Sunday, December 13, 2015

Begin the Beguine

I might as well turn over this blog to David James Duncan. After finishing his novel The Brothers K,, I found a book of essays titled God Laughs & Plays, a collection of “churchless sermons” by a man (Mr. Duncan) who found God directly through the wonders of creation itself (for example, fishing in the rivers of the Northwest) and found Him conspicuously absent while sitting in the church pews of his 7th Day Adventist upbringing.
In one of the essays, he is interviewed and asked if he could imagine “organized religion as a communal expression of spiritual wonder” and if so, how such a church would be structured. To answer, he turns to the model of the Beguines in Medieval northern Europe:
The Beguines were communities of what I would call ‘feminist mystics’ that rose up in the Rhine Valley in the 1300’s and spread all over Europe. They had several great leaders—all of them women, all experiential mystics—and many powerful allies in the church, chief among them the incomparable mystic Meister Eckhart. The Beguines had a daily devotional life which was taken very seriously, but differed from the life led by nuns in that they lived comparatively free of the church and right out there ‘in the world.’ Beguine women lived on their own private property, not Roman Church property—which was stupendously freeing for them and they prospered because of it. Their independence was fierce, but so, in the spirit of Christ, was their generosity. They raised their own food, educated the local children, took care of the sick and the dying, took in orphans…
The church of the day, however, was a Rome-based patriarchy uncomfortable with the existence of women at all, let alone self-giving, heroic, Christ-adoring women who expressed their spiritual wonder in a mystical way…The passion, power and beneficience generated by the Beguines showed good ol’ boys like Pope Gregory to be the power-drunk misogynists they were. Which enraged them. So down came the Iron Bible of the Inquisition, ka-thunk! The Beguines were crushed mercilessly, their greatest leaders imprisoned or burned at the staked, their brilliant mystical texts and poems and songs of love burned with them, their mercies and loving service revoked, the poor and the sick whom they’d served turned back out on the streets, their homeless followers sent to nunneries or ghettos…”
Why don’t we know these stories? And, by the way, the same thing happened to the Cathars in Southern France and lest we only point the finger at the Catholic Church, the Protestants had their field day a few centuries later with their witch-burning organized terror. The fear of the life-giving, nurturing qualities of women by the power-hungry good ole’ boys clubs has been epidemic in human history. The same dynamic is at play in the Islam world, with the conservative sects shutting the women away behind full-body burkahs and limited access to the world, while mystics like Rumi and Hafiz posed dangers to the powers that be preaching a more egalitarian, free and loving model of spiritual wonder. And don’t get me started on China and foot-binding. Perhaps the liberation of women might be the most vital ingredient in culture finally coming into full flower.
It’s a short leap from fear of women to subjugation of children to exploitation of the natural world to enslaving and mass-murdering tribal folks attuned to the natural world — welcome to Western and Eastern “Civilization” 101. We would do well to pay attention to the threads running through these stories and also notice the constant commitment of big-muscled men, armed with money, guns and power, to crush those who live on the side of a nurturing, sustainable, life-affirming, community-oriented existence, with lots of good food, good music, dancing, healthy sex, laughter, play, and open minds and hearts. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, it’s a helluva lot more fun to plant your flag in the field of communal spiritual wonder, but it’s also downright dangerous. Things have not gone well for those who have modeled some of the most peaceful, sustainable and loving models of how to be on this planet, from the Shuar Indians in the Ecuadorian rainforest to the Hopis in the Southwest to the Beguines and Cathars in Europe and …well, it’s a long list.
We should get to know these folks and learn from them. Yes, it was not all peaches and roses, there were tribal wars and short-sighted traditions, but still much of value to re-imagine in contemporary terms. Without backing down, we should also keep our eyes wide open as to the threats we pose to the fear-mongers and greed-grabbers and be prepared to defend ourselves. Without assault rifles.

In the words of Cole Porter:
It’s time to Begin the Beguine.

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