Hallo again to all.
When we first learn a route through a city, we tend to keep using that route even if navigation software tells us there is a better or shorter one. On Sundays, we sit in the same pew week after week. We eat the same lunch nearly every Thursday, and read the newspaper in the same spot nearly every Thursday evening with the same beverage at our side. On Tuesday mornings, we drink coffee in the same spot with the same company. We like to sit to the left of our conversation partners, and to read The Towers of Trebizond once a year. We choose a window seat when we can on trains and aeroplanes. We take off our shoes as often as decent, and wear pyjamas whenever possible. These habits aren't objectively good, and we have enough self-knowledge to understand that. But they are little bricks in the architecture of our days and weeks, and they help us to bring comfort and order out of what might tend otherwise in the direction of chaos.
One of the most consistent of our habits over the last decade has been reading The Economist on Saturday mornings. We often find ourselves a little more bolshy than they; a little amused at their reference to themselves as a 'newspaper'; somewhat vexed by the incessant gift subscription solicitations; and sometimes wishing the price were a bit lower; but always a touch refreshed by contrariety, consistency, hilarity—have you seen the photo captions?—and variety.
The first thing we read every week is the obituary (singular, as there is only ever one) printed on the second to last page of each issue. This is no morbid fascination; the obituary is written in exquisite English without fail, and it is never a bare recitation of dates and places. Instead, one learns something about the shape of a person's life and impact on the wider world. Ecclesiastical obits in The Daily Telegraph—especially those by Trevor Beeson—also do this, but they only appear when someone churchly and important dies, rather than every week without fail.
Our devotion to the penultimate page of The Economist is the only reason we learned of the death in Belgium on 14 April this year of Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine. Though this 92 year old was touted as the last living link to a way of life stretching back some 800 years, her death went unnoticed in wider news outlets. We felt compelled to write in praise of Beguines and their distinct way of living out the Beatitudes.
Beguines* were lay women throughout what are now France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany who organized their lives around shared religious ideals but did not take vows as nuns—and, in fact, could and did leave their communities to return to their families or to marry if they wished. From the 1200s until 2013, they lived out Christ's declarations about the blessedness of the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who mourn, in ways that were and still are revolutionary. These women retained rights to own and inherit property. They were highly educated, and shared their education with the inhabitants of the cities where they lived. They chose to form urban families of affinity whose temporal stability was rooted in the beautiful béguinages that are still the architectural-historical pride of many northern European cities. The names of some Beguines are bright stars in the history of Christian mysticism: Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete, for example. It may come as no surprise that some of them were also accused of heresy, and that they suffered their own persecutions at the hands of the Church whose best ideals they refreshed and enlivened through many generations.
To our mind, one of the most significant things about the Beguines was their decision to live lives of Christian fruitfulness, simplicity and seriousness not in isolation or rural retreat, but rather in the heart of bustling cities. With remarkable wealth around them thanks to the cloth trade in particular, Beguines situated themselves outside of prevailing economic patterns in favour of an individualism-in-community that allowed them both urban solitude and opportunities for effective service. Urban solitude is a thing known well to thoughtful persons who live in cities, but generally experienced only by individuals, and not in ways that make for wider cultural constructiveness. Whilst sleeping and rising alone-together, Beguines prayed bright fires of joy into being through dark nights near the North Sea, and they forged attitudes of apostolic generosity outside the conventions of their time.
As Anglicans, we believe that there are many good flavours and streams in the broad river of Christian spirituality. When identifiable emphases—in this case, on the gift of the individual to community without a loss of autonomy, on the ability of women to make their own religious decisions, on the primacy of mystical, contemplative prayer to bring about the soul's right relationship with its creator, and on the humble goodness of the created world—we can't help but see a wonderful way of doing something beautiful for God. Nobody who has read and understood John Keble could reject this confluence of attitudes as outside the inheritance of all Anglicans and Episcopalians.
We also can't help but reject the idea that Marcella Pattyn was really the last of her kind. Maugre the fact that all the béguinages of the middle ages are now empty but for scents and books and ghosts, we don't have enough fingers and toes to count all the urban mystics we have met in our lives. Some have jobs in cubicles or at desks in nondescript office buildings; some are homeless; some are clergy who have bloomed where they were planted, and never sought other soil or toil; some are waitresses; one is a barber; one shined our shoes last week; one is a phlebotomist; two are cooks; and most are not aware themselves of the reality of the effect of their concentrated prayer on the lives of the world around them. We feel a fair certainty that the things separating today's Beguines from the now-defunct Beguines who perpetuated much that was beautiful and good from the late medieval northern European world are linguistic, cultural, chronological and structural rather than otherwise substantial.
The Economist's obit ended with a line from Agatha Christie: 'And then there were none'. Our preference would be the more joyful 'Their sound has gone out unto the ends of the world, and their words unto the ends of the earth'.
See you next week.
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