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!
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