved.
Next week, we will meet the brilliant Catherine of Siena who took on a divided papacy, and sent it packing!
The Beguines: Four
Exploring the times, lives and writings of the Medieval “Holy Women” known as the Beguines has revealed surprising similarities with our own call as women in the Communion of Creative Fire. In our love for the Holy, Source of Life and Love, in our support for one another in the Communion, in our desire to enhance the lives of those around us, we are very like the Beguines.
Yet, between our lives and theirs is a chasm of difference: the world in which we live has altered so radically from theirs that our call, our prayer, our service, must radically differ.
We have been born into a time when the great experiment of 13.8 billion years that has resulted in life on this planet as we know it may be nearing its end. We are living in a time when the beautiful mystery of oceans, forests, mountains, lakes, rivers and water-tables, of wildly exotic plant, insect, aquatic and animal life, hovers on the edge of extinction.
More than that, we must embrace the truth that we humans have contributed to this near-death through our own actions inspired by our beliefs, our “grow or die” economic values, our “subdue and conquer” attitude towards the earth and all that lives upon her.
That we know this is important, but what we do about it will affect the future, not billions or millions of years from now, nor in thousands or even hundreds, but within this century. We have very little time to get it right.
Yet, lest we despair, there are among us voices of wisdom and hope, notably Jean Houston`s, that say we have just enough time, working in harmony with all the powers for life and the emerging powers of Spirit within and among us, to turn things around.
“Who will move away the stone for us?”
The women friends of Jesus who gathered in front of his tomb, bringing spices and ointments, knew they lacked the physical strength to roll away the stone.
Perhaps we feel the same way when we consider the gigantic stones of corporate power, transnational companies who, blessed by global trade laws, traverse the planet in search of cheap labour to produce cheap goods without any responsibility for the environment, for the air quality or the rainforests or the arable soils being compromised in the process.
More and more violent methods of extracting gas and oil from deep within the body of our mother-planet are sanctioned in the name of the economy. The huge petroleum companies, whose first responsibility is to ensure profits to their shareholders, must prove that they have future sources of fuel once they exhaust all their present ones. What they have in reserve, if/when drawn upon, would warm the planet far beyond the predicted safe level of emissions.
Moreover these companies, sanctioned by the trade laws that came into effect in recent decades of globalization, have power to overrule government initiatives toward a greener economy by calling these “unfair trading practices”.
“Who will move away the stone for us?” we ask…
The answer is we must move it ourselves.
Sunday March 9th was International Women’s Day. I was among 1500 people in one hundred countries who gathered at computers, on phones, to hear Jean Houston and Marianne Williamson. Each of these powerful, enspirited, loving, women spoke of woman’s call today.
Jean told of the women-led initiatives around the planet already bringing about radical change. Marianne spoke of the need for political engagement to take on the corporate power of the gas and oil companies who hold our elected governments in thrall. Marianne shared the findings of gender studies: whereas a man will go ahead with an action if he is 20% sure he has understood the issue, a woman needs to be 80% sure before she will speak up, take a stand.
Both Jean and Marianne are convinced that the crises of today demand woman’s genius: women know they need to interconnect and cooperate with others; they don’t need to work in hierarchical models; they trust ways of knowing that are intuitive, ways of acting that are creative, requiring one to think “outside the box”.
Claire Zammit, who organized the event, added that although the masculine model was successful at solving problems that can be handled with goal-setting, linear thinking, and careful planning, today’s planetary crises require women’s gifts: access to internal wisdom, imagination, and capacity for interconnection.
Marianne acknowledged her own lack of appreciation, as a young woman, for her mother’s and grandmother’s clarity about their role of caring for the home, caring for the children. Now she understands that woman’s role is to care for the home and children: today the whole planet is our home and our children are the offspring of the entire earth.
“You are the Mother Mind”, Jean Houston told us, “creative, empathic, filled with stories”.
