I wanted to do a little series on one of my favorite pieces of writing. “The Seven Ways of Holy Love” by Beatrice of Nazareth, circa 1236AD. In it she describes spiritual ascension via transmutation of emotional extremes. I admire this piece for its gritty representation of human endurance through suffering and the glory of divine ecstasy offered only by what some would call “enlightenment”. Most of what we know of Beatrice of Nazareth’s life comes from church records and the document Vita Beatricis. This biography of Beatrice’s life was said to be written by an anonymous cleric from an order of cistercian monks in the latter part of the thirteenth century. The author never met Beatrice, but instead relied on some interesting sources to write the manuscript including eyewitness accounts from those that had known her. Two such sources include Beatrice’s sister Christine as well as the lady herself. Indeed, the manuscript affirms that Beatrice authored most of her own Vita by way of her journal; the monk who penned, it a translator of the work rather than author. The original book still resides in The Abbey of Nazareth near Lier, in Belgium.
She was born near Leuven, Belgium in the town of Tienen in the year 1200 to a wealthy merchant family. Beatrice was the youngest of six children. She was educated at home by her mother until Beatrice was seven years old; it was then her mother passed away. Shortly thereafter her father, Batholomew of Tienen, sent Beatrice to live in a Beguines community nearby in the town of Zoutleeuw.
It is recorded that she became quite happy here; the Vita Beatricis states “She never gave even her own parents as much love as she gave her companions at that time. She herself could beloved no less in return by them” . Beatrice continued her education there, enrolling into the Zoutleeuw town school. For its time the Zoutleeuw school was rather progressive, with mixed age and gender classes and a liberal arts curriculum. The Vita expresses that Beatrice was somewhat of a loner among her peers. She poured herself into her studies rather than social and romantic relationships and intentionally kept distance from boys and flirting.
The Benguine communities of the middle ages offered a unique option to women of the time. Then, a woman remained with her father until marriage, when she became the responsibility of her husband. Outside of marriage the medieval woman had little as far as options. Generally she would enter into a monastery. This lifestyle allowed a communal living environment which was much preferred to a solitary life. In a monastery women were also given the opportunity of education with their vows and many scholars, philosophers, and women of high intellect were drawn to this lifestyle for these benefit.
In the twelfth century however, Benguine communities began to appear. Yay! Some speculate this was due to warring crusades taking the lives of young men, thereby thinning the potential husband. Benguines were similar to monasteries in communal function, however unlike a monastery they did not take holy vows. They enjoyed some special privileges usually reserved for approved orders of nuns because even though not consecrated, they had devoted their lives to good works, prayer and education. This sort of arrangement was accepted by the church due to their piety, although this changed later in the century and after when Benguine communities were ostracized and some even persecuted.
After about a year Beatrice returned home to be with family. It was then she expressed her desire to devote her life to God and enter a monastery. Her father obliged by taking her to Florival or Bloemendaal, a Cistercian monastery., where she quickly became an oblate. An oblate essentially is the title given when one wanted to devote themselves to the order but were too young to take formal vows or training, or when a woman wanted to “test the waters” so to speak. It would be akin to an internship today.
Cisterian’s were an especially pious and industrial order. They lived a life strictly by the Rules of Saint Benedict. These rules included things like the nuns were not allowed ownership of any material things ever, and they had to devote their lives to their abbey to build a stable and strong community. There were daily services and devotions right along with long hours of manual labor, often farming and agriculture and similar necessary practices. They were allotted 8 hours of sleep and the working day was divided into equal portions. This system was designed to balance prayer, work and study with roughly five hours of each daily. Rules were strict and punishment for disobedience was as well. These self-sufficient communities interestingly enough put more focus on learning in order to provide education to others rather than for educations sake alone. Many manuscripts were thought to be copied and memorized by the sisters not for their own learning but for production of materials for others.
Beatrice, totally loving it, stayed an oblate at Florival or Bloemendaal for about five years before she asked to become a novice. At first she was denied both for her young age and lack of funds for materials and expenses. She persisted in asking and they finally gave in. They put her on “probation” for a period of one year and at the age of 16 she made her profession of faith to officially become a novice nun. The head abbess sent her to Rameya to learn how to write manuscripts and choir books shortly thereafter.
When living in Rameya Beatrice met and befriended Ida of Nivelles, another Cisterian nun who was well-respected and known in the community despite her being only three years older than Beatrice herself. Ida would play an integral role in Beatrice’s spiritual development, they became fast friends. She announced she had received a message from the holy spirit that Beatrice would be lifted up by the lord and chosen as his faithful spouse. This was around Christmas 1216. Beatrice waited for her spiritual rapture but it did not come on Christmas as Ida had predicted, much to Beatrice’s dismay. Instead it was later in January of 1217 that Beatrice had her first mystical experience.
She was singing at the end of compline, which is the last service of the day, when it happened. Onlookers later said that she appeared to be sleeping. Beatrice recalls a vision of following Jesus Christ up through different levels and layers of heaven. She ascended with him up into the presence of God and yet still ascended higher. This was a very shocking revelation as it implied something higher than their lord. Above God Beatrice saw “in an ecstasy of mind” the Holy Trinity. According to the Vita the vision was seen “not with bodily but with intellectual eyes, with eyes not of the flesh but of the mind”. One of the nuns that thought she was sleeping woke her up and immediately Beatrice burst into tears.
