Beguines. Most people are probably unfamiliar with the name. However, the Beguines were communities of lay women in the Middle Ages, particularly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who sought to live their lives with increasing devotion to God. There are many aspects of the Beguines that deserve mention, not least their spiritual writings which focus on intimacy with God and Christ. They employed a lot of bridal imagery as they saw themselves as brides of Christ. Other important emphases of the Beguines includes their zeal for evangelism (especially to other women), their service to the poor, simplicity in material possessions (although some were well-to-do), and “ecstatic prayer as well as public preaching”. 1
But the aspect of the Beguines that I wish to focus on is their ordinary, mundane livinig. You see, it would be a mistake to equate them to a Catholic monastic order, for they were still lay women. Part of the reason for their existence appears to have been the result of the Crusades. As many men went to war, the devout women in these communities assisted one another along with less fortunate women, including the poor and prostitutes. Writing about the Beguines, Glenn Meyers mentions that
Of particular interest to many contemporary readers is the fact that the Beguine communities attempted to bridge the gap between laypeople and the ‘religious,’…Beginning in the twelfth century…Beguines and other laypeople, mostly from the emerging middle class, were pursuing spiritual growth…Thus, forming their semimonastic communities, Beguines forged a middle way between the lifestyle of the religious and the majority of Christians who lived in the ‘world.’ 2
This emphasis on obedience to God in all things and in one’s daily living never fails to capture my imagination and provide a sense of vision. As I wrote in a recent blog post titled, “Why I Didn’t Go to Seminary”, I didn’t feel that living a life of professional ministry was for me. Although I recognize the importance of religious communities and those who engage in professional ministry, I never felt a particularly strong call. Rather, the challenge of living out one’s faith in the daily grind of life and the world is what I sometimes think true faith is all about. Clearly, the via media, or middle way, of the Beguines shows that one can live an ordinary life and still be zealous for God. I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade puts it well. He writes,
God chooses what human nature discards and human prudence neglects, out of which he works his wonders and reveals himself to all souls who believe that is where they will find him. Thus wide horizons, sure ground and solid rock can only be found in that vast expanse of the divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering; and it is in these shadows that God hides the hand which upholds and supports us. 3
Speaking of shadows, the picture below is of a painting I purchased while in Bruges, Belgium. Bruges used to be one of many cities in Europe that had a thriving population of Beguines, their communities being referred to as beguinages or . In the painting below, you can see one of the buildings that was part of the beguinage. Today, the beguinage in Bruges is owned by Catholic Benedictine nuns. However, I have spent a long time gazing at the painting, and what strikes me is that the swan, hidden from the nun’s gaze behind the tree amidst shadows, almost appears to have a secret. Or perhaps the swan is the secret.
Like the swan, the Beguines are secrets of history, noticed only by those who have the eyes to see. And like the swan, they were ordinary women who experienced that “divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering”. They had mystical (i.e. direct experience) encounters of God as they sought Him in their daily lives. This brings me back to the first post in this tripartite blog series which began in “God, Red Robin, and Me”. There I wrote about a sense of God’s presence at a Red Robin restaurant among friends and retro surroundings. If I could have a felt encounter with God there, believe me, anyone can encounter God anywhere. But the Beguines knew this centuries before Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and long before me.
I know this because Mechthild of Magdeburg, one of the more prolific writers from the Beguines, proclaimed, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw-and knew I saw-all things in God and God in all things.” 4 And in the first book of the Old Testament is recorded the story of Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s blessing and birthright. After he flees from his brother, he stops for a night and dreams of angels and ascending and descending a ladder or a stairway. The Lord speaks to him in the dream and when he wakes up he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…What an awesome place this is! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28: 16-17). May the Holy Spirit enable us – like Jacob, like Mechthild of Magdeburg, and like Jean-Pierre de Caussade – to discern God’s presence and will in the shadows of the ordinary, and to”dwell in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1).
1 Glenn E. Meyers, Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 23. Much of the information that I provide in this post comes from this book, particularly chapters 1 and 5. Meyers does a good job of introducing one to the Beguines and the book includes photos taken at certain Beguine communities, including the one in Bruges. Personally, while I do not question Meyers’ emphasis on the evangelical approach of the Beguines (although, given that evangelicalism as a movement had yet to begin one would be better thinking of them as proto-evangelicals), I think their approach to life and pious living was grounded more in their mystical experience of God and faith. By “mystical”, I mean having a direct experience or encounter of God, whether through Scripture or prayer. Meyers does describe this, particularly in chapters 6, 9, and 12.
2 Ibid., 92.
3 Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1989), 20.
4 Epigraph to Chapter 4, “Surrounded By Sound”, in Keith R. Anderson, A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 63.