Listening to Jean and Marianne, I remembered Naomi Klein’s brilliant book on Capitalism and Climate: This Changes Everything. (Knopf Canada 2014)
Though most of the powerful trade/oil/gas executives are men, Klein notes that most of the leaders of movements towards hoped-for-change are women
who often dominate the front lines, providing not only powerful moral leadership but also some of the movement’s most enduring iconography. In New Brunswick, for instance, the image of a lone Mi’kmaq mother, kneeling in the highway before a line of riot police, holding up a single eagle feather, went viral. In Greece, the gesture that captured hearts and minds was when a seventy-five -year-old woman confronted a line of riot police by belting out a revolutionary song that had been sung by the Greek Resistance against German occupation. From Romania, the image of an old woman wearing a babushka and holding a knobby walking stick went around the world under the caption: You know your government has failed when your grandma starts to riot. (p.303)
So must we now say “Bye-bye Beguines” and move forward into our future without them?
We need their passionate fire, their deep meditation, their courage, their love, as never before.
Mary T. Malone affirms this in her book: Praying with the Women Mystics. Her poem, “The Abyss of Omnipotence” was inspired by the Beguine Hadewijch of Brabant.
Here is an excerpt:
God of the deeps,
This one thing I have learned:
Love is not repose.
Just when I am at rest
In the safe boundaries of recognized deeps,
And bursts the banks.
The entire poem awaits us in our Gathering Space.
Spiritual Writings of the Beguines
In her brilliant anthology, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (Oxford University Press, 1986), Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff explores the writings of the Beguines from her perspective as a Professor of Comparative Literature. Petroff is fascinated by the original way these women think about their spiritual lives, by "the intimate experience of the personal and transpersonal expressed in their writings".
Yet she adds that:
the success of medieval women in communicating their experiences should not blind us to the fact that the medieval world, especially the institutional church, was mistrustful of women who claimed spiritual authority. The difficulties that this mistrust or opposition caused for women are evident in their writings. Visions gave them authority…in their visions women were told that they must write, but each individual woman had to discover for herself how to write, how to express her insights within the framework of the teachings of the church and in response to the pervasive misogyny of the medieval world. (p.20)
Despite these challenges, Petroff notes:
In their writings these women were very critical of church practices, quick to point out hypocrisy and crime in the clergy, sharply observant of the lack of spirituality in religious leaders, and indignant at the wealth of the church….they were thinkers on the cutting edge of new developments in the church; even the most contemplative women were often reformers in their own communities. In their meditations and visions, they were regularly developing new values for the feminine, for Christ, for human experience, and in their writings they developed new uses of language to speak of all this. (p. 21)
Petroff believes that a careful reading of these writings offersa very different understanding of the Middle Ages, one in which creative fulfillment through writing might be found in the religious as well as the secular world and one in which women were the active agents in the transformation of their society.
As well, these writings can offer us new insights about the creation of literary texts at the historical moment when oral composition is being replaced by written literature. (p. 21)
Differences in the style of the women’s writings can be attributed to differences in opportunities for education. Women who were destined for marriage were not usually given a literary education since:
ability to read and write and access to literary texts were considered irrelevant, if not dangerous, for all but consecrated religious women until the thirteenth century. From the thirteenth century on, lay women were often taught to read and write in the vernacular languages so that they might be more effective in running large households or more useful in the family business, but not for the sake of writing literature. (p.4)
Women who married had their time and energies consumed by frequent pregnancies, child-bearing and care for their families whereas life in a monastery offered opportunities for education, reading, reflection and writing.
Thus…it is not surprising that most medieval women writers were single, whether virgins or widows, and that most of these were associated with some religious order or movement. (p. 4)
Though what I have quoted above from Petroff’s Introduction applies to the spectrum of Medieval Women’s spiritual writings, including those of Benedictine nuns, like Hildegard, and recluses like Julian, the writings of the Beguines show similar themes, and qualities. It also helps to explain the very different styles we find among the various Beguine writers. Those who spent time in a Monastery may compose in Latin; others will write in their own languages; some who cannot write will dictate their spiritual experiences to a scribe, often a priest who serves as spiritual director.
