For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been considering themes of love and longing for Christ from the perspective of the medieval women mystics known as the Beguines. Now, the beguines lived in a time in which most religious orders focused heavily on the divine side of Christ, and if they did contemplate Jesus’ more human side, it was usually in the context of his suffering and death on the cross. But the Beguines were different in that they instead emphasized Jesus’ life and especially his love.
In all their active and contemplative work, the Beguines sought a kind of mystical union with Christ, and they believed that following in his way and emulating his walk would bring them ever closer to that union. And unlike some of the more famous reclusive mystics, the Beguines’ longing for union with Christ led not to isolation in a cloister or hermitage, but instead to deeper engagement with the people in their community.
These women would go on to open hospitals, schools, shelters, and they translated and taught the Bible in the local languages, instead of in Latin as the institutional church required. And that got them in no small amount of trouble, but they loved Jesus, and once they met him through his words, they couldn’t stop seeking him, and sharing him.
The Beguines were so committed to their love and longing for Jesus, that they began to sort of become like him, at least in their commitment to charity and activism. But above all, the Beguines were inspired by the love they experienced in and from Christ.
In their writing they often drew from the medieval “Courtly Love” tradition—think Canterbury Tales or Arthurian Legends, and they used those literary tropes that were familiar to the people to help describe their love and longing for God.
This courtly love metaphor is one that takes some getting used to, but now that we’ve spent a couple of weeks with these gals, I think we’re ready to hear from them in their own words. One Beguine mother, Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote of a vision she had in which her soul takes flight and is then received by God in the heavenly courts. She described that experience like so:
When the poor soul comes to court, she is wise and courtly, and so she looks upon her God with joy. Ah, with what great love she is received there.
She is silent, intensely longing that He should praise her. Then with great desire He shows her His divine heart: it is like reddish gold, burning in a large charcoal fire. Then He places her in His ardent heart so that the Noble Prince (that would be Jesus) and the little servant girl (Mechthild) embrace and are united, as water and wine.
Then she is brought to nought and abandons herself, as if she had no strength left, while He (that is, Christ) is sick with love for her, as He has always been… thus she speaks: “Lord, You are my consolation, my desire, my flowing fountain, my sun, and I am your mirror.”
“I am your mirror,” is how she closes. Meghthild, in surrendering to her helpless longing for God, discovers that all this overwhelming, all-consuming desire she feels is but a mirror for God’s own love. All this longing she feels is but a two-dimensional reflection of the endlessly dimensional, depthless love God feels for her, the love-sickness with which Christ yearns for her.
I wonder what would happen if we moved through the world with a real, intentional, mindful sense of our profound belovedness. If we consistently considered the world around us through the lens of God’s boundless love.
- If we remembered that the love of God is so attentive that God knows the number of hairs on our heads (Matt 10:29).
- That God’s love is so unfailing that it persists even through our deepest moments of anguish (Ps 31:7).
- That God’s love is so compassionate, that even in the depths of grief, new mercies never cease (Lam 3:20-23).
- That God’s love is so full of grace that no sin could ever separate us from it (Eph 2:4-5).
- That God’s love is so devoted, that it corrects us, even when we don’t like it, as a loving parent corrects a child in whom they delight (Prov. 3:11-12).
- What if we believed that God’s love is so faithful that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from that love (Rom 8:38-39).
What if we believed in that love, every day? Really, actively clung to those verses that tell us again, and again how much God loves us? What if we experienced a vision like Meghthild of Magdeburg, and had that sensation of being drawn up to the courts of Heaven and into the very heart of God, where a “lovesick” Christ awaited us? Would it go to our heads? Would it make us feel like we had something special, that God had some preferential love for us, for me as an individual, maybe above my neighbor? Would it tempt us to envision ourselves as the hero of our courtly novel, and to see everyone around us merely as supporting characters?
The witness of the Beguines tells me, no.
I don’t think that’s what happens when we contemplate our divine belovedness. There is no selfishness in that kind of love. If anything, the Beguines’ witness has me wondering… if one of the greatest things we can do for ourselves, and (our neighbors) is to believe in our deep, innate belovedness.
I feel the Beguines calling our souls to pack up all our heaviest “baggage,” and charter a flight straight into the very heart of God where Christ awaits us with open arms. What if we let Jesus carry those bags for a while, not because he has to, but because he wants to. He yearns to. He longs for you and me in all our hot-mess-ness.
In the reddish gold charcoal forge of the very heart of God, who knows how Christ can transform our pain, our grief, the parts of us that ache with loss? And, who knows what new life might lie in that work of transformation?
The Beguines have convinced me that surrender to God’s abundant love is an act of generosity.
Because It’s generative.
Out of the Beguines’ focus on the constant flowing of love between God and the soul—out of that deep contemplation grew new life.
Grew healing for the sick, education for the poor, and new ways of sharing God’s love with people from all walks of life. And all of that only drew them closer to their beloved Christ.
As today’s letter from John says, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” When the Beguines surrendered to God’s love as the very center of their lives, they couldn’t help but reflect that love, casting shimmering light into all the dark places around them.
Today’s scripture says “We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.” Let us rest secure in the certainty of that love, as John, and the Beguines, call us to do, that our fears might be driven away and that love of God and love of neighbor might be perfected in us.
Because God first loved us, we, too, love.
Presented by Jessie Crabtree on September 19, 2021
Scripture: 1 John 4:7-19