Female mystics of the 13th to the 16th centuries who lived the lives of lay monastics without formal vows, the beguines have much to say to Christians of today. Before I dive in to writing a bit about them, check out the following clip of some singers delivering a beautiful rendition of "Cordis ac vocis" - a little music to listen to whilst reading from some manuscripts found in beguine communities.
The beguines were essentially women who lived lives nearly like nuns of varying religious orders, but still lived in the world and did not take formal religious vows. In the beginning, from what I can tell, they were quite influenced by the Franciscan order, which to me, is never a bad place to start. Instead of any kind of formal organization as such, beguine women lived in communities together where they still owned property and the like, but lived lives of prayer and service to the poor. In some ways, this reminds me much of the Devotio Moderna movement that sprung up a little later on with Geert Grote (a famous figure in this movement being Thomas a Kempis).
The spirituality of the beguines is rich, mystical, and poetic. In its earlier days, it seems to have hit its peak in the writings of two of the more famous beguine writers, Mechthild of Magdeburg and the mysterious Hadewijch.
Mechthild of Magdeburg is a powerful read. Blessed by countless visions, she was the author of the work known as The Flowing Light of the Godhead, a classic of medieval mysticism. Her work is a wild combination of frightening visions of Hell interspersed with beatific descriptions of the joy the soul finds in God, and spiced with fiery denunciations of corruption within the Church (an aspect very common, I have found, in the writings of other famous mystics of the time, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Elizabeth of Schonau, and later on, St. Catherine of Siena).
Hadewijch, on the other hand, is a much more enigmatic figure, of whom really very little is known. Her poetry is rapturous to read, and her mystical writings were praised by the "Doctor admirabilus" himself, Bl John of Ruysbroeck.
Other famous individuals include the famed and reportedly "first beguine"1, Bl. Mary of Oignies, who was known to wear all white, engaged in extreme mortifications and penances, was the subject of numerous visions and ecstacies, and lived a life in complete imitation of the Passion of Christ.
What is saddening is that despite the seemingly fruitful beginnings of the beguine movement, over the next couple of centuries, some beguines began to fall into heretical thought. The most notable of these, perhaps, is Marguerite de Porete, a beguine executed for heresy circa 1310. Her work, The Mirror of Simple Souls is experiencing somewhat of an upsurge in interest nowadays, presumably more amongst the same crowd who have somehow warped St. Hildegard of Bingen into a New Age visionary than amongst those genuinely interested in medieval mysticism. For myself, a quick perusal of the work is alarming at best in what it says. In its pages, Marguerite espouses a kind of spiritual indifference that is bizarre at best (not even Meister Eckhart in his own more questionable statements goes even half as far as she does), writing that if souls advanced in the Christian life were to be asked "if they wished, in this life, to be certain of their salvation, they would say no"2. She also goes on to state that the Mass is a matter of indifference - the most profound prayer of the Church itself, of which St. Pio of Pietrelcina wrote that "It would be easier for the earth to carry on without the sun than without the Holy Mass."3
It's a sad thing indeed that the beguines later fell into the heresy of quietism, amongst others by the sounds of it. But to only focus on the more unorthodox writings of this mystical movement is to ignore what I feel is a fruitful wellspring of what I would call lay monastic spirituality.
1 - Bernard McGinn, "James of Vitry: The Life of Mary of Oignies", The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, pg. 60
2 - The Mirror of Simple Souls, IX
3 - Qtd. in Fr. Charles Mortimer Carty, Padre Pio: The Stigmatist