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13th Century Women’s Communities

Kortrijk_-_Beguinage_and_Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk

Beguinage (Wikimedia Commons)

Researching the Middle Ages and Catholic mysticism, I came across a remarkable thing: the Beguines, groups of women devoted to furthering spiritual development for themselves (and others) while also living and working in the 13th Century world (the same time period in which St. Hildegard of Bingen lived). Further, the women were self-supporting in their intentional communities and weren’t controlled by the Church to the extent that nuns were. Sometimes the group was small, several women sharing a house (the original use of the word “convent” as in assembly), while at other times they created an entire “city within a city” that was called a “Court Beguinage” where often hundreds of women would live and work together, providing an infirmary and other services, including education for children, to the indigent of the larger city. I had no idea! I find it almost unimaginable that Medieval culture allowed for this to happen! Brilliant!

These communities were highly fluid, and welcomed women from all walks of life who wanted to commit themselves to spiritual inner work and remain interactive outside their walls. Once accepted into the convent or Beguinage, they took vows somewhat similar in many ways to nuns except that they could also leave at any time. At this period in history, monasteries required nuns to provide a dowry; many women were devout but had no dowry or money and the Beguinage offered a wonderful and rewarding opportunity for them. Acceptance into the group was based upon consensus, and it was relatively rare for a total stranger to join “until they were known and had become friends with the beguines.” The property of the convent or Beguinage was owned by the women, not by others, and they transferred it to other Beguines.

If you’ve become curious, I highly recommend the book The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement, by Laura Swan, or this 1990 article in the New York Times “Ancient Beguinages of Flanders.” There are some lovely photos of the Beguinages in Ghent HERE.

Ownership

We don’t own the Divine. The rituals and religions and practices we build create systems of belief, usually based upon what some human said because that was their experience of the Divine. And this can be an exquisite, vital beauty in our world, but none of us possesses exclusive rights to the infinite manifestations and incarnations of the Divine. Humans have been warring for thousands of years now based upon belief systems, upon mental constructs that if we conceive the Divine in one way then all other people must be wrong. The Divine is LOVE … can you hear her cries? I can.

 

Self-Contained

LadySlipper3rdFound061403c_2In continuing my study of Saint Hildegard, Mary Queen of Heaven, and the Catholic Church – and admittedly I am not an adherent of this particular faith – I find the complexity of the story fascinating, and its changes from century to century mind-boggling, to say the least.

Most students of history will attest to the fact that, in ancient times of the word’s origin (it’s concept), the word “virgin” defined a woman who was, in essence, self-contained — it did not mean a woman who had not had sexual intercourse.

This ties in with a beautifully written paragraph – about Eve and Mary – in Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, which states that:

“No theme of Mariology is older or more universal than the contrast of Eve and Mary, a topos that dates back to the second century. Irenaeus, one of the first theologians to develop this theme, observed that ‘the former was beguiled into fleeing God, the latter was persuaded to obey God, that the Virgin Mary might become an advocate for the virgin Eve. Through a virgin, mankind came under the bondage of death; so also through a Virgin the bonds were loosed, and a virginal disobedience was balanced by a Virgin’s obedience.’ For the Greek father, the contrast between the two virgins had as yet no sexual connotations.”

This is pretty powerful stuff when putting history in context. It means that in the century when Christianity was being birthed as a religion, virginity was not a sexual term. So, Mary could simply have been a strong, independent, self-contained young woman whose belief in her spiritual path led her to accept the prophetic vision of becoming the mother of a son who many believed would be the incarnation of the Jewish God.

Newman continues the above paragraph with:

“But the Augustinian ethos, linking original sin with concupiscence, led to a practical redefinition of ‘obedience’ and ‘disobedience’ in terms of chastity and lust.”

So it wasn’t until the 4th Century that the reformed Augustine, later canonized (having lived the first part of his life loosely, including “parties, entertainment, and worldly ambitions”), began to assist in shifting the term “virgin” around within Christianity.

Imagine what it must have been like for Mary, imagine the pressure she was under.

Thankfully, there is a lot of research now to turn to that addresses the cultural lives of women in history (and in prehistory), which is marvelous.

