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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

The Heart of the Beguines

Cathedral at Ghent

Cathedral at Ghent

The word “cathedral” means “the throne upon which she sits.” In 15th century Northern Europe, there was a worshipful attitude toward the Divine Feminine as embodied in Mary. In this time, the Beguines thrived. They lived in democratic communities, separate from the church, caring for each other and practicing  social justice by feeding the poor and tending to the sick. Truly the “cathedral” in all its majesty and art, is for me, a symbol to the beauty by which the Beguines lived.

Even though they were the first feminists, it is surprising that this group of mystics is so little known, even here in Belgium. Steeped a mysticism that didn’t match the hierarchy or patriarchy of the Catholic Church, they would eventually adapt and become absorbed by the church. But for a short period of time, they thrived as panentheistic, meaning that they believed “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  I relate to that viewpoint, noting that the rest is just politics.

The Beguines were all about compassion and action. They understood and underscored that “help the least of these” was less a directive from the Christ and more a clue as to how to fully live the spiritual life. These women advocated for what was then, and is now, a radical idea, that the spiritual life should not be about the rules and values of a hierarchy and a patriarchy, but should be about our individual capacity to sense the Creator in how we care for each other.

Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine

Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine

The biggest mistake that Christianity has made is that it put God in a little white house, and then treated the rest of the world however it wanted. This is why the churches in Europe are mostly empty. This is why membership in churches in America dwindles. Young people seek a new spirituality, one that is inclusive, of all people, one that honors and reveres women, one that will take care of our planet. And one that is democratic rather than modeled upon a military inspired hierarchy.

It’s been good to be away from the crazy-ass headlines of America these past few days, away from pasty old white men dominating the television screen, the politicians and candidates who still want to control women’s bodies as some perverted sense of personal morality. Power hungry men thumping bibles and trying to convince the world what great leaders they will make while an overheated world burns and the poor die at their feet.

I came to Belgium to learn something from the Beguines. I can hear them whispering on the wind that they have things to teach us about living together and caring for each other.

The Beguinage Church at Luven

The Beguinage Church at Liven

Here is a summation of the compassion lived by these women: “When you drink the waters of sorrow, you will kindle the fire of love.” (Metchild of Matenburg) To be theistic means, I am here and God is there. And again, panentheism is the belief that God is all things and all things are in God. If you embrace this viewpoint it becomes more difficult to turn away from the suffering of the world and its people. This was the radical idea that eventually led to the Beguines’ demise.

The Beguines have ignited in me a clarity and vision that goes beyond the grand cathedrals and charming Beguineages that I have visited here. This is the stuff of unraveling, the gifts of traveling and letting the history of a place teach you. I am so grateful to be here, and to be lit with new passion.

Stay tuned for at least one more blog from Belgium. I will come home changed somehow, though I cannot say how that will be. Right now it’s all just Grace, promise and exhaustion.

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