Murmurs & Mystery

[First posted in June 2014 on]

The chanting of women floated through the small, white-plaster chapel with its barrel-like wood ceiling, lovingly restored to a semblance of its 13th-century dignity. I walked slowly and wide-eyed through the Beguinage Church of Saint Agnes in the little Belgian village of Sint-Truiden.

St. Agnes

Women permeate the place—not only their haunting recorded voices, but also their images. Adorning every column and corner are paintings and frescoes depicting their witness. On one column, the biblical Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant with babies and with hope, greet one another. On another, Veronica dries Jesus’ tears as he falls under the weight of the cross. Saints Catherine and Agnes and Helena are there. And upon entering the sacred site, you can’t miss the disturbing image of Saint Agatha, looking to heaven and praying while being tortured by her Inquisitors.

How, I wondered, has this place survived for eight hundred years?—this simple chapel that celebrates womanhood, in all its faith and strength, its anguish and vulnerability. What joy, what courage, what tears must have bathed that holy site through the centuries. And what a blessing it was to walk amid the spirits of the Beguines, the ancient women who created it.

I’m at work on a historical novel for young adults about the Beguines, and my trip to Belgium last month was part of my research. Though few people anywhere have ever heard of them, an estimated one million Beguines lived in medieval Europe’s “low countries.” The movement spread rapidly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries throughout Belgium, France, Holland, and the Rhine region of present-day Germany. A New York Times reporter called the Beguines “the world’s oldest women’s movement.”

No one knows exactly why they were called Beguines—though many scholars believe that it was first used by others as a term of derision. One popular theory is that the name comes from the Indo-European root begg—meaning one who mumbles or murmurs indistinctly when saying prayers. The Beguines were renowned for their devotion and works of mercy: feeding the hungry, tending lepers, offering prayers and hospice care for the dying.

They were women who did not want to be wives, in an era when men owned their wives and had the protected legal right to beat them, and when one in every five births led to the death of the mother. They also did not want to be nuns, cloistered from the world and chafing under the thumb of the patriarchal church. And so they lived together without permanent vows or hierarchy, thriving in small households or large beguinages, accomplishing in community what they never could have, in their context, done alone.

At a time when jobs were not available to women, they supported themselves by spinning and weaving, making candles and lace, baking bread and brewing beer. In an age when child brides as young as 9 and 10 were common, when rape and kidnapping were accepted strategies for forcing girls into marriage, and girls were officially excluded from education and spiritual development, the Beguines provided safe haven for young women, gathering regularly for study and prayer, and celebrating Holy Communion. Not surprisingly, they found themselves in the crosshairs of ecclesial authority and paid a high price for their faithfulness.

Marguerite Porete was audacious enough to write a book about the feminine aspects of love and of God. Her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, was burned in a public square in Paris with the accompanying threat that, if she did not stop writing, she would be next. She refused to relent. Inquisition officials imprisoned her for over a year, and on June 1, 1310, in that same square, she was burned at the stake.

The following year Pope Clement V accused the Beguines of heresy and officially banned the movement, leading to its slow demise. But their spiritual descendants survived until last year, when Marcella Pattyn, known as “the world’s last Beguine,” died in the Belgian beguinage of Kortrijk on April 14, 2013, at the age of 92. Renewed interest in the movement is taking root in Europe, with new communities of women calling themselves Beguines arising in many corners.

One of the most compelling aspects about the Beguines to me is that they were attempting to live faithfully in a context that, though separated by eight centuries, closely parallels our own. The Holy Roman Empire was far-reaching in its oppressive power. The Crusades were fueling fear and anti-Muslim hatred. And the massive amount of resources required to transport hundreds of thousands of soldiers, horses, and weapons across two continents in their multiple efforts to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslim Saracens left many Europeans impoverished, with a wide gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Thirteen Belgian beguinages, in various stages of preservation, have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I visited eight of them—from the narrow cobblestoned streets and tiny whitewashed apartments of Kortrijk to the large, walled compound surrounded by canals and encompassing a field of daffodils in Bruges. A few have small museums where visitors can sip Beguine beer, or sample an oatmeal biscuit made according to an ancient Beguine recipe with honey and marigold leaves.

I took it all in, but my favorite site was St. Agnes’s Church. What I loved most about the frescoes there is that, tucked subtly into the bottom right corner of most of them, is a pair, or a small huddle, of Beguines, in their plain gray dress and white head coverings. Observing. Taking in the rich history of the biblical scenes and the audacious witness of the women saints—the legacy that they received and embraced.Just as I am trying to take in their witness. Being reminded as I ponder their faithfulness and courage that we can accomplish in community far more than we can ever do alone.



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