×

By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies and our Privacy Policy.

Mystics and the Margins

Faithful and Free Women

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Mystics and the Margins

Faithful and Free Women
Thursday, October 1, 2020

We have a lot to learn from communities like the beguines, or later, the Quakers and Mennonites. These movements are made up of little groups, often on the margins of society, sharing the Word of God and their lives together. We might recognize this spirit at work today in the “base communities” of Latin America, in small Bible study groups, or new monastic “intentional communities.” They reveal to us the freedom of the Gospel. Author Laura Swan, a Benedictine nun, has studied Christian women’s spirituality movements and writes about the alternative lifestyle of the medieval beguines:

The beguines began to form in various parts of Europe over eight hundred years ago—around the year 1200. Beguines were laywomen, not nuns, and thus did not take solemn vows and did not live in monasteries. The beguines were a phenomenal way of life that swept across Europe, yet they were never a religious order or a formalized movement. And they did not have one specific founder or rule to live by. But there were common elements that rendered these women distinctive and familiar, including their common way of life, chastity and simplicity, their unusual business acumen, and their commitment to God and to the poor and marginalized. These women were essentially self-defined, in opposition to the many attempts to control and define them. They lived by themselves or together in so-called beguinages, which could be single houses for as few as a handful of beguines or, as in Brugge, walled-in rows of houses enclosing a central court with a chapel where over a thousand beguines might live . . .

The inner spiritual world of the beguines was rich in imagination. These women, and some of their monastic contemporaries, instigated a seismic shift in the province of the imagination, bringing their embodied experience of God and their spiritual journey into a broadened and deepened inner realm. Beguine mystics experienced a fiercely intimate encounter with the Divine—whom they called both “God” and “the One”. . .

For these women, prayer was being in the presence of God, seeking to unite their minds and hearts with the One they loved (and whom they frequently referred to as their “Beloved”). A central goal in life for beguines was unity of will—that their personal will would become so united with the will of God that they essentially functioned as a unified whole. God’s heart would be the seeker’s heart; the seeker’s heart would find a home in God and God alone. This unity of will would be evidenced by joy, mercy and compassion, and love. . . .

Beguines exhorted their followers to recognize that there existed no impediment to a deep and meaningful prayer life. No matter what a person’s station in life, be they educated or uneducated, poor or wealthy, it did not impede or deny them awareness of God in their lives. God yearned to draw close to all.

References:
Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement (BlueBridge: 2016), 1–2, 88, 92, 94.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 53.

Image credit: White on White (detail), Kazimir Malevich, 1918.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration and of self-oblation, where we are kept in perfect peace, if our minds be stayed on God who has found us in the inward springs of our life. —Thomas Kelly
Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.


Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Nothing Stands Alone. What could happen if we embraced the idea of God as relationship—with ourselves, each other, and the world? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.