A few weeks ago Marcella Pattyn died.
There's no particular reason most of us would have noticed. She did not produce a top-ten pop song or write a best-selling novel, or star in a blockbuster movie. She didn't achieve high political office or make a scientific discovery. She was 92 years old at her death. A quiet, chaste, simple soul, her eyesight profoundly impaired, who lived alone. Very much alone. She was the last surviving member of her religious body, the Beguines, a lay religious movement in which women lived in communities dedicated to prayer, useful service and chastity. The movement seems to have begun and spread almost spontaneously, particularly in the Low Countries of Western Europe, beginning in the twelfth or thirteenth century.
This was a women's movement in the Roman Catholic Church; some have said it was the very first. And, yet, the women were not nuns and they did not live in a convent. They were not bound by an order or by vows that governed the whole movement, but each community ordered its own life together. Perhaps most importantly, they did not live under the authority of male clergy.
While the last of these facts might not have been out of the question in the early medieval period - for instance in Britain where one even finds women religious figures exercising authority over men and women - it was unheard of in the High Middle Ages in Europe. Consequently, the Beguines were often suspected of all sorts of mischief, for which they suffered cruelly at the hands of many, not least at the hands of their own church.
Nevertheless, at one time, as was mentioned in Marcella's obituary in The Economist (yes, The Economist took note of her passing!), a single city such as Ghent "could count its Beguines in thousands" (The Economist, April 27, 2013, 86). Revolutions and reformations and counter-reformations, wars and secularism all took their tolls over the centuries, however, until finally Marcella Pattyn was left alone.
I first became aware of the Beguine movement because of the scholarly work of a very dear friend, Dr. Ellen Babinsky, a Church historian and scholar of Christian spirituality. A student of Bernard McGinn at the University of Chicago, Ellen translated and wrote the introduction to the beautiful critical edition of Marguerite Porete's classic theological and mystical study, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Porete was one of the best-known of the medieval Beguines. She was burned at the stake in 1310. In Ellen's introduction to Porete's book, in addition to providing a sense of the devotion, independence, and intra-dependence of this remarkable religious community, she tells the story of Porete's trial and execution.
"Marguerite," Ellen writes, "was put to death because she was a symbol of a threat, real or perceived, to the established order intimately connected with the strengthening of royal power." Ellen observes that Porete was even more troublesome than many other Beguines because, rather than staying put in a particular Beguine House or enclosure, she wandered freely around her region, teaching. She also wrote in vernacular French, making her teachings readily accessible. In other words, Marguerite Porete was seen by church and civil authorities not only as heretical, but also as popular. She was potentially beyond the control of the authorities. Her influence could easily get out of hand. (Ellen Babinsky, "Introduction," Marguerite Porete, Mirror of Simple Souls [New York: Paulist Press, 1993], 25-26)
Reading this classic of Beguine spirituality today, one may be a bit puzzled as to how it could possibly have been condemned by bishops and theologians, even 800 years ago - but only a bit puzzled. Woven throughout the beautiful piety was a message of spiritual freedom.
For example, when Porete encourages Christians to live according to the virtue of Charity, she writes: "Charity obeys no created thing except Love. Charity possesses nothing of her own, and should she possess something she does not say that it belongs to her. Charity abandons her own need and attends to that of others. Charity asks no payment from any creature for some good or pleasure that she has accomplished. Charity has no shame, nor fear, nor anxiety. She is so upright that she cannot bow on account of anything that might happen to her." (Mirror of Simple Souls, Chapter 4, p. 82) Here, and especially in other chapters (such as Chapter 6: "How the Soul, made loving by God, living in the peace of Charity, takes leave of the Virtues") one catches a glimpse of the indomitable spirit that so irritated the religious authorities, especially the Inquisition, as well as the thrill and threat of what some scholars who were contemporaries (e.g., at the University of Paris) saw as antinomianism lurking just beneath the surface of Porete's spiritual thought. And Porete burned.
It was common among Beguines to write in the vernacular languages, French and Flemish especially, much to the distress of religious and civil authorities. Porete was not unique among her sisters. The writer of The Economist obit reminds us that the authorities who persecuted the Beguines were inevitably male. The resistance and defiance of the Beguines against such oppression is beautifully expressed in their writings as lamentation, resignation, and consolation. Hadewijch of Antwerp writes: "Men try to dissuade me from everything Love bids me do. They don't understand it, and I can't explain it to them. I must live out what I am." (The Economist, April 27, 2013, 86)
And so Marcella Pattyn lived out her life. She was who she was. Staunchly, humbly, persistently, her own person in the grace of God. She found God's grace among this community of women who loved Christ and found in Christ (as the Beguines themselves said) a "bridegroom" and a "lover" worthy of their devotion. As Porete wrote, in praise of Christ (in a passage that must really have driven the Grand Inquisitor mad):
"O Lover of gentle nature,
You are to be much praised:
Generous, courteous without measure,
Sum of all goodness,
You do not will to do anything,
Lover, without my will.
And thus I must not hold silence
About your beauty and goodness.
Powerful you are for my sake, and wise;
Such I cannot hide.
Ah, but to whom will I say it?
Seraphim know not how to speak of it."
(Mirror of Simple Souls, Chapter 122: "Here the Soul begins her song")
So begin the beguine no more; but such an ending.
*Apologies to Cole Porter