Friday, May 10, 2013

Let us begin the Beguine…

Like most good little parochial school girls, at one point in time I thought I would enter the convent. My piety peaked in third  grade, when we had a nun who was both pretty and nice. That year, on Halloween, as was often the case, we were allowed to wear costumes to school – as long as we came dressed as a saint or other holy personage.

This was relatively easy. All the altar boys had to do was wear their cassocks and surplices and they could be Francis Xavier or Isaac Jogues (who was wildly popular with the boys because of the viciousness of his demise: clubbed to death by the Indians he was trying to convert, his fingers gnawed to the bone by those heathen Mohawks).

All girls needed was an “angel gown” – a pastel, long-sleeved shift – and some sort of plain head scarf. Easily accessorized, you could turn this into just about anything: Blue angel gown, carry a baby doll – you’re the Blessed Virgin. Baby carriage wheel? That would be St. Catherine, tortured on the wheel. (No, not a baby carriage wheel.) My sister Kath did this one year.  Basket of plastic roses and a crown: St. Elizabeth of Hungary (my choice on one occasion).

When I was in third grade, I decided to go as a nun (what? not a holy enough personage for you???).  The core part of my outfit was a shapeless black dress that, over the years, served as a witch costume, a professor, a priest, and a nun. This was augmented by some sort of bib, wimple and veil that I rigged up. Apparently not all that successfully. At the end of the day, as we were heading out the door, Sister Marie Therese asked me whether I was supposed to be a nun. Sigh!

I had another little romantic vision of myself as a nun when, a couple of years later, I read the Vision Book Lydia Longley, First American Nun. Lydia was a Massachusetts girl, kidnapped from the farmstead by Indians during the King Phillip War of the late 17th century. Somehow, she ended up in Montreal, converted from Puritanism to Catholicism, and became a nun.

That was pretty much it.

By the time I was in high school, urged to pray for a vacation, my friends and I were facetiously claiming that we were praying against having a vocation. The nuns would often say things like “it’s the ones you least expect” – i.e., well-rounded girls with personality – but, in truth, the girls who “went in” were usually a combination of the ones you least expected (who seldom stayed for long) and the ones you most expected (quiet, pious girls who lasted). 

My senior year, I was invited, along with the other student council presidents of the all-girls schools in New England that were run by “our” order, to a couple of day long student council retreat. It was held at the same place where the order’s postulants were in training. In between praying and trying to solve thorny student council issues like trying to improve school spirit, we socialized with those newbies. At some point during the retreat, we all figured out that this was a recruitment event, at which point we all turned off whatever it was that those wholesome, jolly postulants were telling us about how swell it was to be there. Phew…

So while I was familiar with nuns, orders, vocations, postulants, novices, professed nuns, etc., I have to admit that, until I saw the obit in The Economist on the last of the Beguines, I had never heard of them. Assuming that you weren’t aware of them either, let us – ahem – begin the beguine.

AT THE heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The coziness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

…These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. (Source: The Economist)

And a few weeks ago, the last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died.

Unlike me, Marcella had wanted to be a nun, but she was near-blind, and no order would let her in. On second thought, she also wanted to work at something, which wasn’t always a possibility in the convent. (There are/were working orders – teachers, nurses – and contemplative orders, who pretty much prayed the day away.)

But Marcella had one thing going for her:

A rich aunt intervened with a donation to keep her there, and from the age of 21 she was a Beguine.

Marcella’s work was knitting baby clothing, and weaving cloth on a hand loom. She also played the organ, and “cheered up the sick, as she nursed them, by serenading them on banjo and accordion.” (Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m just as happy never to have taken ill in Belgium and being serenaded on banjo and accordion by a blind Beguine.)

The Beguine were independent sorts, by the way:

…the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive.

(Except for the burning alive, substitute nuns for Beguines, and some things never change.)

When the world became aware that it was down to end of the Beguines, the local government came a calling, bearing champagne and “beguine-shaped chocolates.” (Beguine comes from the French word béguin, which means both hood (as in the headdress worn by the Beguines) and flirtation (as in Begin the Beguine).)

Not that I would have had any more of a flirtation with going “in” if the beguinage and not just the regular old take-a-vow convent was on offer, but it is interesting to learn about them at this late stage of my life.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?

No comments: