Monday, August 31, 2009

Seven Manners of Holy Love

Beatrice of Nazareth is often associated with the Beguines. Her mother died when she was six years old and she spend a year living with the Beguines and receiving her early education from them.

Only one section of Beatrice’s original writings have survived—a booklet on our love relationship with Jesus entitled Seven Manners of Holy Love. Here she describes seven ways we experience being in love with the Lord. Although we grow from one step to the next, we never completely leave behind our earlier expressions of love.

The first manner or mode is longing love—we simply long for the Lord and cannot get enough of him. Beatrice notes that love is the foundation of our whole relationship with God, not fear. When we truly love the Lord, we find it easy to give up shallow worldly pleasures in order to have him.

The second expression of love is service. Because we truly love the Lord, we want to do anything we can for him. Although we still long to experience his sweet presence, we shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus. If we are maturing as believers, we concentrate less own feelings and more on how we can serve the One we love.

Try as we might, however, we can never serve Christ enough. Thus, the third experience of love is one of frustration. We do all the ministry we can, but we never feel like we have done enough. Indeed, as Beatrice notes, we never will be able to fully express our gratitude for our salvation—so we feel tormented inside.

Eventually that frustration gives way to a fresh experience of Jesus’ love for us. Thus, the forth mode is overwhelming love. This is a wonderful season of life! We feel ourselves wrapped in our Savior’s arms and loved by him.

We can never seem to get enough of that love, however, and eventually we enter into frenzied love . Here we crave more and more encounters with the Lord, says Beatrice. We are overpowered by our passionate desire for the Lord, and sometimes we feel like we are going crazy.

In time our frenzy gives way to the deep, new settled love of Beatrice’s sixth mode: bridal intimacy. This profound love is what we have been hoping for in our whole relationship with Jesus. As the New Testament describes Christ as the Bridegroom and the church as his bride, we experience this on a personal level.

In this lifetime, however, we will never experience the fullness that awaits us. Thus, mode seven is a return to the longing love. Our relationship begins with desire and will continue with desire, so long as we are on this earth. That longing is good, though, because it keeps us growing deeper and deeper in our love for the Lord.

Personal Reflection
Just as human relationships go through stages—described in many books in our day—so our relationship with Jesus follows a similar path. Indeed, if our relationship with the Lord is truly personal, it will of necessity bear some of the same dynamics as our closest human relationships.

Beatrice’s analysis of our love relationship with Christ is insightful. Most readers identify with several, if not most, of her stages. While we may not all experience the same intensity as Beatrice describes, many readers have found comfort, reassurance and fresh hope from Beatrice’s wisdom.

To learn more about Beatrice and to read her original work, see The Life of Beatrice of Nazareth, 1200-1268, translated by Roger DeGanck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991).

2009 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Beguines: Forming Christian Communities

Across Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and northern France, laywomen came into a personal relationship with Jesus during the late Middle Ages. In order to grow spiritually, they formed households where they could have fellowship with likeminded sisters in Christ. At first the Beguines purchased large houses where half a dozen or a dozen women could live together as a spiritual community. Just after the year 1230, however, Countess Johanna of Flanders, and other nobility made sizeable donations of land and money, allowing the women to establish large Beguine complexes. The Beguine movement exploded.

Known as beguinages, in French, and Begijnhoven, in Dutch, these communities consisted of scores of quaint townhomes built around an open square the size of several football fields placed side-by-side. The open space provided gardens for the women and, in due time, also housed a church building for the Beguines. To provide safety for all the women, a large wall surrounded the entire complex.

In Belgium alone, ten thousand women joined Beguine complexes in the next half century! Most beguinages held several hundred women, but three of them grew to enormous size: Ghent housed 700 Beguines, Li├Ęge 1000, and Mechelen eventually holding some 1900 Beguines!

While only a few Beguines still live in Belgium today, more than a dozen of these complexes are preserved as historical sites today.

Personal Reflection
These medieval women were remarkable in their initiative to form Christian households. Forming such lay communities was virtually unheard of in their day, but that did not keep the Beguines from starting something new. They were determined to have fellowship with likeminded believers and in doing so started a whole movement that lasted strong into the nineteenth century.

We today need to have that same determination in establishing spiritual friendships that will help us grow. It might be meeting with another person one-one-one each week, or it might entail beginning a small group. For some, it could be the establishment of a full-blown community like the Beguines.

An excellent book describing the Beguine movement in Belgium is Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200 – 1565 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

2009 © Glenn E. Myers

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

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