Sunday, August 23, 2009

Believers Called Beguines

The setting is twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe. It is the era of chivalry, and tens of thousands of men have gone on the Crusades. Although everyone in Christendom is part of the church, medieval Europe has been spiritually dry for hundreds of years.

In this state of affairs, the first flames of revival spread as itinerant preachers proclaim the gospel and call nominal Christians into a personal relationship with Christ. The spiritual climate changes rapidly as hundreds and then thousands of laypeople repented of a worldly lifestyle and committed themselves to Jesus.

In order to grow, many of these vibrant believers form new Christian communities to cultivate their faith and provide meaningful spiritual fellowship. After coming to Christ they are profoundly in love with Jesus, and they long to know him better. Thirsty for more than church membership or religious ceremony, they seek to nurture intimacy with the Lord by living with likeminded followers of Christ.

In particular, middleclass women across Belgium, the Netherlands, northern France and Germany pool their resources to buy houses where they can live in community. Known as Beguines, these laywomen pulsate with spiritual vitality in their pursuit of inner growth. The households they establish provide these women with friendships and a safe place to live and work.

In addition, they form communities to learn God’s Word. When the Beguine Movement begins, few resources are available for spiritual formation outside of such a community. Only portions of the Bible are accessible in the local language (for them, medieval Dutch and German); families and individuals seldom own a copy. Local priests give few sermons and are often known for their immorality rather than a life of godliness. Devotional materials are nonexistent except in Latin—in fact, some of the very first writings in German and Dutch are spiritual formation manuals written by the Beguines. Therefore, these godly women gather each morning and evening to hear Scripture read. The Beguines then meditate on passages throughout the day as they work at sewing and spinning.
One of the early Beguines, Mechthild of Magdeburg, expresses her deep, personal love for Jesus, “I delight in loving him who loves me, and I long to love him to the death, boundlessly, and without ceasing.” Mechthild then exhorted us, the readers, to pursue the Lord in the same way: “Love him so fiercely that you could die for him. Thus you burn ever more without ever being extinguished as a living flame in the vast fire of high majesty.”

That is the invitation of the Beguines—to love Jesus so fiercely that we are on fire for him and that we would be willing to die for him. These women were radical believers in their day, and they summon us to genuine faith and deep communion with the Lord today.

Personal Reflection
As an evangelical, reading about the Beguines is so interesting and so encouraging. We are not the first Christians to emphasize conversion and to nurture a personal relationship with Jesus. These women were so radical in their commitment to Christ and their cultivation of an intimate relationship with him!

For further reading about Mechthild’s deep desire for the Lord, see Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, translated by Frank Tobin, in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998), 134.

[1] Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Frank Tobin, in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998), 53.

2009 © Glenn E. Myers


  1. Dr. Myers! I absolutely love all that Beatrice has to say in ch.1 of "Come, My Sister Bride" about the 7 modes of love. It is amazing that even without experiencing an earthly, romantic love, she actually knows more about love and has more joy than any person I have heard express...

  2. In a world where everything is constantly changing, God never does - He is always the same. That's why Beatrice's writings can still touch readers deeply and help them in their spiritual walk with the Lord. People of her day went through the same struggles that we go through today. She recognized and had experience with the common conflicts that people face in their faith and was able to write about them in a way that transcends time.
    Beatrice had such an incredible insight to the nature of love. While people have twisted the concept of love and used it in sinful ways, Beatrice understood that love should be ultimately pure and is a perfect demonstration of Christ.
    She was a remarkable lady and I really enjoyed reading about her and her spirtiual journey.

  3. Reading through and trying to better understand the great idea that God is a God of love. We as Evangelicals sometimes tend to swing only toward seeing Him as a judge with mercy and forget the beautiful concept of compassion towards His children. Beatirce, as well many others understand this and demonstrate it better then most, and demonstrate it to a new level on which I feel like striving towards.
    Also the concept that blew me away the most was the idea of personal spiritual formation being selfish if taken to far; that is a concept unheard! Not taking that phrase lightly, it is making me question humilty in my life as compared to the Spiritual depth of Beatrice, and the groom she loves the most, Christ her Savior.

  4. Modern-day Begijnhoven! We can live this! The Beguines were practically Biblical in their choice of lifestyle and devotion. They remained in community in the community(many Beguines joined with a sister, cousin, or friend!)Because the women choose not to separate themselves from society altogether, they had countless opportunites to share the Gospel.

    I think we can learn a lot from the balance of their environment. It accommodates introverts and extroverts: they had solitude, sisters, and service in the world! Their foundation of a peaceful environment in God's word and meditation, they were able to love others!

  5. Beatrice's insights in her seven modes of love are so insightful. As I was reading them, I was looking for which ones my own love relationship with the Lord would fall under. This woman knew Jesus deeply! She acknowledges the struggles that will come in our relationship with the Lord because of the "old man" that will not be completely done away with until we are fulfilled in heaven. She has expressed this struggle in an insightful way I have never seen before. I have not completed the reading yet, so I am excited to see what else there is.

