GOD: Your heart's desire shall you lay nowhere But in my own Sacred Heart
And in my human breast.
There alone will you find comfort
And be embraced by my Spirit.
Mechtild, The Oveflowing Light of the Godhead (1.39-43).
In the history of the Church there have been many outstanding women. In the Apostolic Church there were women like Priscilla, Lydia, and Phoebe who assisted Paul in spreading the Gospel or indeed before Paul. A century or two later in the early persecutions under Roman rule many women were among the martyred such as Blandina in Vienne, Felicity and Perpetua in Northern Africa, Lucy in Syracuse, Agatha in Sicily, the young Agnes and Cecilia in Rome. After the persecution there were those holy and noble women in Rome such as Paula and Marcella who live quasi-monastic existence and who had St. Jerome as their tutor. Later Paula accompanied Jerome to Jerusalem when the latter had to leave Rome and together established a double monastery in Bethlehem with Paula as abbess of the women's monastery. She had a soul mate in modern day Turkey, where Macrina as abbess ruled with her brother Peter the double monastery on either side of the banks of Iris in the Pontus.
In England and Germany particularly, double monasteries were common, often with an abbess in charge of both such as Hilda at Whitby in England and Leobe at Bischofsheim in Germany. From these monasteries missionaries set out to evangelise the heathen. After the outstanding abbesses of double monasteries in the seventh and eighth centuries there were those associated with single ones, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century, a most accomplished woman and well known for her book Scivias, her music and art. In between there was that remarkable nun Hroswitha of the abbey of Gandersheim in the tenth century who was the "first Christian dramatist, the first Saxon poet, and the first woman historian in Germany."
Who has heard of these women today? Yet in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries many knew of them and their contribution to their local communities.
In that period, a strange phenomenon happened, especially in northern Europe when some women defied the conventional pattern for women, marriage or the cloistered life by living in communities of prayer and service. These women who came from all classes became known as beguines, and lived either singularly or in small groups known as beguinages . They were committed to the message of the Gospel, responding spontaneously to the work of the Holy Spirit to live a simple, communal life of prayer, to care for the poor, the sick, lepers and orphaned, to teach, make lace, garden and anything else which enabled them to be economically free. They also read and taught the Scriptures in the vernacular as well as having a very special devotion to the Eucharist and to the Passion of Christ. Some were mystics and wrote of their visions and mystical experiences as evident in their writings.
The beguines were not subject to a rule of life, neither did the beguines have to make a life-time commitment. She was free to leave or to marry. Such a way of life was very attractive to the devout woman, and it is not surprising that their numbers grew swiftly. It was a welcome alternative to the cloister or marriage, although for women to live without the protection of the convent or a husband was quite revolutionary in the early mediæval period. In many ways the beguines were like the women in the Apostolic Church such as Prisca, Junia and Lydia who believed that in Christ all were equal in ministry.
At first, they were warmly received by pope, royalty and common folk alike, and admired for their piety and service. But their situation was ever a precarious one. It would seem that the Church could not cope with these independent women and the only way it could was to brand such women as heretics or to enforce all women who had a religious vocation into convents.
Factors contributing to the Movement
How did this movement evolve? There were some factors. The Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153), especially in his reflections on The Song of Songs emphasised the personal relationship between the individual and the Lord being similar to that of the bride and the heavenly Bridegroom. Later this union between the beloved and the lover influenced feminist mystics, including beguines, to develop an intimate spirituality with their Lord, especially expressed in receiving Him at the Eucharist.
Closely associated with this nuptial image of St. Bernard was the "reasonable mystic" and "learned lover" of his friend, William of St. Thierry (1085-1148), who happened to live in Liège, the birthplace of the beguine movement. He appealed to the soul to know God in perfect love, which also appealed to mystics.
Another factor was the vita apostolica, which St. Francis of Assisi had preached by returning to the ideals that our Lord had preached to His disciples of poverty and simplicity with a burning desire to preach the Gospel. The acceptance of this Franciscan preaching and mendicant order in 1215, even though no new orders were supposed to be have founded, gave inspiration to like-minded souls.
Other influences included this new order, Premonstratensians, founded in Liège by Norbert of Xanten in the early twelfth century that allowed religious women to be attached and to do charity work in the world. However, his successor reversed this role, and all nuns were expelled from the order by the end of the century. In a way these were the forerunners of the beguines.
