Monday, August 24, 2009

Beguines Tending those in Need

The sun shines on the Belgian countryside as Mary recites her vows to the young man named John. Mary comes from a well-to-do family in the town of Nivelles, and, as most marriages in her day, Mary’s has been arranged by her parents. The year is 1190, and Mary is fourteen years old.

Because John’s family is also wealthy, the couple lives comfortably, and the first several years of their life together are unremarkable. All of this changes dramatically, however, when Mary makes a radical response to the gospel. Unwilling to settle for the complacent Christianity of her day, she recognizes the need for a personal response to Jesus’ invitation. Upon committing her life wholeheartedly to God’s service, Mary convinces John to join her in the venture and they give all of their possessions to the poor. They take an extraordinary step of faith as they lay aside their life of privilege to pursue a life of prayer and service to others. Rather than moving apart from each other to enter separate convents, as is the custom for godly couples in the Middle Ages, Mary and John remain together and devote themselves to seeking the Lord and serving the infirm.

They move some thirty miles to the town of Williambroux and consecrate the next fifteen years to serve a group of lepers. Their days revolve around the tasks of feeding and washing the ill. The stench of decaying flesh fills John and Mary’s nostrils as they bandage open sores. Far from the affluence they have known, their lives center about menial chores and the constant danger of contracting leprosy, yet the couple is content to serve Christ by salving the neediest of the needy.

Because John and Mary give away their inheritance to provide for the poor and sick, they assume the task of supporting themselves while they serve the infirm. They subsist on the meager wages they can earn working with their hands. After a day attending to lepers, Mary often stays up half the night to spin and sew, making enough income to provide them with the basic necessities of food and clothes. In addition she goes door-to-door raising funds for their ministry, seeking donations from middleclass and affluent people in town, suffering the humiliation of being called a beggar.

News travels throughout the region of Mary’s commitment to Christ, her deep Christian walk, and her passion to grow in the Lord. As word spreads, women begin to migrate to the leper hospital to join the work and to be mentored by Mary. In addition to caring for the physical needs of the lepers, she provides spiritually for those who joined her group. Proving to be a wonderful spiritual director, Mary often receives words from the Lord for those who seek counsel from her, and her sanctified life serves as a model for all to see.

Mary’s group develops into one of the first Beguine centers in Belgium. Several other towns in Belgium also see groups form, often around a lead figure like Mary. One of these groups forms in the nearby town of Leuven as women establish an infirmary for those who are ill. Hospitals are virtually nonexistent at this time, so tending the sick is left into the hands of well-meaning Christians who dedicate their lives to serving others.

Today much of the Beguine complex in Leuven still stands as part of the university there. The original infirmary/hospital from the early 1200 serves as the faculty dining hall!

Personal Reflection
One of the things that impresses me most about the Beguines is that they kept personal spiritual growth together with service to others. So often we choose one or the other. Either we pull apart for deep personal growth or we become so active serving others that we neglect our inner spiritual life. The Beguines in general, and Mary of Oignies in particular, kept love of God and love of neighbor together in a beautiful way. They serve as wonderful examples to the to twenty-first century church!

You can read about Mary, her profound commitment to service and her deep prayer life in James of Vitry, The Life of Mary of Oignies, in Two Lives of Marie d’Oignies, translated by Margot King (Toronto, Ontario: Peregrina Publishing, 2002).

2009 © Glenn E. Myers


  1. For any readers not familiar with Dr. Myers, he is--as his bio says--a professor of Church history. What he is too modest to say is that he is probably one of the world's foremost experts on the Beguines. I've read some of his writing on them (in addition to these blog posts). Excellent material!

    Welcome to the blogosphere, Glenn!

  2. After reading Ch. 2 in "Come, My Sister Bride," I found it interesting how many of the Beguina women, such as Mary of Oignies and Juetta of Huy do not necessarily go looking for leadership roles, but because of their dedication to spiritual formation and growth other women (and men) naturally gather around these ladies for spiritual guidance. I liked the quote used about Ida of Leeuw, "she remained at home, living in the world, but did not live in a wordly way."
    This can serve as a great lesson to us today; if we live godly lives, people will undoubtedly see the difference between us and the world.
    It is also clear through the Beguines' way of life that they were passionate about the life they chose to live and completely devoted to the Lord.

  3. Really good point, Erin! Our culture is obsessed with leadership roles--because we want to recognition that comes from such positions. These women were willing to be in leadership, but often they simply wanted to serve those in need and tried to find more time in solitude with Jesus.

  4. When that thinking about Dr. Myers comment, it is completely tur. People are infuactuated with the title leader and all the recognition that comes alone with it. I'm really encouraged by the John and Mary story and how John stuck it out with his wife and supported her. When she insisted on moving he supported her and when she suggsted they give away their inheritance he also went along with it. I wish we could see more husbands supporting their wives in todays world...

  5. Husbands should be more up in their roles in supporting women, this seems to be an especially good example being this from a time of the Crusades. Support can be particularly difficult if the way there are living is also barely living above basic standards. I was very challenged by the way the Beguines practices not only a praxis of service but also of poverty in the love of service as well. I have possessions now that I take for granted all the time that they would be privileged to ever have.

  6. I was very blessed by reading about the lives of John and Mary. The phrase that struck me as I read was "...their lives center about menial chores and the constant danger of contracting leprosy." Their ministry was not on an emotional whim that could be completed on Sundays or every other Thursday. This couple was in it for the long haul, and it is likely that they did it with very little recognition. While serving the Lord brings joy in incomprehensible ways, they did really make a huge earthly sacrifice to minister to these people day in and day out. Serving the Lord is often something that is looked forward to, as "one day when God calls me I will do this", or as a sacrificing a few hours a week of work or social time. Mary and John live their service through very difficult circumstances and today we look at this beautiful service to the Lord and are encouraged and challenged.

  7. A constant theme found throughout the lives of these women is their great commitment to selling all that they had in their desire to serve the Lord and the people who need to hear about His grace.
    However the tragically ironic case of today is that the polar opposite is true in the lives of most women.
    The grip of materialism clenches man and women alike and holds them in the misery of the desire to accumulate more stuff.
    Christians of today, men and women alike, need to heed Jesus' words to the rich young man and follow the examples of these women: not to let the deadly distractions of this world dissuade our focus from the service of the Almighty, because we don't have enough time to waste in our short mundane lives.

    -Ben Horne

  8. Congratulations, Dr. Myers, on word that InterVarsity Press has agreed to publish your book!

  9. "Either we pull apart for deep personal growth or we become so active serving others that we neglect our inner spiritual life." Unfortunately, if I had to choose one, it would be the latter. For the past nine years, I have been running hard serving in many prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers across the country, but I have also realized my loss of the consistent disciplines it took to soften my heart for these acts of service. Praise the Lord for the encouragement that I get from the Beguines, and how they kept personal spiritual growth together with service to others!

  10. Thank you Glenn for connecting me to your blogspot. It was great seeing you recently and being reminded of all you have learned from researching the Beguines. They truly are a much needed reminder of growing in Christ while doing His work in the world. They have opened my eyes to noticing real life examples here and now of the same and for that I praise the Lord!