In a Time of Desolation, A Calling for New Beguines?

What if there were a place for women to go who love the Lord, who felt drawn to a life of prayer and intimate union with Him, who desired a life devoted to poverty, chastity and obedience but who, for any number of reasons, could not pursue traditional religious life?

What if there were a house of … let’s say “dedicated” ladies who devoted themselves to a quiet, orderly life of prayer and good works, who voluntarily took upon themselves the task of praying for others, praying for the Church and the world, of living a life of fraternal charity in community, of engaging in mental prayer, and attending daily Mass and reciting the Divine Office in their traditional forms?

What if such a … group … were open to receiving guests for spiritual retreats in a secluded country setting where there is opportunity for spiritual direction and fresh air and outdoor work? Do you think there might be some interest?

I come back again to my thoughts on “Lost Vocations.” What if there were a whole demographic cohort of women who were the right age at decidedly the wrong time, while the religious life as it had been known, was being torn down to its roots? What if they have been turned away because they have health issues? Or because they are too old for formation? Or – and here’s the really sticky one – if they have come to realize they cannot concede any part of the Faith to fit into the New Paradigm of the Novusordoist compromise (even in its “conservative” guise) and go along with the Pope Francis-rebellion against Christ?

What do you do if you think you have a vocation to religious life and all the world is busy groaning to find itself Bergoglian?

It seems a strange time, doesn’t it, to be thinking about starting something? At a moment when in the Church and the world, all Hell seems literally to be loosed. But that is thinking the thoughts of time, and of this world. God tends to have some funny timing, and from the point of view of the supernatural realities, what better time could there possibly be to dedicate one’s self to a life of intense prayer and union with the suffering Christ, than when His Holy Church is being scourged and crowned with thorns and denied by those who profess to love her?

A friend wrote today on Facebook that “a demand” is being made “for people to obey something that is patently morally wrong and against Revelation and Tradition.

It’s a bind – because where is Peter, there is the Church – and for people to choose to leave because of an unworthy successor…?”

As Father David Nix wrote a few weeks back, in a turn of phrase that struck me to my core: the Church is being crucified; will you leave her?

Obviously no. Never. One does not leave the Church; one holds fast to what one knows is true. If one is turned away from the religious life for refusing to stop calling out and denouncing the evil that has infiltrated us and finally almost conquered the Church; if one is kicked out of one’s monastery, one’s rectory, one’s college, one’s religious order, one’s diocese for refusing to go along… one takes it on the chin and keeps praying. One never leaves any of those things voluntarily; one waits to be kicked out. And until that happens, one continues to preach and teach the One True Faith. To denounce the deception and cunning lies and errors. God provides a roof when the need arises.

OK, but everyone wants to know: what, right now, can we do?

I spent 15 years as an “activist,” and increasingly understood through all that time that it was the wrong way. The Francis revolution shows us that this is not a battle over laws or medical ethics. It is a war for souls. One does not fight a war for souls by circulating petitions or organizing rallies.

In the long history of the Church’s many crises, God has shown us how He expects us to answer attacks on the Faith. And, in case we had failed to get the message, Our Lady has come to spell it out plainly: Prayer. Penance. Sacrifice. The spiritual war must be fought with spiritual weapons. The complete “metanoia” – the turning of one’s self back to the Lord, the turning away from the world, the flesh and the devil; the renunciation of self; the stripping away of faults; the single-minded pursuit of holiness.

I know that many people are starting to come to these realizations; the time for activism is closing and the time for sacrifice is upon us. I know that a lot of people are turning not only to a more intensified prayer life, but are starting to think more seriously about the priesthood and the religious life. Ah, but there’s the rub, right? Virtually the entire institution of the Church is now in the hands of our enemies. Christ’s enemies (let’s not mince words.)

If the only way to be accepted in religious life is to at least pay lip service to the Revolutionaries, one is sunk before one is out of dry dock. Even if one finds a religious community that is trying to stay Catholic, they more than anyone must keep their heads well down, and admitting someone like you is out of the question. (Particularly if you’ve been a bit… ah… vocal about it. Ahem…)

But there is a way forward, for those with a bit of a pioneer spirit, a bit of imagination and courage or, perhaps one might say, a counter-revolutionary spirit.

As always in the Church, we may look to the past for guidance. In the late 12th century, for various complex reasons, there was a large population of women who could not enter religious life. Religious houses were full up or dowries were too burdensome for devout but low born families. As the Catholic Encyclopedia put it, “It was the age of the Crusades, and the land teemed with desolate women.”

A movement started in the Catholic Low Countries, modern day Belgium and Netherlands, spreading into Germany and France, in which women would club together and live a form of religious life, sometimes in simple or “private” vows made to a priest, praying, living in community according to a rule of life, wearing a distinctive habit, doing penance and good works among their neighbours.

