Guest post! This piece is from my dear friend, Christy Hicks Aydt, a Catholic spiritual director and minister based in St. Louis. Read on to learn more about the Beguine movement and its relationship to modern spiritual practice!
And don’t miss Christy on Catholic Women Preach this Sunday, April 18!
These words were adapted by Laura Swan in her book from Angelo of Foligno who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2013; she was a contemporary to the beguines and speculated to have been one.
Though my graduate work was in Pastoral Ministry, I first met the beguines in a History of Spirituality class post-graduate school while I was getting my certification in spiritual direction. These women have invited me and captivated me ever since for they set an example of leadership, communion with God, service, social justice, healing works, and prayer.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a two-day conference with Edwina Gateley at the Aquinas Institute of Theology and Ms. Gateley also spoke strongly of the beguines. I remember her emphasizing how the work and lives of the beguines are similar to our own era when it comes to women’s giftedness and spiritual leadership.
The more time I spend researching and reading their works, I find myself longing for their wisdom and their ways to engulf and whisper light into our time. Or maybe it is best to speak it this way, I hope our time might begin to see these wise and gentlewomen for the models they were in medieval Europe.
The richness of beguine ways cannot be easily siphoned to a short post. For example, they were both supported by church officials and eventually some were suspected and condemned by them during the Inquisition. Beguinages began in Belgium and became a movement which spread throughout Europe. The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) was hard on the beguine movement, but some survived or were absorbed into other mendicant orders. And Marcella Pattyn, the last “traditional” beguine died on April 14, 2013.
Beguines were neither religious nor married women. They were communities who vowed chastity while living in the community who were free to leave it and marry if they were called or chose to do so. In our time, we would call them professionals. They understood various trades and their work was trusted by many in their society.
Their ministries were all encompassing. From living with and caring for lepers, to visiting and healing works for the sick or dying, or taking in children off the streets who had been sold into prostitution and caring for the enslaved. These women loved those whom they encountered and were trusted to care for them. In fact, many priests and laymen would bring the most vulnerable to their doorsteps. They were also called upon for their prayers for all, but often for those who had died.
Many of the beguines were mystics and some were likely misjudged as heretics as they threatened the power of the Church and society. As their charitable works touched many lives, many people chose to donate their money to the works of these women; this threatened some of those in power for suddenly donations to parishes were declining. One pope required the beguines to donate a quarter of their collection of prayers for the dead to local parishes.
Beguinages were the communal homes or villages where the beguines lived along with those for whom they cared. They first emerged in the Low Countries (coastal regions of Europe) in the twelfth century, approximately 1200 AD. Every social class was included in this group, “aristocrats and patricians, merchants and guild members, widows or daughters of knights, the urban poor as well as the rural poor. And Beguines could be of almost any age–from around fourteen years old up to their eighties and possibly beyond.” They were “individuals or small groups; as business women, itinerant preachers, or hermits; and usually associated with a local chapel or parish church.”
These women had an incarnational faith, living embodied lives and following Jesus’ walk on earth. Later spiritualities which emerged can concretely be seen through the spiritualities of these women, though many do not give them credit for it. For example, imaginative prayer is one component of Ignatian spirituality commonly accepted today as being introduced by Ignatius of Loyola, Beguines would meditate on certain gospel stories in their imaginations reliving the story by ‘placing’ themselves at gospel scenes such as Jesus’s birth; the adolescent Jesus in the Temple; his preaching missions; and particularly, ‘journeying with’ Jesus through his betrayal, trial, scourging, and Crucifixion. Where medieval theologians crafted intellectual treatises on the presence of Christ, beguines sought and reportedly received physical experiences of Christ they knew as present in their midst.”
Margaret of Porette was a beguine who circulated one of her mystical works, The Mirror of Simple Souls, often referred to as the Mirror. She was burned at the stake as a heretic at the Council of Vienne and her work was said to have been destroyed as well. It took many centuries to recover it, which scholars agree she wrote. The 1927 publication of the Mirror was published by Burns, Oates, and Washbourne Ltd., publishers of the Holy See, and includes both an Nihil Obstat and an Imprimatur.
Other beguines have writings in circulation as well such as Mechthild de Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead and excerpts of poetry, visions, and letters by Hadewijch. Christina the Astonishing, also a beguine, is and was locally venerated a saint and it was said she levitated at her funeral Mass.
The beguines were women of deep faith who longed for union with God and lived their lives as if all were God’s beloved, teaching each other how to to birth the gospel in their own time. Their writings are filled with light and humor. They imaged God freshly and sometimes in the feminine. A few images which stand out for me include: “Music, Sweetness, My Best Friend, Christ as Mother, Dance Partner, Magnet, Ocean, Glowing Heart, Flowing Light, Dearest Love, the All in All.”
And we will end here with a few words from the beginning of Mechthild of Magdeburg’s Flowing Light where God and the soul are addressed in the language of courtly love:
“God Greet you, Lady Love.”
“May God reward you, Mistress and Queen.”
“Lady Love, you are indeed perfect.”
“Mistress and Queen, that is why I am above all things.”
“Lady Love, you struggled many a year before you forced the exalted Trinity to pour itself utterly into the humble virginal womb of Mary.”
Mistress and Queen, that was to your honor and benefit.”
May the beguines whisper wisdom in your ear and bring light to your prayer, work, and love for God today!
By Christy Hicks Aydt, March/April 2021
Christy M. Hicks Aydt is a Campus Minister at Saint Louis University and a spiritual director; also trained in the 19th Annotation, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Though her studies have been through the lens of Catholic-Christian faith and thought, she reverences the faith and beauty other traditions share. Eastern spirituality and culture has gifted her with a more expansive image of God. Christy lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and family. Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies, University of Dayton. Certification in Spiritual Direction; Preaching Training. Aquinas Institute of Theology. Spiritual Companion/Director for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. She preaches on Catholic Women Preach Sunday, April 18!