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. 

***

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.

Today is the Day!

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An embarrassment of riches: Today, my book officially launches into the world!

Technically, books are written in isolation: a writer alone in a dusty basement office, in a library study room crying her eyes out, in brief quiet moments in the lazy boy while the babies are sleeping...okay maybe that's just me. But books cannot truly be created, gestated, and birthed alone. You need the midwives, the muses, the mothers, the mystics, misfits, and moments that surround you, encourage you, and tell you to just breathe in a paper bag, it's going to be alright.

I cannot fully number those who helped me (I tried valiantly in my acknowledgments). But I am so grateful for them all.

In the coming weeks, I will be posting links to places that are hosting my words in their generous spaces. How appropriate that Good Letters, the first place to receive my writing on the mystics, has an excerpt today from my book. 

Also Cara Meredith, a fellow writer I got to meet briefly at the Festival of Faith and Writing, is posting an interview today about Mystics and Misfits on her Author Tuesday series.

A book launch gift from my writers group

A book launch gift from my writers group

Okay, now for the practical, boring, but essential parts about promoting a book (and ways you can help). Here are some simple ways you can help today and this week (and the coming weeks as you read the book):

1. Share your own photo of the book with a link to the book TODAY (amazon or mennomedia) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use the hashtag #mysticsandmisfits.

2. Write reviews! Write reviews! Write reviews! This might sound silly but it really helps the book (algorithms and such) to have reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads. I have 6 reviews from you lovely folks on Amazon and 5 on Goodreads. Can we get that up to 20 or even 50? They can be honest just as long as they are there. 

3. Word of mouth: Tell your friends about the book. Ask your library or local bookstores if they will carry it.

I've been so humbled by the ways Mystics and Misfits has already resonated with readers. I'd love to hear from you if you've read it. Leave a comment below or email me at christiananoelwrites@gmail.com. And stay tuned here for more post-launch day posts about mystics I've discovered since I wrote the book, music that helps me write and contemplate, and other places that have discovered the book. 

Thank you!

Advent: The second Sunday

Perhaps you noticed (or maybe you were relieved) that I missed doing an Advent post yesterday. By way of apology, I will say that the struggle is real for a mom of four when her husband is away doing pastor-type training on a Saturday. Though I'm not sure how much longer I can use the "mom of four" excuse. Can I have it at least until they are all in school, please?

Back to Advent.

Photo by  Caleb Steele  on  Unsplash

Photo by Caleb Steele on Unsplash

Today, we are introduced to the hairy dude whose Dad went mute for nine months while this dude was growing in his elderly mother's womb. What a way to enter the world! No wonder he wasn't like all the others, this Baptizer who drew crowds to the desert, just so they could repent. Today, my husband Matthew compared those crowds to the technology gurus who are now being drawn to retreat centers to mourn the harm that their work has done in the world. These retreat centers though, are serving Kombucha tea, not locusts and honey.

The repentant masses in the desert were welcomed with "You brood of vipers!" not "Enjoy your stay." These words, "brood of vipers" sometimes give us a laugh, or perhaps a shock. And that was the point. This prophet, this misfit, was trying to shock his listeners. And he is meant to shock us as well.

John would be the perfect prophet, not only for the tech industry gurus, but for those of us sitting in front of our screens, searching mindlessly through the internet rabbit-hole from a New York times article to a link to buzzfeed article to another link to a video about a celebrity feud. John the Baptist is our electric shock. He is meant to snap us out of our numbness, to take stock of our lives, and--as my husband said today--to reorient our lives to follow a different narrative, a different story.

And what is that story? 

A story of freedom. We are offered freedom from our burdens. We are offered healing for our wounds. We are offered comfort for our griefs and love for our shame. This story is Good News.

And that Good News is coming. Just hold on and follow that hairy dude.

Song

Longing for Light

Advent: The first Friday

I have to admit that when I first read a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, she was not my favorite mystic. She was everything I feel that I'm not: extreme, audacious, certain, rigid, and unflinching in her view of the truth. For someone who tends to be uncertain about a lot of things, who takes a long time to make a decision or avoids anything that will significantly rock the boat, Catherine made me uncomfortable.

