Lessons from the Beguines: Women Carving a Place in the Church

Beguinage in Brugges, Belgium, Photo by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

Beguinage in Brugges, Belgium, Photo by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

 

Recently I was in Brugges, Belgium with my husband and son. Known
popularly as a wonderful place for chocolate, beer and waffles it is also the site of the Brugges Béguinage which we explored under a clear sky and bright sun on Easter Sunday afternoon. From the Middle Ages on
this beguinage and others like it scattered throughout the Low Countries
was home to dozens of lay Catholic women (generally widowed or unmarried) who lived together in spiritual solidarity with the Catholic
church but outside of a “standard” Catholic form. This was not a convent but rather a religious community. The beguines were not nuns and did not completely remove themselves from the outside world. In many cases the women worked outside the beguinage and returned to it in the evening. They were led by women, were covenanted to one another and took vows of chastity but as need or spirit called they could leave the community and resume a life outside at any time.

I first read about these women during a medieval history class in college and for years have looked back over my marginal notes in the course text where I asked questions such as, “How did they do this?” and made profound comments such as, “How cool!” At 18, despite what I thought was a decent understanding of church history, I had never even heard of the beguines. I was awestruck and I fell in love with them immediately. These women lived in an era of a conservative and repressive institutional church set on rooting out heretics and trying to squelch schisms. Yet these Catholic women embraced their Catholicism, lived in community, held “day jobs” and dedicated themselves to living a holy life in THEIR own way. They risked much in creating something new and authentic within the Catholic Church but they did it anyway. They spoke to me in a powerful way.

In Brugges the beguinage sits smack in the center of the city, accessible by a small footbridge and surrounded by streets that filled with shops and homes. Standing inside the beguinage courtyard there was no getting away from the fact that these Catholic women were not hiding their chosen path. Quite the contrary. The women who called it home fashioned a female, Catholic space that was physically central and architecturally connected to the wider society. The buildings and the site seemed to quietly but firmly announce their presence to the world. As I wandered slowly through the grounds and into the small museum I found my mind wandering back to my year in the mid 1990s as a volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Kansas City. For that one year I lived in community with six women and more than once we laughed about how wonderful it was to combine work “in the world” with a dynamic home life shaped by the interests and questions we had as Catholic lay women. Hmmm…modern day beguines?

In the few weeks since my Belguim trip I have not been able to shake the sense that the beguines have something to offer me in 2009. As I continue to struggle with defining a place for myself in the Catholic Church they remind me that I am not alone and that none of us–as Catholic women–are alone. We are part of a rich history of Catholic women struggling to create new ways of living out their faith. How can this Catholic history sustain us in our faith-filled work today?

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello is living temporarily in Strasbourg, France with her husband and seven-year-old son. Having fulfilled her wish to visit a beguinage, she has set her sights on traveling to the home of Hildegard
of Bingen, which is only a few hours away. Elizabeth also thinks it is
fantastic that the beguinages in Belgium have been identified as UNESCO
World Heritage Sites.

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2 Responses

  1. Beguines have fascinated me since I visited the beguinage in Bruges. There are, I believe, small communities of beguines today in Europe and even in the States. The beguines had their own spirituality and were among the first to write about it in the vernacular — this is where they ran into trouble. You might also want to visit the nuns of Helfta (in Germany, I think) whose Cistercian convent has been reconstituted. They gave refuge to Mechtilde of Magdeburg when she was in trouble with the authorities. They were a lively and well-educated community of nuns with several marvelous saints of their own.

  2. I am currently writing a book on the beguines for BlueBridge Press. The more I investigated, the more I came to discover the unexpected. Beguines opened/operated hospitals and leprosarium; dealt in finance; were active members of guilds; owned property and collected rents. They preached as well as wrote. They called for reform. They copied and illuminated manuscripts. And so delightfully, they often refused to “take sides” throughout the Protestant and Catholic Reformations!

    I have visited several begijnhof; Ghent and Diest are among my favorites.

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