Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Marguerite Porete

As a response to the US Bishops’ Fortnight of Freedom, I’d like to offer an alternative. My readers here know of my skepticism with the USCCB campaign. It strikes me as politically motivated, possibly. And even if the bishops protest that it’s not, groups such as the NRLC have inserted themseves into the opportunity to make it so.

Starting today, and running for two weeks, I’ll offer up daily reflections on good and holy women. I have a few guest-bloggers coming in, and I’m open to more. And your suggestions–not every slot is filled as of this morning. Hopefully we can observe the conduct of holy women in the face of freedoms denied and perhaps gain some needed perspective in the spiritual life, not just for political purposes. Not all of the featured women were “red” martyrs for the faith. But all suffered, usually cruelly, at the hands of men who seemed concerned less for the freedom of others and more for their own privileges.

Marguerite Porete of 14th century France seems a good place to begin. Speaking of which, Marguerite was a beguine. Beguines first appeared in what are today the low countries, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg around 1100AD. The first Beguines took no vows, devoted themselves to prayer and apostolic action, and lived alone or sometimes in small communities on the fringes of villages and towns. A woman could choose a temporary or lifelong commitment. There were no rules, official ecclesiastical recognition, or such. Beguines were just lay people who followed the prescriptions of the Gospel: loving God and neighbor.

And so we have free women, outside of a cloister, praying like religious, performing charity, and operating outside of institutional Catholic structures. The movement seems more serious than third degree associations or volunteer corps. Less rigorous than permanent monastic life. It seems reasonable to me that not every Catholic woman fits into one of two slots: household or convent. Clearly Beguines inhabited a well-discerned place apart from these two.

Naturally, some believers were suspicious of them. Various heresies were attributed to some groups. But the lack of organization along the lines of traditional nuns likely meant that “heretical” Beguines were individuals, not the movement as a whole. And indeed, many well-regarded saints favored the Beguines. And it might also have been that like today, “heresy” was more about “stuff we don’t like” than material that was actually counter to the Christian faith.

We know only two things of Marguerite. She wrote a book. And the Church invested considerable resources to try her for heresy, ensure her conviction, and erase her apostolate from influence. This passage from the beginning of her work might sting a bit in some quarters:

You who would read this book,
If you indeed wish to grasp it,
Think about what you say,
For it is very difficult to comprehend;
Humility, who is keeper of the treasury of Knowledge
And the mother of the other Virtues,
Must overtake you.

Theologians and other clerks,
You will not have the intellect for it,
No matter how brilliant your abilities,
If you do not proceed humbly.
And may Love and Faith, together
Cause you to rise above Reason,
Since they are the ladies of this house.

For the early 1300’s, The Mirror of Simple Souls had good things going for it: a huge following among lay Catholics, written in the vernacular, and it was backed up by what looked like a promotional tour. My parish’s library has a copy of Mirror, but it’s been checked out for a while. I haven’t read it, but I’ve seen it described as building on the premise that communion with God and love for neighbor places one on the path to spiritual perfection. It’s an interesting personal confluence, as I’ve been reading Meg Funk’s Thoughts Matter and I’ve been struck there by her suggestions toward the discipline of thoughtless prayer with the aim of achieving a certain spiritual purity before God. From Marguerite:

Thought is no longer of worth to me,
Nor work, nor speech.
Love draws me so high
(Thought is no longer of worth to me)
With her divine gaze,
That I have not intent.
Thought is no longer of worth to me,
nor work, nor speech.

Marguerite came to the attention of the Inquisition because she was a popular traveling preacher, and unattached to a community like other Beguines. And she was not shut up behind a cloister wall. Or shut up by superiors. After her conviction in April 1310, she was handed over to the secular authorities. Less than two months later, she was burned to death.

The parallels with today are obvious. I was thinking about the Archdiocese of St Louis that wanted a secular court to evict the dissenters at St Stanislaus Parish, and complained when the judgment didn’t go their way. In the 14th century, alas, the Church was thick with secular authorities, and could merely turn over people it didn’t like for punishment, or worse.

The Mirror of Simple Souls continued to circulate for centuries, without an author’s byline. It wasn’t until the 1940’s when Catholics rediscovered that it was written by a “heretic.” By that time, the book had received an imprimatur and nihil obstat as an anonymous work of medieval spirituality. Others have noted that Juan de la Cruz covered a lot of Marguerite’s material in a similar way in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Love, and the love of God, seems irresistible. Death cannot stop it. Fire cannot quench it.

Today there is an international society devoted to the woman and her witness of faith. And I’d like to leave off with a reflection that suggests something of 1 John 4:7ff:

I am God, says Love,
for Love is God and God is Love,
and this Soul is God by the condition of Love.

I am God by divine nature
and this Soul is God by the condition of Love.

