Occupy Faith

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A monastery of her own

The role of the older single woman in society has always been surrounded by ambiguity - particularly post-menopause. In fact, we do well to remember that until just over one hundred years ago the pattern of a woman's life was to go from her father's house directly to her husband's house - except for the occasional exceptions where a woman entered a nunnery.

The formerly married single woman - in other words, the widow - has always been difficult and all the more so if she had dependent children. No longer virginal, a woman with sexual experience, and, once post-menopause, frequently seen as sexless. Now if this woman was not submissive and self-effacing and 'modest', she might be seen as dangerous, as a troublemaker, and - in some periods of history - a witch.

So what to do with such women? It is only in the last fifty years that most of us have controlled our fertility sufficiently to establish true independence - personal and economic. Prior to that, our biology was a factor in our dependency on the male of the species one way or another and a factor in the male ability to control women.

As an older woman, a widow, I have often thought of what it might mean to live in an intentional community with other women like me for mutual support. The sort of thing I have in mind would be be living independently in a building suitable for the purpose but having communal periods and, because we would be an intentional community, able to give our energies to projects that we were unable to carry out individually.

However, there are few totally new ideas in this world. No new thing under the sun, Ecclesiastes 1:9 says. Because, dear Reader, in medieval times someone actually thought of that and did it.

All those blokes, well probably the best of the blokes, went off to the Crusades and left the women at home - widows in every meaning of the word except death of husband although that might have happened and the news not yet arrived. Some women were single and could not marry because of the lack of men and some were deserted while the men did their "spiritual" duty. Out of this social milieu, came the Beguines. They were later to be followed by a male equivalent, the Beghards but, in this instance, the women led the way.

I was reminded of this when dipping into the Travel section of The New York Times and found this beautiful piece: A Lost World Made By Women. Sadly, the Beguines have gone from among us and their buildings live on as relics of an anachronistic idea.

But, you see, I don't think the idea is anachronistic. I think the idea could become a contemporary ideal for many women bearing in mind the words of the the Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai in 1274:
There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.

The Beguines and their story/ies give us much food for thought. Their ideal need not and should not be lost to us. But we need to learn lessons from their experiences:
  • recognize how easily independent, autonomous women threaten male hierarchies, particularly clerical ones;
  • provide structures for ourselves of ourselves that ensure we can act in a way that is true to ourselves so that we are susceptible neither to co-option nor marginalization;
  • discover what beautiful intellectual structures we can build for ourselves when our own feminine leanings and desires are given free rein.


  1. Excellent post! I have heard of the Beguines (I have to say the Cole Porter song keeps popping into my head...) but don't know much about them, and will enjoy exploring your links.
    Of course the circumstances you describe are the very reason a lot of intelligent women became nuns - it was sometimes the only way to acquire relative independence and an education.

  2. I went in search of an explanation of the Cole Porter song lyric - with little success. I heard on the radio a few days ago someone say it refers to an old dance. Makes sense, perhaps.

    "When they begin the beguine
    It brings back the sound of music so tender
    It brings back a night of tropical splendor
    It brings back a memory ever green"

    But I wonder if there is a link to these people you have brought up? That would be more interesting than most pop culture website would ever bother to explore. These sites all just try to explain Cole Porter's song in terms of drug references. That doesn't help me at all (nor CP, it seems).

    A thought provoking post for young and old, male and female, alike.


  3. Denis, I have already linked to the Wikipedia article on the beguines and the beghards in the post. Perhaps if you follow that through you will get more details. You will also find, if my memory is correct, links on the NYT article to which there is a link in the post. There is quite a bit of stuff on the net - since the beguines and the beghards have a firm place in the history of Christian mysticism. I have not included all that there is to be said on the beguines and the beghards because it is quite extensive - particularly when it came to the dominant powers of the church and the church's treatment of these men and women as heretics. Now, perhaps some did qualify as heretics it is possible to argue, but there is also an argument that not all were. For myself, I liked the idea that they were in a category of their own: not the usual religious professional nor pious laypeople. As well, I like the social aspect of their vocation. And - as you would suspect - I liked the idea that women led the way in this movement and men followed after.

    Blessings and bliss

  4. Hi Miss Eagle
    I did follow the link you provided (of course). What I meant was a link between the name and the Cole Porter song. I did not find any mention in the serious articles.
    I love the name of the "Beghards", and I realise it is probably a linguistic accident, but I like the idea of them begging hard.