INDONESIA – The heavy wooden door at rue Potagère 79, in the multicultural neighbourhood of Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode in Brussels, opens on a world of tranquil, spiritual retreat. The “Beguine convent of Dominican spirituality” of Béthel welcomes women seeking a life of community and faith, in the medieval tradition of Begijnhof or béguinage.
Of the six women who live there permanently, three are Beguines: celibate women who have led a secular life, married, had children, before joining Béthel. Unlike the three nuns who run the place, Beguines have not taken a lifelong vow. They are financially independent, pay rent for their small flats, work for charities or businesses outside the convent, invite their friends or grown-up children to visit. But they also help in the garden and at the chapel, attend the weekly mass, and their days start and end with prayers.
The Béthel community began with a call for women to join the founders, sisters Myriam Gosseye and Marianne Goëffel. The two Dominican nuns were already living in the building on rue Potagère, and the number of their fellow sisters was dwindling. They had the idea of an “enlarged community” to share their way of life with women from outside their chapter.
A newspaper ad in 2010 read: “Laypersons wanted, to share spiritual life with nuns.” Muriel de Béco, now 75, still keeps the clipping in a binder. “When I saw it,” she says, “I knew it was for me. As if I had been called.” Muriel — at Béthel, women are on first name terms — was then in her sixties, divorced and had moved back to Belgium after decades living in Switzerland with her husband. She was among the first six women to join as a Beguine, with Marie-Odile, who still lives there too.
On the fourth floor, the lift opens on an icon of Saint Dominic, the patron saint of the Béthel Beguines. It was painted by Dominique Dubois, the latest Beguine to move in, in December 2018. She is making apricot jam in her flat, where the walls are covered with photos of her adult daughter and four sons (the youngest one, a student, lives there with her), and with watercolours, some of which she painted, too.
“I like to paint orchids with Indian ink, just the shadows, to show that life is made of light and shade,” she explains. A 64 year-old pensioner, she feels “fulfilled” in the Beguine convent. “I have been looking for a spiritual place for a while,” she says. “I pray, meditate, paint, read… my life is more peaceful than it used to be. My friends tell me that I am radiant.” Some had doubts at first, she recalls: “They asked if I would have to give my money away, if I would have to wear the habit.” She shows her floral top: “As you can see, I don’t! And I entirely control my money.” She laughs: “I am not a hermit, nor cloistered.”
The Beguine mission
In addition to prayers and mass, the Beguines meet the nuns for a weekly dinner and regular management meetings. On the day The Brussels Times visited, celebrations were planned for the evening to mark two of the Beguines’ birthdays. Sister Myriam had baked two pies and made a provençal dish; Muriel was in charge of cooking rice.
The “life charter” of the Béthel house stipulates that its mission is to encourage nuns, Beguines, and other guests to “carry each other mutually, so to be open to the world together.” All Béthel newcomers go through a mutual testing process: they first come in casually, then regularly, before “committing” to one year, then to two, and finally, if things go well on both sides, committing indefinitely to living at Béthel.
Before joining, Dominique commuted two hours from Woluwe-Saint-Lambert to attend the daily evening prayer. She then was given a room for a month, and as she was certain she wanted in, wrote a cover letter to join the Beguines for a year, which was accepted. “I have just applied to renew my commitment,” she says. Legally, the only contract proving the Beguines’ commitment is their lease — the commitment is purely spiritual. The convent also hosts migrants waiting for paperwork, who are independent from the Beguines’ lifestyle.
These provisions were developed as the community learned from its bumpy start. “Everything was a bit blurry at the time,” says Myriam, the founding nun and Béthel’s religious referent. “We were slowly building the project with the residents,” Marianne, her fellow founder who now acts as Béthel’s intendant, adds. This meant juggling with various spiritualities and faiths, including some, Myriam says, that “clashed” with the values of Dominican Catholics, or with the concept of communal life.
One woman was 26 when she joined and left after three years, realising she wanted to marry. Another was asked to leave after her beliefs proved incompatible with those of the Dominicans, Myriam says. “She had amulets and believed in demons. We weren’t seeing ourselves with her, and told her so.” To clear things up, the “enlarged community” of Béthel became a “Beguine convent of Dominican spirituality” in 2014, a separate but close entity of the Dominican congregation. “I was reluctant to call it a ‘Beguine convent’,” Myriam said, “because I was afraid we would be seen as mystics, like in the Middle Ages.”
History and roots
The Beguinal movement originally spread in Europe between the 12th and 13th centuries, when women who were “neither nuns nor wives” created independent, female-only communities in shared houses or small individual houses grouped around a chapel. In medieval Flanders, Bruges, Louvain, Ghent, Courtrai and more counted influential Beguine convents. Thirteen are today listed as UNESCO world heritage.
Each Beguine group set its own rules and values, some more secular than others. “Among the secular ones: individuality, institutional independence and remunerated work. Among the religious ones: a dedicated life with revocable vows, intense praying, help to the poor and mystical research.” Silvana Panciera, who has written a book on the historical Beguines in English, Italian and French, explains on the website dedicated to her research. “In spite of a variety of forms, the movement has the same aim everywhere: living a secluded life in an urban environment, heading for perfection through prayers, sanctified work, help to the poor, community life and mystical research, also with forms of asceticism.”
But the Catholic Church, judging these women’s ideas and independence dangerous, signalled the end of this golden age by declaring them “heretics” in the Vienna Council of 1311. Many convents were closed and Beguines were persecuted. The French Beguine Marguerite Porete, the author of a controversial religious essay, was burned alive with her book in Paris in 1310. Because their commitment wasn’t for life, the Beguines weren’t considered serious in their faith, Panciera explains. But the movement was unique in its “social opening”, she says: “It welcomed women who had had a previous life in marriage, as well as those from the poor classes who couldn’t afford the dowry needed to become a nun,” Panciera tells The Brussels Times.
The Beguines have been described as an early feminist movement. “They unlocked the first great independence for women and introduced the first element of rupture from the patriarchy,” Panciera says. To become a Beguine was “a way for women to free themselves from marriage and the Church, both of which the men controlled,” Sister Myriam says, but she is wary of calling them feminists: “We should refrain from taking a modern look at the past.”
New Beguine projects are now blooming in France, Germany, Italy and Ireland, according to Panciera’s tally. “But Béthel is unique: it is one of the very few modern Beguine convents in the strict medieval sense of the term, one that combines community and spirituality,” Sister Myriam says. Such a communal life, the nuns at Béthel say, can be a struggle for newcomers. Muriel recalls renewing her one-year commitment because a longer stay scared her. “It wasn’t easy at first to think of myself as a Beguine after 33 years of marriage, but I progressed. I am still learning, about myself and others.” At 75, Muriel will remain at Béthel until she cannot live autonomously, as per the rules. “I was delighted to see Dominique arrive,” she says. “By seeing her taking this path with such hope, I tell myself that others will follow.”