Photo by  Tim Mossholder  on  Unsplash

Catherine was a 14th century Italian woman who, as is true for many saints, died young. Marriage or convent were the only options for a young woman of her day who wanted to remain in good standing. To the great horror of her family, Catherine had no interest in marriage. She held out stubbornly for years until her parents eventually relented and let her pursue the life she wished, which wasn't exactly the convent either.

Though she lived like a nun in piety, simplicity, and chastity, her convent was not in cloistered walls with other women but in a cell in her own home, a closet under the stairs that seemed somehow more sparse and pitiful than even the one Harry Potter occupied. In this cell, she saw visions of Jesus and was tormented by demons. She wrote letters to Popes and vowed to eat little except the Lord's Supper (upon eating the Eucharist, she would often fall into a trance or ecstatic vision...perhaps because of a mystical connection to God but maybe also because she was really hungry).

When I first read her biography, I grumbled under my breath and occasionally rolled my eyes at her extreme devotion and seeming arrogance. After all, she held audience with Pope Gregory to try to get the him to move the papacy from Avignon to Rome. At one point, Catherine wrote a scathing and patronizing letter to the Pope saying: "I beg of you, on behalf of Christ crucified, that you be not a timorous child but manly. Open your mouth and swallow down the bitter for the sweet.” Catherine threw shade at the Pope, calling him a baby! And the thing is, she was successful! He listened to her and moved the papacy to Rome. And she became one of the most influential Catholics (of both men and women) of her day.

***

The Scriptures for today in Advent talk about two people who encountered Jesus: the two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31 who were healed by him. Afterwards, they didn't listen to Jesus' warning for them to be silent...no, they went out and boasted all over the countryside. 

I guess when you have encountered Jesus like Catherine of Siena and the blind men, you cannot be silent. And you might make a lot of people uncomfortable. This truth-telling might look like Catherine's, who was so confident in her message and pious in her life that even the patriarchy of the day sat down and listened to her. 

As I approach 40 this week, I am learning that speaking and living the truth can have consequences even more extreme than making people uncomfortable. Several Christian leaders were arrested this week after peacefully standing up for undocumented immigrants. And Christians all over the world face more serious bodily harm and even death for sharing their faith. 

This Advent, I hope to encounter Jesus, and respond the blind men did, unable to keep my mouth shut about the healing Jesus offers and the love God longs to show us. May we all be people who know God's love so deeply that we can't shut up about it. 

Song:

Today I read an interview with Sister Sinjin by Jessica Mesman Griffith at Sick Pilgrim. Their music, particularly In the Virgin's Womb He Lay and their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel, were just what I needed today: three women boldly boasting of the Good News of the Incarnation, one lovely melody at a time.

Advent: The first Wednesday

Photo by  Michael Heuss  on  Unsplash

Photo by Michael Heuss on Unsplash

Today, in reading a meditation from "Watch the Light," (an Advent book that I mentioned a few days ago on the blog), Loretta Ross-Gotta uses the word "recollection." (1) At first, I thought she was using it the way most of us understand the word--as the act of recalling or remembering. But recollection is a type of prayer, similar to what some of us understand as contemplative or Centering prayer. (2) Her experience of recollection is a lot like my own experience of Centering prayer: it sounds lovely but it can be strangely harrowing to practice such open prayers, where we attempt to lay aside our own expectations and agendas and ask for God to be present with us. (3)

In trying to research the differences between various kinds of prayer (and there are many...follow St. Teresa of Avila's levels of prayer rabbit-hole and just see for yourself), I found this description from Contemplative Outreach helpful: 

There are many levels of relation with God that can be manifested by the way we pray. There is vocal prayer (the saying of your prayer), there is meditation (the thinking about and reflecting on your prayer), there is affective prayer (responding from your heart), there is centering prayer (a receptive silent prayer of consenting, which also can express a desire to be gifted with contemplation), and there is contemplative prayer (the gift of resting in the Lord). Another way of expressing it is: meditation is thinking about God, Centering Prayer is consenting to God and contemplative prayer is loving God.