As stated it was in Liège that the Beguine movement began with the life and work of Mary d'Oignie (1177-1213) whose way of life was praised by the Dominican friar, Jacques de Vitry, her confessor and disciple. By the time he heard about her at the university of Paris she had already acquired a large following, both female and male in her establishment near the priory of St. Nicholas in Oignies, near her hometown of Nivelles.
Mary's life overlapped that of St. Francis, and in many ways, she was the female counterpart. Like Francis she renounced her wealth, practised severe asceticism and was one of the earliest women to receive the stigmata. She had persuaded her husband to live in chastity, and together they worked in a leprosarium. Moreover, her life was nourished through her regular receiving of Communion. Vitry wrote:
The holy bread strengthened her heart; the holy wine inebriated her, rejoicing her mind; the holy body fattened her; the vitalising blood purified her by washing. And she could not bear to abstain from such solace for long. For it was the same to her to live as to eat the body of Christ.
His approval and devotion to Mary and her cause was important as it promoted her way of living as being successful. His approval was not because he was a feminist; indeed, he would seem to be like Jerome, but he recognised holiness and ability in women. Hence he was able to set Mary apart from worldly women and he worked for the Beguines to become an official order within the Church. Although the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had prohibited the establishment of new orders, he was able to secure verbal approval from Pope Honorius III in 1215 that "pious women, not only in the diocese of Liège, but also in France and Germany, to live in communal houses and encourage each other to do good by mutual exhortation." Not many years later in 1233, Pope Gregory IX issued a bull, Gloriam virginalem, which formally brought "chaste virgins in Teutonia" under Papal protection.
Rapidly following on from the example of Mary's piety and charity works were two outstanding beguines, HADEWIJCH of Antwerp (died mid13thC.) and MECHTILD of Magdeburg (c.1207-1282). These two women through their writings revealed a combination of mysticism and theology. Their writings revealed a freshness in their approach to spiritual freedom in the union between the soul and Christ.
Firstly Hadewijch. Born (c.1200) into an aristocratic family, her writing are considered to be the earliest vernacular prose in the Low Countries, and they also revealed that she was well educated. She wrote thirty-one letters, forty-five poems in stanzas, fourteen visions, and sixteen poems in couplets. In these she revealed a familiarity with Latin, French, rhetoric, the writings of the early Fathers, Ptolemaic astronomy and writings of most of the canonical twelfth century writers. From her letters it would indicate that she was mistress of a group of younger beguines training them in the path of mysticism. "And knowing this we must always know that for us life is a loving service and a longing exile," she advocated in Letter Six. It would also seem from her letters that she fell out of favour with officials over her teachings, especially about Divine Love and the soul's response to that.
Hadewijch herself described her spiritual power as being an awesome and almost irresistible force:
Since I was ten years old, I have been so possessed by a wholehearted love for God that in the first two years when I began to love Him so, I should have died, had He not given me greater strength than most people have, and given to my nature the power of His nature. Hadewijch, Visions, 39.
Like the other beguines Hadewijch believed that imitatio Christi was possible for anyone, regardless of sex, manifested in her letters to younger beguines.
[D]o not believe that anything which you must do for Him whom you seek will be beyond your strength, that you cannot surmount it, that it will be beyond you. . . . If you would act according to the being in which God has created you, your nature would be so noble that there would be no pains which you would shun, it would be so valiant that you could not bear to leave anything undone, but you would reach out for that which is best of all, for that great oneness which is God. . . . Hadewijch, 'Letters to a Young Beguine,' 
Of course it is that mystical union with Christ that overshadows all her writings. In her poem Time Is New With Every Year Hadewijch unveiled this, but it certainly is not easy, the way is arduous and ambivalent, but worth pursuing. It is the life that she recommended to everyone.
Time is new with every year:
days of darkness become light.
Seeking love while lacking it,
oh, the wonder of such hope!
This new year is coming in!
For the man who turns his mind,
through some effort great or small
toward love, his grief is gain.
One who loves, yet spares the pain,
and so shows his lowliness,
wraps himself in stolen joys:
Rightly shall he feel their weight.
Those who come to life from love
and are nature's chosen ones
spare no toil for such a goal:
They will live in saintly warmth.
One who reaches love's high mount
he it is who welcomes pain,
for he looks upon his work
knowing well it has no end.
