SOURCE: International Herald Tribune (7-16-08)
Unlike sisterhoods that required a life spent apart from society under vows of chastity, these Catholic women looked for holiness outside monastic norms. Although they lived and prayed together within an enclave, partly as a form of mutual protection — some historians believe they banded together after losing their men to the Crusades, which left behind mainly criminals and louts — beguines were not confined to the cloister. Many ministered to the poor and sick outside their walls. Lifelong celibacy was not required either. They could leave the order and marry (but not return).
Each community had its own rules, albeit under the aegis of the church, and several housed mystics who developed ecstatic approaches to worship. Little wonder, then, that over the centuries they suffered waves of distrust and persecution as heretical"free spirits."
Traces of these remarkable women and their idiosyncratic spiritual ways can be found today in the urban islands of quietness they once called home. Known as beguinages or begijnhofs, several dozen of these compounds are still intact (to varying degrees) from England to Germany.