Thus this precious beloved of mine
is taught and guided by me,
without herself,
for she is transformed into me,
and such a perfect one, says Love,
takes my nourishment.

I like Marguerite. Audacious. Simple. Worthy.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Saints, Two Weeks of Worthy Women. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Marguerite Porete

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    I am looking forward to the next 2 weeks. I have copied this first article to a LOT of women I know and I hope they will tune in now and for the foreseeable future.

  2. Todd says:

    I’ve added another fine blogger to do a guest spot. Still fielding suggestions for women and volunteers to write ’em up. Stay tuned, and comment often.

  3. Chris Sullivan says:

    Brilliant Todd !

    Some suggestions:

    St Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake by English Bishops.

    St Mary MacKillop, who was excommunicated by her Bishop.

    St Faustina, whose famous diary was banned by Holy Office head Cdl Ottaviani and whose Divine Mercy devotion was suppressed.

    Those sisters all turned out to be saints, which is rather more than can be said of the Bishops who cracked down on them.

    God Bless

  4. Jen says:

    Can’t forget Hildegard of Bingen. Her community was under interdict for awhile.

  5. crystal says:

    Another suggestion – Mary Ward.

  6. Michaël Van Caeneghem says:

    I happen to live in a village in Belgium, called Begijnendijk. ‘Begijn’ is the Dutch/Flemish word for ‘beguine’. ‘Begijnendijk’ means : a dike or embankment bordering a domain belonging to beguines. In a lot of Flemish cities (Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges, Louvain,…) you will find ‘begijnhoven’ or ‘beguinages’. Today, you’ll find only a few beguines, still living in these beguinages, but the domaines are popular touristic venues.

  7. Clare Martin says:

    I am concerned that you say you have not read The Mirror … before praising it. In my simplicity, I hear Marguerite Porete, Porret, Poiret or Porete (also known as Marguerite of Hainaut) say that she becomes GOD – not ‘becomes as God’; not ‘becomes taken by God, as in an embrace’; not even ‘becomes joined with God through Her Power’ – as she refers to God as “Lady Love” – but she becomes GOD – Yeah Right! If this is not heretical what could be so judged? Of course I am quoting her out of context, and her translators may have also been mistaken – but … In her book ‘Reason’ asks ‘Love’ who she is and ‘Love’ replies: “I am God … for she (Marguerite) is transformed into Me.” Of course, if I have understood Marguerite correctly, she should have been given medical help, not burned at the stake. However, that’s what was done in those days. Clare Martin

    • Todd says:

      Hi Clare,

      Thanks for commenting. The portions I quoted above seemed to me to be Marguerite taking the “voice of God,” speaking to believers. That is quite common in Christian devotional literature.

      I have yet to uncover a full version of The Mirror–it hasn’t been a priority for me. But you have bumped it up a little more toward the top of my list. I would want to read that book carefully, for you have raised serious concerns.

      On the other hand the book did get ecclesiastical approval. So I find it hard to believe it would be a work of outright heresy. Easily misunderstood it would seem.

  8. Robert Stauffer says:

    Hi, Clare and Todd,
    I am a scholar who has been working on The Mirror for about ten years now. Zan Kocher, who maintains the page for the International Society, and I and many others have been writing about her book for quite a while. Clare, your concerns about the Mirror certainly match those of the 14th-century French inquisitors who went on to condemn Marguerite Porete and her book. They also were worried about her saying that she was united with God. But the truth is that the book is about surrendering your own will to the will of God. She presents seven stages in which her will is consumed by God’s love (which is explained by the character named Love, a stand-in for God) — much as a river flows into an ocean and disappears in it (her image). Though her wording is tough — the inquisitors had a hard time with statements about having surpassed the Virtues and not needing the precepts of the Church any longer and the like — she was really writing about surrendering her individuality to the power of God, an idea not uncommon to many Christian mystics.

    Her work has been endorsed by the members of the Church at various times — most recently when Clare Kirchberger had an edition of the Oxford manuscript published with the “Nihil Obstat” and the imprimatur of Downside Abbey back in 1927. Mainly it seems that her original condemnation was brought about by her obstinance against being told not to publish the book in the vernacular and an order to cease sending out where it might be read in public. But still, like I said, a lot of the language is tough. Her decision to continue to disseminate the book probably came from her belief that it was the will of God. It’s a tough case, considering that other writers like Meister Eckhart and Jan van Ruusbroec wrote similar works (as a matter of fact, Richard Methley, who translated the Middle English version into Latin at the end of 15th century, thought that it was by Ruusbroec) and were only warned to keep their books out of the reach of the laity.

    Thanks for writing about her and linking your page to the International Society page. There you can find an amazing list of writings about Marguerite Porete and her Mirror. I’m only sorry that I hadn’t seen your page earlier.


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