Sermon: Mysticism of the Beguines

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This is the second sermon in our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice To Call Us Home. A children’s story on Beguine Marguerite Porete, written by Beverly Walsh, follows this sermon. An audio version of the sermon is available here.

Luke 10:38-42

I imagine many of us have heard this Mary and Martha story (yes?) along with a message about the importance of being more like Mary (sitting at Jesus’ feet) and less like Martha (anxiously making food in the kitchen). So I want to try out a contrasting interpretation today… listen to the passage again, making note of any differences:

As they were on their way, Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha received him. She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words. But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”

But Jesus answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much, but only one thing is needed: For Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.”

According to this translation by Mary Stromer Hanson, Mary is a traveling minister. She is not at home helping her sister with ministry in their village, she is ministering elsewhere. Along with Martha she was a disciple – she sat at Jesus’ feet. Martha wants Jesus to tell her to come home and minister there. 

However Jesus points out to Martha that just as she has an important ministry in her village, Mary also has an important ministry away from home. Rather than saying Mary has chosen better, as this passage has often been translated, Mary has chosen something that is also good. 

This interpretation frees Mary and Martha from traditional gender roles (and domestic squabbles) and illuminates their ministry as disciples. Although Hanson is a contemporary biblical scholar, there is evidence that her take on Mary and Martha is not new. 

These two women, who became saints – and especially Martha – were held up as examples by medieval women including the Beguines. During this second Sunday of our Lenten series on mysticism I’ll be introducing the Beguine movement, which spanned from the 13th to the 16th century in Europe. 

Historian Yih Fen-Hua in his article, “The Imagery of St. Martha in Light of the Female Religious Movement of the Beguines,” writes “it appears that Martha’s outspokenness as depicted in the New Testament tended to be perceived as a significant model for medieval and Renaissance female Christians to strive for their rights to become independent preachers and writers. However, these endeavors to emulate Martha and step out of traditional female gender roles sometimes led the saint’s followers into unavoidable conflicts with religious authorities and their own society.”

A mystic according to Brethren pastor Paul Grout is someone who sees beneath the surface, who sees the lifeforce (Spirit) in every aspect of creation. The focus of a mystic is intimate union with the lifeforce. It is an innate longing, or as Sheri said last Sunday, this union is our birthright. 

For medieval women, the Beguine movement was a way to claim and practice this intimate union with the Divine. There were no formal vows required to join the Beguines. Often they lived together in communities called Beguineages. Thirteen of these Beguineages are now UNESCO world heritage sites in Europe.

The Beguines were a cross class movement of women who ministered to the poor and tended to the sick and dying. They traveled between communities, often with their male counterparts the Beghards. They provided safe haven and study in an era when child brides were common and girls were excluded from education.

The mystical spirituality of the Beguines was a direct affront to the religious establishment as was their common life. As mystics they experienced connection with the Divine directly and were not dependent on religious institutions to dictate their spiritual life. As communities of unmarried women they were free from the authority of husbands. They were also free from religious control of men because they were not cloistered nuns making vows to the church. 

In our children’s story today we got a glimpse into the life of one of the most well known Beguines, Marguerite Porete. Of the little known about her, it is clear that she was a woman of means. She was literate and not only wrote a book – The Mirror of Simple Souls – but had multiple copies printed and distributed. It was no small thing to print books back in the day because each one had to be copied by hand.  

Porete was a mystic philosopher. She was brilliant and undaunted by the intimidation of church authority. In writing her book she anticipated the arguments that would be leveled against her. The voices of religious leaders come through as the character of Reason, who she writes “will always be half blind.” Early on in the book she asserts, “Theologians and other clerks, You won’t understand this book, — However bright your wits – If you do not meet it humbly, And in this way, Love and Faith Make you surmount Reason, for They are the protectors of Reason’s house. ”

Porete’s mystical claim was that the soul through love could be united wholly with God so that the individual will is no more. All that remains is God’s will. This she calls the “annihilation of the soul.” In the book she lays out the seven stages through which the soul must pass in order to overcome original sin and recover the perfection that belonged to human beings prior to the Fall. 

What got her in trouble was the idea that once a soul has been totally united with God, the individual will ceases to exist and therefore virtuous living is unnecessary. A person in this state of union with God is totally free. They are no longer subject to the behavioral control of the church. The church is irrelevant. Put another way the soul that is annihilated by love becomes one with God. 