Shame upon the finer heart
which, by outer pressure duped,
fails to do the higher deed
that will keep its hunger keen.
Craving, sating - both in one
such is the reward of love
as it may be seen by those
who consort in truth with it.
Craving:' 'Come, O Love supreme."
Sating: "Stop!" Such is the moan
for its light becomes too bright
and its blows turn into joy.
How can Love be deemed enough'?
Oh, the marvel, it is he
who bestows his highest self
and imparts his treasured wealth.
How can hunger sustain love?
When a man knows he cannot
consummate what he desires,
this makes hunger stronger still.
How can light of love be pain?
When we cannot stand its gifts.
Nothing will compare with it
since it has no base in time.
Pleasures are but joust and strife
of true love by night and day,
since a man has nothing left
but his faith in this high love.
Holy Love I recommend
to all those who look for it.
For this goal, spare not your pains,
but conform your life with it.
Hadewijch must also have been familiar with life at Court as some of her Love poems have courtly images. For example, the divine love is called "Lady Love", and sometimes this love is "fickle".
Occasionally, this mystical love could have an air of eroticism to it, as manifested in her vision of the Eucharist:
With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave us his Body for the first time; looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another. Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is. After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported. Visions, 41.
Christ is indeed the pivot of her life, and it is this that makes her and other beguines reach out to others, especially the poor. It is in this service and love that the soul is also united with their Saviour. But above all it is the task of beguines, if not all Christians, to discover that purity of soul which the created had before the Fall.
If you wish to attain your being in which God created you, in all nobleness, you must not refuse any difficulty; with all hardiness and pride you must neglect nothing, but valiantly seize the best part, I mean the totality of God, as your own wealth. Visions, 7.
Secondly, Mechtild of Magdeburg. She too was a first in writing in the vernacular German language, and is considered one of the founders of Die deutsche Mystik, or German Mysticism. Her visions, poetry, hymns, letters and dialogues with God were transcribed by her spiritual counsellor, the Dominican, Heinrich de Halle, as The Overflowing Light of the Godhead or as it sometimes called Flowing Light of the Godhead. Like Hadewijch, Mechtild saw herself as a vessel of the Divine who gave her the inspiration to speak about God through her ecstatic visions and charisma of the spirit. She too acknowledged that she wrote as the "weaker" sex. Thus she introduced her Flowing Light with this pronouncement:
This book is to be joyfully welcomed, for God Himself speaks in it... The book proclaims Me alone and shows forth My holiness with praise... Ah! Lord God! Who has written this book? I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it. (1.38).
Mechtild had begun writing about her spiritual experiences when she was a child, and knew even then that as she was not "a learned priest" it would be difficult to share her revelations. Nevertheless she knew that she must write of her mystical experiences that she acknowledged came "from the living Godhead spilled in her heart". (6.43)
God has granted to all creatures
That they live according to their nature,
How could I, then, oppose my nurture?
Far from all else, I must give myself to God
Who is my Father by nature,
My Brother through humanity,
My Betrothed in love. (1.44).
Although she lived a life of prayer and asceticism, she seems to have been in regular confrontations with the clergy over her efforts to reform the Church as illustrated in the suffering and martyr elements of her book. Thus in one of her visions she told of Christ's assurance of this.
You will be martyred with me, betrayed by envy, sought out by falsehood, captured by hatred until finally 'you shall rise from the death and ascend into heaven, drawn by God's breath.' 3.10.
This German Beguine was moreover very conscious of sin and what it does, not only in the Church but also in the whole cosmos. It would appear that she felt the sin of the world on her shoulders, and her penitential tears for all this is shown in this dialogue with Christ
Our Lord said: 'Let be! It is too heavy for you!' No, sweet Lord, I will lift it up And God let me have my will, that so I might find rest. 5.8.
She constantly prayed for all souls, especially those in danger. In her dialogue with Christ, banishment of souls into hell was another constant theme. She could not understand how a loving and merciful God would ever do such a thing, and she thus inundated Christ with such pleas, even that of going to hell herself to preach to these lost souls.
I asked: 'Lord, how may that be?
If thy righteousness companions thy compassion,
how is thy mercy so great?'
Then the Lord spoke a true word thus:
'I say to thee by my divine fidelity
that there are more in Holy Church
who go straight to heaven
than go down to hell.
For righteousness has its constant power
even if stained by sin,
and that I will never take from it,
for I come first of all as Father
to the burdened soul.
