From the Tradition: Learning from the Beguines

A few years ago while I was on holiday, a friend put before me an article and encouraged me to read it. It was a single page at the very back of a magazine, an unpromising placement; but it would find a permanent home in my mind and my imagination. The article was on the Beguines, a remarkable group of women who lived their lives in trying circumstances, faithfully following Christ and serving the world in extraordinary ways.

At the time, I was in my mid-thirties and questions of home were bubbling away. I had come to the end of fifteen good years of flatting life in which I had been blessed to live with two remarkable groups of friends; these two groups had stabilised twenty-three different flatting configurations. In many ways those years were marked by what one might expect: they were explorative years, and our flats served many other ends. Each year brought with it changes to flatting compositions as people returned home for university holidays, embarked on overseas trips, took up new job opportunities, and got married. On occasion we did have conversations about what we considered home to be and what animated our imaginations. The seasons brought change, and for most of my friends these questions eventually found their setting in marriage and family life. 

I, however, found myself in a different situation. I was single and my options for living were increasingly dislocated and unfamiliar. I needed to think again about what home was, the shape it might take, and what stood at the heart of it. With recent flatting experiences in mind, childhood memories of home also came to life and joined the conversation.

I grew up in a wonderful home, which in many ways was the centre of a community. My dad was a local pastor and our home was host to many shared meals and conversations about life in its diversity and colour. We often had guests at our table, from the youth group to the travelling preacher, from the local politician to the dairy farmer. We laughed with people and cried with people. It was a place of abundant hospitality. In the midst of all this, my parents also knew that there was a time to tend to their garden and to close the door. Our family and our home was not at the mercy of my dad’s vocation but intricately woven together with it. Home was a place of rhythm and rest, of hospitality and service; a place where life overflowed.

With this and recent flatting experiences in mind, questions started to form. They were questions that wove together the single life and community, service and calling, devotion and rest. What might it look like to live well in community, in my thirties, as a single woman? How might a home be structured so that those who feel called to various vocations in the marketplace can live together, supporting each other in those callings? How might I be part of a community that was serious about faithfulness and service, a community marked by joy and life?

The Beguines joined this conversation as a third, unexpected conversation partner. From the thirteenth century on, these women found viable ways to live in community, supporting each other as they pursued faithful lives in the world. Financially independent of the Church, they owned land, created economic models that supported their lives, and contributed to a common purse. They shared a devotional life of prayer and hospitality while not taking vows. They were free to come and go, and to marry. While some lived together, some lived alone. The communities varied in size from a handful of women to whole villages. The picture is rich and porous: a community of women living creatively in their time, serving those around them and supporting each other. They were women noted for their zest for life.   

Their lives intrigue me, and the question of how their homes and communities operated is something I want to explore further. I think there are lessons here for us as we look at alternative models of home, as we face increasing house prices, grapple with the state of our housing stock, and look to support those in our communities who long to be a part of homes of Christian faithfulness, service, and rest. But as I have looked into the Beguines, there is a point to note that is unavoidable. At the centre of these women’s lives was their love and devotion to Christ. It was out of this devotion that their lives were animated and their service flowed. Their homes, and life in communities, were not the end point but were offered in service to their life with God. Home was a good rightly ordered.

Three years on from having read that magazine article I continue to ponder questions of home, to talk with friends and to grow a vision of what could be. I do so having committed my life to Christ, and having submitted to his call. My task is not to grasp after that for which I long, but to walk faithfully with him as I live out the life I believe he has asked of me. As this Advent approaches, I give thanks for the home I currently have, but more so for the home I have in Christ. He has been faithful in the past and will be in the future. I live under his watchful eye, and I trust that he knows what I need.

(Image: “Costumes, Beguines of Leuven,” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)