Church leaders saw this as license for all kinds of deviant behavior, not to mention a total disrespect to the institution around which all of society was organized at that time. As a mystic though, Porete’s focus is not to discredit the church as much as it is to find total union with God. She writes of the painful, passionate and disciplined process of “decreation.” Stripping away the self. Boring a hole so that love might enter. It is love for God that ultimately annihilates the soul.

As a mystic she could see clearly that the hierarchy and patriarchy of the church got in the way of intimate union with God. She claimed a direct connection, and invited others to join her on the seven stage path to soul annihilation. 

So committed was Porete to this mystical truth that 18 months in prison did not persuade her to recant. Multiple times she refused the summons of the Inquisitor and undaunted she faced her execution. There is record that the crowd who witnessed her execution was moved to tears by her absolute calm. 

Her example and that of the Beguine movement exudes integrity of life and belief. They lived in non-hierarchical communities practicing an unmediated spirituality that compelled them to minister to the most vulnerable in society. They understood direct connection with God and even dissolution of the self into God as their birthright. Their common life and their spiritual life were in the service of freedom. They were a liberation movement of body and spirit. 

As Sheri articulated last week “the real work of religion is not to devise dogmas or determine who’s saved or even to make us good people. The real work of religion is to make us all mystics. To re-bind us to God or Christ or Spirit or the Lifeforce, to re-bind us to Creation, to re-bind us to each other, to re-bind us to our true selves. To literally re-member who we are.””

Marguerite Porete knew that she came from God and to God she was seeking to return. This re-membering and re-binding is a revolutionary act. To be a mystic is to see clearly, to be undaunted by systems and structures (both internal and external) that obscure and confuse our connection to the source of Life. May the witness of the Beguines inspire in us a revolutionary spirituality that reorders our lives and grants us the courage we need in the living of these days. 

“When anyone turns to God, the veil is removed. God is Spirit (lifeforce) and where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. We, who with unveiled faces reflect God’s glory, grow brighter and brighter as we are being transformed into the image we reflect. This is the work of God who is Spirit.”  (2 Cor. 3:16-18)

Amen, and may it be so.

Children’s Story by Beverly Walsh

Hello, I’m Marguerite and I’d like to tell you some of my story. When I was a child I got in trouble often. You see, I lived in a fancy home with lots of rules. I would get in trouble for running in the house, breaking the fancy dinner plates or not behaving “like a proper French lady”. BLECH. My parents were always busy doing important things, so I spent most of my days with nanny’s and teachers who loved to tell me stories. Eventually, I learned to write my own stories, and writing became one of my favorite things to do. 

Everyone said I had a good imagination. I would write stories about dragons falling in love with fairies, beautiful maidens who lived in peaceful cloud villages, and rats who sang opera and toured the world on the backs of friendly seagulls. Some people thought my stories were strange, but others thought they were interesting or inspired! 

It seemed like everyone always had an opinion, and as I got older their opinions grew stronger. My mother warned me to keep my ideas to myself because she was afraid they would get me into trouble. Once, I heard my father complain that I was “too free spirited”. It didn’t seem to me that having a “free spirit” was a bad thing. The people in the church seemed to have some of the strongest opinions. But church was one of the places where I heard some of the best stories, some of the Bible stories were even as wild and fantastical as mine. It seemed like maybe the people in the church had different opinions from the God in the Bible. 

After spending many years thinking, praying and writing, God gave me an dream. I had a dream that there were 2 sock puppets, one named love, one named reason and they were talking to my soul. I know it sounds strange, but sometimes dreams are strange. Love and Reason argued. Love argued “Being close to God is the most important thing.” Reason asked “But what about all the other things the pope teaches?”. Love replied, “People will never be able to know as much as God knows.”.

They went back and forth like this for a long time. As they argued I realized, in my soul, that what Love said was true. When I woke up, I wrote about my dream. Most of the writing of in that day was written in Latin, but I wrote my story in French so that everyone could understand.  Turns out lots of people read that story. Some of them liked it, but those fancy-talking men of the church got mad. They didn’t like that I was writing things that were different from what they thought, and they didn’t like it that I wrote it in a language that people could understand. My parents were right, my free spirit and wild ideas did get me in trouble, but it was worth it. People today, hundreds of years later are still reading my story and it is helping them understand God.