My mercy forces me yet further
than the ill will of wicked men forces them,
and my righteousness is greater
than all the wickedness of the devil.' 3.21.
Like Marguerite Porete's writings a little later, Mechtild was conscious of doctrine and reflected her belief in the Trinity, the one in three and three in one. Accordingly God flowed in her "like a springing and bottomless fountain" of which "God the Father is the Vintner of this inebriating life, the Son is the Cup and the Spirit is the Wine." (1.8, 2.24)
Undoubtedly in this nuptial dialogue, Mechtild reveals her heartfelt love for her Trinitarian God.
'Thy mountains shall be melted away by love,
thine enemies shall win no victories over thee.
Thine acre has been soiled by a hot sun,
yet its fruit has not been destroyed.
In my kingdom thou shalt live as a new bride:
there will I kiss thee with a kiss of love
and all my Godhead shall sweep though thy soul.
My three-fold vision shall play ceaselessly
in thy two-fold heart.
Where, then is now thy mourning?
If thou should pray for a thousand years,
I would never give you cause for a single sigh.' (4.5)
To this the soul responds:
'Lord and heavenly Father, thou art my heart!
Lord Jesus Christ, thou art my body!
Lord Holy Spirit, thou art my breath!
Lord Holy Trinity, thou art my only refuge
and my everlasting peace.' (5.6).
Her mystical writings obviously drew on those "nuptial" imageries that Bernard had used in his commentary on "The Song of Songs".
In my kingdom you shall live as a new bride:
There will I kiss you with a kiss of love
and all my God head shall sweep through your soul
My threefold vision shall play ceaselessly
in your twofold heart. (4.3).
It is also very much evident in a dialogue between The Soul and Love. The soul pines:
Ah, dearest Love, for how long
hast thou lain in wait for me!
What, oh what can I do?
I am hunted, captured, bound,
wounded so terribly
that never can I be healed.
Cunning blows hast thou dealt:
shall I ever recover from thee?
Would it not have been well
that I had never known thee? (1.3).
It is continued in this dialogue:
God : Thou huntest sore for thy love:
what bring'st thou me, my queen?
The Soul: Lord! I bring thee my treasure:
It is greater than the mountains,
wider than the see,
higher than the clouds,
more glorious than the sun,
more manifold than the stars
It outweighs the whole earth. (1.39f.)
A little later in the book is this dialogue:
The soul spake this to her desire:
'Fare forth and see where my Love is
say to him that I desire to love.'
So desire sped forth,
for it by nature swift,
and came to the Empyrean and cried,
'Great Lord, open, and let me in!'
Then said the Lord of that place:
'What means this fiery eagerness?'
'Lord! I would have thee know
that my lady, can no longer live thus.
If thou wouldst flow forth to her,
then might she soar;' (3.1).
Yet at the very heart of Mechtild's longing is a great simplicity to which I think all Christians can relate:
Dear Love of God, embrace this soul of mine,
For it would grieve me bitterly
To be parted from you.
Therefore I beg you not to let my love grow cold,
For my works are dead,
If I am not conscious of your presence.
O Love, you make both pain and need sweet to me,
You give wisdom and comfort to the children of God.
O bond of Love, your hand is powerful,
Binding both young and old;
You make the heaviest burdens light,
Whereas our little sins to you are great.
You serve all your creatures gladly
For love alone.
O sweet Love of God, should I sleep too long, Carelessly neglecting all good things,
Come and awaken me and sing to me;
For the song with which you touch my soul Delights me better than sweet music.
O Love, fling me down under you,
Gladly would I submit to your embrace.
Should you even take my life from me
I would still find comfort,
For you, O most gentle Love of God
Are too ready to indulge me
And I weep.
Love, you voice fills my heart with joy!
The pain your touch brings enables me to live free from sin;
Your constancy brings me much sweet sorrow.
Divine Love, how can I be content when I lack you? Yet, when you desert me
Your very absence
Breathes in me a strong and heavenly courage.
O wondrous Love, happy is she whom you teach
For it is a joyful humility
Which begs you to turn from the soul.
Love, however small you find her
Who now seeks you with all her might,
Relentlessly pursuing you,
Bidding you with the eagerness of love
To flee from her unworthiness -
Yet there are many who call after you with their voices
But turn away from you in their lives
But your going and coming, O Love,
Are equally welcome to my soul:
You have achieved what God began in us
With heartfelt love.