What does all of this have to do with Advent? 

I think Advent is a season that prepares us to approach and know God in ways that we can approach and know him in all seasons. When we pray, there are many ways that we, as mortal creatures, can make things happen of our own volition. We may speak these vocal prayers, decide to meditate, and even contemplate. But in mystical prayer it is God who does the moving, the choosing, and the acting. Many mystics, like Teresa of Avila, experience God in these ways after a lot of contemplative prayer. But, even with all that preparation, mystics can never make a mystical act happen. That is God's choosing. 

That, you might already guess, is what all of this has to do with Advent. Advent reminds us once again that God acted and still acts. Our actions are important as we choose to reach out to God in relationship through spiritual disciplines of prayer, bible reading, singing, and worshipping in community. But ultimately, it is still God who does the work. It is God who chooses us, who offers us grace and healing, who gives us wholeness and love. It is God who descends to earth as a baby, giving up power for vulnerability, comfort for suffering, security for an embracing love.

Even if feeble and minuscule, all God asks of us is a turning toward Jesus. God has already done the rest. 

Song

Oh Light by Gungor 

1. Ross-Gotta's whole meditation is also online here.

2. There are many types of prayer that I'm still learning about. A robust prayer life should consist of many types of prayer. If you pray a lot, you're probably already doing more than one type without knowing it. Quiet contemplation, vocal prayer, praying a Scripture, etc. 

3.  It can be harrowing because it is in the quiet that we are often confronted with ourselves and our own darkness. This is necessary, though, in order to ask for Jesus to heal us. 

Advent: The first Monday

St. Madeleine L'Engle, whose wisdom and words swirl through my own writing, speaks of the great mystery of Advent: that the Greatest Power in the universe became the weakest, just to be with us. This is the image of love: 

"Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be." 

Mystic Angela of Foligno witnessed and experienced this mystery in her encounters with God. In poetry written by Scott Cairns, Angela learns that the coming of Jesus is a like a burning embrace of God:

"You won’t get used to it, nor will you know its scope."

Photo by  Chris Rhoads  on  Unsplash

Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash

So, let us never get accustomed to this flaming embrace of God or the mystery of God's arrival.

Song:

A Light by The Brilliance

Advent: December 2

Yesterday, I quoted a line from mystic Meister Eckhart, that if we cannot be moved and changed by the birth of Jesus that we celebrate year after year, then what is the point in celebrating? I want to continue that thought today. 

Photo by  Walter Chávez  on  Unsplash

Having been raised in a non-liturgical church, I resisted Advent when I first encountered the liturgical season in my twenties. My grad school roommate Jen had been raised in a Lutheran church and we lightheartedly argued about when to start listening to Christmas music and when to put up a tree. I would let loose in full Christmas mode as soon as Thanksgiving rolled around while she thought Christmas didn't start until, well, Christmas day...imagine that! In those early days, Advent was asking me to let go of something I wasn't willing to give up. It wasn't really about the timing of music or the tree (I'm not ashamed that I'm listening to a few Christmas albums amongst my Advent ones as I write...and our Christmas tree still goes up at Thanksgiving. Sorry, not sorry). I didn't want to give up what I thought Christmas was: presents, warm fuzzies, pumpkin spiced candles, carols, and a little bit of Nativity backlit on the church lawn. While, many of us who are Christians love to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, trying to yank back our holiday in a decidedly non-Christlike fashion, we simultaneously fill our homes with stuff and spend hours rehearsing for our live Nativities and carol singings. 

And while these things aren't all bad (I'm thrilled to be singing in a Christmas Eve choir for the first time in many years), we forget the full picture of Advent and therefore who Jesus was and is. In the introduction to his book "Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditation for Advent," Richard Rohr says that we often view Christmas as the "sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus." We are distracted from who Jesus really was by a snuggly baby and the smell of pine trees. Rohr says that Jesus was clear about his own message: "the coming of the 'reign of God' or the 'kingdom of God.' Any other message we get time waters it down.

