More Mystics: The Beguines

In the coming weeks, I'm planning a series of posts about mystics I've discovered since I wrote Mystics and Misfits. Today, I'm writing about my discovery of the Beguine women. 

 Some of the writing in this book is by Beguine women.

Some of the writing in this book is by Beguine women.

God: Thou huntest sore for thy love/ What bring’st thou Me, my Queen?

Soul: Lord! I bring Thee my treasure...It outweighs the whole earth!

--Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beguine

My husband Matthew and I stumbled upon the Beguines within weeks of each other. He was researching a seminary paper on Michael Sattler, a 16th century Benedictine monk turned early Anabaptist leader who was later tortured and martyred. Matthew discovered that Sattler was married to a former Beguine named Margaretha. A few days after her husband was executed, Margaretha refused to recant and was drowned.

Like my husband, I was also reading about the Beguine women just as we were re-entering American life. That sounds as if we were returning from overseas missions. No, the eight years my family and I spent in a rural intentional community in Illinois sometimes felt like living in a foreign country. Seeking simplicity in a quirky community and practicing radical ways of following Jesus was a way of life that felt alien even in the spaces just outside our acreage. Sometimes it felt as though we inhabited a terra-formed community on another planet, protected by an atmospheric dome.

About the time the community reached its end, my husband was called to be a pastor at a Mennonite church a few states away. We drove through the metaphorical barrier of that dome and left behind our somewhat radical life. We bought a house in Ohio and put our kids in public school.

That radical, unique way of living tugs at me sometimes, usually when I’m silent enough to feel it, outmaneuvering distractions to grasp at the solitude. There I found the Beguines.

Even among the deeply pious, the Beguines were an odd group of women. Scattered about 13th and 14th century France, Germany and England, they behaved like cloistered women with their plain dress and works of mercy, but they remained untethered to any specific religious order. They often lived in settlements, sometimes consisting of many of the amenities necessary to life: houses, hospitals, and even cemeteries.  But they were always free to leave. And many—like Margaretha—did leave, getting married and starting families.

At first, the religious authorities couldn’t decide what to do with these misfits. They composed poetry and lyrical writings with images of God that evoked courtly and sometimes erotic love.  

But as some of these women wrote of the soul’s freedom, the church authorities began to condemn them. This message of freedom, of the individual’s connection with God, threatened the authority of a Church, which often sought to dictate and mediate the soul’s relationship with God. With a fortitude that could only be born of a glimpse of this union with God, some Beguine women faced imprisonment, condemnation, and even death for their beliefs and writings.

Though I found them inspiring in the months after our move to Middle America, reading about the Beguines also started to make me feel angsty. I wondered frantically how I was supposed to have a mystical faith in a place where over-consumption, idolization of country, addiction to technology, and isolation from neighbors is a given.

Also, it’s a little exhausting when your spiritual examples are all martyrs and saints.

So it was a relief to discover Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, a guideline for drawing the Rule of St. Benedict into everyday life. Even though Benedict himself was a mystic, Chittister claims that St. Benedict’s Rule isn’t for “priests or mystics or hermits or ascetics.” The Rule is for “ordinary people who live ordinary lives.”

Though the mystics appeal to me because I don’t like the idea of being ordinary, I was drawn to the idea of bringing the Rule of St. Benedict into our home life, creating our own sort of Rule of Life. But I was also turned off by what I’d heard of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s treatise to Christians who are worried by the threat of modernism.

It’s interesting to have left a community that Dreher would perhaps have pushed for. Though there are many healthy intentional communities, ours died in part because we became too isolated and too enmeshed in our own challenges.

As I read Chittister’s book, I find so many positive things that remind me of our life in community: the focus on scripture reading, on hospitality, on peace, on the goodness of work, and of course, on the importance of community. But what I appreciate about Chittister’s take on the Rule of St. Benedict is the possibilities it offers to our life now. Chittister says that for Benedict, “community was the place in which we worked out our own responsibility to continue the task of creating a just a gentle world.” Instead of curling in on ourselves, expecting a broken world to persecute and oppress us, we go out to the hurts of the world and offer the love of Christ.

Maybe the Beguine women, like Margaretha who left their way of life, appeal to me because they were exiting an intense way of life and they needed to find a way to bring those ideals into their families. I’m not itching to be a martyr like Margaretha. But I would like to draw something from the Beguines and the Benedictine mystics: maybe it’s in the continued pursuit and desire for God that all of this will come together.

Though perhaps we learn the most when it all falls apart. 

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Mystics and Misfits around the web:

1. Publisher's Weekly gave my book a positive review. Although it called my narrative "oddly organized," it also said it was "cannily" crafted. I'll take that as a good thing. I don't mind being odd.

2. One of my favorite reviews so far is from Bryan Borger who co-owns the bookstore Hearts and Minds with his wife. I loved this paragraph. Borger says Mystics and Misfits "is so very interesting, so soulful, so moving, that we truly want to tell everyone who loves good books about it. Writer and editor and Francis fanboy Jon Sweeny himself says it is “achingly beautiful” – a blurb which drew me in wondering if that could be true, prose approaching the sublime. Another review called it “gorgeous and quirky.” Richard Rohr observes that it is “so well written” and promises that it is also “filled with gems.” Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God…, like others we’ve mentioned in this list, is a work of art, a wonderful read, an expertly crafted, fabulous book."

3. I also did two author interviews in the last few weeks: one at SheLoves and another at Jola Naibi's blog.