  6. I was encouraged by Beatrice of Nazareth and her Seven Stages of Love. It was interesting to read about Beatrice's love relationship with the Lord being full of longing, struggle and tension. The kind of relationship that Beatrice talks about is not at all complacent. It is a dynamic, living relationship and so there are times of longing,turmoil, frusteration and longing fulfilled. The kind of spiritual life Beatrice speaks of demands the whole spectrum of human emotion.

  7. One of the things taught in Spiritusl Leadership and Development is that love is a process that has stages and takes growth. Beatrice realizes this and it is demostrated in her life and works. For the women of this time their love for Christ grew deeper and deeper. Everything we were taguht in SL&D Beatrice states in The Seven Manners of Holy Love, she mentors us as readers regarding our spiritual life. She teaches of how we experience love and these steps build off each other and this applies to our relationship with Christ....

  8. Focusing on the l o v e of God and resting
    in that, accomplishes all and more than we could ever ask! Being in such an intimate love makes us what we want to be: pure, beautiful, holy, a shining Light... What a beautiful picture that is knowing we can be all that in CHRIST!

  9. It is so interesting to me the idea of letting GOD come and go. Its true. For a relationship to have peace, the individuals must have the freedom in trust to be allowed to "leave" and be accepted upon return. Love wounds. God's love however, is different from ours. His love "wounds" for the sake of a greater, more pure, love- us on the other hand wound from "feeling wounded" I believe. Ch.4 was absolutely wonderful. The raw admition of accusing God for leaving? How honest is that! The glorious part of that is this: "God is most intimately present at the moment he seems most absent." (p.9) I feel my pride when I say our souls are an abyss only fillable by something as wide, and long, and as deep as the love of Christ. If this is, in fact, so
    we ought to be
    "content to be deprived of sweet repose for the sake of this great totality of God!" (p. 68)

  10. Kate Deborah Lynne SahlstromSeptember 3, 2009 at 2:07 PM

    Hadewijch says that we need to be willing to endure love, in all its pain, with all its deserts in order to be a possessor of it. We can fight love with longing and in the conquering of it, we shall abide with our God forever: the hope of life and all its pain, all of God's seeming absences, is that our hearts and its desires shall be filled when we are FINALLY

  11. Living out Christian Community today--Begijnhoven today--will be part of a one-day spiritual formation retreat that I will be leading in January at Restoration Ministries.

  12. The words of Hadewich the poet are hard words but they are a spur in my side. I don't know why I would want to settle for a lesser love- a love that only offers nice feelings, when the Lord offers us something deeper. He desires that we actually participate in His sufferings. Hadewich writes that this life "is miserable beyond all that the human heart can bear" because nothing can satisfy the hearts deepest longings for God and God's love always goes deeper and deeper (63).

  13. The words of Hadewich the poet are hard words but they are a spur in my side. I don't know why I would want to settle for a lesser love- a love that only offers nice feelings, when the Lord offers us something deeper. He desires that we actually participate in His sufferings. Hadewich writes that this life "is miserable beyond all that the human heart can bear" because nothing can satisfy the hearts deepest longings for God and God's love always goes deeper and deeper (63).

  14. The Lord comes very close in the Beguines approach to spirituality. Real connection is possible because in Jesus God has actually come down to our level and taken on a physical body. Therefore, it is actually possible to "enjoy, hug, kiss and embrace God in an incomprehensible manner" (48).

  15. The Beguines really understand the reality of Jesus. Because God actually took on humanity in the incarnation- we can actually come close to Jesus. In "Come My Sister, My Bride," the Beguines spirituality is described as "warm and tangible, even homespun and earthy" (47). Jesus, as God of the universe, comes close as someone we can "enjoy, hug, kiss, and embrace" (47). How is this possible? I wonder just how literal the Beguines were?

  16. The Beguines affection for the Lord is so beautiful and deep. They were even "moved to tears and trembling in their compassion for the Lord as he hung on the cross" (48). What did the Beguines see that I am missing? If only I had such deep affection for Jesus.

  17. In the same vein as the Beguines, find it equally enlightening and encouraged that the Fontevrault and the Premonstratensians were accepting of women of all classes. The Cistercian order is also of a deep spiritual heritage that wrestles with the deep love of Christ for his Bride.

  18. In "Come, My Sister Bride" Dr. Myers states that "although these women of the 13th century are radically in love with Jesus, they do not neglect the love of others." I find this a stark contrast to the popular idea (and addmittedly my idea) that most nuns and women of faith at this time were cloistered away praying, singing and not attending to the needs of the poor and outcast. The Beguines however were working among the poor regularly and effectivly. To the extent of giving valued possessions away.

  19. I was struck just tonight while finishing my paper by the comment made by Hadewijch, "Virtues and not sweetness are proof of love" How true that while the highs and emotions of loving God are good and well... we reflect Christ most through right action.

  20. Let me also say that knowing what "Chivalric Love" is will, help those who truly seek to understand the Beguines greatly. Also knowing and now just reading the Song of Songs has been extreemly enlightening and refreshing.

