During one of our heat waves last month, I was at Kinsmen Beach with my kids, and I overheard a conversation between two young girls nearby. They were probably, 9 or 10 years old. One was singing a song she must have learned at VBS or in Sunday school, and suddenly she stops singing and says to her friend, “I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?” The other girl thinks for a moment, and says, “No, but I am a lesbian. Or maybe bi. Wait, who is it that Christians love again?”
I didn’t hear the first girl’s response (which is too bad, because I’d love to know how she fielded that one!), and it actually wasn’t until I was driving home that I put together that the second girl hadn’t immediately recognized the word “Christian” as a religious identity, but instead had mistaken it for an unfamiliar romantic identity.
But, even so, her question stuck with me, who do Christians love? If we are known by our love, what does who we love and how we love them say about what it means to be part of this community?
Last week I talked a little about the group of medieval mystics known as the Beguines. The Beguines were a sort of unofficial but wildly popular order of religious women in the Middle Ages, but they were different from nuns in that they did not vow lifelong poverty, chastity, and obedience. These women worked as weavers and domestic laborers to support their ministries as teachers, healers, and contemplatives. While women were in the order, they were expected to remain single, but there was no expectation that members promise to stay celibate forever.
Another thing that made the Beguines somewhat different from other religious orders was their emphasis on the love and the humanity of Jesus. This was in a time when institutional religion was much more interested in talking about the divine aspects of Jesus, the resurrected Christ sitting up at the right hand of the Father. And, in this period, if priests did talk about the life or humanity of Jesus, it was primarily in the context of his suffering and death on the cross. The “red letters” as they say, the words Jesus spoke here on earth, and the stories about the things he did while was here, they weren’t read quite as often.
But the Beguines read them. And not only read them, but began translating and sharing them, and the whole Bible, into languages that everyday people could understand. Back in the Middle Ages, Bibles were not only rare, but they were all written in Latin, a language that hardly any laypeople could speak, let alone read. But the Beguines loved Jesus and saw the power of his words and wanted to share them with anyone who had ears to hear, that they might come to know Jesus. To love him and long for him and awaken to their own innate and powerful connection the Divine. It was the Beguines’ longing for Jesus, for the real, human, person of Jesus, a longing that Simeon and Anna knew well, this longing was at the core of who the Beguines were as Christians.
If I had to guess, I don’t think the Beguines would have been all that phased by the misunderstanding the little girl at the beach had. I think they might have answered hey “who do Christians love” question simply by saying, “Christians love Jesus.”
Now I will admit that the level of passion for Christ that the Beguines cultivated sounds strange to modern ears. They weren’t shy about using romantic language to give voice to their longing. The great secular literary trope of the Middle Ages was that of the “Courtly Love” genre. Think, Tristan and Iseult or the Canterbury Tales, or King Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. So, the Beguines harnessed this familiar secular language of love and desire to express their own longing for Christ. These women would imagine themselves as a courtly Lady longing for her faraway Lord, or just as often, they would compare themselves to the lowly knight or vassal longing for the unattainable noble Lady, who symbolized Christ (they weren’t as particular about gender back then, they were more concerned with identifying with the socially inferior character, the lovesick one, consumed by longing).
Honestly, if I’m trying to contextualize the Beguines’ sense of Christianity, comparing it to an “orientation” to loving Jesus doesn’t feel that far off. Their love for the person of Jesus was at the center of everything they did.
But the thing about the Beguines is that they didn’t stop at simply “loving Jesus.” To move forward in their holy quest to be “like Christ,” and ultimately unite as one with Christ as they did in their mystical visions, they were inspired to not just love Christ, but to love like Christ loved. The Beguines organized a strikingly egalitarian community for their time. The more institutional religious orders tended to only accept educated and noble women. And though the Beguines started out that way, they didn’t stay that way long. Soon they accepted any woman who wanted to follow in the way of Christ, regardless of her education or status. Men, too, took inspiration from their way and set up their own parallel communities, calling themselves Beghards.
There’s nothing wrong with doing charity work or social justice advocacy simply because it is the right thing to do, or because your heart calls you toward compassion, or because it pleases God to see us love our neighbors. For sure, so much good has been done and is being done in the world for these simple reasons.
But, as a Christian, I am so intrigued by the Beguines’ approach. Their justice work arose so purely out of love and longing for the person of Jesus. They contemplated his words, his life, his love, day and night, and the only other thing they could do to draw them yet closer to him was to actively embody his way of living and loving. Where other mystics and religious sisters sought mystical union through cloistered or reclusive contemplation, the Beguines sought to embody Christ out in the world.
In their single-minded journey to embodied oneness with Christ, I wonder how many sick people they healed or comforted, how many hungry people they fed, or how many strangers they welcomed, and all in the name of love of Christ.
Maybe I should expand my imagined Beguine-answer to the girl’s question at the beach, “Who do Christians love?” Maybe a Beguine actually would say, “Christians love Jesus. And that means loving those whom Jesus loved.”
I want to close with some words from the Beguine, Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book called Of Seven Things Concerning the Way of Love, in which she is describing, as best as words can, how her most innate nature, how the deepest core of who she is, is that which desires union with Christ, how it is in the very most innate nature of humans to love our divine creator, sustainer, and redeemer:
The fish in the water cannot drown,
The bird in the air cannot fall,
Gold is not destroyed by fire,
But there receives its shine and gloss.
God has given to all creatures
The way to follow their own nature.
How then could I resist my nature?
I have perforce left all to enter into God
Who is my Father by nature,
My Brother by His humanity, my Betrothed by love,
And I am His since before time began.
Amen, Mother Mechthild!
- Written by Jessie Crabtree for September 12, 2021