Saturday, April 27, 2013

The last of the Beguines.


I've been quite silent lately, largely because of end-of-semester stuff and the demands of an intensive two-week course that began after spring exams and finished yesterday. To break my silence, I would like to call your attention to a report from The Economist on the recent death of Marcella Pattyn, the last living member of a once-thriving religious community known as the Beguines. Who were the Beguines? The Economist offers a brief look at their origins and their place in European history:
At the heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The cosiness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

Any veiled women seen there now, however, processing to Mass or tying up hollyhocks in their dark habits and white wimples, are ghosts. Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years.

These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.
Like many another vocation, the call of the last Beguine had its roots not in an explicit attraction to the charism of the institute that she entered but rather in very practical considerations. Born to Belgian parents in the Congo in 1920, from an early age Marcella Pattyn wanted to serve as a missionary sister in Africa but was unable to do so because of her poor eyesight. After another religious community turned her away on account of her near-blindness, Marcella became a Beguine at the age of 21 and remained one until her death two weeks ago at 92. I'll let The Economist pick up the story from there:
Contentedly, in the beguinage at Ghent from 1941 and at Courtrai from 1960, [Marcella] spent her days in tasks unaltered from the Middle Ages. She knitted baby clothes and wove at a hand loom, her basket of wool beside her chair, chatting and laughing with the other women. At lunchtime, like the others, she ate her own food from her own cupboard (identified by the feel of the carvings under her hands), neatly stocked with plates, jugs, coffee and jam. Cooking she was spared, ever since on the first occasion she had failed to see the milk boiling over, but she washed up with a will.

A good part of the time she prayed, all the prayers she could remember, but especially her rosary whose bright white beads she could almost see. Most usefully, since she was musical, she played the organ in chapel; and she cheered up the sick, as she nursed them, by serenading them on banjo and accordion. Almost her only concession to modernity was the motorised wheelchair in which she would career around the alleyways at Courtrai in her later years, wrapped in a thick knitted cape against the cold, her white stick dangerously levelled like a lance.

. . .

When she was known to be the last [of the Beguines], Juffrouw Marcella became famous. The mayor and aldermen of Courtrai visited her, called her a piece of world heritage, and gave her Beguine-shaped chocolates and champagne, which she downed eagerly. A statue of her, looking uncharacteristically uncertain, was cast in bronze for the beguinage.

The story of the Beguines, she confessed, was very sad, one of swift success and long decline. They had caught the medieval longing for apostolic simplicity, lay involvement and mysticism that also fired St Francis; but the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive. With the Protestant Reformation the order almost vanished; with the French revolution their property was lost, and they struggled to recover. In the high Middle Ages a city like Ghent could count its Beguines in thousands. At Courtrai in 1960 Sister Marcella was one of only nine scattered among 40 neat white houses, sleeping in snowy linen in their narrow serge-curtained beds. And then there were none.
May her memory be eternal. AMDG.

4 Comments:

At 4/27/2013 6:06 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I have been fond of the Beguines for a looooong time. I wonder if there are other Beguines elsewhere in Europe. One reason they proliferated was that there were fewer available men after the 100 Years War and that monasteries were full with the surplus of women. They wrote of their spirituality in the vernacular, too, sometimes highly valued for the beauty of the language.
I often think there is a place for Beguines in the modern Church.

 
At 4/27/2013 7:51 PM, Blogger mbflynn said...

Thank you for this lovely homage to Juffrouw Marcella and the history of the Beguines. How sad this way of life for women has faded away.

 
At 4/27/2013 7:58 PM, Blogger Cole Matson said...

As one who was turned down by two orders for medical reasons, and has also wept over the rejections, her story is very encouraging to me. May she and her sisters rest in peace, and may the Beguine saints pray for us.

 
At 4/28/2013 10:07 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Barbara,

Supposedly she was the last one in the world - I know they had other communities in Belgium and the Netherlands that disappeared earlier - but I have heard that there is a group in Vancouver, British Columbia that is seeking to establish a new religious community inspired by the charism of the Beguines. I don't know whether the BC group could be considered "official" Beguines, but their efforts suggest to me that your intuition about the place of the Beguines in today's Church is correct.

 

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