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.
We are currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic in the western world. I’ve heard about research that has come out recently regarding this subject, but unfortunately, the media aren’t reporting on it very much. I’m sure, though, that you feel it within your heart and see it in the world around you. As women who have been in religious life, I think we can feel the sting of this loneliness in a particular way: we felt called to community, but yet we are not experiencing it in the same way now. Our world is getting progressively more isolated as people spend more time online and less time with friends and family. Even in faith communities we can feel as though we don’t belong. If we’re single and don’t have a defined state in life vocation, it’s easy to think that we are invisible and don’t matter to the Church. But this isn’t true.
I recently had a beautiful phone conversation with one of you. She said she hoped that 2020 transformed longing to belonging for me. I found that an encouraging thought. And I wish the same for all of you.
I hope that you are able to spend this year, especially this season of Lent, around people who love you and are supportive of you and your journey. If you feel particularly lonely I encourage you to take risks, be vulnerable, and reach out to others. If you have a home filled with love (and kids), please try to invite someone over who may be alone during this time (single people don’t care if your house is a mess btw). We all need each other. And the evil one does what he can to whisper lies to us and encourage us to put up barriers to protect our hearts. We think that these barriers will keep us from being hurt. They might do that. But they always keep us from experiencing love. And that is unfortunate because love is what we truly desire.
Leonie’s Longing has some great ideas that we are trying to put into practice soon. My particular hope is that we will be able to facilitate more connections and community between you all. Please pray for us as we explore ways to do this. And if you’d like to help volunteer so that we can move forward more quickly with these endeavors we would love to hear from you.
May God bless you during this Lenten season.
As I know the power obedience has of making things easy which seem impossible, my will submits with good grace, although nature seems greatly distressed, for God has not given me such strength as to bear, without repugnance, the constant struggle against illness while performing many different duties. May He, Who has helped me in other more difficult matters, aid me with His grace in this, for I trust in His mercy.
– Saint Teresa of Avila, from the Preface to The Interior Castle.
A reflection by Penny.
If you type the words ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ into a stock images website, chances are it will bring up pictures that look like this:
When in fact, it looks more like this:
(note compression sleeves on my arms to help keep my blood circulating – reduces risk of fainting)
(light intolerance is one of the symptoms of CFS, so I spend most of my time in the dark)
(photo taken by my mother last month, after I lost 13 pounds in a week because I was too sick to feed myself and made an emergency trip home to stay with her.)
This is ‘moderate’ CFS – meaning that I’m still able, sometimes, to leave my bed for work, grocery shopping, or Mass. (Severe CFS involves paralysis, tube-feeding, and sometimes death. This is the disease still derisively labelled ‘yuppie flu’ by the media, and which many doctors, including two that I’ve encountered personally, diagnose as a form of hysteria solely because most sufferers are women. I could rant for days about sexism in medicine, but I’ll limit myself to one observation: in basically every case I’ve heard of, including my own, this condition starts with a viral infection that gets worse instead of better over time. It’s an illness. It exists.)
On good days I can get up and do a couple of things, provided I pace myself. Mostly, though, I’m in bed, listening to podcasts at minimum volume in the dark and occasionally trying to sit up for a few minutes at a time. If you’re wondering why the blog’s been low on activity this year, that’s why! Theresa has done yeoman’s work keeping our social media active and answering emails without the usual level of support from me, and I want to express my admiration for the extra effort that she’s been putting in to do so. If you’d like to submit content for the blog, PLEASE DO – we still need your generous contributions to keep the website interactive and would love to hear from you! Please just be aware that it may take me a while to respond, and that the delay doesn’t mean lack of appreciation!
So, why am I writing all of this?
At Easter this year, too unwell to go out to the Vigil, I stayed home and watched an old black-and-white film called The Miracle of Saint Thérèse. In one scene that particularly struck me, Thérèse is struggling to climb up a flight of stairs in her Carmel, gasping with the effort and pulling herself slowly hand-over-hand up the bannister. I felt that viscerally, because it’s exactly what I have to do when confronted with a staircase these days. (Before I got sick two years ago, by contrast, I was a martial arts student who did high-intensity training several times a week.)
