Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Last Beguine

Amid the chaos in the Boston area, I sadly passed over this story. On April 14th, 2013, the world's last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, passed away at the age of 92. I must echo the sentiments of a colleague of mine: the Beguines survived the tumult of Church persecution, the decline of the medieval period, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and two world wars...but in the end they could not survive the forces of secularization in Western Europe.

This should serve as bitter sign for Western Christianity. The Beguines were crucial to both the flowering of Catholic mysticism in the medieval period, providing the Latin West with something comparable to the theology of the Greek East. They were also among the many Catholic predecessors to the Reformation several hundred years later and were the first real representatives of feminine spirituality - perhaps in the history of the Western world. Perhaps most importantly, they were a dynamic force for the declericalization of Latin Christianity, creating a credible model of lay spirituality that has often been imitated but never equaled. With Marcella Pattyn's death, a noble tradition in the history of Western spirituality has suddenly come to its conclusion, abruptly, and without much noticed, wiped away from living memory and consigned to the pages of the past.

It is impossible not to feel that, on some level, the end of the Beguines is like a mini-apocalypse, in the most un-theological sense of the term. Six hundred years of tradition has come to an end - not due to a revival religion, but rather through an epoch of cultural change. It is a forerunner to the changes that will be seen in other parts of Western Christianity.