By Rebecca Pawloski
The first time I heard the word Beguine was in undergrad theology at the Lateran University in Rome. I was assisting our venerable professor of Church history with his microphone at the break between lessons. He asked me, “Chi siete?” in Italian “Who are you (both)” while motioning to my place in the classroom, and to my friend Sara who was sitting there chatting with the Roman seminarians—as one does during the break. I understood he was asking what community Sara and I belonged to, which was a normal enough question. In our class of 70-some students there were over 30 ecclesial entities represented. Another professor had once asked me the same question on the very first day of class, and I had answered that my community was the Holy Catholic Church. When he looked confused, I responded that I hoped it was his community as well. He was embarrassed as my classmates laughed. I amended my ways and learned to simply say, begrudgingly, “lay woman”, when it came time to announce allegiances at the start of each new course.
So I told the good Prof. Mario Sensi, “I am a laywoman with monastic tendencies”.
He gestured to Sara, “Both of you?”
I said, “Yes”. I explained, in brief, that we would have done something else, each been part of some group, but that discerning a community is complicated to do after undertaking studies. So, well, at least we try to pray the liturgy of the hours and live celibacy for the Kingdom. Prof. Sensi became very excited and gestured with his hands in the air “You’re Beguines! BEGUINES!” I assured him he was mistaken, and that I had never heard of that community. He smiled and said, “You will learn”. And, indeed, three years later when he taught his new course Mulieres in Ecclesia on Beguines, I was signed up for the adventure. Sara planned the field trip for our STL class to visit the houses of Beguines dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries in central Italy. But I would not yet identify with the Beguines.
Sara and I had met because a priest who was close to each of us had put us in contact and encouraged us to go to Rome to study theology. This priest had spoken to each of us about his plans to found a community; however, I had just recently departed from a new community that had canonical problems and I was wary of new things. At the same time, I had a conviction I should continue my path in the Church and had a deep desire to study theology. Sara had survived cancer and had decided she wanted to live life radically. She had already spent some time discerning whether or not to set out on the path towards consecrated life. We met up in Rome. The priest who connected us did not continue in his idea to found a community. This was well for us, because as we studied, a new community lost its appeal and the older forms of consecrated life seemed to grant deeper rootedness.
So, at the time Prof. Sensi was teaching his course on Beguines, Sara and I were networking with the Ordo Virginum (OCV) in Rome, an ancient ordo, or order, of women each consecrated by a bishop to live virginity for the Kingdom in relationship to the local Church. We were both attending the monthly meetings at the Roman Seminary, together with other women who had invited us, an event where both Consecrated Virgins and those who were interested in their ways of life met for formation sessions. For me, OCV was not entirely a good fit, first of all because I do not have a stable sense of calling to a particular diocese and also have a desire to continue in academia with all its uncertainties. However, there are many things I like about OCV: for example, its focus on living continence for the Kingdom as a charism in itself. I like the diversity of women in the ordo, the strong local identity and the lack of a complex relationship with a founder-figure—things I had also admired about the spirituality of the diocesan priests with whom I had studied.
Ordo Virginum, though it may resolve the question of one’s identity and way of belonging in the Church, does not resolve the physiological questions fundamental to human life, namely the need for food and shelter. Women generally do not receive a stipend for participation in sacraments to guarantee sustenance by prayer. And so, as the fundamental needs became more pressing, the idea of OCV became less immediate.
But, back to the Beguines. “Beguine” is the name given to a vast array of women who organized their lives and livelihood around the Church without (at first) any formal approval. It turns out the Beguines had first of all mastered a secular economic model for women to participate in ecclesial life while maintaining their independence, and this as early as the 12th century. If they shared a common life (and some did not), there was mutual support to live in continence for the Kingdom, but also freedom to leave the lifestyle at any time. Celibacy was an important requirement for being a Beguine, but permanent vows were not pronounced. This was not always celebrated and was even sometimes condemned by members of the hierarchy. In fact, if anything, the nominative “Beguine” was pejorative and even today is used by Italians to denote a professional Church Lady who doesn’t do much else, even though the Beguine movement has many saints associated with it.