The Hidden Divine

I am particularly intrigued by how the visions of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, in the 12th Century, seemed to embed the symbolism and perceptions of Christianity into aspects of what I understand to be the universal and cosmological vibrational intelligent energy that is the Infinite, the Hidden Divine that we as humans are incapable of comprehending.

In her book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Barbara Newman refers to one of Saint Hildegard’s visions and says that,

“With this memorable image, the seer reinterpreted the primitive notion of a hieros gamos, or marriage of the gods, to proclaim the oneness of the hidden God with his self-revelation–or, alternatively, one might say that this religious insight is ‘demythologized’ back into its primordial form.”

Reading on, my interpretation is that we are missing the truth of the Great Mystery when we focus only upon the inequality of gender assignments in religions. The “play” or “dance” between God and Goddess (Saint Hildegard refers to her by various names including Sapientia (Wisdom) and Caritas (Love), as well as Mary and Ecclesia) that we perceive are our projections of manifestation for That Which We Cannot Conceive. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with how our many religions express “the hidden” Divine, the Great Mystery or Infinite Spirit.

Saint Hildegard juxtaposes Creator and Creatrix, depending upon what her visions are revealing to her. That said, it’s good to recall that Hildegard is always seeing through the lens of Medieval times and Catholic constructs, when she falls back on the patriarchal authoritarian model (i.e., males in charge); she can’t not do this, even though many of her visions seem to point her away from it … just as none of us can take our own selves out of the temporal framework in which we live. Newman says that,

“It is surely no accident that, while masculine imagery of the Creator tends to stress God’s transcendence, feminine metaphors place the accent on immanence. As [Creatrix], Hildegard’s Sapientia is no unmoved mover, ordering the universe from on high or even–like the Creator in contemporary paintings–molding the nascent world in almighty hands. On the contrary, she creates the cosmos by existing within it, her ubiquity expressed through the image of ceaseless or circular motion.”

What I appreciate about the above perspective is that both transcendence and immanence are valued; in a wholesome, holistic cosmological spirituality, we don’t have one without the other, but they are partners in the dance of life.

 

Valley of Humility

“Walk through the valley of humility and know peace. Lose your titanic, hard-to-satisfy ego. A greedy self-esteem is just a steep mountain you’ll find dangerous to climb. It’s also tricky (if not impossible) to come down from such heights, and anyhow the summit is too small for community. Focus on Love’s splendid garden instead. Gather the flowers of humility and simplicity of soul.” ~ Saint Hildegard of Bingen

disibodenberg hildegard

the ruins of Disibodenberg Monastery

Who was she?

I’ve been interested in learning more about Hildegard of Bingen — a mystic, healer, composer, and abbess of several monasteries in 12th Century Germany — for many years, going back to the time more than a decade ago, when I heard that she used to drape sheets over flowers saturated with morning dew in order to then lay the healing essence-imbued sheets upon people who were ill. Because of a project I’m working on, I felt compelled to do so now — this is the time. I will be spending July immersed in Hildegard’s world of the Middle Ages.St Hildegard of Bingen meme card

Hildegard received visions from the Divine and was instructed to write them down and share them. For instance, she wrote the following about one of her visions:

“I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity… It was Love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her… She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly… The whole of creation calls this maiden ‘Lady.’ For it was from her that all of creation proceeded, since Love was the first. She made everything… Love was in eternity and brought forth, in the beginning of all holiness, all creatures without any admixture of evil. Adam and Eve, as well were produced by love from the pure nature of the Earth.”

There is much about Hildegard to admire, and to recognize that prior to the Reformation, Christian Divinity was viewed quite differently than it is now. Hildegard had a deeply relational experience of the Divine as spiritual experience, which included a profound connection to the sacredness of Mother Earth, as described here when she transcribed a voice speaking to her:

“I am the one whose praise echoes on high. / I adorn all the earth. / I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. / I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. / I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams. / I am the rain coming from the dew / that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life. / I call forth tears, the aroma of holy work. / I am the yearning for good.”

Hildegard speaks often of the “web of creation” and an intense “power of greening” and says that:

“It is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord fills the Earth.’ This means that no creature, whether visible or invisible, lacks a spiritual life.”

I look forward to getting to know the unique woman who was Hildegard of Bingen.

