In the 12th century there arose in Rhenish Germany, Belgium, and Holland, an unusual type of devout female community whose members were called “beguines”. Although these women lived a sort of monastic life, they were not nuns, for they took no vows. They were single, yet were free to return to the world and marry whenever they chose. Bound by no vow of poverty, they continued to hold their own property. They observed a spirit of poverty, nonetheless, in that they accepted no alms, and earned their living by lace-making and needlework. Each monastery was independent of all others. Called “beguinages”, the monasteries were little walled villages in which a church, located on a central square, was surrounded on four sides by brick row-houses. Each beguine lived in one of these cottages, either alone or with another beguine, or with a rent-paying guest; or, if they were well-to-do, with a female servant. The beguines did dress like nuns, however, in a blue habit and white veil and wimple. We hear little about them today, but there are still convents of beguines in Belgium. I visited a beguinage some years ago and had a pleasant chat with a couple of these devout, practical “religious laywomen”.
By now some readers may have wondered what connection the name “beguine” has with the dance of the same name that originated in the French Caribbean Island of Martinique. The answer is, “No connection.” Although spelled the same, the word beguine had a totally different origin in each case.
Gertrude the Beguine was a citizen of Delft, in the Netherlands. Little is known of her early life except that she was engaged to marry, but then was rejected by her fiance in favor of another woman. Gertrude at first agonized over the loss, especially because her rival had won the battle rather unfairly. Eventually, however, she began to see (as many of us see in our seeming misfortunes) an indication that God had other plans for her. In this mood, she even went out of her way to be kind to the woman who had supplanted her.
Feeling a call to the devotional life, Gertrude first sought employment as the live-in servant of a beguine of Delft. After a while she decided to become a beguine herself. She spent the two customary years of “novitiate” in the central house; then she moved into one of the cottages of the Delft beguinage.
Time proved that her loss of a fiance had indeed been providential. Gertrude became a contemplative showered with rich spiritual graces. Around 1339 a holy friend predicted that she would receive the stigmata –that is, wounds like those that Christ received in the crucifixion.
The prophecy was fulfilled on Good Friday 1340. There appeared in Gertrude’s hands, feet, and side, wounds that, at the outset, bled seven times a day. Her secret could not be easily kept, and soon people from all around came to see this living image of Christ crucified. The publicity became a great trial to Gertrude, for it stole away her privacy and her prayer-time. She therefore asked God*s help. In response, the stigmata ceased to bleed, although the wounds remained.
During the rest of her brief life, the many sufferings that God permitted Gertrude to experience were offset by other spiritual gifts. She was able, for example, to read the thoughts of others; and sometimes she became mysteriously aware of what was happening far away, or even future events.
Gertrude the Beguine of Delft died on the feast of the Epiphany in 1358. Moments before her death she said, “I am longing to go home!”
Blessed Gertrude was one of those rare souls whom Jesus calls to a spiritual intimacy. In this life we ordinary Christians cannot understand such an intimacy. In heaven, however, we will be able to. As St. Paul says, “Then I shall know even as I am known.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara