Contemplation and Action

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From Wendy Farley’s The Thirst for God (speaking of the 13th century women’s contemplative movement known as the “beguines”): “The compassion of biblical characters [like Jesus and the disciples] would be internalized as compassion for people in the beguine’s own community. Contemplation and action, Christ’s love for humanity, and the contemplative’s love for those around her percolated together. Through meditation, this love would flow into a single river in which desire, will, and action became grounded in the divine love. …

The beguines’ love for those they served was in a sense the same love with which God loved humanity…Through their practices they became, as Teresa of Avila would say a few centuries later, the hands and feet making God’s love present in the world….

The beguine way of life produced a great flowering of spirituality in which women and men shared their insights and deepened their understanding of divine love. But this way of life was a stark challenge to an increasingly authoritarian church, which used both violence and ideology to make sure that religious symbols reinforced its authority. Official theology portrayed the anger of God punishing humanity with never-ending fire…

The poverty and simplicity of beguines and other contemplatives embodied an alternative the church. Their devotion to divine Lady Love contrasted a wrathful sovereign with a feminine image of gracious love. It is not that the beguines rejected the church and its sacraments, but their theology attested to a different understanding of who God is. Their very existence threw into question the exclusive authority of male clerics to determine Christian thought and practice. The mixture of rich and poor, clergy and laity, literate and illiterate in beguine communities challenged the rigid structuring of society. Their status as neither married laywomen nor enclosed nuns blurred the clear alternatives that defined true womanhood.”

Roger

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