SOME THOUGHTS FROM FATHER SCHAAB (continued)
WOMEN AND CONFESSION
The role women played in the larger historical development of the practice of confession and spiritual direction is significant. In the 12 th century the rise of lay movements in the church opened the living church to new ideas.
Among the new thought patterns was a different kind of life for women who wanted to dedicate themselves to prayer and service.
In the old orders of nuns, a strict enclosure had not always been enforced. In the early part of the 12 th century, a renewal of many convents led to a strict enforcement of enclosure. Thus a development occurred that created a division of women religious into two types. The old communities remained to be called “nun”. The rise and rapid spread of “lay sisterhoods” is one of the most startling phenomena in medieval Europe. Practicing an experimental type of religious life, the groups’ members took no solemn irrevocable vows, but committed to observe celibacy which they belonged to the community. They gave up personal wealth while cultivating a frugal lifestyle that benefited the community at large. They attended Mass and the canonical hours in the local parish church while freely moving about the village or city to tend to the needs of the poor and the sick. Today similar groups of religious women are called “sisters”.
Near the end of the twelfth century a group of lay women who would become known as “Beguines” emerged in northern France, Flanders, Germany and even in England. This group united in their commitment to a life of simplicity, Scripture study, prayer, celibacy, and active Christian discipleship and service. Their practices were modeled on those of the apostolic church. By the end of the thirteenth century most beguines had managed to attach themselves to religious houses of Franciscan or Dominican friars, who provided them with spiritual directors and confessors.
The names of the beguine authors who greatly influenced the 13 th century are no longer familiar to us. They were: Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete. These women interpreted the theology of the church. The writings of these women put women and men, laity and clergy, on equal footing as an audience by eliminating the hierarchy between those who knew Latin and those who did not. It emphasized a spiritual inwardness and mystical experience that is uniquely person and experiential, while insisting on the universality and availability to all.
The aim of beguine literature is to help Christians practice humility and repentance in everyday life and to prepare for union with Christ in this life as a foretaste of the life to come.
It is easy to see how these devoted women would become the spiritual guides of a new generation. They were not Sacramental confessors giving absolution for sins, but they were certainly “spiritual guides in the Catholic faith.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries present us, with two strands in the practice of confession and penance: The sacramental, on the one hand, marked by penance and absolution administered by a priest; and the contemplative/mystical, on the other, marked by self-examination, meditation on the life and passion of Christ, and an abandonment or surrender of the individual’s will to the divine will.