Tracing the First Mystical Women’s Movement: a Beguine Pilgrimage

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(Conventual Church of the Immaculate Conception)

this past May, I sent out an invitation to join the “Spirit of the Beguines” Pilgrimage and Retreat this September where I will be lecturing and enjoying visiting five different Beguinages in Belgium.  If you are thinking of joining the Pilgrimage – now is the time to sign up; Registration closes July 20.

You Are Invited……

This September I am joining Susan Coppage Evans on a Pilgrimage to Belgium to study the Beguines. Susan has an intuition that the Beguine movement, which was the women’s movement of the Middle Ages, holds some promise and insight for our times too.  I think she is on to something.  This movement was all about 1) community and 2) service.  It was not about religious authority and vow-control therefore (and for this reason it was opposed by the papacy of the time and much of the status quo) but about living authentic lives of learning, service and mutual sharing.

Today lots of groups, the “new monastics” and others, are looking to life-styles that are not just market-driven but also are not religion-bound.  Places–spaces–where learning and soul-growth happens along with service toward and with others.  Do the Beguines hold some keys to this kind of movement?  Join us on the pilgrimage, learn more about them, enter their morphic field, and decide for yourself.

 In the following article, Susan explains more about the Beguines and the passion behind the pilgrimage. Retreat attendance needs to be confirmed in June and the cost increases on June 1st – so let us know son  if you are thinking about joining us!


The Béguinage of Bruges



Imagining and Creating
New Communities:
The Beguines did it in the Middle Ages, Can’t we now?

Our Beguine ancestors seem to say, “Yes, we did it over a thousand years ago – before all the conveniences of communication that you have today.  We found ways to live authentic, meaningful and helpful lives in community. We were not limited by our time or culture.  We made a difference and the world still needs that. Learn how you can best nourish and be nourished in community. Dream it, imagine it, and work with others to create it.”

In March of 2013, my focus was intensely on the retreat and pilgrimage to Hildegard’s Rhineland that I was leading. As the retreat came to a close, I began shifting my focus to traveling through the nearby region with my husband.  When I looked at the map and our loosely planned itinerary, which only required that we return the car in Amsterdam, I realized that our path took us right through the areas most densely populated with communities of Beguines during the Middle Ages. 

I learned about the Beguines initially through teachings by Matthew Fox and then through the writings of other spiritual writers. Something about these creative and courageous women grabbed my attention and once they had my attention they grabbed my heart.  So as my husband and I wound our way from Bingen, Germany through Belgium and up to Amsterdam, we stopped at Beguinages – many of which are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

beguinessewing.jpg.w300h191Women who were called Beguines began forming unique communities around 1200 AD. Prior to the formation of these communities, opportunities afforded women were to marry or to take vows to the Church. But during the time of the crusades, when many women were left to care for land, families and communities while men were off fighting, a new independence emerged. This independence coupled with the practical, compassionate spirituality practiced by newly formed groups like the Franciscans and Dominicans and the traditions of the traveling troubadour, gave women the courage and inspiration to live independently and with purpose.

 Beguine communities varied in their formation. Many were houses shared by a handful of women; others were large communities with nearly 1000 members. Beguines came from all backgrounds. Wealthier Beguines lived alone in their own homes within the community and provided support for houses that hosted numerous poorer Beguines in dormitory living. Beguine communities often included children – orphans and child prostitutes that were taken
in, supported, protected and educated.  Beguines were not nuns but they lived according to
their own Beguine community rules and they were free to leave and marry. At their peak, there were nearly a million Beguines and they prospered for hundreds of years, the last Beguine died in Belgium in April 2013.

 Some refer to the Beguines as the first women’s movement. Certainly, they were courageous in stepping out of traditional roles which resulted in persecution and violence. Beguine communities formed during a very fertile time in history.  As societies moved from a barter economy to a coin economy, Beguines participated in the economy. They played a significant role in the textile industry, producing lace and other materials. And as royalty realized that their wealth increased with an educated populous, Beguines were employed to teach literacy.

 The driving force behind the Beguine movement was an experiential spirituality that embodied the compassion of Christ and sought both to live in contemplation and in compassionate service.  Far from the hierarchical religion of the day, Beguines lived a spiritual life that was both humbling and empowering in its experience of unity with God. God was experienced as much as Mother as Father and as much as Mystery as Known.

 There is much to learn from the Beguines, both in their spirituality and service as well as in their courage and creativity. Personally, I am attracted to the Beguines as models of discernment and innovation. I am curious as to what forms of community need to be birthed in my time and culture. I read about and witness the dwindling of church attendance. I watch with interest as new movements develop like the New Monastics, on-line spiritual communities and “virtual monasteries”. I visit Co-Housing communities and read about New Urbanism.

 When my husband and I walked the cobblestone paths in Belgium’s Beguinages, I recognized the brick architecture from my youth. The Beguinages reminded me of the row-homes of Baltimore. Now, my imagination wanders and I imagine a community of neighbors, like the Beguines who choose to live in support of one another and of our wider community. I imagine as my husband and I enter retirement there might yet be a different type of community that sustains us and fosters (puts to work) our talents and gifts.  I imagine that sweet spot that the Beguines fostered: a community of spiritual friends that is steeped in solitude and togetherness, action and non-action, organization and freedom, study and activity.

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The Grand Béguinage of Leuven faculty club

 This September I am returning to the Beguinages of Belgium with colleagues including Matthew Fox and a small group of pilgrims to study the Beguines and to be like the Beguines in their “experiential” approach. We will visit the cobblestones of five Beguinages; we will immerse ourselves in the emotional, spiritual and physical environment of the Beguines and see what emerges for each participant. Just as the Beguinages were all independent and developed according those who lived amongst them, so will the retreat foster and support the percolation of individual ideas and inspirations.  It will be an interfaith, inter-denominational gathering encouraging each participant to lean into the wisdom and courage needed to support communities – new and old.

 Yes, there has been a lot of planning to bring forth this retreat but there has also been a sense of following – a “yes” to the calling forth.   There has been amazing synchronicities amongst newly met colleagues. It feels as if this pilgrimage is blessed by our Beguine ancestors who seem to say, “Yes, we did it over a thousand years ago – before all the conveniences of communication that you have today.  We found ways to live authentic, meaningful and helpful lives in community. We were not limited by our time or culture.  We made a difference and the world still needs that. Learn how you can best nourish and be nourished in community. Dream it, imagine it, and work with others to create it.”

 If you want to drink deep of the Beguine movement and have it influence your communities- those already birthed and those yet to be birthed, join us in September.   Register by the end of this month to be one of the 28 people, including teachers, on the retreat.   Registration information and a detailed itinerary can be found on my website:

Susan Coppage Evans, D.Min
Graduate of University of Creation Spirituality
Founder of Creation Spirituality Communities
Retreat Leader through WholeHearted, Inc.


One thought on “Tracing the First Mystical Women’s Movement: a Beguine Pilgrimage

  1. Judith Jessop

    Having recently come across the Beguines I am really interested in them as a model for living today. I am moving into Pioneer Ministry within the UK Methodist Church and intend living as a religious solitary but in connection with others. My “new Monastic” model to date has been the friar communities, particularly Franciscan, but as a woman I am really excited about the Beguine tradition.
    I can’t come on the pilgrimage in September but would really love to be part of the ongoing conversation.


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