Beguines carried forward women's ministry

by Phyllis Zagano

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By Laura Swan
Published by BlueBridge, $16.95

Women's ministerial vocations have differed throughout the centuries, but they have existed in every era and in every locale. Benedictine Sr. Laura Swan, former prioress of St. Placid Priory in the state of Washington, adds to her prodigious body of work with this comprehensive investigation into the lives of thousands of celibate women who lived outside the cloister as beguines.

The list of famous beguines is long. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrijs of Nazareth, Hadewijch, Marguerite Porete and many other well-known spiritual writers and mystics populate Swan's pages. The author moves from their beguinages (often walled-in row houses or single cottages), to their ministries (including preaching and spiritual direction), to their unique spiritualties (often involving mystical events), to their writings, which gave evidence of their outward compassion for the suffering Christ in the world.

Beguines lived lives of prayer and service, and where, when and how they lived these lives depended very much on their personal circumstances and surroundings.

There was no disgrace, really, if one chose to leave the beguinage to marry, but, alternatively, the beguinage served as refuge for those who in one way or another might be forced into marriage. When an unexpected pregnancy occurred, the beguine went away to have the child, then often returned to her beguinage to raise the child along with other children, thereby avoiding the twin prospects of forced marriage or a destitute life.

Swan brings the reader out of the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), most closely associated with beguines, to France (Colette of Corbie), to Italy (Frances of Rome), to Spain (María García), and across Europe as women, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, sought a way to live consecrated lives outside cloister. These women took no vows, although, in many respects, their lives echoed the female diaconate that dwindled during the Middle Ages, and presaged active apostolic religious life as it developed in the 17th century.

The impetus to perform the by-then-abandoned diaconal works of the church lived on in the ministries of these active contemplatives, who often incurred the wrath of their bishops. Swan's picture of women's apostolic ministry over the centuries and across many lands demonstrates the ways women found to serve.

For example, Marie d'Oignies gathered a community to serve lepers in 12th-century Belgium. German sisters Elizabeth and Sofie followed the vita apostolica in the 13th century, as did Ida of Nivelles, until she joined a Cistercian monastery. Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in Paris in the early 14th century, suffered for her preaching without permission of the church. María de Toledo, a 15th-century widow of noble birth, visited the sick, provided dowries for orphans, fed and clothed the poor, and paid prisoner's debts.

While the evidence Swan presents points to beguines mostly being mystics, some being stigmatics, a few being engaging writers, there is precious little information about the majority of these holy women, who often earned their livings by needlework and who wore a distinctive gray-brown cloak from their own woven cloth. In any event, their beguinages eventually failed.

Often due to pressure from church authorities, beguines gradually found their lives of prayer and service better absorbed either into convents and monasteries, or at least into larger expressions of apostolic life. There is evidence of some moving into Cistercian or Carthusian monasteries, and of others becoming Franciscan or Dominican tertiaries. As the Reformation and Counter Reformation joined secular forces to eradicate the works of women, a new and different form of vita apostolica grew into what today we recognize as active apostolic religious life.

One caveat about this heavily researched book is that it is organized neither chronologically nor territorially, and therefore sometimes leaves the reader adrift amid centuries and place names. But there is so much to learn about the beguines, and so much that parallels the lives of ministering women today, that it is worth the effort to walk the narrow pathways of the beguinages, in solidarity with these valiant women and in gratitude for their lives.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y. ]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: Beguines carried forward women's ministry.

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