Advent isn't about sweetness. But I also don't want to take away its joy: it is about hope, hope for a suffering world. But its hard to access that hope until we have looked inside our own pain and brokenness. Rohr says the Word of God "confronts, converts, and consoles us--in that order." Early Christmas celebrations and loving gazes at the sweet baby Jesus cooing in the manger are ok. There is hope in the newness of life and birth. As the hymn below says,

"Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness glow with new-born light,
no more shall night extinguish day,
where love's bright beams their power display."

But Advent offers us something more. Only when we have been confronted by the fullness of who Jesus is--the baby, the man he became, and his divinity--can we truly understand the good news of the God who loved us so much that he came to be among us in our suffering. And that is something worth singing about. 

A song for today:

Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth, sung by Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

Advent: December 1

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In the liturgical calendar, Advent doesn't start until this coming Sunday, December 3. But I'm beginning today, following our family's Advent calendar. And this year, I'd like to link to (or write) a reflection each day of Advent, focusing on the mystics as much as I can. And also share a song that means something to me. 

Reflection:

Today, I am linking to a short reflection by Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister whose writing I relied upon in Mystics and Misfits. She has written some particularly rich things about Clare of Assisi. In her reflection, she quotes the medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, to summarize the meaning of Advent: "What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?" You can read the rest here.

What a question to ponder. If we celebrate Advent with books, calendars, and candles, and yet do not take its meaning into our hearts and lives, what is the point? We are only a banging gong. Or maybe a pitchy flute. 

Song:

I Wait by All Sons and Daughters

"Oh restless heart do not grow weary

Hold onto faith and wait

The God of love, He will not tarry

No he is never late"

This song is a word of hope, not just for the Advent season, but for all who are suffering, who are weary of the painfulness of life, who hear only silence when we approach God. This is part of faith: to hold on even when there is quiet. Sometimes, even underneath the quiet, there is a humming, a buzzing of life.

Sit in silence today and listen for it. 

Listening to Simone

A post for Good Letters


The woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh.

Read the rest at Good Letters--an Image Journal blog

Powerless

A post for Circling the Story

Mid-way between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, an ice storm knocks out our power.

With an unseasonably warm season, this blast of icy weather has reminded me that we live in the Midwest and it is indeed winter. Our apartment, in a building we share with two other families on a farm, sits only yards from our pigs, chickens, cows, and a large community garden. The well that supplies our drinking and flushing water and the water for all the animals depends on electricity to run.

As I get cozy with my three children on the couch, we have no idea that we are only at the beginning of two and a half days without water, heat, a stove, or, gasp, the internet.

My two older children and I make a fun afternoon of it, reading and swapping books. When evening comes and the power is still out, my husband grabs his camping stove from the basement. We have a dinner of reheated turkey soup by candlelight and headlamp.

As we enjoy the momentary romance of a simpler evening, our parent-child conversations are predictable.

Did you know that when my grandparents grew up on a farm, they didn’t have any electricity?

They didn’t even have indoor toilets. Or washing machines. Or movies! They had to make their own music.

Won’t we be thankful when the power comes on tomorrow?

But the next morning, the lights are still off. The house is 50 degrees. The unflushed toilet has begun to stink.

Read the rest over at Circling the Story...

God of the Mundane

A post for Mudroom blog:

The contemplatives often write that God is revealed in the mundane, that in my laundry, my dishes, my baby’s diapers, and in the liturgical, repetitive tasks of my day there are opportunities to find the God who incarnated small and humble. But there are mornings when just getting out of bed to perform those daily duties seems too much to bear.

Instead of seeking God in the minutiae of my life, I would much prefer to have a more powerful sense of God. When my hands are elbow-deep in the dregs of rinse water, I would rather have a vision of God in the way of Teresa of Avila, who saw the soul as a castle.

Can’t my soul be a fairy castle, please?     

Read the rest of God of the mundane at The Mudroom