Holding the light for others

Question: What could a lay woman from the 12th century possibly have in common with a lay woman in 2018? Answer: A movement of women called Beguines.

Beguines were committed lay women who followed this way of life from 12th century until quite recent times, mostly in Europe. They were women who chose an alternative to marriage or religious life. They lived simple, contemplative lives of service. They made personal vows or promises rather than the canonical vows that married women or nuns make. Initially they lived alone or in small communities. Their numbers grew and for safety they lived in large communities called Beguinages. By the 15th century one of these Beguinages housed 2000 women. They were artisans, women of wisdom and many were mystics. If you study the Spiritual Classics today, you may read Marguerite Porette’s work The Mirror of Simple Souls. She was imprisoned and burnt at the stake for that work.

The church in the middle ages was wealthy and powerful with little outreach to the poor. A large part of Beguine life was living the vita apostolica ‒ apostolic life ‒ in caring for the socially marginalised, the sick and the destitute. These women were the first nurses, midwives and teachers. They were often called on to sit with the dying, prepare the body for burial and attend the funeral. They cared for lepers and created the first hospices. In the large Beguinages they had The Table of the Holy Spirit, which was similar to our Vinnies outreach. They took particular care of women.

Five years ago I came to live at the Benedictine Abbey at Jamberoo and work in the Sisters’ candle-making business. At that time I read Laura Swan’s Book The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement and found it fascinating. After reading it again recently, I felt I had found some kindred spirits. I wondered if it were possible that I could be one of these women. Before his episcopal ordination, Bishop Brian Mascord made a retreat here at the Abbey. After listening to him describe the deep trust it took for him to say “Yes”, I felt inspired to follow what I was hearing within me and begin a discussion with the Abbey community. The community is open to supporting new expressions of commitment within the church, and has chosen to stand with me in my commitment to become a Beguine.

I am a Hunter Valley girl, educated at St Mary’s and St Peter’s High Schools, Maitland. I have been a veterinary nurse and a funeral director. I have spent time in initial formation with the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar, and the Benedictine Nuns of Jamberoo. The excellent formation I received in religious life has provided a framework for me to formulate my life values and personal vows as a Beguine.

I have chosen to make three vows (promises):

  1. Simplicity of Life
  2. Contemplative Listening
  3. Service of Praying Compline (night prayer) for all survivors of sexual abuse and for freedom and dignity for all women. In living simply I endeavour to practise conscious consumerism out of respect for others and our planet, to recycle and repurpose, to choose ethically made products and to avoid large corporate entities in favour of local community. In living Contemplative Listening, I honour my desire for wholeness by committing to personal and spiritual growth through reading, prayer, and solitude, taking the Rule of St Benedict as my guide. The vow of service is the most important part for me. According to Our Watch one woman dies each week in Australia due to male violence. According to the Association of Child Welfare Agencies, each week more than 60 children are placed in care because home isn’t a safe place. Child sexual abuse affects some one in three girls. This is why I pray. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have valued someone holding the light for me in my recovery from my trauma. My Compline prayer for survivors and for women is my way of holding the light for others. As I move into my commitment as a Beguine, I feel I have 800 years of women standing with me as well as the support of the beautiful community of Benedictine women here at Jamberoo Abbey.   

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Lee-Ann Wein Image
Lee-Ann Wein

Lee-Ann Wein is following the Beguine way of life at Jamberoo Abbey.

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