I recently spent ten days in Belgium and the Netherlands, visiting Amsterdam, Antwerp, Louvain (Leuven) and Bruges. My purpose for being there was an academic conference in Louvain. Each of the cities I visited have lovely Beguine centers and/or medieval Beguine churches which I purposefully sought out. To keep my mind busy while travelling around on trains I also read an excellent Dutch-language book about Hadewych, an early Beguine mystic, poet and leader (the book was Paul Mommaer S.J.'s 1990 prize winning Hadewych: Scrijfster, Mystica, Begijn--Hadewych, Writer, Mystic, Beguine).
The Beguines were mainly well-to-do women or widows who sought some other role to life than being a wife ( and, thus, under a man's control in the thirteenth century) or joining a religious cloister ( also likely under the authority of male religious figures). They constituted a religious movement which was lay, not vowed, and dedicated to the apostolic life. In point of fact, in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in the Low Lands ( where the Beguines flourished), there was a large surfeit of women of marriageable age compared to men, due to the crusades, other wars; a rule that only Guild masters but not apprentices could marry; a large number of celibate monks and priests. Women's religious cloisters of that period tended to be dominated by the nobility and exacted large dowries for entrance. So, something like the Beguines was obviously attractive to many well-to-do, but not noble, women from the bourgeoning merchant class of that period.
Their common life (but there was no set rule of life as in religious cloisters) focused on simplicity, freedom, some manual labor and charity-like outreach to the elderly and the poor. They ran infirmaries. In the very beginning of the Beguine movement at the start of the thirteenth century, many of them simply lived apart in their own homes. Later, they tended to cluster around a Begijnhof. Unlike the official church, at that time, Beguines wrote in the vernacular. Some seem to have engaged in a species of lay preaching. The eucharist was central to their lives. Unlike the typical medieval custom of infrequent communion ( usually at most two or maybe three times a year), the Beguiness sought to receive communion at least once a week, if not more frequently. Indeed, the Beguines had a role to play in the new medieval feast of Corpus Christi.
The Beguines experienced a mixed reception from the official church. Many bishops or abbots, even a pope who originally knew the Beguines in Lieges, often praised them. Others resented that they were women who escaped masculine control and surveillance, as would be true for wives or women religious in cloisters. They had extensive property in their control ( Begijnhofs in places such as Amsterdam or Bruges or Louvain represented little cities within the city). Some feared their mystic bent or their claim to have a special experience of God not mediated, as such, through the hierarchy. Others opposed the use of the vernacular or thought that their eucharistic piety was heretical. Some Beguines were imprisoned or killed as heretics.
A number of Beguines (Hadewych of Antwerp, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, Marguite Porete) are well-known mystics and writers. The movement put much emphasis on the humanity of Christ (and our humanity), the heart of Jesus and the passion of Christ. They stressed in their spirituality two major themes: "the over-passing" and "the more". The over-passing refers to moving beyond the flaws or sinfulness in our humanity so we could truly dwell in God. " The More" reminded even mystics who felt they dwelt in God that God always contained more than they could ever experience. Indeed, they thought, even in heaven, with the beatific vision, the more would still obtain. Beguines also took up a name used by the courtly love troubedours, Minne ( which meant Lady Love) to apply it to God. Many of them were influenced by the writings of William of Saint Thiery who, unlike Augustine, followed the Greek fathers in speaking of our ' divinization'-- i.e., Jesus took on our humanity so that he might share with us true elements of his divinity ( as, indeed, the priest prays when he puts the water in the wine at the offertory of the mass).
Hadewych who flourisheed sometime around 1240 obviously was well educated. She could read Latin, French, Provencal as well as her native Dutch. She seems also to have read widely in the works of Origin, Augustine, Richard of Saint Victor. Their influence can be found in her written works: Visions, her Letters to fellow Beguine women ( she seems to had some leading spiritual director role in many of their lives) and her Strofische Gedicten ( Poems in Stanzas). Hadewych took up the courtly love poetry and shaped it into mystical texts. She also seems to have had profound mystical experiences of union with God from an early age. In the Letters she points to some period of exile or imprisonment in her life when she was out of touch with her Beguine sisterss. If the courtly troubadour poetry emphasized the perpetual longing for unattainable worldly love, Hadewych's evocation of Minne--love--while always the gift of God--also flows from a natural capacity for such union with God. Hence, in one poem, Hadewych says: " The flowing forth and this reflex of one into the other and this growth in God surpass the mind and understanding, the intelligence and capacity of human creatures. But still we have it in our nature."
Hadewych emphasixed, to be sure, as did other Beguines, humility but they also evoked a certain nobility of spirit. In one of her letters, she says Beguines must remain chivalrous souls, must always act " accordding to your free nobility." I was very taken, particularly, by three of Hadewych's mystic poems. " Love Has Subjugated Me" reads as follows: "Love has subjugated me. To me this is no surprise. For she is strong and I am weak. She makes me un-free of myself, continually against my will. She does with me what she wishes. Nothing of myself remains to me. Formerly I was rich. Now I am poor. Everything is lost in love."
In another poem, "Love's Constancy", Hadewych notes: "Anyone who has waded through Love's turbulent waters, now feeling hunger and now satiety, is untouched by the season of withering or blooming. For in the deepest and most dangerous waters or the highest peaks, Love is always the same." It seems clear that Hadewych experienced in her own life both the blooming and satiety and the dry season ( or dark night) of the soul. What counts are not the inner feelings of abandonment or ecstasy but the continued union with God. I suspect Jesuits would or could easily find a resonance in this Beguine mysticism of everyday life which involved an apostolic life of service to those in need.
In another poem snippet, " You Who Want", Hadewych says: " You who want knowledge, seek the oneness within. There you will find the clear mirror waiting". In still another poem, " All Things", Hadewych exclaims: " All things are too small to hold me. In the infinite I reach for the uncreated. I have touched it, it undoes me, wider than wide. Everything else is too narrow. You know this well, you who are also there."
Hadewych is much praised as an early mistress of the medieval Dutch language. She clearly had an influence on the thought and writings of the other well-known Low Land mystic, Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck and on Meister Eckhart. Some think Dante also knew her work and evokes it in his Paradiso. Contemporary feminist scholars are currently unlocking her work as a potent symbol--as the Beguines themselves were--of a kind of feminist early autonomy and the ability to evoke Lady Love ( Minne) as a feminine name for God. Many more of us, however, in the twenty-first century, aiming at a genuine lay spirituality which is deep and life-giving, might find in her a fruitful source for prayer and spiritual reflection. Mother Columba Hart's translation of her work, Hadeqych: The Complete Works (Paulist Press, 1980 as part of the Classics of Western Spirituality series) might be a handy place to start. Grace it was that began the Beguines. The same grace might revive their rich spirituality for our twenty-first century spiritual thirsts and journeys.
John A. Coleman, S.J.