Monday, February 22, 2010

Visit the Beguine Complex in Leuven, Belgium

A Building from around the year 1200 in the Beguinage in Leuven (Louvain)

Walk the narrow cobblestone streets that wind through what was for centuries the Beguine complex in Leuven, and you will gain a glimpse from the past. Once home to three hundred women, this beguinage began as a small group of women devoted to serving the Lord by tending the sick and dying. Because hospitals were virtually nonexistent, these women established an infirmary around the year 1200. It likely functioned as a clinic and somewhat as a hospice for the dying. See photo on the blog of Feb 1, 2010, for a picture of that building that still stands today and functions as the faculty dining room for the University.

While most of the existing buildings standing today were built at a later time, three buildings date back to around 1200: the infirmary, the church and the building in the above photo.

Today the townhomes that made up the beguinage are part of the University of Leuven and serve as housing for students and faculty. However, all are requested to remain quite along these corridors—there is still something special about this space that was dedicated to seeking God!

Tourists and pilgrims are welcome to wander the streets and alleys. Walking here one wonders what life would have been like over the hundreds of years that Beguine women lived, worked and prayed within these walls!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Monday, February 8, 2010

Soaring and Sinking

Beguinage Antwerp Belgium

The Beguines model for us an excellent balance of solitude with the Lord and serving those in need. The two must always go hand-in-hand. Mechthild of Magdeburg describes these two dynamics of the Christian life in terms of “soaring” to God in intimacy and then “sinking” to the most humble of duties as we minister to others.

During intimate times of solitude, we soar to God in spiritual ecstasy, writes Mechthild. “Ah, kind Father, God in heaven, draw my ever-flowing soul unimpeded into yourself and flow toward [me], Lord, with all the delightful things you have within yourself. . . . Ah, and give me, Lord, the rapture of your Holy Trinity in the sweet soaring of love, Lord, so that I may enjoy with honor all your generous gifts and so that, sweet Lord, I may never ask you for something, Lord, which you do not want to give me for your glory. Amen.”(1)

Such soaring is followed by a time of “sinking down.” In service to others and in our patient endurance of suffering, we lower ourselves in humility. Soaring ecstasy and sinking humility must be kept together in the life of a believer. Indeed, the lower we are willing to sink, the more we are able to soar. As Mechthild phrases it, “The deeper I sink, the sweeter I drink.”(2)
In another passage Mechthild describes the flowing out in service and back in intimacy with the Lord by describing our soul’s climbing a mountain and descending the other side. We ascend the mountain to connect intimately with the Lord: this is our mountain-top experience of love. However, we must climb down again, bringing the power of that encounter to minister to others.

When the soul in her pursuit of love and the great longing of her God-stalking heart has ascended the lofty mountain of powerful love and beautiful knowledge, she acts like the pilgrim who has climbed the mountains with great zest. Once we have been with the Lord, we begin to cool off and sink down in profound humility, says Mechthild.

From there the soul withdraws from the intimate moment with the Lord in order to serve others for God’s glory. In fact, the soul is humbly willing to go to the lowest place possible to serve God. When the soul has therefore “ascended to those heights possible for her while she is still attached to the body and has sunk to the deepest point that she can find, then she is full gown in virtues and holiness.”(3) This is Mechthild’s ultimate concern, that through intimacy and suffering service—soaring and sinking—we would become mature in Christ-like character and holiness.
1 Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Frank Tobin, in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998), 217.
2 Ibid., 156.
3 Ibid., 184.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Monday, February 1, 2010

Serving Others in Need

Beguinage Kortrik Belgium

From the beginning, the Beguine movement was all about serving others in need. Many of the first informal Beguine communities in fact formed around specific ministry opportunities.

Mary of Oignies, her husband John and the women who joined them gather around the common task of tending lepers in Williambroux, not far from the town of Nivelles. This was grueling work, bandaging the festering wounds of the lepers, feeding them and praying with them as they were dying. It was also dangerous work—leprosy is highly contagious. Like Mother Teresa of the 20th century, the Beguines were willing to serve Christ in the most humbling ways.

Not far away in Leuven (Louvain), a group of devout believers also formed an infirmary or clinic for the ill around the year 1200. That original building still stands today as part of the University of Leuven. (See photo.) In time this group formed into a community of Beguines.

Beguines became known for their care of the sick and dying. In Germany, the term “Beguine” became synonymous with what we would call “hospice” work today—tending the dying, both physically and spiritually.

Beguines also became known for educating children, especially girls from poorer families who otherwise had little opportunity to learn how to read and write. Beguines not only taught them the basic language skill in the local language (Middle French, Flemish or German) but also instructed them in faith and godly character. The same beguinage in Leuven—that eventually numbered nearly 300 women—served as home to some ten small schools! In fact, they had to limit themselves to these ten schools because even more girls wanted to come for an education.

The balance of solitude, prayer and Scripture, on the one hand, and practical service, on the other, is one of the reasons that the Beguines are so interesting—and such a good model for passionate Christians today. These women were very active in the towns in which they lived. While many enjoyed the peace and safety of living in Christian community, they did not cloister themselves away. Instead they sought to share the love of Jesus that they had experienced with all those around them, especially those in greatest need.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers