(This essay is dedicated to my curious nieces, who are also a part of the story I know by heart…)
It does not matter how many books I read about them, I will never be able to write or convey their significance in my life in any other way, than to tell the story, as I know it, by heart. Sometimes I wish that I could lay out their history, their “her-story” really, in a way that presented all the hard facts and their respective academic analysis, but I am not a scholar and the story was not given to me in that way. It seeped into me over time and became a part of who I am. Their story speaks to an ancient longing, as if I suddenly met women who were a part of my spiritual DNA. All stories change as we hear them and tell them, and I am not so much interested in the “facts,” but rather the “effects” that a story has on the heart. To this end, apologies now for historical misspellings, dates or any mix up of centuries and a rather large “nonetheless,” that the story in and of itself is what compels this heart and this telling:
The Beguines existed for less than a hundred years before they were either burned at the stake or absorbed into the convents of Europe, but they changed the face of Christianity on an entire continent and planted the seeds of what would later become the Protestant Reformation. They were the source of inspiration for mystics that followed years after they were all gone. Those included the likes of Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart among others. They revived within their communities a sacred simplicity that is the core of a spiritual life.
In the 11th Century, there was in Europe, what was known as the Apostolic Movement, meaning that people would go out into the countryside and live life as they imagined the Apostles of Christ would. When I say, “people” what I really mean is men, because such choices were not available or allowed to women in that time. If you were a woman, your predestined role was to be a nun, entering the cloistered life, bereft of any community outreach at all; or you were to be a wife. There was no in between. That is, until the Beguines, who are sometimes referred to as the “Sisters Between.”
The origin of the name the Beguines remains a mystery. I have read different things about what the name might mean. What I imagine for myself is that the name Beguine refers to a type of bonnet that these women wore, a symbol of their sisterhood that would allow them to be recognizable to their community.
It was during this Apostolic time that a woman named Mary d’Oignies began going to the Leper colonies in the areas around Belgium and France. She would minister to the lepers both physically and in spirit. She was inspired by the Christ directive of “help the least among you.” I’ve always thought that particular directive was less of an edict and more of a clue to what is required of us to fully embody the spiritual life.
It is here that I must interject that a woman ministering would be forbidden to preach “the Word.” Many churches today have adopted that unfortunate directive as put forth by Thomas Aquinas who pretty much pounded the last nail into the coffin of feminine second class citizenry by writing what would later become the accepted catechism of the Catholic Church– that women were not smart enough to preach the Word and more so were seductresses, impure and untrustworthy. However, women were allowed share their prophesies and share dreams and visions. As a result, in this service to helplessness, to the least among us, Mary began to develop a very esoteric evangelism. To share her prophesies and vision would have required deep contemplation and a mystical bend.
There are few sayings actually attributed to the Christ. They are quite simple. What they boil down to is that we love one another; help the poor; that to show our love for God we should love our fellow humans; we are directed to help the least among us; and we are asked to keep our prayers close and private and pray in the silence of our sacred hearts rather than try to show off; and we are told to visit those in prison. It seems to me that this is the essence of a spiritual life, and everything else is just politics.
Other women were drawn to this life of service and ministering and joined Mary in the leper colonies. They began to live in small groups, supporting themselves by the hard labor of road building and roofing. Thus they created a spiritual independence, coupled with a financial independence not usually available to women at this time in history. It was here that they became the “sisters between,” neither married nor in a convent but obviously doing the work of Spirit. This caused great alarm to the Church, keeping in mind that in the 11th century, the Catholic Church was the only game in town.
The powers that be decided that they should send someone to investigate Mary and the girls. They sent a young priest from the University of Paris to see what was going on and to report back. Jacques de Vitry visited Mary and I think that he fell in love with her. I don’t mean a romantic kind of love, but rather a kind of love that compelled him to see with new eyes. The church had become cold and dogmatic. Its buildings, rather than being testament to the simple life of a loving Christ were garish monoliths of elitism that fostered exclusion. The mass was said in Latin. The writings were in Latin and Latin was a language for the erudite and not the commoners who came to worship. The church had become political and judgmental, rather than a refuge of compassion, sympathetic to the human condition. And finally the church was fraught with fear and superstition that did not reflect that essence of a loving Christianity.
So Jacques fell in love with this simple woman whose faith was fluid, expansive and inclusive of all. Mary, along with her Beguine sisters loved the helpless and the poor. Her faith was a quiet one of humble demonstration. She shared her prophecies and dreams of God’s love with those she helped. And Jacque, filled with a renewed and inspired love of the Christ in his own heart was compelled to go to Rome and tell the Pope that the Beguines were pure and chaste women who deserved protection. And so it was that the Beguines came to know Papal protection for nearly a hundred years. Such protection would mean that they could continue to live in small colonies and serve the communities that had grown to value them.
