Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Heart of the Beguines

Cathedral at Ghent
Cathedral at Ghent

The word “cathedral” means “the throne upon which she sits.” In 15th century Northern Europe, there was a worshipful attitude toward the Divine Feminine as embodied in Mary. In this time, the Beguines thrived. They lived in democratic communities, separate from the church, caring for each other and practicing  social justice by feeding the poor and tending to the sick. Truly the “cathedral” in all its majesty and art, is for me, a symbol to the beauty by which the Beguines lived.

Even though they were the first feminists, it is surprising that this group of mystics is so little known, even here in Belgium. Steeped a mysticism that didn’t match the hierarchy or patriarchy of the Catholic Church, they would eventually adapt and become absorbed by the church. But for a short period of time, they thrived as panentheistic, meaning that they believed “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  I relate to that viewpoint, noting that the rest is just politics.

The Beguines were all about compassion and action. They understood and underscored that “help the least of these” was less a directive from the Christ and more a clue as to how to fully live the spiritual life. These women advocated for what was then, and is now, a radical idea, that the spiritual life should not be about the rules and values of a hierarchy and a patriarchy, but should be about our individual capacity to sense the Creator in how we care for each other.

Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine
Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine

The biggest mistake that Christianity has made is that it put God in a little white house, and then treated the rest of the world however it wanted. This is why the churches in Europe are mostly empty. This is why membership in churches in America dwindles. Young people seek a new spirituality, one that is inclusive, of all people, one that honors and reveres women, one that will take care of our planet. And one that is democratic rather than modeled upon a military inspired hierarchy.

It’s been good to be away from the crazy-ass headlines of America these past few days, away from pasty old white men dominating the television screen, the politicians and candidates who still want to control women’s bodies as some perverted sense of personal morality. Power hungry men thumping bibles and trying to convince the world what great leaders they will make while an overheated world burns and the poor die at their feet.

I came to Belgium to learn something from the Beguines. I can hear them whispering on the wind that they have things to teach us about living together and caring for each other.

The Beguinage Church at Luven
The Beguinage Church at Liven

Here is a summation of the compassion lived by these women: “When you drink the waters of sorrow, you will kindle the fire of love.” (Metchild of Matenburg) To be theistic means, I am here and God is there. And again, panentheism is the belief that God is all things and all things are in God. If you embrace this viewpoint it becomes more difficult to turn away from the suffering of the world and its people. This was the radical idea that eventually led to the Beguines’ demise.

The Beguines have ignited in me a clarity and vision that goes beyond the grand cathedrals and charming Beguineages that I have visited here. This is the stuff of unraveling, the gifts of traveling and letting the history of a place teach you. I am so grateful to be here, and to be lit with new passion.

Stay tuned for at least one more blog from Belgium. I will come home changed somehow, though I cannot say how that will be. Right now it’s all just Grace, promise and exhaustion.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Blogging on the Way to the Plane

iStock_000001998520XSmall(1)Seven years ago, I produced my first retreat. Joan Borysenko was, at the time, a neighbor of mine and she agreed to come hang out in my living room for a day with twelve women. The idea was that with Joan as a facilitator, we would all be encouraged to be with each other in a purposeful and authentic way. Unplugged from cell phones, computers and the obligations of work and family, we gathered. It was a day of deep camaraderie, tears, laughter and the sharing of dreams. I felt a great sense of joy in bringing all of us together, and I enjoyed that everyone got to slow down and ponder the mystery and miracle of our lives, taking time to celebrate and appreciate each other.

With the advent of each autumn since, I have planned a retreat. Just before I moved from Colorado to Oregon, I found myself sitting in the back of a large conference room, filled with two hundred and fifty people who I brought together to immerse in the study and contemplation of the great mystic, Meister Eckhart. A former Trappist monk, Dr. James Finley, facilitated the three days. I learned that I had the skill set to produce larger retreats. And in James, I found a friend and ally who is a valuable touchstone in my journey.

Here again at the edge of autumn, I am about to do yet another retreat, this time in Belgium. Oh brave, new world. My friend Susan is a dynamic minister and group leader. Our friendship became a partnership as we planned an plotted and signed up individuals with whom we will share the next ten days.  Like the first retreats in my living room, this is a small group. And unlike the first retreats, I now teach a writing component entitled “Deepening Your Spiritual Story, the Arc of Memoir.” It’s probably more accurate to say that I share what I know about the philosophy and process of writing as opposed to teaching writing. What I do is kind of coaxing that will hopefully inspire stories and images to arise from the heart.

Each year the retreats I produce change me. One retreat, I reclaimed the young woman who wrote. She had been pushed aside and overlooked. Life sometime intervenes in our dreams and you have to pick up the pieces later. In meeting her again, I began writing daily– blogs, short stories, essays and journals. And I began to teach. I mostly worked with incarcerated women, a group who reminded me that my life has too many blessings to count. My students in the jail taught me how to be grateful for the smallest things.

So, tomorrow morning at 5:00am I leave for Belgium to be with fourteen people who will be my community for the next couple of weeks. We will trace the footsteps of a group of 11th century feminist mystics, called the Beguines. We will meet up with Mathew Fox and listen to him speak from the pulpit where Meister Eckhart once preached.

We will spend days visiting the places where lace is hand-made, one of the ways that the Beguines supported themselves financially. We will have morning prayers and meditations and late afternoon process groups. And just like that first little retreat in my living room, each person will be unplugged from the digital world, enter a world of heart-touch and share our lives. I love learning about other people, about their faith and what it is they hold as good.

What will I learn in Belgium? How will this change me? Peace within and peace for all? A reclamation of the parts of self that are broken and cast away? A whispering from a Beguine sister that comes as a light September breeze, inspiring a contemplation of community? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that it will change me and push me toward the growing edge of my life.

Stay tuned for my adventure of blogging through Belgium. The plane leaves at 5:00. I’m a little nervous about whether or not I have packed all the right stuff. I am going with an open heart, a curious mind, and a sense of adventure. If I throw in some gratitude, I should have everything that I need for the journey.