Your noble clarity stands as a mirror
Between God and the pure soul,
And awakens a burning love in the heart of this woman
For Jesus, her own dear love.
May your holy compassion
Confound the wiles of the enemy.
May your sweet peace
Bring us gentle feelings and purity of life.
May you holy sufficiency lead free spirits
To embrace a willing poverty. (5.30).
Mechtild also had a great devotion to Our Lady evident in her last years when she was totally blind, and of course no longer a beguine.
I greet thee, Lady, beloved Mary, that thou art
a joy to the Holy Trinity
the beginning of all our blessedness,
the companion of the holy angels
here and in the kingdom of God.
I greet thee, Lady, beloved Mary, that thou art
a flower of the patriarchs,
a hope of the prophets,
a white lily of humble maids,
Remember how the salutation of the Angel Gabriel
came to thee! And greet my soul on the last day,
and bring me with unclouded joy
out of this misery to the happy land
of thy dear Child,
that there I may find rest.
I greet thee, Lady, beloved Mary, that thou art
a wise teacher for the apostles,
a rose of the martyrs.
a gift of confessors,
a helper of widows,
an honour of all the saints of the dear Child,
Pray for me that I in all my doings
be sanctified so far as may be
for me unworthy, Mary beloved Queen!
I greet thee, Lady, beloved Mary, that thou art
a refuge to sinners,
a strong helper for the perplexed,
a comforter to Holy Church,
a dread to evil spirits
who are driven away before thee,
Drive them also far from me
that they may never delight in me,
but that I may ever be constant
in thy service.
- Greetings to our Lady in the Form of a Litany
Both however before their death felt pressures against them. Hadewijch was forced out of her beguinage, whilst Mechtild, who from time to time was accused of heresy by the Dominicans, fled to the monastery of Helfta when she was 62 years old. It is hard these days to imagine that such pious and loving souls being forced to flee and find refuge, especially in a conventional convent.
Thus around 1300, the Beguine way of life had become virtually indistinguishable from traditional monasticism. In many areas in northern Europe, beguines lived communally in a convent-like setting called a beguinage, where they followed a strict group of statutes, and were usually not allowed to leave without permission from their superior. This greatly hampered their spontaneity.
However there were some beguines who had the courage to assert their autonomy. One of these was MARGUERITE PORETE, a French mystic who was burned as a heretic in 1310. Little is known of her; it is thought she was a beguine of Hainaut who wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls Who Are Annihilated and Who Only Remain in the Will and Desire for Love. In this 60,000-word treatise Marguerite, addressed to women in particular, she employed imagery similar to that of Hadewijch and Mechtild to describe seven stages in the soul's ascent to complete union with God. It was condemned by the bishop of Cambrai and burned in the public square of Valenciennes. Its use was prohibited but this did not deter Margueirte who continued to teach. Like the other mystics, she claimed authority for her writing using the very basis on which others would deny it to her, her female "weakness":
God has nowhere to place his goodness, if not in me . . . nor can there be a place where He might completely place Himself, if it is not in me. And through this I am the exemplar of salvation, and even more, the salvation itself of every creature, and the glory of God. . . . I am the height of all evil, for I contain of my own nature what is wretched, and therefore am I total wretchedness, . . . Thus I am total wretchedness and He is total goodness, and one must give alms to the poorest lest one take from them what is theirs by right. Now God cannot do what is unjust, for then He would destroy Himself. Thus His goodness is mine by reason of my necessity. [Ch.117]
Marguerite was much more anti-clerical than her predecessors as evident in the forward of her book.
Theologians and other clerks, you won't understand this book--however bright your wits--if you do not meet it humbly, and in this way Love and Faith make you surmount Reason: they are the mistresses of Reason's house.
Although Marguerite had been warned several times about her book's purported heretical beliefs, she had sent The Mirror to three noted scholars, all of whom approved of it. Marguerite was eventually arrested by order of the Parisian Dominican inquisitor, William. Having refused to swear the oath according to inquisitorial regulations, she was imprisoned. William summoned twenty-one theologians to Paris to pass judgment on her book. They found it heretical of course, and also guilty of not having obeyed the bishop of Cambrai's juncture, that forbade her to speak about her book. Even after her official condemnation announced by William, Marguerite remained silent. She was thus sentenced to be burned in La Place de Grève in Paris as a heretic the next day, the 1st June, 1310, the day the Church commemorates the martyrdom of Justin in the 2nd C. It was said that her very demeanour on that day won many converts. Despite the banning of her book it continued to circulate, and it undoubtedly influenced the mystic Eckhart, a Dominican, who was teaching in Paris shortly after Marguerite's death, and whose writings were denounced.
