It is curious that, at the end of July, a newspaper like Le Monde devote six articles to the beguines, a long-gone ecclesial figure. Yet the last article (July 31) is a report from a new beguinage in Saint-Martin-du-Lac (Saôn-et-Loire, France).
Seven people (two religious, four laymen, including a couple) recognized that their form of community life could refer to the Beguine tradition: partly alone, partly living in common, without canonically precise institutional constraints, but with a strong spiritual dimension.
They meet every day for prayer and meditation, take care of their respective lodgings and work, participate in the community meal on certain days of the week: a third way between marriage and consecrated life, with a cultivated spirituality, without particular ties with the bishop (but not against).
About thirty friends of various origins and backgrounds (Buddhists included) are involved in some moments of prayer and formation.
The return of the beguinages goes hand in hand with other religious identities considered to have disappeared and are now present again such as hermits, the order of virgins, the order of widows.
The interest of secular culture responds to the curiosity to underline the weak link with the institution – while many necessary corrective interventions are underway towards the new ecclesial foundations – a permeable spirituality with respect to the confused interior questions of the present and the attention to the lived and to critical thinking against the dominant culture today. The faint contemporary clips hint at a rich history of hundreds of years.
One million in Europe in the 13th century
The phenomenon of the beguines (and beghards) goes back to the XII-XIII century. «We know of them that they moved in “flocks”, real villages wedged into the urban fabric, they fed the poor, cared for the sick, gathered up abandoned children, assisted the dying, buried those sentenced to death. They earned a living with their work and managed their money independently, but used it minimally, limited to what was strictly indispensable. Above all, they marked their lives on continuous prayer, on a profound devotion, on a love for God that was full and free» (R. Salvarani).
«Without solemn vows, the beguines keep their patrimony and can abandon it at any time. They freely choose to live in community, to work teaching, caring for others, weaving or embroidering, with the promise of chastity and prayer. Coming from very different backgrounds, in part they are rich in family heritage, in part they have modest origins” (Le MondeJuly 26).
In a social context of relative well-being, they pose the theme of detachment from money and a journey of faith and mystical experience. In parallel with foundations such as the Cistercian, Franciscan and Dominican ones and with social phenomena such as the Manichaeans, the Cathars, the Observants, the Albigensians, the pizzoccheri, the flagellants, etc.
Born in the last decades of the 12th century in the Flemish (Liege, Bruges) and Dutch context, the beguinages spread rapidly in Northern Europe. After a century, in Strasbourg there are 85 in the city, in Brussels the great beguinage gathers 1,200 beguines, in Paris there are 400 beguines. In Europe they are estimated at around one million. After a start not without suspicions and tensions.
Approved in 1233 by Gregory IX, the synod of Vienna (Clement V) condemned them as heretics (1312). Six years later John XXIII reinstates them.
Three the most creative seasons: that of the origins, the Catholic counter-reformation and the period following the French revolution. They were still active in Flanders in the 1960s. In 2013, what was considered the last beguine, Marcella Pattijin, died.
«End of the beguinal adventure? It’s not for sure. For some years, places of community life, sorts of spiritual cenacles, have reopened here and there in Europe. Beguinages of the new times, they partly take up the intuitions of the founders of the Middle Ages, decidedly too modern for their time» (Le MondeJuly 25).
Mystical and suspicious
Small cities within cities, the beguinages provide for individual or community houses, with the residence of the «grand lady» (sort of superior) around territories destined for the cultivation of vegetables and for weaving (water ditches), with in the center a church, very simple and austere. The whole is owned by the city administration, while the bishop has control over the spiritual addresses. An echo of the model can be found in the contemporary urban planning of garden cities.
Some names of these women rise to real references in the history of the Church and of Christian mysticism: from Hadewijch of Antwerp to Mectilde of Magdeburg, from Maria d’Oignies to Cristina the admirable, from Dolcelina to Ludgarda di Treves, from Ida from Nivelles to Aleydis di Cambrai, up to Margherita Porete. The latter, burned as a heretic in Paris in 1310, has left us a reference text, The mirror of simple souls.
Atypical Beguine, perhaps itinerant or beggar, condenses in the 140 chapters of the book an acute spiritual reflection which is at the antipodes of the academic theology of the time. In his language prose, poetry, didactics and elements of contemporary literature merge.
In all of the works of the beguines, their most characteristic contribution is that they have attempted the fusion between the mysticism of love and the mysticism of being. The annulment of the ego opens one to the acceptance of God, to the divinization of man. Male and female believers do not need a “state of life” (clerical or religious) to draw on divinization. The spiritual and erotic experience of Song of Songs accompanies their reflections and mystical experiences. It is not a question of a simple imitation of Christ, but of a full identification with the physical and concrete humanity of the incarnate God.
Two great theologians of the time, Meister Eckhart and Ruysbroeck, fueled their extraordinary reflections drawing on thehumus beguinal. The two have each characterized the two great paths to God by drawing on the works of the beguines and their experiences: «On the one hand, the ‘nuptial mysticism’ which developed in the West in the 12th century under Cistercian influence, rests on the reading that St. Bernard does del Song of Songs… It puts the accent on an access to God through the way of affections. The other, the “mysticism of essence”, elaborated in the same period, recognizes its sources in Saint Augustine and in the Greek Fathers. This mystique of being, which seeks to draw on an intuitive knowledge of God in a more speculative and intellectual way, corresponds to what Meister Eckhart would have drawn from the great beguines» (Le MondeJuly 29).
But there was an extraordinary beguine in the Italian house, Romana Guarnieri (1913-2003). Daughter of an Italian father and a Dutch mother, thanks to the meeting with a highly cultured priest like Giuseppe De Luca, she starts the Editions of history and literature, discovers the text of Porete in the Vatican library and takes care of its translation and diffusion, feeds, in a discreet form, the most felt theological and spiritual debate. He takes the vow of chastity and makes intellectual research the instrument of personal sanctification. «Beguine, for me, means continuing the choice of female figures that I have studied. To be in the world without being of the world. Be of everyone and no one. Or rather, of only One: but he is absolute freedom».