Sanctuary

Bojangles cat under hanging flowers 22 MAY 2018One of my greatest joys in life has been that of providing loving, compassionate care to animals, mostly dogs and cats. Caring for a multitude of animals, including those with special needs, has brought me tremendous heartache along with expansive joy and I wouldn’t change a single moment. All of these marvelous beings gave  (and continue to give) to me far more than I ever gave to them. 

Since some nearly thirty years ago, when I first became involved with animal rescue efforts, my dream has been to create a place of sanctuary for the animals, even if limited to that of a personal home-haven. This has been both a spiritual and emotional calling, and a healing journey for me as well as for the animals. I believe this is why three stray cats showed up during the past twelve months — to remind me that wherever I am, I can offer a safe haven to those who are lost or in need of care. 

With this realization of purpose, I feel blessed to have moved to and live in a place where I can again provide sanctuary.

Home Sweet Home 14 May 2018

May All Beings Be Happy

When I was attending the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, one of my favorite prayer mantras was this one … May All Beings Be Happy. I return to it often in my morning devotions and wanted to share this lovely version by Deva Premal and Miten with you. Blessings!

 

the edge

Bloodroot1

Bloodroot

Most people who encourage spiritual and psychological growth point to each of us finding our unique edge of discomfort … and then learning how to become at ease with and permeable to that experience. Not to deny it or hide from it. I’m in the centrifuge of that transformational space.

Another angle on this is understanding whether we see “difference” through the lens of threat or curiosity? Can we shift ourselves into curiosity?

In the most recent interview at On Being with Krista Tippett, Krista spoke with angel Kyodo williams who said, about the current phase of human evolution:

“We’re digesting the material of the misalignment. We’re digesting the material of how intolerable it is to be so intolerant. We’re digesting the material of 400, 500 years of historical context that we have decided to leave behind our heads, and we are choosing to turn over our shoulders and say: I must face this, because it is intolerable to live in any other way than a way that allows me to be in contact with my full, loving, human self.”

She continued on this topic of transition by saying that,

“There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. The willingness to be in denial is dying in a meaningful number of us, the tipping point. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift.”

All of which follows each of us to our own edge of growth, doesn’t it? How can we expand kindness, compassion, and love in ever-widening spirals and carpets of beauty?

Forsythia and Purple flowers on hill april 6 2018

the human need to be “the only one”

We of the human species are unique in many ways, different from other species in our form and ways of constructing the world around us. All the Beings who exist in the more-than-human world are unique as well, each in their own ways. We can observe a lot of our differences, from external appearance to actions. What we cannot do, however, is know what any other species is thinking, feeling, or believing. We make guesses but we cannot know. This is one area that troubles me deeply about human ego.

cats on the porchI read widely across many genres of fiction and non-fiction, yet find myself curious as to why humans have such a tendency to proclaim that we know what other Beings perceive and conceptualize from within their inter-related experiences of living. I have lived intimately with dogs and cats for most of my life; I can try to guess what one of the blessed beings is thinking, but I cannot know their thoughts. Even people who have psychic gifts still process what they believe they are receiving from an animal or other natural Being, but it may not be entirely valid because they receive through their own context and human nature. This anthropocentric arrogance puzzles and, yes, annoys me.

It’s really very simple. You cannot know what I think, feel, or believe unless I tell you in some way, usually through human language. You can hazard a guess, especially if you know me well, but even in conversation or through writing, we can conceal or reveal only what we wish someone else to know. Why, then, would we presume to know what another species may be able to think, feel, or believe?

And yet, this presumption spills over into dialogue among people who ought to know better. For instance, this morning, I was listening to a podcast where the interviewer said, as if there could be no doubt:

It’s only human beings that have this curiosity to understand, ‘What’s that up in the sky? How do we fit into that? Who are we? Where do we come from?’

Really? Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. We have no way of knowing. Unless and until humans are able to converse with other Beings, we will never know. Let’s try not to keep putting ourselves in that special construct of creation that revolves around “it’s only human beings that [fill in the blank].” Let’s acknowledge our unknowing. Instead of saying “only human beings have [X]” let’s remove the “only” and allow our human qualities to express themselves on their own merit.

The Divine created all Life, all Beings, and only She knows the unseen landscape of each Being’s mind, soul, and spirit.

naked crooked tree early spring 2018