HADEWIJCH THE BEGUINE
How could I believe this
If I had not found it true?
The soul that wanders in free nakedness
Births all that is and will be,
Participates in ecstasy
In engendering the Son
In creation and re-creation
Of all the worlds.
In sublimest mystery
All words drown.
From: Andrew Harvey (translator) Love is Everything: A Year with Hadewijch of Antwerp: 365 Poems Singapore: Medio Media, 2002 (Forewords by Matthew Fox and Laurence Freeman)
Hadewijch of Antwerp lived in the 13th. century. She was a Beguine, part of a women’s lay order who took no religious vows beyond promising not to marry “as long as they lived as Beguines”. They could leave at any time. For a period, they flourished in the Low Countries, France, and the Rhineland. The only definitely known Beguine community (Beguinage) in England was in Norwich in the 15th. century, well after the time of Hadewijch or indeed the English anchoress Julian. Beguines stressed voluntary poverty (though they could keep their own property), care for the sick, and a life of devotion. They worked in the world, for example in the woollen and silk industries, and in laundries. Leading figures such as Hadewijch also wrote for the wider community and effectively developed their own theology.
Andrew Harvey salutes Hadewijch as “one of the most incandescent and inspired of all Christian mystics” and sees her now as pointing the way to an “evolutionary transformation into embodied divinity” that “our devastating global dark night is both urgently demanding and making possible”. Literate in Latin and French as well as the middle Dutch in which she wrote, Hadewijch was well acquainted with with the literature of Christian mysticism and also the works of the troubadour tradition with its own philosophy of love. She is known to have written 31 letters, 14 visions, 45 poems and stanzas, and 16 poems in couplets, initially circulated in the Flemish lowlands and in the Rhineland.
Hadewijch was influential on the historically better known mystics of the 14th. century – particularly Jan Ruusbroec, who acknowledged her influence in his own work, and probably also Meister Eckhart. But she herself was forgotten by the end of the 15th. century and not rediscovered until the middle of the 19th. It is only in recent decades that she has once more received widespread attention.
The church and society of Hadewijch’s day were at best ambivalent about the Beguines and their relative independence. Hadewijch was able to flourish for a time, but “the intensity of her witness to Christ consciousness aroused bitter opposition from both church clerics and from within her own community”. She may have spent time in prison and possibly lived her last years serving and sleeping as an unpaid helper in a leprosarium.
By the early 14th. century, attitudes had become even harder. The French Beguine Marguerite de Porete was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, as a ‘relapsed heretic’. In her widely popular book The Mirror of Simple Souls, she had written that “a soul, annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires”. Her view was that such a soul could desire nothing but good, and was incapable of sin. But her words were interpreted as an invitation to ignore the moral law, and to suggest that one had no need for the Church and its sacraments or its code of ethics.
In 1311-12, the Council of Vienne attacked the Beguines for their alleged tendency to “dispute and preach about the highest Trinity and the divine essence and introduce opinions contrary to the Catholic faith concerning the articles of faith and the sacraments of the Church”. Although the Beguines continued to function, they became more cautious, more mainstream for their time and more likely to be aligned to other Orders. There were no more influential writers that I am aware of. Their wings had been clipped. They were no longer a threat.
I am drawn to Hadewijch’s writing for its eloquence in evoking profound contemplative experiences. Her spiritual boldness and unswerving commitment earn my deepest respect. She reveals the power in contemplative culture. Though not on the same path as Hadewijch, I am sensitive also to the heartbreaking gender, theological and institutional issues raised by her life and work.
My personal take-away is that innovative spiritual movements, however contemplative and mystical, are also part of the social world. They need to develop supportive communities, however precarious and marginal. They are effectively co-creating new culture, and it needs to be nurtured and protected. They also need to avoid turning entirely inwards and degenerating into cults. The Beguines seem to have got this balance about right, despite the highly repressive conditions of their time. This is a source of inspiration in itself.