As you now know, I love reading the obituaries in The Economist. The latest issue features the life of another restless soul: she was the very last “Beguine,” Marcella Pattyn, whose passing wistfully marks the end of a whole way of life.
The Beguines were itinerant communities of women devoted to prayer, work and service that sprang up in Europe during the thirteenth century as an alternative to the two other roles offered women at that time (marriage or a life in orders). Beguines took orders from no one; they were not bound by vows; and their commitment to living a life of freedom in the Spirit was costly, often resulting in persecution and even death. As Pattyn’s obituary puts it, Beguines (unlike nuns) “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.”
This idiosyncratic way of life on the margins of society contributed to great works of theology, such as The Mirror of Simple Souls (Marguerite Porete) and The Flowing Light of the Godhead (Mechtild of Magdeburg), which I had the privilege of reading and engaging centuries later in a women’s theology seminar at Emory last spring. So, as I raise my cup of joe this morning to Pattyn, and to Mechtild and Porete before her, I can’t help but feel a little sad to be bidding the Beguines an offiicial “goodbye.” At least some solace comes in knowing that their work will live on.