Monday, January 08, 2007

the benguines

i have stumbled across one of the most inspiring spiritual ideas i think i have ever found and cannot seem to find any tangible information on this subject. there was an intentional community of women in the early 1200's called the benguines. i had never heard of them previously and am searching for any links, books or articles anyone can provide. there is one piece of art entitled the benguines at prayer and an article on beatrice of nazareth that i have found, but there is little else online.

i am going to quote here bits from the book i've been reading by david james duncan called 'god laughs and plays' (pgs. 96-99) and hope nobody minds. i have so few icons and spiritual heroes to emulate. these women and their passion stirs my own. (i have left out the political references duncan uses as i don't find them helpful for my purposes here.)
"A sustaining spiritual community would be a self-sustaining physical community rooted in its own particular soil and watershed, with its own idiosyncratic expression of universal spiritual truths. To my mind, such a community might look a bit like an Amish community, physically, if it was rural. But an ever better model might be an updated version of the medieval Beguines.

The Beguines...were communities of what I would call "feminist mystics" that rose up in the Rhine Valley before and during the time of my greatest Christian hero, Meister Eckhart, and spread all over Europe. The Beguines had several great leaders - all of them women, all experiential mystics - and many powerful allies in the church, chief among them the incomparable Eckhart. The Benguines had a daily devotional life which was taken very seriously, but differed from the life led by nuns in that they lived comparatively free of the church, and right out there "in the world." Beguine women lived on their own private property, not Roman Church property - which was stupendously freeing for them, and they prospered because of it.

Their independence was fierce, but so, in the spirit of Christ, was their generosity. They raised their own food, they educated the local children, they took care of the sick and dying, they took in orphans, and, like Echkart - they read and unpacked the Bible to everyday people in their native tongues, so that the example of Jesus could be understood and emulated by all. Their communities were both self-sustaining and woven into the society at large, and they were of huge benefit to society. Yet they were based on experiential mysticism - or, to use your term, "the communal expression of spiritual wonder."

The church of the day, however, the STRUCTURE, was a Rome-based patriarchy uncomfortable with the existence of women at all, let along self-giving, heroic, Christ-adoring women who expressed their spiritual wonder in the striking manner of the great Beguine mystics - or any women mystics. Here's Pope Gregory the XIII holding forth on a certain mystic, for example: "Theresa of a filthy and immoral nun who is indecent in the highest degree and simply uses her busy an excuse for indulging in her dissipated lusts."

The passion, power, and beneficence generated by the Beguines showed good ol' boys like Pope Greg to be the power-drunk misogynists they were. Which enraged them. So down came the Iron Bible of the Inquisition, ka-thunk! The Beguines and Beguinages were crushed mercilessly, their greatest leaders imprisoned or burned at the stake, their brilliant mystical texts and poems and songs of love burned with them, their mercies and loving service revoked, the poor and sick whom they'd served turned back out on the streets, their homeless followers sent to nunneries or ghettos.

The Beguines' teachings and joys were so mercilessly eradicated that I'll bet not one in a thousand modern Christian (he uses Adventist) women have heard of them. And this haunts me. I can't help but feel that if women in Europe and the Americas had been encouraged to study and celebrate the lives of communitarian example of these loving, creative females of their own Christian tradition - the "filthy and immoral nun" of Avila, Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porette (burned at the stake by men for her beautiful love of God), to name just a few - we may have gotten a better handle on what my Korean pen pal calls "the REAL ONE BEING deep in their each one's heart,"...

...In the five centuries since the destruction of the Beguine communities and posthumous excommunication of Eckhart, mysticism has died as a popular force within Christian culture. I believe this loss of mystical vitality goes a long way toward explaining how Christianity has become so splintered and politicized, and the rest of the Western world so secularized. Without applied mysticism and Christ-like giving and living saints and angels and heroic poverty, chastity and obedience, Christianity becomes rote, heartless, and BORING! People sense this - the idealistic and gifted young, especially, sense it - and leave the faith.

What excites me about this state of affairs is the fact that divine desperation sometimes drives people to acts of great spiritual creativity. And, so far as I can see, there is no longer any Inquisitorial-type institution in place to prevent Benguinages, or something very like them, from forming once again. The tribes' recovery efforts and the Celtic and Breton resurgences show us that the five-hundred-year distance between us and the Beguines is not unbridgeable.

Especially not if, as I believe, we have no choice. I feel, I've always felt, that American and European women are exceptionally spirited, and that our men become lost, evil or just dull as hell without them. I'm sexist in this way. I sense that, in the next hundred years or so, Western women are going to do amazing things in terms of "communal expression of spiritual wonder." And Western men and the world will end up in wildly better shape because of it. Our lack of community is intensely painful. .. Without genuine spiritual community life becomes a struggle so lonely and grim that even Hillary Clinton has admitted "it takes a village." I meet a lot of men and women who want to do something about this - but the women tend to be more fired up about it, in part because the best qualities of women are largely banished from the mainstream industrial culture, in part because most women are not so big into beer, chips and football."
dear god, may i please have some of that divine desperation.


Erin said...

Wow! Sign me up...

Kel said...

i have this book on my wishlist, and now even more so

do a google search for beguine and there are pages of stuff

...which I'm off to read :)

Patchouli said...

I also found a great research paper on the Beguines with a Google search--thanks for the heads up!