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July 24 Christine, the Beguines & the Bollandists

Today in 1242 the mystic Christine von Stommeln was born near Cologne. We look at her unusual life - and how it took her to the Beguinage in the Low Countries. We also look at the group of Jesuits in Belgium who integrated modern techniques of historical research into analysing the lives of the saints and sifting through what was legend and what had more firm historical basis.


Christine's father was a well-to-do peasant named Heinrich Bruso, her mother was called Hilla and when she was only five years old, she had visions of the Christ Child to whom she was mystically married in her tenth year. At a time where there was no formal education, at the age of eleven she learned to read the Psalter, but could not write. This was a notable achievement of self-tutoring in the thirteenth century and she stood out amongst her peers who were illiterate In rural Germany, life expectancy was also short – around one-third of infants died in their first year. The only reliable data we have is for male land-owning aristocracy from England and if they were lucky, and we know if they were to reach the age of 10, their life expectancy was 42- 48 years. This would only be exceeded by monks. So for rural peasants, the expectation was that girls would marry as soon as they had reached puberty.

Christine’s parents wished to give her in marriage, at the age of 12, but bearing in mind her mystical marriage she was able to persuade them to send her to the convent of the Beguines at Cologne. The Beguines were a Christian lay religious orders that were active in Western Europe, particularly in the Low Countries, in the 13th–16th centuries. Their members lived in semi-monastic communities and promised not to marry "as long as they lived as Beguines," to quote one of the early Rules. Unlike the more formal vows of a religious order they were free to leave at any time. For lay women this offered a middle way between marriage and the convent, and soon there were more women than men. Some of them bought homes that neighboured each other and effectively became small communities of women who grew to be influential in their towns. Moved or inspired by the women's commitment to prayer, the sacraments, and charitable service in the world, local clergy sought to channel and deploy the women's spiritual fame in response to contemporary problems. Soon they were part of a larger spiritual revival movement of the 13th century that stressed imitation of Christ's life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. It has been suggested that the 20th Century American radical Dorothy Day carried on the tradition.

In the Beguinage, Christine led a life of severe penance, spent much time in prayer, and often fell into convulsions. As a result of this intensely sprirtual life, she received the stigmata on her hands and feet and the marks of the Crown of Thorns on the head when she was 15. Stigmata is a rare mystical gift in Christianity, which is manifested by the appearance of bodily wounds, scars and pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. The idea is that to be in love with Christ is to share everything, even the suffering that he went through in his passion. It is possible that St Paul had received them, as in his letter to the community of Galatia (in Turkey) he wrote From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus, although we have no corroborating evidence of this. Exclusively associated with Roman Catholicism, most reported stigmatics are members of religious orders, and thus devote themselves to lives of prayer. If we set aside St Paul, St. Francis of Assisi was the first recorded stigmatic and most famously recently the Italian Fransciscan, Padre Pio became world famous and also was studied by several 20th-century physicians (Pod July 26) . Curiously stigmata are foreign to the Orthodox Church, which professes no official view on the matter; and the only stigmatic's have been Catholics who lived after the Great Schism of 1054. A high percentage (perhaps over 80%) of all stigmatics are women.

Christine’s life in the beguinage was not a success, the other Beguines thought her crazy and treated her with contempt, so she went back home where eventually she found refuge with her parish priest, Johannes, who took Christine into his house. Notably this wasn’t a cause for scandal as people knew about her mystical marriage and trusted the priest, and she became close friends with a Dominican Peter of Dacia, from Gotland. It is evident through their correspondence that they shared a mystical bond of devotion. In his account of her Peter mentions altogether fifteen visits. Christine's brother followed Peter to Gotland and entered the Dominican Order. Now protected by her parish priest Christine was able to settle into a new rhythm, still intense but now lived a peaceful life, wearing always the dress of the Beguines, until her death. A collection of her letters have been published by the influential historians now as the Bollandists.

These were a small group of Belgian Jesuit scholars who edited and published the Acta Sanctorum, a great collection of biographies and legends of the saints. Incorporating modern historical methods they were able to sift through what had historical value and what was difficult to justify. Much of their work lead to the liturgical reform of the Roman Calendar of feasts. Their huge library in Brussels is now more of a literary museum and The Bollandist Society, now including lay historians, is the only institution dedicated exclusively to the critical study of hagiography. "There is a lot of ‘fake news’" about saints said contemporary Bollandist Marc Lindeijer, S.J. "We can spend a lifetime just correcting Wikipedia.


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