It got me thinking again about illness, and its role in spiritual life. So many saints, especially women, became seriously ill in their teens or twenties and lived through years of disability and suffering: of those whose lives I’ve been listening to on audiobook recently, Saint Bernadette died at thirty-five, Saint Faustina at thirty-three, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity at twenty-six, and Saint Thérèse herself at twenty-four. Little Nellie of Holy God, to whose biography I’m currently listening, made it – spoiler alert! – to the grand old age of four.
I’m not a saint who can bear illness the way they could – if they’d had blogs in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine Saint Thérèse getting on one to vent about sexist doctors, for example – but I can still take them as my examples and learn important lessons from the way they carried themselves in suffering.
1) Don’t assume you’re being punished by God. Same as when you have to leave religious life, or any other dream falls apart: it’s not a personal failure on your part, or a sign that He has rejected you. As a consequence of the Fall, we live in a world where we’re surrounded by viruses, toxins, dangerous people and animals, sheer drops and large, fast-moving objects, and eventually something’s going to smack into the just and the unjust alike. Illness is impersonal; don’t take it personally. As I know from experience, blaming yourself for drawing down God’s punishment by your actions is the very best way to learn to fear and resent Him. He’s with you while you’re struggling, helping you to live through it.
2) Don’t overthink things and start denying your own experience. I’m not really that sick – I don’t need to rest. (Yes, you probably do.) Maybe I’m subconsciously making myself sick because I’m afraid of life. (You’ve read too much pop psychology.) I need to restrict myself to healthy foods, and if I eat that slice of pizza I deserve to stay sick. I need to try all the medicines/supplements/treatment programs/etc I read about on the Internet, or I’m not really trying to get well again. Maybe I’m just milking my illness to get out of things. Maybe I’m being lazy. Maybe I’m just being dramatic about the effect this is having on me.
The saints didn’t do that. They were honest about the fact that they were suffering terribly – think of Saint Thérèse warning her sisters never to leave a full medicine bottle within the reach of someone in pain, or Saint Bernadette wondering aloud how she hadn’t died yet – and they did what they could each day. Some days Thérèse could write, and on those days, she wrote. Other days, she couldn’t, and she offered up to God the frustrations that came with that. Some days you’ll be able to do things. Other days, you won’t. That’s okay, and you’re okay.
3) DO figure out ways to make your life easier. My go-to meal is a double handful of mung beans and ripped-up bean shoots dumped straight from their containers into a bowl, with low-FODMAP chicken or beef stock in hot water poured over the top to make a healthy soup. Preparation time: about thirty seconds. If you have days where your arms aren’t strong enough to use a spoon, try pre-puréed fruits and soups in sachets; cut off the corners and suck them. Keep a bag of nuts beside your bed so that you have something to ease your hunger if you can’t get up. Cook lots of chopped potatoes and mincemeat on a good day, and store individual portions in the freezer to heat when you need them (they go well in the mung-bean soup to bulk it up).
4) DO figure out how to adapt your prayer life to your energy level as well. If you say the Rosary, there are plenty of versions on YouTube that you can listen to and follow along with while you’re lying still in bed. This one’s my favourite: a basic, no-frills version without music (I love music, but now it often hurts my ears), and it doesn’t name the Mysteries so you can use the same recording every day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjDZeB7DfCo
If you pray the Office, you can download the Laudate app, open up whichever Hour you want to say, and have a screen-reader read it aloud while you listen. (I use the free @Voice Aloud Reader from Google Play, which has a bunch of different voices from which to choose. I like the sophisticated English lady. You can also adjust pitch and reading speed to suit your own preference.) Also, when you get tired of computer voices, there’s an app with a recording of Dominican friars singing Night Prayer in English for each night of the year: just type ‘Dominican Compline’ into Google Play and it will come up.
Basically any prayer you can think of, from the Holy Cloak Novena to Saint Joseph to the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the Golden Arrow Prayer, is available in spoken form on YouTube. Or, on a good day, you can record it yourself and then save it to play back in the future on not-so-good days. On days when the exhaustion and brain fog are so severe that you can’t even remember the words of the Hail Mary (trust me, I’ve been there), this is a gentle, no-pressure way to pray.