Beguines lived in the centre of the newly revitalized European towns and cities, rubbing shoulders with their neighbours in ways that cloistered nuns never could. In modern terms (though they are not strictly the same) Beguines were simply an early form of what we would now call “active” or “apostolic” religious life. They cared for the sick and elderly and each other, taught children and did manual labour to earn a living in the same way the nuns did, doing fine needlework and lacemaking and even taking in washing. And in their devotion to this semi-monastic style of life they tended to become mystics and some are canonized saints. The Beguines are credited — along with the Franciscan and Dominican mendicants — with doing more to develop popular devotion to the Faith among ordinary people in the middle ages than the more remote monks and cloistered nuns.

In the Low Countries Beguines survived remarkably robustly through centuries of ups and downs, continuing their version of Catholic contemplative/active religious life even through the Protestant Reformation and the takeover of their countries by Lutherans and Calvinists. The last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, lived in her Beguinage in Kortrijk until she died in April, 2013.

The middle ages saw an extraordinary growth of the Beguine movement in most western European countries, and it is estimated that at its height there were tens of thousands of them, with a beguinage in even small towns.

Somewhat later, in Spain, a similar situation created a comparable response in the form of a “beata,” a form of life that allowed women without dowries (again) to create a recognized form of devoted life without the legal restrictions – and expense – of formal, vowed religious life.

In her book, “Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World,” Mary E. Giles writes, “The path [of a beata] was essentially self-defined; the extent of one’s vows, for example, varied tremendously. Living conditions also varied; a beata might live in a beaterio, almost like a nun in a convent, or in her own home. Like a nun she might live a life of intense spiritual engagement. Unlike the nun, however, the beata enjoyed freedom of movement and might determine the nature of her own work.”

Whatever it is called, this form of life seems to have had the same framework; a commitment that does not involve formal, canonical vows before a bishop; a common rule of life; a contemplative emphasis on prayer, penance and all the elements present in religious life; community life; a limited apostolic activity appropriate to the needs of the surrounding area. This highly adaptable and flexible framework, I suggest, is ideal for our current circumstances, including, at the same time, as a means of accommodating older women or those with health limitations and of avoiding problematic episcopal entanglements in our present uncertain state. (“Teetering on the edge of universal schism and total ecclesiastical chaos,” is how some have described it.)

There is no law anywhere that prevents a group of, say, four or five like-minded ladies sharing a large house, setting aside a part of the house as an oratory, dressing very modestly and similarly, and getting up very early every day to sing their prayers together in the ancient language of the Church. Dedicating themselves privately – before a sympathetic and helpful priest – to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Adopting a rule of life that is based, perhaps, on the ancient and highly adaptable Rule of St. Augustine.

Possibly our own times calls for the adoption of the “five pillars” of the Praemonstratensian life: the praise of God in choir, the zeal for souls, the spirit of penance, devotion to the Holy Eucharist and devotion to Our Lady.

What is to stop them from raising money by making goat cheese and honey, sewing vestments and making other “prodotti monastici” (quite an industry in Italy)? Nothing. And nothing could stop them from helping and serving the people in the neighbourhood, visiting the old folks homes, getting to know their neighbours and helping wherever they are needed in a small, rural town.

What is to stop them from making a (very) long retreat or a series of retreats at a sympathetic “above-ground” monastery before starting, in order to learn more about how to get on in community, how to pray in choro.

What if such ladies were ultimately to go into business together, to start something like what the Italians call an “agritourismo”? A country B&B in a pleasant, rural area, where women could come for a little quiet time, to listen to and participate in the Divine Office, and go to Mass daily in the traditional rites of the Church. Such women could benefit from the fresh air and some light gardening, walks in the countryside and wholesome food from the sist… err… the ladies’ garden. What if conferences of a spiritual nature could be organized from time to time? Would there be any interest in that, do we think?

Nothing, absolutely nothing whatever can stop a group of ladies from doing some or all of these things. And should the day come when sanity and order and decorum of worship is restored in the Church, miraculously or otherwise, perhaps such ladies could approach a bishop to help them “regularize” into something more canonical. And in the meantime, some good works could be done, the Spiritual Works of Mercy, perhaps, that are all but forgotten as a focus of the apostolic life.

The simple fact is that lay people can do pretty much whatever they want, and no bishop anywhere can do anything about it. And no secular government would care either. We perhaps forget sometimes that the Christian is radically free in a way that transcends the limitations of politics, even Church politics. We know from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we are free to make choices about our lives, about the direction we will take either towards or away from God.

Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude. – CCC 1731

No pope, no bishop, no conclave, no band of vicious heretics, no matter how powerful, no government or oligarchy can do anything to stop us making the choice for Christ, to live a life of holiness and peace.

St. Douceline of Marseilles, pray for us.

St. Norbert of Xanten, defender of the Holy Eucharist, pray for us.

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