In an era when women enjoyed little protection under the law and little consideration by church authorities, beguines were claiming their fullest humanity through the eucharist: if God could become human. if Christ was fully present in the eucharist, then women were worthy. Thus beguines ardently believed that Christ’s presence in the eucharist was an act of liberation for them, and in their contemplative devotion they could “bypass” priestly authority — especially in times of corrupt clergy and politically motivated quarrels between popes and kings.

Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines, 106

Godde gives each one of us a specific vocation, whether we know it or not, believe it or not. One often looks for an answer in a specific religious order, hoping to fit into it. These orders came about over the centuries, each developing a particular charism, each one of the many facets of Godde’s goodness. But Godde’s goodness goes way beyond all that can be imagined.

Why am I saying this?

Well, I have just finished Laura Swan’s book on the Beguines and I have been parabled, turned upside down if you wish. Here are laywomen who, maybe thanks to the Crusades and so many men leaving them to fight, had to fend for themselves. They stepped into the breach and, out of the experience, some discovered a new way of life which fitted them.

Over the centuries, mainly from 1200 on till the 1600s, but continuing nevertheless till the 18th c. and even into the 21st c. (with the last ‘known’ beguine passing away in 2013), the beguines shared a common way of life, usually in communities (from two to a thousand), chaste and simple. The beguines were known for their business sense, their organizational and trading skills, their commitment to God, the poor and the marginalized.

They were lay ‘contemplatives in action’ (to use an Ignatian term). Their way of life went straight against the norms of their times: they were lay, self-supporting, single, or widowed women, living on their income, paying taxes, spiritually and personally independent, preaching in public and debating with select theologians and biblical scholars. (11) Yes, some ended up burning at the stake.

Reading Laura Swan made me realize that the beguines had found a way to emulate Jesus and his first disciples, all the while being remarkably counter-cultural.

It was a women’s movement where rich women helped poor women and together they saved girls and women from prostitution, taught poor women marketable skills, opened schools, ran hospitals, and fed the poor. They offered a safe haven to women, the poor, and the lepers.

The taxes they paid to the towns were they lived protected them from the arbitrariness of the hierarchical church. They were a financial assets to the towns and a spiritual and economic help to the surrounding communities.

In many ways, the beguines remind me of the US religious sisters who go to the margins to help those left behind by both society and church. Beguines experienced “visitations” as well, when the Inquisition tried to rein in these independent women who did more good that the clerics of the times.

I am struck by how the beguines were simultaneous within and outside the Church. They did not depend on the hierarchy, for funds or authorization. They were free women who went about their business, praying and taking care of those in need, copying manuscripts, writing liturgies and hymns, ‘reading souls’ and giving spiritual direction. At a time when Christians were so afraid of God’s judgement, they proclaimed His goodness, compassion, and love, and incarnated those gifts wherever they ministered.
The beguines answered their call, choosing to live it in the world, a continuation of the first women disciples who accompanied Jesus on the dusty roads of Palestine, — before patriarchy reasserted itself.

I would love to read this book with a study group. I suspect that many ideas would come out of it, both exploring all that is already being done and of all that is left to be discovered.

Happy reading!

See also Phyllis Zagano’s article in NCR, Beguines Carried Forward Women’s Ministry