Friday, March 26, 2010

The New Monasticism of the Middle Ages

Small Beguinage,

Ghent, Belgium

For nearly one thousand years, nearly all monastics basically withdrew from the regular affairs of the world. Some of this was good (see last blog), yet it was lacking. Vibrant faith needs to reach out to those around us in both caring and sharing. We need to care for others, especially those in greatest need, in practical ways. We also need to share Jesus’ love with everyone around us.

Genuine believers in the Middle Ages recognized the need to care and share, so the picture of monasticism began to changed during the 1100s. A new monasticism emerged, engaging in the world to help the sick and poor, as well as evangelize both countryside and city. This new monastic movement was committed to an evangelical—i.e., gospel—lifestyle.

Evangelical Lifestyle
First, instead of staying behind the walls of a monastery, these men and women traveled about the countryside sharing the gospel. They tried to follow Jesus’ command to his disciples (12 and then 72) in Luke 9 and 10. Because Jesus gave these instructions to his apostles (“sent ones”), this lifestyle was often called the vita apostolica—apostolic life.
=>Traveling two-by-two
=>Preaching the gospel in the local dialect
=>Often translating a portion/book of the Bible into the local dialect so people had access to God’s Word.

Second, following Luke 9 and 10, they lived simple lives. Owning no extra clothes and taking no food with them, they lived off of what people in the villages supplied. They were called mendicants (those who beg for a living). Today we would call them missionaries who raise their own funds!
=>Lives of simplicity/poverty
=>Living from donations

Third, they did practical ministry among those in need. They nursed the sick and tended the lepers. They provided food to the poor, often going hungry themselves because they passed on the food that had been given to them.
=>Care for the poor
=>Tending the sick, leprous and dying

Fourth, the new monasticism often included laypeople. Some—like the Beguines and Humiliati—formed their own lay communities. Others lived at home with their families and joined in the ministry as they were able.

This was a new monasticism of the time. Traditional monks did not care for it. They could not understand being out among people all day—ministering to the poor, nursing the sick and preaching the gospel. But opposition did not slow down the new monastics. They were radically committed to Christ and wanted to serve their Lord by serving those around them.

The Beguines (discussed on this blogsite) were part of the New Monastic Movement of the Middle Ages. Other groups like the Dominicans, the Humiliati and the Waldensians were also part the vita apostolica. The best-known of these new monastics were St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, who brought the gospel to all of Europe and began a mission movement around the world! Some of my upcoming blogs will be dedicated to his phenomenal movement.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Monastic Impulse

Beguinage Antwerp, Belgium

Why would anyone want to join a monastery? To answer that question, we need to understand how monasticism developed over the years. Although most modern Christians cannot grasp the rationale for becoming a monk or nun, monasticism has played a key role in preserving and propagating genuine faith throughout church history. During the past twenty centuries, many of the most on-fire believers of the church were monastics.

From around the year 250 AD through the Middle Ages, many serious believers who wanted to follow God with their whole heart saw joining a monastery as their best avenue to do so. “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” states 1 John 2:15 (TNIV). “If you love the world, love for the Father is not in you. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Especially after Constantine came to power and made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s, nominal Christians began to fill the church. No longer a place for those who were passionately seeking Christ, churches merged with the politics and culture of the day. While it was great to be free from persecution, lukewarm Christianity grew rapidly. From that point on, radical believers began to pull apart to form their own communities—thus monasticism began to grow.

In addition, entering a monastery was the only chance that most Christians had to learn the Bible. Individuals and families had no personal Bibles. However, especially by the Middle Ages, joining a monastic community gave one a chance to hear Scripture read daily and memorize it. Many monks and nuns had the whole book of Psalms memorized, reciting all 150 Psalms by heart each week as they gathered for chapel seven times each day. (By the way, how is your Scripture memory coming along?)

The monasteries also offered a good education, a safe place to live, and community with like-minded believers who, for the most part, truly wanted to grow in Christ. Younger brothers and sisters could find older mentors. Therefore, radical followers of Christ often gave up the opportunity for marriage and joined a monastery for a unique environment in which to grow spiritually.

Over the years many from the outside—both Protestant and Roman Catholic—have misunderstood monasticism. However, when seen in context, we can begin to appreciate the monastic impulse and what brought hundreds of thousands into monasteries and convents up to our day. Of course not all monastics live up to the ideal. That should not surprise us, however, or tarnish the goal that they had in mind—indeed, far too many evangelical preachers and other clergy today fall into the same sins as did some monks and nuns.

Nevertheless, we can be spurred on by their example and their genuine zeal. While we may not want to join a monastery, per se, we need to pursue many of the same goals: soaking in Scripture, vital Christian community, freedom from this world’s materialism, and a deep personal walk with Jesus.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Beguines: The "New Monasticism" of their Day

Leuven, Belgium

Presently part of the University of Leuven

In many ways the Beguines were a part of the “New Monasticism” of their day. While remaining laywomen, most of them lived together in communities. Some of these were smaller households of a dozen believers; others developed into communities of several hundred women. Early in the movement married women were among the Beguines, living with their families and joining the community of single women for Scripture reading and ministry as they were able.

The Beguines committed themselves to a simple spiritual rule of gathering for Scripture morning and evening. This was a much simpler rule than the Benedictine monks and nuns who attended chapel seven times each day. Such a simple rule allowed the Beguines to work for a living throughout the day. Especially those who spun wool and pressed linen were able to focus on the day’s reading as they worked with their hands.