Before exploring their writings, Petroff paints a backdrop of the early 13th century where the curtain is about to rise on the Beguines:
…by the opening years of the thirteenth century, conditions for female spirituality, for deepening the devotional life of women, had changed enormously. The older Benedictine houses and even the reform movements of the late twelfth century…could not accept all the women who wanted to embrace a religious life. Furthermore, women wanted a new kind of religious life and this made the institutional church very uneasy….Women of this century wanted a life of evangelical poverty; they wanted the opportunity to work, to a self-sufficiency not based on the income from property but on the work of their hands; they wanted a daily religious practice and the education to pursue that practice intelligently and the opportunity to discuss spiritual ideas among themselves. They desired flexibility of commitment and life-style, so that there would be the possibility for active charity in the world as well as for a solitary contemplative existence when the need arose. They were eager to lead chaste lives in completely female communities, but they preferred not to take permanent vows of chastity, and they resisted strict enclosure. (p.171)
In essence, this is the way the Beguine Movement shaped itself. And it is out of this movement that magnificent spiritual writings were birthed, as we shall see in future Reflections.
For now, here is some poetry from a lovely little book by Mary T. Malone, Praying with the Women Mystics (Columba Press, Ireland, 2006):
Why Not Soar?
(inspired by Mechtild of Magdeburg)
You have the wings of longing,
You know the pull of hope,
You feel the flowing of desire:
So why not soar?
Fish cannot drown in water,
Birds cannot sink in air,
You cannot fall from my sight:
So why not soar?
Woman, I have adorned you,
Woman, I have delighted in you,
Woman, I have made my home within you:
So why not soar?
Be as the dove, I soar in her.
Lighten your heart, I soar in you.
Uplift your being, be an Easter song:
Why not soar?
As we, women of the Communion of Creative Fire, continue to explore the path we are creating together, we find, in sources both ancient and new, courage, inspiration and guidance. The Beguines of Medieval times offer all three gifts, for they mirror our desires and longings, our passion and compassion for the aching needs of life on our planet and our communal support.
“A women’s movement of about two centuries’ duration that could have altered the course of Christianity”: that is the way Mary T. Malone describes the Beguines in her trilogy, Women and Christianity (Orbis Books, Maryknoll New York, and Novalis, Ottawa, Canada 2002). Referring to the Beguines as a lost opportunity, Malone writes that they just did not “fit in” to the “careful hierarchical gradation of life in the middle ages”. For this reason, scholars since that time have had difficulty knowing how to make room for them. Malone adds: “…the Beguines …present just one more familiar chapter of the repeated attempts by women to gain a foothold in the Christian church that would respect their unique gifts.” (p.124)
The Beguines rose out of the fault lines of eruptions in the medieval church. The movement was born in the midst of conflicts over the role of women, the place of the “laity” in the church, the importance of active service to the needy, and the nature of prayer, among others. Malone believes that the Beguines have been considered “a dangerous memory, a memory of a time when the structures of the church became porous for a time and, without even a conscious effort by the Beguines, began to look very fragile.” As a result “the history of the Beguines has been virtually erased from the common memory”, along with the conflicts. (p.125)
“Who were these women?” The uniqueness of the Beguines is such that “they raised questions of identity and role that had not been faced before.” The response to the questions, Malone notes, is often sought by listing, “their astonishing new activities”. (p. 125)
But Malone suggests a better way to know them is through their writings. Even though this “presents twenty-first century readers with particular problems”, Malone believes that through their writings we “gain a glimpse of a movement of women who present a wholly new face to the Christian church, and whose loss is only now being fully realized.” (pp 125-6)
Beguine writings present a rich banquet of spiritual ecstasy, autobiography, practical suggestions for living a virtuous life, instructions on how to pray, and a marvellous set of letters that seem to anticipate Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”: Hadewijch of Brabant’s 13th century “Letters to a Young Beguine”.