Audiobooks on YouTube are a great resource for filling the long, long hours alone in bed – my spiritual life has deepened immensely from the things I’ve learnt on days when I was too sick to read or watch a movie, and they’re basically now my primary way of staying close to God. Even if you’re not unwell but just want something to listen to on the commute to work, these are good resources. Here are some of my favourite channels:
The Priory Librarian: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxMQn7rjBwqRGkf2gV1jP5A
(A friar, almost certainly a Dominican based on the number of OP books in his library, who reads edifying books aloud in his soft, slightly gravelly voice. You’ve got books by Louis de Montfort, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and some of the mediaeval mystics, among others.)
Sensus Fidelium: https://www.youtube.com/user/onearmsteve4192
(Orthodox Catholic talks on numerous topics, from lives of Saints to end-times prophecies and the state of the Church. You’re asked to say three Hail Marys for the priest who delivers each talk you listen to.)
Classic Catholic Audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfXTzdNin8U8aEQVMIXiRog/videos
(From Julian of Norwich to Saint Francis de Sales, there are numerous books available, read aloud by volunteers from around the world. Some volunteers are much better readers than others, but it’s a great resource overall.)
Sacred Heart Publications: excellent Catholic talks on holiness, as well as audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/user/MultiBurtons
There are also lots of Catholic books on Google Play quite cheaply (I got a book by Saint Alphonsus Liguori for a couple of dollars) that you can then use the Google Books inbuilt screen-reader to read aloud for you. It’s more annoying than a human voice, but not impossibly so.
Finally, there are television Masses uploaded online every day (you can type ‘Catholic Mass today’ into YouTube if you’re too sick to go out to church), and also live-streamed Perpetual Adoration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4A6RIOwC2E
Basically, it can be done: there are numerous cheap or free resources out there to help your soul to grow in faith, hope and love in times of illness. I no longer feel as though I’m rotting away in the dark, because I know my heart is hearing and responding to God, and prayer connects me to the world outside my room. In effect, this solitude has become the cloister I once sought in the convent, and the stillness has become a source of contemplation. I would love to be well: to go back to work properly, to resume my studies, to get my brown belt in karate, and to carry on with the life I was living before my illness took all of that away. And yet, being torn out of my ordinary life and compelled to live with God in solitude has given me more graces than I could ever have imagined, and I can share the fruits of those graces with others by my prayers even if I don’t live among them much anymore.
It isn’t easy, but He is here. And for as long as He wills it, so am I.
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’.
It’s been years now since I left the convent: I’ve passed through all those different stages of grief (or rather, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball) and finally come to something resembling acceptance. The pain is no longer raw and immediate, which is a relief. However, there’s a drawback: it’s harder to find inspiration than it used to be. How do I set the world on fire, as Saint Catherine of Siena exhorts, when my usual aspiration is simply to use a limited supply of energy to get out of bed and make it through a day at work? And how can anyone rejoice while holding on to the memory of religious life, or even sometimes the Catholic Faith itself, like the remnants of a parachute that failed to open?
The message of Advent is, “Stay awake and keep watch! He is coming, and we do not know the hour!” These four weeks have compelled us to be alert, both practically, as we handle the pre-Christmas rush at work and family duties at home, and spiritually, with reminders of the immanent coming of Christ and exhortations to be prepared to receive Him – and we’re tired.
The message of Christmas, however, is, “Rest.”
The Guest for Whom we were preparing is here, and has fallen asleep in the manger. Christmas is gentle, domestic: a young mother asleep on a hay bale beside her Son, surrounded by quiet beasts and watched over by her husband. We are weary, drained and battered in soul – so were they. They had walked a long way in uncertain times. At Christmas, though, they have reached a place of shelter, safety and peace, and they offer us the same.
It’s not easy to be Catholic, and the longer you make a sincere effort to be so, the harder it gets. God can seem distant to women who have left the convent, but every Christmas we remember how close He came to us, and in the gentlest, least imposing way He could: who could be afraid of a baby? A baby can’t answer the questions we most need answered – why couldn’t I have stayed in the convent? What am I going to do with my future? – but instead, simply looks up at us with the dark, solemn eyes that newborns have, and invites us to set aside our fears and be with Him for a while. We still seek God, and in this octave we remember that He also came to seek us.
If you’ve had a rough year, this is the turning point: a baby is always a sign of the future, and this Baby more so than any. May the peace of Christ be with you, and may you have a gentle, happy year ahead.