They cultivated spiritual friendship within their communities, nurturing a common spiritual life. Beguines also made a commitment of obedience so long as they remained in the beguinage.

The wealthier Beguines who founded the beguinages and owned their own homes extended hospitality to needy women, inviting them to join the community. They welcomed poorer maidens from the countryside who had no money to build their own home. Such maids were provided dormitory living as minimum cost, as well as a job in the textile industry, so they could begin to earn a living.

In addition, Beguines served the general population in need—especially the poor, the sick, the lepers and the dying. They provided education for poor girls in the town who otherwise would never have the opportunity to learn to read and write.

To see the parallels with the New Monasticism movement of our day, see the website:

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Beguines Model Spiritual Formation

Beguinage Brugge Belgium

The Beguines were laywomen who had a personal relationship with Jesus and formed Christian communities so that they could cultivate intimacy with the Lord. Beginning just before the year 1200, they started a movement that soon included tens of thousands of women, mostly singles and widows, who lived together in large households. Here they lived with like-minded believers and pursued knowing Jesus on a deep level. In their communities, they enjoyed a safe place to live and work, as well as fellowship with sisters in the Lord. Younger women could be mentored by older sisters in Christ, and all had the opportunity to hear Scripture read on a daily basis.

Paradigm of Spiritual Formation
The Beguines provide twenty-first century believers a wonderful paradigm of the deeper Christian life. They exemplify for us:
~Radical commitment to Christ
~Daily soaking in Scripture
~Passion for Intimacy with Jesus
~Self-sacrificing service to those in need
~Creativity—some of the first in Europe to write in vernacular
~Cultivation of genuine spiritual friendships
~Initiative in founding a new form of Christian community
Part of the radical New Monasticism of their day, they provide a working model for believers today who are sold-out for Jesus.

Monuments to the Beguine Movement
While only a few Beguines still live in Belgium today, more than a dozen of these complexes are preserved as historical sites today. The beautiful Beguinage in the city of Bruge, Belgium still stands today (photo above). Although no Beguines remain at this location, nuns now use this quiet space and wear the habits of the women who once walked here.

If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Belgium, Bruges is a must-see! It is one of the true gems of Europe. Although not as well known as some other sites on the Continent, the old city in Bruges gives you a feel for what life was like in the Middle Ages. The Beguinage welcomes tourists and pilgrims, who are invited to quietly explore the grounds and join in the chapel for evening vespers. One of be best preserved beguinages, Bruges gives Christians today a glimpse of the dedicated lives lived by these saintly women of God.

Great Books on the Beguines
Bowie, Fiona, ed. Beguine Spirituality. Crossroad, 1990.
Dickens, Andrea J. The Female Mystic. I. B. Tauris, 2009.
Grundmann, Herbert. Religious Movements of the Middle Ages. University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
Hadewijch. Hadewijch: The Complete Works. Paulist Press, 1980.
King, Margot, trans. Two Lives of Marie d’Oignies. Peregrina Publishing, 2002.
Lerner, Robert E. The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages. University of California Press, 1972.
The Life of Beatrice of Nazareth, 1200-1268. Cistercian Publications, 1991.
McDonnell, Ernest W. The Beguines and Beghards. Rutgers University Press, 1954.
McGinn, Bernard, ed. Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics. Continuum, 1994.
Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Paulist Press, 1998.
Murk-Jansen, Saskia. Brides in the Desert. Orbis, 2004.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Bowie and Murk-Jansen’s works offer nice introductions to the spirituality of the Beguines. Simons provides a readable but thorough study of the development of the Beguine movement in Belgium, highlighting its early years as well as the establishment of the great Beguine complexes/compounds, some of which stand today. Grundmann paints a broader picture of the Beguine movement, introducing readers to its development in Germany and placing it in its historical context of the great women’s revival that swept northern Europe. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list of books on the Beguines, these are some of the most helpful.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Voices from the Past Speak Powerfully in our Day

Christians today are looking for models of deep spiritual formation. They want to know what an authentic life of faith can look like. Many are dissatisfied with the shallowness of most of what surrounds them, and they are open to learn from the rich heritage of the church, extending over the past twenty centuries.

Countless radical believers have run the race before us and serve as a cloud of witnesses surrounding us as we fix our eyes on Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). We must not ignore these spiritual mentors from our Christian heritage—men and women whose wisdom and experience have stood the test of time. They serve as companions on the pilgrimage and guides as we traverse dry deserts and endure dark nights of the soul.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pilgrimage to Beguine Complexes in Belgium

Leuven Beguinage

Church begun in 1234

My wife, Sharon, and I have read about the Beguines with fascination over the past eight years. In 2005 we had the opportunity to visit various Begijnhoven (beguinages) in Belgium for two weeks. What a privilege to wander the streets where these godly women once walked! Our day in Leuven still stands out to us!

At its peak, some 300 Beguines filled the townhomes of the Begijnhof in Leuven. They had their own church building that began construction in 1234. In fact, they were allowed to establish their own parish, separate from the town, and one of their priests eventually rose to the papacy.

While many of the women worked at spinning wool, dying cloth and pressing linen, some of the Beguines established schools, especially for poor girls of Leuven who otherwise would have no opportunity to learn to read and write. At one point the Leuven Beguine complex housed ten small schools for girls and had to refuse any more, so great was the desire for public education.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers