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Shocked out of complacency

16 January 2015

David Bryant concludes his series on three medieval Beguines with an account of the life and work of Marguerite Porete

THE 13th-century mystic Marguerite Porete was a maverick who paid the ultimate price for her scandalous writings. She was highly educated, came from Hainaut in northern France, and was a free-roaming Beguine, belonging to an order of non-conventual women. She pitted her will against the ecclesiastical and political authorities by writing a highly provocative book, The Mirror of Simple Souls.

She was summoned to court, refused to appear, and ended up in prison. Marguerite was accused of rebellion, heresy, and obstinacy. She was forced to watch the burning of her proscribed book, and was threatened with dire penalties. She took not a scrap of notice, and continued to distribute The Mirror.

All hell broke loose. She was dragged before the Inquisitor, and a tide of hostility followed. "Beguines say I err, priests, clerics and preachers, Augustinians, Carmelites and the Friars Minor, because I wrote about the being of the one purified by Love," she wrote. It did not help when she indirectly referred to her accusers as rude donkeys and beasts. She was condemned to death and burned at the stake; and onlookers wept at her bravery.

The Mirror of Simple Souls is pure dynamite. Couched in terms of a conversation between Reason, Love and the Soul, it outlines the pathway to God. There are seven stages. The soul is first touched with grace. It abandons self-interest, then excels in good works. An ecstasy of love follows, after which the will offers itself wholly to God. At the sixth stage, the soul sees only God, not itself.

The seventh is an indescribable spiritual marriage, culminating in the soul's annihilation in God. Marguerite expresses this in forthrightly carnal terms, and it was her downfall. "He is fullness, And by this I am impregnated. This is the divine seed and Loyal Love."

Not only was this blasphemy: it was the heresy of the Free Spirit - a belief that the far advanced soul could dispense with sacraments and scripture, because it lay beyond sin. "The soul no longer seeks God through penitence nor through any sacrament, nor through works."

Worse was to come. She refers to the established Church as "The Little Holy Church", and to her own devotees as "The Great Holy Church". The final straw was antinomianism. She maintained that her followers stood above any moral code. This undermined not only the teaching of the Church, but the stability of society, and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities were incandescent. No wonder Reason in the dialogue repeatedly asks: "For God's sake what does this mean?" It all led to a death sentence.

It would be wrong to dismiss Marguerite as no more than iconoclastic. Behind the extravagant language lies profundity. The Christian journey is not a passive, inert acceptance of doctrine and dogma, but a pilgrimage of exploration which constantly widens our understanding, and enriches our vision, sometimes shocking us out of our complacency.

Her image of the soul's being subsumed into God gives us insight into contemplative prayer: that time when we move into a vast nothingness, and kneel before the unknowable God, enfolded by his love, light and glory.

Marguerite's writings subvert patriarchy and re-envision women as co-equals with men and spiritual leaders, a surprisingly contemporary view. Her unwavering focus on a love that infiltrates every breath of our being is desperately needed in our fraught, fragmented world. "She did not know when she sought Him that God was completely everywhere."

Porete was condemned to the flames for being a "pseudo-mulier", a false woman. It is more fitting to uphold her as a profound spiritual guide, who points out the path to oneness with the Holy God. 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in Yorkshire.

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