For me the Beguines became closer as I took time to do a long retreat after I finished my STL. It was a good moment in life to stop and take stock of direction. I wrote down all the possibilities on a paper in a sort of flow chart of life options (this is not a specific Ignatian Retreat “task”, but my own way of working). I colored in yellow the way where I found some light. I found myself right where I was in academia, living celibacy for the Kingdom as I could, and happy to do so in free association with others on a similar path. In short, I found I was a Beguine and not really looking for another way to be.
I’ve written this little reflection “On becoming a Beguine” in dialog with Penny and Leonie’s Longing because of a shared vision we have that studying the Beguines can give consolation and a sense of identity to unmarried women who are living out their baptized and confirmed vocation while longing to feel more at home in the Church community. I hope Penny will not mind if I quote her as saying, “I think it will help a lot of women come to a new understanding of their place in the Church as laywomen living celibate lives for the Kingdom. Certainly, in my own life, I’ve drawn a lot of consolation from the ideals of the Beguines. It’s comforting to have a sense of belonging, of having a spiritual lineage, outside the formal monastic life.”
For me, acceptance of living in the identity of a Beguine has influenced my spiritual life by allowing me the freedom to do a few “experiments” in prayer. When a woman belongs to a well-defined spiritual tradition, her task is often to learn and grow in that community’s way of prayer without the freedom to try out different prayer styles. For many years the liturgy of the hours carried my prayer life, but now–although I love the liturgy as a way to pray with others–I’ve found my need for a more personal and meditative way of praying. I still look forward to praying the liturgy with others, but liturgy is certainly a different practice when one is alone for prayer.
I see this way of life as being a concrete living out of prophetic intuition. We understand the vocation of men to the priesthood as belonging to an “ordo”– the order of priests– which expands to include many different styles of sacerdotal lifestyle. By making an analogy, we could understand the women of every age who find themselves called to live intentional celibacy for the sake of the kingdom as part of a sort of “order of prophets” seeking with their lives to point to that love in Christ which surpasses death. The world, and sometimes even the Church, will not understand the witness of such women, but they understand each other. Psychologists tell us the sense of belonging to a group is one of our higher needs. Since grace builds on nature, we can talk about fulfilling a spiritual need to connect and identify with a group.
In my reflection on Beguines, I think it is important to recognize I am not alone. Sara is also studying what it means to be a Beguine. It is also important for us to recognize we are not the only ones seeking to root ourselves in this tradition. There are others out there already doing so. In the future, it could be good to think of a way to support each other. However, for the immediate present, I have to live out my calling to finish my doctoral dissertation in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University. Then we will see where all this goes.
(Prof. Mario Sensi passed away May 25, 2015. His exhaustive study illuminating the role of mystic women in Church history continues to bring insight to many.)
Image from https://pul.academia.edu/MarioSensi.
One of my favourite passages in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) recounts an incident between Alice and the Red Queen. The Red Queen starts to run, holding Alice by the hand. The Queen keeps crying out: ‘Faster! Faster!’ Just as Alice is beginning to feel that they are going as fast as they possibly can, so fast that they are almost flying, they come to a standstill. Alice is taken aback to see that they are in exactly the same place as before. She questions the Red Queen, who replies promptly:
‘If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.’
The Red Queen’s comment, although frustrating for poor, tired Alice, feels very applicable to my spiritual life sometimes. With a perfectionistic temperament, I often have the nagging feeling that I have slowed down too much in my spiritual efforts and that if I ‘just did more’, all my problems would go away. My answer is to redouble my efforts, applying myself even more intently to daily spiritual exercises. Sooner or later, I discover to my exasperation that I still have the same problems. Just as for the Red Queen and Alice, determined sprinting seems to have left me in the same place.
At different times, the Lord in His great kindness has shown me that this isn’t His will. In fact, it is often the exact opposite that He is asking of me. He is asking me to wait, to slow down, and to let Him act in His own time.
Fr Robert Spitzer, in his great book on enduring suffering with faith, The Light Shines On in the Darkness, points out that one of the Enemy’s tactic, when he sees Christians making some improvement in a virtue like humility, is to suggest that they could do even better, go a little faster, apply themselves harder. In doing so, he tries to push them into ‘exhaustion or spiritual pride—or both’. These insinuations that we need to go ‘faster, stronger, harder’, Fr Spitzer writes, are ‘usually the tactics of the Evil One’. The answer? ‘Go back to who God is – the Father of the prodigal son.’