And they did something more. The Beguines wrote. As I said, everything of Spirit was at that time written in Latin, so unless you had an expanded education, which few did, the Latin words of Spirit were not for you. I should note that the Beguines were not the first women to write about spirit in the vernacular of the day. They were the first people in Western history to write about Spirit in the vernacular of the day.
This is the foundation of the Beguine story as I learned it. What speaks to my heart is that upon discovering this group of women, the longing to find the Divine Feminine was validated in me. Here was a group of women who shared the very best of their qualities by being in service and by embracing a contemplative life that took them deep into their dreams and visions. They were mystics, understanding that we are not separate from God, but wedded in a mystical union which informed their path. Not being able to preach the Word turned out to be a gift that led to a mystical marriage forged in contemplation. Their independence both financially and spiritually is what I have sought in my life.
I include the financial piece in this because you do not have to look very hard to see that we live in a culture where if a woman does not have her own money and means to support herself, she can become a prisoner to abusive relationships; a prisoner to a poverty of body, mind and Spirit. Financial independence is often a ticket out of a relationship dominated by control in which a woman is used and abused. Financial independence can be a safety net for a woman and her children. It is empowering in a culture that requires money to survive.
The story of the Beguines mirrors my quest and longing to find the feminine model in the spiritual traditions in which I was raised. These women who lived centuries before me have taken up residence in my heart. I wonder and I imagine: did they close their eyes and breathe deeply into prayers of connection and gratitude? Did they feel a sense of strength in their financial independence, which afforded them a life of “in between?” You need not be married to a man to validate your worth. Neither do you need a male-based religion to lead you to Spirit, as Spirit dwells in the heart of each of us. I am reminded of these Beguine musings, daily.
As women continue to find their voice and stand firmly in the light of their truth, we see more women as spiritual leaders and directors. We see women who have awakened to an androgyny of God as opposed to a male father figure of God, and that is inclusive in ways that expand us all. Faith that becomes concretized cannot evolve, and worse, breeds extremism. We are meant to be evolving beings, willing to embrace a change in our vision in order to know our Divine connection. The sickness in many churches today is due to a paralyzing rigidity that keeps people small and exclusive. The Beguines knew, and I know in the depths of my heart, that God is larger than one can ever perceive. God is everywhere and in everything, neither male nor female.
As the Papal protection of the Beguines waned with a new Pope in power, the women were judged and killed by the church. Their writings were burned. Some of the documents were preserved by priests who were willing to hide them, preserving them for later discovery. It is important to note that these priests took great risk in hiding the writings of the Beguines, seeing both the Beguines and their contributions with spiritual equanimity. Now, the Catholic Church has reclaimed the Beguines as their own, though with the caution that women must remain in their place.
Here is what speaks to me about the Beguines: to embrace the spiritual life and be willing to stand in the light of your truth without making yourself small in order to make those around you comfortable, takes great courage. The Beguines developed a connection to Spirit that could not be overridden by dogma. They creatively went against the grain of the established church to find the jewels of truth in their own spiritual hearts, regardless of the political rules. This was the journey of the Beguines, and it is my journey too. And it is the journey of many who seek a purposeful faith.
I would suggest that we live on the precipice of a new apostolic movement, that this time includes women. If you read Mathew Fox, James Finley or Cynthia Bourgeault, you will see that the Divine feminine is vibrating in their teachings and their wisdom. We need to know about feminine role models in faith and embrace the strong, Godly women who came before us and made easier our path: Theresa of Avila who mentored St. John of the Cross; Marguerite Porete who wrote about Spirit in the vernacular of the day and warned that the little church was the cathedral on the corner, and the big church was inside of our hearts. And while the Beguines were instrumental in inspiring the great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, these women still remain hidden in history and academics. It requires some digging to know their stories– just as we must dig deep into our being to find that place of connection and awe that blend together and give voice to spiritual freedom.
September 10th through the 25 of 2015, my minister friend, Susan Evans and myself will take a group of people to Belgium to trace the footsteps of the Beguines and imagine their lives and their longings as we reflect and meditate upon their history and our inner spiritual journey. We will then go to Erfurt, Germany and study Meister Eckhart. Mathew Fox will be joining us for this teaching. It will be a time of quiet, a time of creativity and a time of sharing the stories that we know by heart. The retreat provides a doorway into an esoteric spiritual heritage that just asking to be claimed.
For more information, please visit Wholeheartedretreat.com