  21. Mechthild sums it up pretty well with quote. If we are seriously living in a relationship with Him, then this should be our response and desire. To love Him so much we are willing to die for Him.
    We must all consider the cost of discipleship Christ mentions in Luke 9:23f and Luke 14:26&27. That if we do not hate our father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters- even our own life-then we cannot be disciples of Christ.
    What a radical Mechthild must have been considered in her day.

    -Ben Horne

  22. Also, I know this is hardly related, but the mention of the Crusades in the beginning of this blog got me to think. Just imagine if these men had not volunteered to serve in the defense of Christendom and the Holy Lands.
    And of course nasty things happened in these wars, as do in all conflicts...
    But if these Knights of Christ had not answered the call of the weak and oppressed, the Crescent would have advanced into every corner of Europe and the Beguines never would have gathered to translate and study the Scriptures. The Reformation never would have taken place, and Columbus never would have left Spain to find the passage to India. There never would have been a scientific revolution, as the majority of the contributors to modern science made their discoveries while serving God in monasteries. And finally, what's been called "the Greatest Century of Missions" never would have taken place as the United States would never have even existed.

    So in light of the civilization the Crusaders preserved, Christians everywhere should reject the humanistic historic revisionists and the lies they propagate and thank the Lord God of Heaven and Earth that Christendom stood up for justice and expelled the Muslims from Europe. Stopping the "holy" jihad they have been waging since Muhammad stormed the gates of Mecca in 630 AD.

  23. I think Christianity is often categorized by denominations/ eras/ nationalities. While I agree that our culture does somewhat dictate how we relate to God, I believe Mechthild's compelling call to be on fire for Jesus is scriptural and therefore transcendent of culture. "On fire" is not usually the image that comes to my mind when I think of Christians in the Middle Ages. "On fire" can be seen as a phrase descriptive of, perhaps, today's Pentecostal movement. Without denying emotions, the "on fire" that Mechthild speaks of seems to consist of emotion, certainly, but in addition to the will. Emotion is pointless unless it is taken to heart and put to action. All that to say that a passionate love for Christ is timeless and transcendent of all barriers, and the call that we are given is the same of the apostles and these thousands of European women who answered it by God's Spirit.

  24. Dr Myers - I agree that it's heartening to see that other Christians have emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus. The Beguines' passion for Jesus shines brightly, even though many centuries have passed since their heyday.

    It struck me that one advantage the Beguines had over the modern-day Western church is the importance they placed on community. I think that the Beguines show us that a personal relationship with Jesus is not the same as an individualistic relationship with Jesus. I feel like I have much to learn from them!

    On a different note, I felt like I couldn't let the post from Anonymous regarding the Crusades go without comment! With all due respect, my understanding of Crusader history is that these wars were rarely defensive in terms of protecting Europe. Rather, they were aggressive and brutal incursions into extra-European territory. To make things even worse, on the way to the Middle East, some Crusaders slaughtered entire communities of Jews in the most horrific manner. I accept that this point of view may make me a "humanistic revisionist liar": however I think Jesus was clear when he told Peter to put away his sword. "Christendom" is a spiritual kingdom - and will only be a temporal one too when Jesus returns.

    Tim Beaumont (MIN524)

  25. I'm surprised that we find this rediscovery of the Beguines as so astounding. Is the lifestyle they pursued that much different than that to which those in the Church are called today? If we distill the basic concepts we find a pattern that our church fellowships can emulate today:

    --> a group committed to memorization of and meditation on Scripture

    --> corporate worship and personal devotion

    --> participation in commerce to meet basic needs, to share with the group, and to give to the needs of others

    --> outliving their devotion to the world around them (carrying forth the Gospel and acts of kindness)

    Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Western mind is the way the Beguine communities shared common property. While each sister maintained some personal property, those with means paid to build and expand the complex as the community grew and, if they ever departed it, that property remained with the community.

    I've been blessed to know some believers who reflect this attitude in their own lives, as demonstrated by the way they handle their property. While they may hold title to it (e.g. a car), they lend it willingly to those who need it. They open their homes to those who need a place to stay, and they share their meals with those who need to eat (not merely those who might invite them back to their place next week). They lend tools and do not pester for their return. When they lend, they treat it more as a gift--if it returns, they give thanks, but if it does not, they trust that the recipient had greater need of it. I try to emulate this behavior, but it is painfully difficult at times, for my possessions seem to take hold of me as my hands take hold of them.

  26. (Response to FatManRunnig): I believe I can answer for others like myself, who are excited (not necessarily astounded) about the history of the Beguines. It is not so much the lifestyle they pursued as being much different from how the Church is called today. The difference is they lived it! We desire to have the kind of "Deep Wells" that these communities of believers had. Their examples give us hope that we too can experience this kind of communion with our TRUE love! Praise the Lord for the affirmation you received on your book, Dr. Meyers. May it stir up a never-experienced passion for the Lord in many believers and pre-believers!!