The psychologist Dr Gregory Bottaro talks a lot in his Catholic Mindfulness lectures about the failure of the ruminating, ‘doing mind’ to solve our problems. Sometimes, he explains, the reality is counterintuitive: we have to exert less effort to move in the right direction.
As St Thérèse wrote, doctors put their patients to sleep before they operate on them. In the same way, the Lord who ‘gives to His beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127) can work miracles when we are not looking. Some of the greatest graces I have received have been when I felt spiritually exhausted and inactive.
Fr Jacques Phillippe, in his beautiful book In the School of the Holy Spirit, says: ‘The only commandment is to love. We can suffer in love, but we can also rejoice in love and rest in love.’
It is very true that the ‘love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Corinthians 5:14) But at the same time, He ‘gives us rest in green pastures’ and ‘leads us near restful waters’. And sometimes it has been at the very hardest times in my life that He desired that rest for my spirit.
This Palm Sunday, listening to Luke’s account of the Passion, I was struck by the last words of the reading: ‘And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.’ (Luke 23:56)
These holy women were in deep grief and mourning. Their hearts were broken; Jesus was dead. But they still faithfully did the one thing that God was asking them to do: they rested. And how great was their reward the next day! On Easter Sunday, the time would come for action again. The holy women would begin running again in joy to spread the news of the Resurrection.
Good Friday was the time to suffer in love. On Holy Saturday, the call was to rest in love. And on Easter Sunday, the call was new again: this time to rejoice in love.
As women, we can easily feel guilty for not ‘doing’ enough, whether in our personal, professional or spiritual lives. It is beautiful and freeing to discover that at times, all the Lord might be asking of us is to fulfil our daily tasks peacefully, even restfully, and wait for Him to ‘make all things new’.
By Rosemary Kate.
Recently, I was invited to attend a Mass of Thanksgiving for Blessed Clelia Merloni, foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I knew nothing about her, but who doesn’t like attending a special Mass with great pomp and circumstance? Besides, I work in Catholic education and thus have a connection to her community today. The program for Mass had a one page biography, which was nice. More importantly, there was a short book at the back of the Cathedral that I picked up afterwards and have since been reading, titled, “I Bless You with a Hundred Hearts.” I discovered that Blessed Clelia could certainly be another intercessor for Leonie’s Longing readers!
Even her biography on the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus webpage does not have the details that caught my eye. It merely states,
“After various experiences of religious life in different congregations, Clelia entered the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence…Immersed in a life of self-giving and prayer, she sensed a strong calling to establish a new congregation dedicated to works of charity which would visibly express the love of Christ.”
“Various experiences” refers to short stints (usually less than a year) with 6 different congregations! SIX! For those of us who have entered and left one or two, I imagine Blessed Clelia may have had thoughts similar to our own along the way. In between some of those, she also opened and closed a couple of ministries of her own as a laywoman. The whole time from her first entrance to her founding of the community was about 10 years.
Her life was certainly guided by Divine Providence, because most of her leavings were due to illness. For example, her first attempt was at the Monastery of the Visitation, where she became so ill it seemed she was at the point of death but following a dream that upon reception of Holy Communion she would recover, that is what happened. She still returned home as all advised her to seek a less rigid congregation. Her stint with the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence came to an end after an illness where the orphans prayed for her recovery as a sign that she was indeed called to follow her inspiration of founding a community herself.
Perhaps most of us have not had such unusual guidance in our vocational discernment, yet, her example of perseverance is worthy of emulation. No matter where our vocational journeys lead us (whether as a consecrated religious or into holy matrimony), her life can inspire us to continue to trust God, especially when the path seems unclear. I quote from the book:
It seems that Clelia’s life may have been purified above all by the suffering of obscurity. God tested her faith by immersing her in large part on a path of darkness. Doubt, “a hot-bed of purification,” existed for a long time in Clelia’s heart. As we often see in the lives of saints, she possessed gifts of light, of graces that enlightened the path for others; the ground on which she herself walked, however, was often poorly lit.