Her book, The Mirror of the Soul should be seen as both a treatise and a spiritual handbook. As the former it is in the form of a dialogue in the Boethian tradition among the allegorical figures of Reason, Love and the Soul. As the latter it is a guide for progression in the spiritual life and portrayal of the nature of the soul. There are seven stages.
In the first stage, the soul is touched by grace, stripped of the capacity for mortal sin, and commanded by God to love Him and neighbour completely. In the second stage, the soul abandons itself in the mortification of nature to accomplish the counsels of evangelical perfection. In the third stage the soul increases in an abundance of love for the works of perfection. In the fourth stage the soul is consumed in an ecstasy of love when it thinks there is nothing greater to have, but the divine love carries it to a higher plane. In the fifth stage the soul ponders two considerations: that God is the source of everything who has placed free will in her being from His Being. As a result the will departs from its own will and renders back to God without retaining anything of its own. In the sixth stage, the soul no longer sees itself as it is fallen into an abyss of humility; neither does it see God because of His higher goodness. In this state God sees Himself in the soul by His divine majesty that makes the soul transparent. The seventh stage is only reached when the soul departs the body, and therefore cannot be described. Within the framework of these stages for spiritual progress there are two critical ingredients: three kinds of death and two kinds of souls who practise the virtues in the second stage.
These three deaths move the soul towards spiritual perfection. In the first stage is the first death, death to mortal sin, which brings the life of grace to know the commandments to love God, one's neighbours and one self. This life of grace is the life or ordinary or simple believers. The life of the spirit comes with the second stage and the death to nature. Such a life is lived in obedience to the virtues according to Reason. But this life must die too as it is still filled with the will, and comes at the fifth stage.
The other element for spiritual progress towards perfection is a distinction between two types of souls: the lost and sad. The former remain in the second stage, and even though they will be saved, they will never enter that divine life on this side of death as they do not comprehend those virtues that call them to a higher level. In some ways the "sad" are on the same level as the "lost", except they do recognise that there is a higher element to reach.
Her book contains much conventional theology as evidenced in her treatment of the Trinity.
She knows, says Love, by the virtue of Faith, that God is all Power, and all Wisdom, and perfect Goodness, and that God the Father has accomplished the work of the Incarnation, and the So also and the Holy Spirit also. This is one Power. One Wisdom, and one Will. One God alone in three persons, three persons and one God alone. [Ch.14]
Her understanding of the nature of the soul is also trinitiarian. Marguerite distinguishes between 1. ability (engin); 2. intellect (entendement) and 3. understanding (cognoissance). In the chapter entitled :How a skill in a creature is a subtle ability which is in the substance of the Soul", she answers.
It is a subtle natural ability from which intellect is born, which gives understanding in the Soul to interpret what someone says more perfectly that the one who says it himself. Why? Because intelligence reposes, and speaking labours, and understanding cannot undertake labour lest she be less noble. [Ch.110]
It is this skill that enables the soul "to attain the fullness of its enterprise, and its enterprise is nothing more than the righteous will of God." To will this divine will is the ultimate aim of the soul, whilst to will apart from the divine will separate the soul from God, which leaves the will free as taught by Augustine and others. So it is possible for the soul to be lost for ever, so different from Mechtild's belief. Sin is committed when the soul deliberately chooses to remove the will from the Divine's, whilst virtue is to choose to return to this Divine will. [Chs. 107-8].
Obviously a soul who sins can never experience the Divine life and union with God. In order to achieve that union, the soul recognises the gap between her/his own wretchedness and the goodness of God.
Lord you are One Goodness, through overflowing goodness, and all in yourself. And I am One wretchedness, through overflowing wretchedness, and all in myself.
Lord, you are all power, all wisdom, and all goodness, without beginning, without being contained, and without end. And I am all weakness, all ignorance. And all wretchedness, without beginning, without being constrained, and without end. [Ch. 130]
Another dominant feature of her writing is her use of the familiar Augustine concept of God as Lover, Loved, Love in relation to the soul.
