Posts Tagged ‘Marie d’Oignies’

‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17,18)

Many single Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages served Christ in cloisters or other religious communities. Due to wars, crusades, or explorations to the New World there was a shortage of men. Devout women then turned to a life of service to the poor. During this summer I will tell the stories of some of these amazing women. If you are unfamiliar with Mysticism, you might enjoy the information in two posts on this blog site. I would recommend reading them first or coming back to them after you read some of the women’s biographies:

  1. July 6, 2016 – “Women Christian Mystics” – Though Medieval mystics were very different from twenty-first century Christians, we share the same goals – deeper spiritual life, closeness to God, and joyful service.
  2. July 20, 2016 – “Medieval Christian Women Mystics – Visions and Dreams” – This controversial topic was explored since so many religious men and women during the Middle Ages claimed to have supernatural dreams as part of their religious experience. There are differing opinions about the validity of supernatural dreams and visions. No matter what our view might be, it was part of Medieval Christianity and we should at least try to understand it.

Several weeks ago (July 16), we started this series of biographies of Medieval Christian women with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was one of the most influential women of the Medieval period. Composer, writer, artist, poet, prophet, theologian, healer, teacher, and monastery abbess, Hildegard is one of the most amazing women in church history. She was able to integrate her thinking about theology, music, and teaching in a way that gives us a holistic picture of life.

Because Hildegard has been taken so seriously by the Church we cannot just discount her visions. Her visions helped her to understand and appreciate God. Hildegard was very “low key” about her visions. Some of the other women we will look at placed a lot of importance on their visionary experiences. Many were clearly unscriptural. I think it will become apparent as you read the stories which visions may have been genuine and which were just “dreams” or “daydreams”.

That is why I took time out to write a post on visions. It gives us a place to start our thinking. The women whose stories I will present over the next few weeks will be more or less controversial depending on your opinion about dreams and visions.

In spite of the debatable experiences for these devout women, I hope that we can lay aside some of our squeamishness and learn something from their lives of service to Christ. These religious women truly loved the Lord and helped countless sick and poor people. I believe that I will get a chance to share stories with them in Heaven!

Elizabeth of Schonau (1129 –  1165)

After Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Schonau is our next earliest Christian mystic. img-Saint-Elizabeth-of-SchonauElizabeth was born into a very religious family, probably of the minor nobility around 1129 AD. Many other members of her family served in the Church – an uncle who was a bishop, two brothers and a nephew who were abbots or priors, and several female relatives at convents.

Elizabeth entered the Benedictine monastery at Schonau at around age 12. She took her vows at age 17. Eventually she would rise to the position of “magistra”. That is the head prioress at a combination monastery (men and women) which is ruled by an abbot. She was a zealous observer of the Rule of St. Benedict. She was known for her piety from her youth and her practice of “mortification”. During the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for religious people to do penance in the form of bodily suffering, mostly severe fasting.

In 1152 at age 23, Elizabeth began to have ecstasies and visions. This was one year after Hildegard of Bingen had published her book of visions, the Scivias. Hildegard’s work probably influenced Elizabeth. The two women exchanged letters of which we have about 15 surviving in which Elizabeth confided her visions to Hildegard. Elizabeth visited Hildegard at Rupertsberg in 1156.

Ekbert, Elizabeth’s brother joined the monastery as her secretary in 1155. Elizabeth had written down her visions on six wax tablets. Ekbert collected her visions, transcribed them into Latin and put them into six books. You can obtain a copy to read today.

At first Elizabeth was shy about relating her visions in public but, as she explained in a letter to Hildegard, an angel visited her and insisted that she reveal her visions. The angel told Elizabeth to preach about penance. This she did. Many people began to seek her out to hear her advice. She received affirmation from several important abbots at the time who confirmed that her wisdom helped them to lead a more devout life.

Elizabeth’s visions are subject to much controversy. Many of them seem genuinely concerned with repentance and piety. Other visions are full of fantastic exaggerations and things that are quite frankly not Biblical.

The Church has declined to pass official judgment on Elizabeth’s visions. She has never been canonized, however in 1584 her name was entered in the Roman Martyrology.

Elizabeth died around 1165. Her brother Ekbert became the abbot of Schonau in 1167.

What can we learn from Elizabeth? She lived during a time when emphasis was on penance and good works. Though we may have a different theology, there is no question of her love for the Lord and for the poor that she served.

Mary of Oignies (1177-1213)

Marie D’Oignies has been held in very regard by the Church and she is honored as the first Beguine. The Beguines (See post 7/27/16) were laywomen, not nuns, who lived independentlysaint_mary_of_oignies but practiced many of the same things as nuns – works of piety and charity.

Marie was born to wealthy parents in 1177 AD. She was pious at an early age, praying and fasting often. At age 14 Marie married Jean de Nivelles, the son of another wealthy family.

John and Marie moved to a religious community where they spent their time feeding and bathing lepers, and caring for other sick and destitute people. Marie studied, prayed, and gave children religious instruction. She became known as a “saint” with a reputation for efficacious prayer. People came from far and wide to meet her and speak with her. John and Marie lived as “brother and sister”. This was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages for couples who thought that refraining from marital relations was a more pious way of life.

Marie had many visions that she believed were from God. Her visions were focused on Christ and the cross. Marie, like some other Christian mystics had the “gift of tears”.  She would be emotionally overcome by sorrow at the thought of Christ’s suffering and dying for sins. At these times she felt compelled to preach penance to the community.

Some of Marie’s visions were about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Marie valued a gift of the Spirit called the Spirit of Wisdom because it enabled her to understand God more.

Marie continued to teach and serve among the poor until 1213. Like so many other religious during the Middle Ages, she had practiced severe fasting. She was terribly emaciated by the time she was thirty-six years old.

When it was evident that Marie was dying her companions moved her outdoors to fresh air. The theologian, Jacques de Vitry was a devoted follower of hers. While she was dying he recorded her deathbed sermon. This was commonly only done for prominent men. It was her life story. It was Jacques’ way of honoring Marie to compose a book for her, “Life of Marie d’Oignies”. In it he argued for the support of the Beguines. During his travels he had met many Beguines and regarded their way of life as the ideal example of the holy Christian life. He wanted others to be encouraged to follow their example of piety and charity.

Marie d’Oignies died in 1213. After her death many followers, friends, students, and other admirers spread the story of her holy life and teachings all over Europe. Even Francis of Assisi was one of her followers. He had reportedly hoped to travel across the Alps and meet this woman that he greatly admired, but was unable to fulfill this desire.

The story of Marie’s life, spread by word of mouth and Jacques de Vitry’s book inspired many other women to become Beguines. One generation later, in the town of Nivelles there were two thousand Beguines. Marie is still loved and honored.

Though some of the activities of the Christian women mystics seem strange to us today, we can learn from their examples of love for God and others. We must decide whether or not their visions were from God or an overactive imagination. Yet, we can certainly relate to the fact that a true life of faith involves both words and actions. Prayer, worship, giving, study of God’s Word, fellowship, and acts of charity are the elements of a godly Christian life in any century.




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