Who of us has not felt the same about our own lives? As I continue to seek my next steps, now several years after leaving my community, Blessed Clelia’s life reminds me that I don’t need to have it all figured out yet. In fact, my next steps seem to be taking me further from religious life. Nevertheless, this Blessed has encouraged me to keep moving forward.
After the founding of her community, Blessed Clelia’s trials did not come to an end. I haven’t finished reading the book, but the little I do know already is inspiring. Some of those details are found here. What her story says to all of us is, never give up hope as we trust God and strive to live His Mercy – while the path does not appear straight to us, we are guided by the Hand of our Loving Father.
Blessed Clelia Merloni, Pray for us!
Image credits: By ASCJ.Roma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67168692
By Sean O’Neill.
So heed me now, though all my quondam whimpers rise
From darknesses and little deaths You did despise,
Or seemed to. Your tremendous volte-face preyed each year
Upon my gullibility to bend Your ear
And racked this ruined soul with frames of phantom guilt.
Your accidental turning broke the barns I built
To store unrealised the mildewed fruit I bore.
I listened and ran bleating to Your closing door.
But when you turned I never saw your fabled smile
But wept upon Your thorny brow, to lose my guile
Where rivulets of blood do still obscure Your eyes
And gather where my hopes and weathered dreaming dies.
But here I lie, and ever did I, catlike, do.
For once, I now remember, where the olives grew
With mists between the small hills and dawn on the felled
Ancient castellations of the Marches, You held
My eyes and opened them on glimpses of Your face.
And have You changed? Is this now why there is no trace?
But now I think I mind a moonlit path I walked
Where all the trees were dancing with your voice and talked
Between themselves and lifted their long-fingered praise.
And You stopped me like a traveller with your gaze
And bade me lift this old, old burden from my back.
You have not changed. But surely I must learn my lack.
Then other places where Your love drew near, precious
And strong , or weeping and long, like milestones, conscious
Of me, spread along these dusts. I pine in my sleep,
Now. Now Your mercies crowd upon me from some deep
And dead forgotten cavern of my wayward heart.
I am the lost sheep. But no sooner do we start
Back on the pasture than I stray among the rocks
Or bandy words with here a wolf or there a fox.
Brand my hide with Your blood-red love, sacred shepherd.
Teach me the strong timbre of your speech that, once heard,
Will ever be obeyed; and lead me, lead me now
To grasses greener, sweeter than the heart knows how.
This poem first appeared in First Things, June/July 2004. Poem and image © Sean O’Neill, used with permission from the author.
Roses Among Thorns, Simple Advice for Renewing Your Spiritual Journey by St. Francis de Sales, published by Sophia Institute Press.
St. Jane de Chantal was the foundress of the Visitation sisters (Visitandines), along with St. Francis de Sales, her spiritual director. St. Francis is known for his keen counsels. This book contains 60 excerpts of some his most poignant and sweet advice, and it does just as the title promises: it renews your spiritual journey.
On the practical side, what I liked about this book, is that it is short, almost pocket size, so you can carry it anywhere. And, the excerpts are only a couple of paragraphs long so you can make a short meditation of it, or even read and re-read the same excerpt until the words really sink in. You can also read the excerpts as you wish: pick a topic per day; chose a topic at random; or read it cover to cover, it doesn’t matter – you will find it uplifting and full of hope.
On the spiritual side, I’ve always found St. Francis the Sales to be kind and honest, never condemning or harsh. If you’ve read “Divine Intimacy” or any other of his books you will realize why he is the model of spiritual directors. His style is personable, gentle and encouraging! It is as if a friend that knows you well was speaking with you.
For example under the topic: A Time of Depression, St. Francis writes:
“A melancholy humor has overcome you for a time, and from being sorrowful, you have become anxious. Do not let yourself become anxious. Do not lose your peace. Even though it seems to you that you do everything without any savor, feeling or strength continue to embrace our crucified Lord, and give him your heart, consecrate your mind to him with your affections just as they are…”
My humble and personal advice is that you pray to the Holy Spirit before reading any excerpt in this book, and imagine it is a good friend speaking to you. It will really soothe your spirit, it did mine. I am so happy to share this little gem with you. I hope you also enjoy it.