As soon as we seek to categorize each woman in terms of her lifestyle, we encounter the fluidity of structural classification that can (and did) drive the masculine mind to madness. There are women such as Beatrice of Nazareth (Belgium 1200 - 1268) who was taught by the Beguines when she was very young, but died as Abbess of a Cistercian Monastery; there is Hadewijch of Brabant (Flanders 1220-1240) who was a Beguine, perhaps the founder but certainly their spiritual leader, responsible for the spiritual development of a group of young Beguines; yet Hadewijch was later evicted from her Beguine Community, and became homeless. It is thought she perhaps followed her own advice to others, ending her days in a hospital, caring for the sick poor and for lepers, while finding shelter for herself. Then there is the brilliant, astonishing Mechtild of Magdeburg (Germany: 1207-1282) who lived many years as a Beguine, but when the movement lost support, found a home with the Benedictines at Helfta.
So what did these women write?
Mechtild of Magdeburg spent her days in the Monastery composing her book: “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”. Her style of writing is dialogue between the Youth (Jesus) and the Soul (Mechtild). Already we see the challenges Malone suggests we will encounter in these writings:
Can you sort out the two voices?
This book is to be joyfully welcomed, for God Himself speaks in it....
The book proclaims Me alone and shows forth My holiness with praise...
This book is called “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”.
Ah! Lord God! Who has written this book?
I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it.
Hadewijch writes of her passionate love for God
in the courtly style of the troubadours :
Since I was ten years old, I have been so possessed by wholehearted love for God that in the first two years when I began to love Him so, I should have died, had He not given me greater strength than most people have, and given to my nature the power of His nature; and often He gave me counsel, which sometimes was illumined with many gracious shewings; and I received from Him many wonderful gifts in which I felt and saw what He is. And in all these tokens of love which I felt between Him and me, according to the usages of love, just as lovers use between themselves, concealing little, giving much, finding most in their close communion one with another, each one as it were tasting all, eating all, drinking all, consuming all the other, in all these tokens which God my Love so plentifully gave to me at the beginning of my life, He gave me trust in Him, that from then on I generally felt that no one had loved Him with so whole a heart as I.
Though we have scarcely “begun the Beguine” story, already it is clear that these women were not motivated by a desire to deepen the conflicts of the church of their time. Their inspiration was their passionate love for God; the creative fire of that love sent them out to seek and serve the poor, the sick, the lost, and those without to education. Some expressed their love in magnificent treatises on spirituality, in poetry and prayer, in writings that have endured to our time when they are needed more than ever before.
The Beguines and Longing
In the Northern Ontario city of Sudbury, February 1st dawned with a wind chill of -31 degrees. It took faith to believe that Brigid would “breathe life into the mouth of dead winter”. It took hope, and a powerful longing to lure ninety women (and two brave men) out of doors, across the city, to gather for “The Wooing of the Soul”: a day of story, dance, reflection and sharing to celebrate Brigid’s Day. Yet by 9:00, people were already arriving, shaking snow off boots, hanging up winter coats, scarves, hats, before greeting friends, pouring coffee, and filling chairs that created a double circle around the outer edges of the auditorium.
“Why have you come? What drew you here?” I asked. A ripple of sound: laughter and excited conversation danced around the room as people spoke with those nearest them. After the sounds softened, a few were willing to address the whole group: “I have a longing for spirituality.” “I wanted to share a spiritual experience with other women.”
As the women spoke, and later as the day moved on, I heard of hunger for soul nourishment and companionship…. longing. When some of the women spoke privately with me, I heard again that longing: seeking affirmation for a spiritual path each had found or sought or yearned for… often alone without companionship or any assurance that it was the “right” path.
Reflecting upon the longing I encountered on Brigid’s Day, I recall Jean Houston’s teachings on pothos: the spiritual longing which is the memory of a union that fails to go away (The Search for the Beloved (New York Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 1987).