Lover, you have grasped me in your love,
To give me your great treasure,
That is, the gift of your own self,
Which is divine goodness.
truth declared to my heart,
That I am loved by one alone,
And she says that it is without return
That He has given me His love,
This gift kills my though
By the delight of His love,
lifts me and transform me through union
Into the eternal joy
of the being of divine love.
And Divine Love tells me
that she has entered within me,
And so she can do
whatever she wills,
Such strength she has given me,
From One Lover whom I possess in love,
To whom I am betrothed,
Who will what He loves,
And for this I will love Him. [Ch. 122]
Reason also has its place in the life of the soul as it guides the will of the soul, but its mistress is Divine Love.
And without fail, Love, says Reason, this no one can grasp with my intellect if he is not taught it by you through your teaching. For my intellect and my judgment and all my counsel is the best that I know how to counsel: [Ch.13]
The soul's comprehension of this dialectical relation enables her/him to understanding of her/his self in relation to God. Now the soul is able to grow by means of this illumination and to please God. The soul's love is gradually absorbed into the divine love by the work of the Holy Spirit. By this absorption of the will into the Divine, the soul comes to know true humility.
Eventually the soul that is completely absorbed into the divine "no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacraments of Holy Church nor though divine love, nor though divine praise." It is this understanding of the absorption of the human will into the Divine that landed Marguerite into trouble with the Church authorities. They could not see what Marguerite was driving at. Once the soul "has entered into the abundances and the flowing of divine life" it is "adorned with the adornments of this absolute peace in which she lives, and endures, and is and was and will be without being." [Ch.52]. All this transformation for Marguerite is through the work of the Holy Spirit.
It would seem that Marguerite was aware that her writings on the life of the soul would not be understood, and that her life would be in danger.
O my Lover, what will beguines say
and religious types,
When they hear the excellence of your divine song?
Beguines say I err,
priests, clerics, and Preachers,
and the Friars Minor,
Because I wrote about the being
of the one purified by Love.
I do not make Reason safe for them,
who makes them say this to me.
Desire, Will and Fear
Surely take from them the understanding,
The out-flowing, and the union
Of the highest Light
Of the ardour
Of divine love. [Ch.122]
Of course where Marguerite fell foul of theologians it was over her concept that when the soul becomes completely immersed in the will and love of God he/she "no longer seeks God through penitence" nor through the "sacraments of Holy Church; nor through thoughts, nor through words; nor through works; not through creature here below, nor through creature above; nor through justice, nor through mercy; nor through glory of glory; not through divine understanding, nor through divine love, nor through divine praise. [Ch.85].
It would seem that Marguerite, even if she were a heretic was a victim of her time. For a male dominant Church she was too independent and public with her views of the "free spirit" for women. Within a couple of years of her death the Church declared at the Council of Vienna that "Free Spirit" doctrine was heretical and that women "commonly known as Beguines" were censured for their lack of approved way of life and for their unfitness to discuss aspects of the Faith. They were thus "leading simple people into error".
We have been told that certain women called Beguines, afflicted by a kind of madness, discuss the Holy Trinity and the divine essence, and express opinions on matters of faith and sacraments contrary to the catholic faith, deceiving many simple people. Since these women promise no obedience to anyone and do not renounce their property or profess an approved Rule, they are certainly not 'religious' although they wear a habit and are associated with such religious orders as they find congenial. We have therefore decided and decreed with the approval of the Council that their way of life is to be permanently forbidden and altogether excluded from the Church of God.
After this Council Pope Clement V added an escape clause, stating that the "truly pious" Beguines should be allowed to live penitently". However he failed to define what he meant by "truly pious", and so throughout Europe the authorities began to dissolve beguinages. Even John XXII attempt in 1318 to define a "good" beguine did not help.
Even before Marguerite's death opposition was growing against beguines as evident in the second council of Lyons in 1274, which concerned itself with "fringe" movements such as the beguines. Before the Council pamphlets and tracts were written against them. For example, a very worldly Bishop Bruno of Ohnutz protested against them as they had not been approved by the Papacy, did not obey their parish clergy and wandered about according to their own inclinations. A worse accusation was made against them by the Franciscan, Gilbert of Tournai, who complained that they had unauthorized vernacular translations of the Bible, which they read openly in public squares.
