Saturday, August 14, 2010
Clare of Assisi and the Beguines: Solidarity with the Poor and Needy
Little- known Beguinage
Outside Assisi Italy
Now privately owned
Clare’s stay at the Benedictine convent was short—perhaps only several weeks. While she appreciated the committed life of the nuns, she wanted to follow Francis’ pattern rather than that of the Old Monasticism. Traditional monasticism in the Middle Ages maintained the class distinctions of the world. Daughters of nobility lived lives of relative leisure in the Benedictine convents. They came in with sizeable dowries from their families—along with a maid or two to wait on them—which situated them with a lifestyle they were used to. Maintaining their own room, or suite of rooms, they would never need to work a day of their lives; instead, they dedicated their time to corporate worship, study, reading and personal prayer.
It was a comfortable existence, especially pleasing to those who desired to ready and study, learn Scripture and pursue a life of contemplative prayer. However, their maids, coming from the lower classes, would spend their days cooking, cleaning and doing all the manual work for them. Likewise the convent’s fields were cultivated by the sweat of the peasants who worked the land.
No Special Privileges
Clare had problems with this inequity. Perhaps her stay at the convent of San Paolo delle Abbadesse opened her eyes to the reality of the worldly stratification that had edged into the Church because she entered not as nobility but as a commoner. Because she took vows against her parents’ desire, Clare came into the convent with no dowry. Without her inheritance to finance her stay, she was assigned to manual work with the women of lower status.
Like Francis and others in the New Monasticism, Clare envisioned a community of believers who lived life on a level playing field. She wanted to set aside the stratification of the world in order to relate to other women, sister-to-sister, instead of mistress-to-servant.
In addition, Clare disliked the total enclosure from the outside world that the Benedictine convent entailed. She wanted to be involved in hands-on ministry like Francis. Again, the movements of the New Monasticism engaged in active ministry—the evangelical life—rather than simply pulling apart from the world. While Clare deeply desired to maintain a life of prayer, she also hoped to invest her time in ministry to the poor and needy.
Thus, after a brief abode in the convent, Clare transferred to a household of Beguines living just outside the town of Assisi. Like the Beguines of northern Europe (see Deep Wells blogs on the Beguines), these laywomen had formed their own small community where they could grow together spiritually.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, “Beguine” was a generic term used for laywomen who formed their own Christian communities. Rather than a large, centralized movement, the Beguines were simply dedicated women who formed independent households all over Europe. They came mostly from the growing middle class in the emerging cities of the Later Middle Ages. Although we do not know specifics about the Beguine community where Clare stayed, most Beguines engaged in active ministry to the poor, sick and especially the lepers.
Visiting the Beguine House
The Beguine house where Clare went in 1212 still stands today just above the town of Assisi. For some years it was inhabited by Beguines and then passed into the hands of the nuns. Since around 1500, however, it has been owned privately. While much of the house has been rebuilt over the centuries, two rooms—pictured above—have the original walls intact.
On our pilgrimage to Assisi in April, we had the phenomenal opportunity of visiting the very house where Clare stayed. Bret Thoman, the leader of our pilgrimage, lived with his wife and family for some time in Assisi and discovered many out-of-the-way places like this. (See link to StFrancisPilgrimages.com.) During our visit he took our group to the house, and the family who currently own the estate graciously allowed us to tour the parts of the manor house that were original to Clare’s day.
2010 © Glenn E. Myers