In all the great spiritual and mystery traditions, the central theme, the guiding passion, is the deep yearning for the Beloved of the soul. This yearning for union with the Beloved… transcends the desire for romantic love, the nourishment of parental love, and all the multiple and marvelous varieties of human loving…. (pp 122-3)
Is this intense longing for spiritual nurture, a longing not being met for most of us within our experience of institutionalized religion, something unique to our time? It may appear to be so, when we consider the amazing unfolding of 20th and 21st century science, the discovery of universes within atoms, the discovery of millions of other galaxies beyond our own.
Yet, as Jean teaches, there were earlier times in history when immense change stirred up such longings for spiritual experience. The great desire for the Beloved of the soul emerges from background to foreground when civilizations undergo whole system transitions…. the only force emotionally powerful enough to call us to educate ourselves for sacred stewardship is communion and partnership with the Beloved. (pp. 126-7)
The journey into the spiritual heart of life is not a walk “alone into the alone”. Rather, it is something we yearn to do in the company of others who, like us, are pilgrims on a path we are making as we walk.
A new book by Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines(Bluebridge, Katonah New York, 2014) tells of women in medieval times whose longings led them to create a new lifestyle of spiritual seeking and companionship.
Swan writes: The medieval world was in some ways not so different from our own: rampant greed, political strife, endless war, environmental devastation, the outbreak of pestilence, religious upheaval and killing in the name of God. Beguines courageously spoke to power and corruption, never despairing of God’s compassion for humanity. They used their business acumen to establish and support ministries that offered education, health care, and other social services to the vulnerable. And they preached and taught of a loving God who desired a relationship with each individual person, while they criticized those who used God’s name for personal gain. (pp. 8-9)
Though monasteries offered medieval women a way of life focused on the Beloved of the Soul, monasteries were a characteristic of a society rooted in the countryside. They were large developments with extensive farmlands, often providing shelter for travellers and food for the poor.
The Beguines were quite the opposite in that they were a phenomenon of large urban centres, a gathering or loose association of women drawn to a spiritual life that was expressed in compassionate service and/or contemplative and often mystical prayer-experience.
The movement sprang up in Liege in the twelfth century and spread to Northern France, Flanders and Germany. In England, a beguine-type of community was found in the city of Norwich. The movement had a spontaneous growth perhaps partially related to the shortage of marriageable men, because of wars and the crusades and the growth of lay piety. A sort of “grass roots” movement, the Beguines or “mulieres sanctae” as they were first known, settled in places - often with a family - where they could live in celibacy, earning their own living, having few possessions and offering their services to the poor by teaching or nursing or caring for lepers. Often they would form an association with other Beguines in the same town, and choose one among themselves as a spiritual director.
Gradually, the Beguines became more structured, creating houses where they lived together, sometimes even embracing hospitals in their settings. As this point, the church would frequently assign a male spiritual director - a Franciscan or Dominican - to the women. But the freedom of the Beguines posed a challenge for church leadership and as the movement became more organized, it fell out of favour. “Get a husband or a wall” the church authorities advised.
Summing up the legacy of the Beguines, Swan writes: …thousands of Beguines…walked with passion the path they felt called to: quietly but forcefully improving the lives of those around them while cultivating an intense spiritual life. (p.48)
The art form of courtly love gave the Beguines a way of expressing their pothos, their longing for the Beloved. Swan notes that the troubadours glorified love and raised it to spiritual and metaphorical heights of honor, much in the tradition of the biblical Song of Songs. Beguines expanded the notion of “the heart’s yearning for the beloved” to express the human search for God. ( pp. 20-21)
The writings of the Beguines, especially the manuscripts of Mechtild of Magdeburg and Hadewich of Brabant, are a rich source of soul nourishment for women and men of our time who long for the Beloved of the Soul.
Lord, you are my lover,
My flowing stream,
And I am your reflection.