By 1320 the Beguine movement was all but over mainly because Church authorities could not understand that women could serve God in this capacity as well as a mother, wife or nun. France was an exception to this quick collapse. Although Marguerite Porete was burned in Paris in1310, beguinage popularity was maintained. This undoubtedly was due to Royal patronage. As a result the beguines in France escaped much of the iniquisitorial enquiries to which the beguines in Germany were subject.
Of the beguinages founded by the Capetian kings, the statutes of the Parisian beguinage founded by Louis IX in 1264 still survive. His heirs continued to support this famous and large beguinage. This support is very evident in the preamble to the rule given to the Parisian beguines by Charles IV in 1327.
Since our holy Father the Pope, by a council which was held at Vienne, because certain beguines outside our realm comported themselves badly and because of certain excesses and evildoing which they committed, had struck down and abolished all those in that estate, and because, as much as through inquiry as by common acclaim and renown, the beguines living in the said house were found innocent and not blameable of the above stated misdeeds, it pleased his Holy Father to reinstate them in their estate and their place.
Fourteen year later in 1341 under Philip V, these statutes were confirmed.
These regulations detailed how the beguines lived within this large beguinage which was enclosed by a large wall. They could choose to live communally or alone. Some built their own home, others bought whilst some others rented. Within the walls were an infirmary, a school, a well and a chapel built by Louis IX. The governance was entrusted to the Mistress who lived in her own house, but she in turn was under the supervision of the Dominican prior. A beguine was allowed contact with the outside world for commerce provided she had a companion and permission from the mistress. She could entertain friends of both sexes in the refectory or chapel.
Why did this movement collapse so suddenly? It would seem that they lived in "no man's land" for the ecclesiastical authorities and even for many secular people. These could not cope with women who were neither religious nor secular, despite the fact that their devotional and discipline ardour often surpassed that of their cloistered sisters. The authorities seemed to be frightened by the fact that they were not directly under any ecclesiastical power or obedience, and their appeal to the apostolic life did not win many friends. Irrespective of how sincere the beguines were of living in poverty and chastity and honest labour it was a hostile world to such women. Even the secular guilds begrudged their self sufficiency and their respective competition in the economic world. Women were not supposed to be intelligent, especially outside the cloister. Beguines thought otherwise. They too were endowed with spiritual gifts, including wisdom, and they also could live ascetically and mystically.
THE BEGUINES' GIFT TO THE CHURCH
The main gift was their mystical and visionary writings that reflected their way of living. The focus of these writings is our Blessed Lord and His Passion as He was the pivot of their lives. They sought to enter into that suffering by their ascetic living that was reminiscent of the desert hermits: fasting, deprivation of sleep, bodily mutilation, and mortification. This ascetic life was certainly manifested in Jaques de Vitry's biography of Mary d'Oignies. He wrote:
From the horror she felt at her previous carnal pleasure, she began to afflict herself and she found no rest in spirit until, by means of extraordinary bodily chastisements, she had made up for all the pleasures she had experienced in the past.
Their other main contribution flowed from their works of charity their caring for the sick, even lepers and the poor and orphaned.
Their emphasis on union in the Divine Love is an eternal message, for no Christian can fulfil his/her vocation without longing to be with the Beloved of souls, irrespective of one's position in life. I am sure we would all like to approach death in that same frame of mind as expressed by Mechtild of Madgeburg.
I am about to die, I take leave of all from which I must part. I take leave of Holy Church; I thank God that I was called to be a Christian and have come to real Christian belief. Were I to remain here longer I would try to help Holy Church which lies in many sins. I take leave of all poor souls in purgatory. Were I to be longer here I would gladly help to expiate their sins and I thank God that they will find mercy...
So like Mechtild we leave this mortal life and we go where all "sing for joy and laugh and leap in ordered dance."
Today, what can be learnt from these beguines? Fortunately, we can still read the writings of these three women, even that of Marguerite Porete, that is a window into the lives of some of the beguines. Perhaps what is most appealing to many Christians today who have progressed from primarily following a system of beliefs to a life of faith, is their “free spirit” concept that enables one to be completely dependent on God and His grace. This is freely given to those who seek it daily in simply being God’s instrument throughout their lives. In many ways, the beguines’ way of living is mirrored today in the writings of the Franciscan, Richard Rohr, who encourages many through contemplation and non-dualistic thinking to understand the process of order-disorder-reorder as revealed in holy writ and in Christians’ lives.