After this vision Beatrice was in a prolonged state of gnosis and ecstatic emotion. There is recorded two signs or “miracles” resulting from it. She was brought to the dormitory to rest after her ordeal and became sick. She overcame her sickness and cured herself by crying. And the second starts with her laughing in gratitude loudly. This was immodest at the time, so while she was overtaken with this expression she was also ashamed of her behavior. She wished during this ecstatic bout of laughter to hide from the other sisters. Suddenly the lamp lighting the dorm fell to the ground and went out, effectively “hiding” her. The nuns at the monastery basically decided to give her lots of space during this time period.
Beatrice’s tears are mentioned several times throughout the Vita, highlighting their importance. It was as if her Love increased with her longing for what she thought of as her God. Indeed she could not reach again the heights ascended to in her vision yet purposed her life to this end. This symbiotic relationship of emotion lead to a unique outcome wherein her greatest despair was also her greatest strength. Her heights and experiences of Love increased both her happiness and sorrow equally. This serves as an interesting point of transmutation, effectively transforming Beatrice into a walking, talking, human philosopher’s stone.
This Miracle of tears in Beatrice’s case is considered a spiritual miracle, and not a corporeal one. It is not ranked of less importance in the church, rather these sorts of miracles are seen as a fundamental goal that religious devotion strives to reach for the individual. When most people hear the mention of miracles they think of healing the sick or apparitions or stigmata or any type of physically verifiable unexplained phenomenon. Spiritual miracles in contrast are weighted not only by the intensity of the event itself but even more heavily so on the long term effects a miracle has on the recipients life and behaviors.
Not long after her vision Beatrice returned to Florival Bloemendaal, the monastery where she first became an oblate. She quickly garnered respect and esteem in her community due to her devotion and passion for Christ. Beatrice became uncomfortable with the approbation of her peers, thinking they would cause her vanity and hence a fall from grace. To remedy this she decided to essentially slack off, making herself look less devout and marking her reputation. She figured the punishments she would endure according to her tradition and the displeasure or “let down” of her superiors and peers would be a more holy choice than to be continued to be admired. This behavior backfired however, with her faux irreverence turning into legitimate spiritual “sloth”, including neglecting confession and Eucharist.
This period seems akin to what occultists think of as “Dark Night of The Soul”. While Beatrice may have subscribed to a particular religious system the effects of spiritual growth, divine revelation and/or personal realization, is the same as what is still experienced by people today. She reached out to her friend Ida during this rough time of her life, who urged her to go to confession and take Eucharist. It was the intervention of an unnamed nun that eventually got Beatrice out of her funk. This nun was said to have been “divinely inspired” and urged Beatrice to take the Eucharist even without confession. When she did Beatrice was immediately brought to tears; awakened to the reality of her situation as God took pity on her for her lack of piety.
Roughly four years later in 1221 Beatrice moved to Maagdendal, which was a “daughter house” to Florival Bloemendaal, meaning that they shared doctrine, management and resources. It was here she partook of the ritual consecratio virginum, or the consecration as a virgin. While due to tradition this was a literal title for Beatrice, the ceremony itself is not to do with sexual virginity. The ritual has several different stages. Of these include a vow of chastity, an act of humility, invocation of the saints and angels, and the official consecration by a bishop or higher ranking Church official.
In 1235 Beatrice’s father Bartholomew decided he wanted to build another monastery. There is some difference in historical opinion as to the role that he played in the three monasteries Beatrice served in. Some sources only mention him in a financial administrative role in all three communities. He is mentioned several times in the Vita as well as other records as being the main benefactor in establishing both Florival, then Maagdendal. The third monastery he would be credited for founding was Nazareth. Beatrice’s two sisters Christine and Sybille joined the monastic life at Florival Bloemendaal in 1215. Her older brother joined the Praemonstratensian Order nearby which was a community of monks with Cisterian ideals and methods including communal work and sufficiency. Her father would go forward with building Nazareth by purchasing the land with her other brother Wicbert. Indeed the holy life was a family affair.
The first plot of land for Nazareth was purchased in 1235 ended up being too swampy to successfully build on. It wasn’t until ten years later in 1245 that the abbey was completed in a different location. During the building period Beatrice busied herself with producing choir books and other documents that would be needed for the community. During this process her blood sisters moved to Nazareth to help. It was not long before the activity attracted girls from the surrounding neighborhoods. Beatrice was in charge of teaching them as they joined the community. When Nazareth was accepted into the Cisterian order Beatrice was elected as prioress of the abbey, in charge of overseeing its development and day to day activities.
Much like in her past Beatrice disliked being the center of praise and veneration. She found it difficult to accept that others held her in such high esteem when she in fact thought herself vile. Having her divine vision years ago set a pretty high bar to what she considered worthy of praise. Unlike previous times in her life however, Beatrice rose to the occasion and did well in her position both in the community without sacrificing her personal spiritual growth. Unlike last time she did not allow her being uncomfortable to dissuade her from her devotion. She continued to attend mass daily, give confession and partake in the Eucharist along with some more extreme examples such as wearing a girdle of thorns or compressing her body with cords as acts of religious austerity. Beatrice served her abbey well for thirty years up until her death on August 29th, 1268. She never lost that fire in her heart.
The record of her death reads:
“On 29 August 1268, anointed with the oil of the Extreme Unction and fortified beforehand with the viaticum of the life-giving Sacrament, Beatrice gladly surrendered her blessed spirit into the arms of her spouse whom we presume no one doubts to have been present.”
It was while living in Nazareth Beatrice penned “Seuen Manieren van Heilige Minnen” or “The Seven Ways of Holy Love“.