(This post was originally published at the blog, Catholic Sensibility, as part of the Two Weeks of Worthy Women series.)
During the 12th century, groups of women began to form for common life; they were called The Beguines. At this time, when single women entered religious life because they were single, and not necessarily because they were called, the Beguines stood out. These women did not enter the same kind of enclosure, they did not take vows, they did not renounce wealth if they had it, nor were they denied entrance if they lacked wealth. What they did do was to form communities of women, dedicated to God and to one another, but in a way that was very different from monastic life at that time.
Living in groups of small houses, that together was called a Beguinage, they did go through a novitiate of sorts. They went through a period of formation and then lived alone in small dwellings in the enclosure. Apparently there was no one foundress, constitution, or rule. These women broke every boundary of propriety by their very being, yet they simply carried on. At a time when woman had no social currency, the various Beguinages that sprung up were markedly different than any other thing at the time. The women were engaged in charitable work, and did have lives of prayer. Mechthild of Magdeburg was a Beguine and mystic, whose legacy lives on today. (I mentioned Mechtild in one of my Worthy Women posts last year.) Beguines created a life where they could live freely – not under the power of marriage or of a monastery. It was an independence otherwise unknown to women of that time.
So what does all this have to do with Two Weeks of Worthy Women today?
On April 14, at the age of 92, Marcella Pattyn died; she was the last Beguine in Europe, at the end of a line that extended for over 800 years. How did she come to this?
In 1941 she entered the Beguinage in Ghent. Pattyn had been born in the Belgian Congo in 1920. The one thing that stood between her and her call to religious life was her eyesight; she was essentially blind, and that precluded her from entering a convent or monastery. She was able to gain entry to the Beguines at age 20, and there she stayed for her life.
It was from all accounts a simple life. She had a loom and would weave cloth; she knitted and sewed. There are some people in the world who hold something special relating to Marcella Pattyn – the Beguine dolls that she created from fabric and thread that she sold. Gifted with some musical acumen, she played the organ, as well as some other instruments. And she enjoyed making others feel loved and comforted; she often visited the sick and infirm, entertaining them with music. With all of this there was a life of foundational prayer and faith.
If this all sounds a little idyllic, perhaps it is. When I see this image of Marcella Pattyn, decked out in her full Beguine regalia, and I see that smile, I am reminded of the kind of freedom that cannot be bought or earned. This is the freedom of a life of total surrender in God. If the life she lived made her infirmities seem small, and the ability to live generously flourished as a result of her choices, that makes for one worthy woman if you ask me.