Q&A with Lee-Ann Wein on the Beguine Way and her “beautiful freedom”

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Lee-Ann Wein (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

Newcastle, Australia — Throughout Lee-Ann Wein’s adult life, she has followed various paths, never afraid to diverge in her quest to know and follow God in the way God desires. Currently living in Jamberoo, south of Sydney, she has embraced the beguine lifestyle, a hard-won choice.

Those who encounter Wein at a community funeral service near Wollongong, New South Wales, might be surprised to learn that she views this work as a contemporary expression of a way of life that originated in the 12th century.

RSG: What are some of the paths that led you to the beguine lifestyle?

wine: My life as a beguine has been shaped by my experience of Catholic religious life, my work as a funeral director and my own history.

I spent five years in formation with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Lochinvar [in New South Wales]. With these women, I learned the value of the ordinary, of service, and I was gently initiated into the process of death and the rituals around mourning and grief. These women spoke magnificently of death at the funeral liturgy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it had a very deep and lasting impact on me.

I then spent five years with the Benedictines of Jamberoo. It is a closed female monastery. It was another period of formation for me, experiencing the communal expression of death care and funeral liturgy.

The contemplative life is something I seemed to seek from childhood, and it found its way into both religious orders. After my time in religious life, I started working in the funeral industry where my ministry began.

The grounds of Jamberoo Abbey offer many opportunities for contemplation.  (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

The grounds of Jamberoo Abbey offer many opportunities for contemplation. (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

How did you discover the beguine way of life? For those who don’t know him, please share something from his story.

It was literally by accident. I kind of stumbled on it, and I’m so glad I did. Jamberoo Abbey has a bookstore that I volunteered at for a while. One day I was tidying up the shelves and I came across Laura Swan’s book The Wisdom of the Beguines. I took it out of curiosity and it changed my life. After that, I read everything I could find. It seemed that I had found a way of life and a group of kindred women that I could deeply identify with as a lay person.

Beguines were committed lay people who were active from the 12th century until 2013. They were women who chose an alternative to marriage or religious life. They lived simple, contemplative lives of service. They were shrewd businesswomen. They made personal vows or pledges rather than the canonical vows that married women or nuns make.

Initially, they lived their vows in their own homes and in small communities. Beguine communities, called beguinages, were places of safety for women, especially at night. These communities grew and in the 15th century, one of these beguinages housed 2,000 women. They were artisans, women of wisdom. Many were mystics. They had a powerful influence on our church.

A former Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium, in January 2018 (Tracey Edstein)

A former Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium, in January 2018 (Tracey Edstein)

In the Middle Ages, the church was wealthy and powerful with little help for the poor. The beguines, because of their work in the cloth trades, saw misery in the streets around them. Much of Beguine life was living the vita apostolica, or apostolic life, caring for the marginalized, the sick, and the destitute. They became the first nurses, midwives and teachers. They were often called upon to sit with the dying, to prepare the dead body for burial, and to attend funerals. They cared for lepers and created the first hospices. In the big Beguinages they had the Table of the Holy Spirit, which looked like our Vinnies [the St. Vincent de Paul Society]. They took special care of women.

The last beguine was thought to have passed away in 2013. However, now there is a new emergence in the world of the beguine lifestyle. There are several places in Europe where new beguines are starting a way of life. There is a growing community in Ireland. There is an international connection and an annual gathering, although COVID-19 has disrupted this.

Lee-Ann Wein makes her promises to the beguine on May 31, 2018, in the chapel of Jamberoo Abbey.  (Tracey Edstein)

Lee-Ann Wein makes her promises to the beguine on May 31, 2018, in the chapel of Jamberoo Abbey. (Tracey Edstein)

Your current situation involves an unusual partnership with the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Jamberoo. How does this work?

I am an oblate from the Benedictine community here at Jamberoo. I chose to make my beguinage vows as a deepening of my life as an Oblate in residence. On May 31, 2018, the feast of the Visitation, I pronounced my personal vows in front of the community. The vows I took for three years were simplicity of life, contemplative listening and service, and praying Compline every night for survivors of sexual abuse and for the freedom and dignity of all women. I took the name Sapientia, which in Latin means “wisdom”.

Living in a promised or doomed life is constantly changing. This must be; otherwise, there is no life in it. My vows lapsed after three years. Due to COVID-19 the community here has been in lockdown so a renewal of vows is simply not possible at this time. However, I always live my promises as if I had renewed them.

A rainbow at Jamberoo Abbey recalls God's promise to be with God's people.  (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

A rainbow at Jamberoo Abbey recalls God’s promise to be with God’s people. (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

What ministry engages you?

During the three years of my vows, I went from working in the abbey’s candle-making business to ministry as a funeral director. I work for a non-profit community funeral home. The beguines were often asked for this ministry, and for me, it is an expression of my life as a beguine.

Preparing a deceased person for burial or cremation or sitting down with the family to make arrangements is such a beautiful ministry. In fact, it really became the focus of my vow of service. When the opportunity arises for me to redo my vows, they may be a little different from previous vows.

How would you describe the spirituality of the beguinage movement?

It is essentially a contemplative spirituality, lived alone or in community. If I could go back in time, it would be to visit one of these communities and experience their life.

The grounds of Jamberoo Abbey offer many opportunities for contemplation.  (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

The grounds of Jamberoo Abbey offer many opportunities for contemplation. (Courtesy of Lee-Ann Wein)

Beguine spirituality is apostolic, based on a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. Some beguines were mystical, others devotional, and there seemed to be room for variety. They met to pray and service was an essential part of their life.

If you study spiritual classics today, you may read Marguerite Porete’s book The mirror of simple souls. [In the text, Porete, who was a Beguine, provides insights into the mystical spirituality of the Beguines.] She was imprisoned and burned at the stake for this book. The church at the time was threatened by his writings, but today they are considered to be of great value.

The beguine way of life has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. What do you think it has to offer contemporary women?

Many women already live or seek to live a contemplative life. Many seek to join others in sharing their contemplative life. The Beguine way offers this life of service and, potentially, a kind of community. He offers this as a self-contained spiritual life, a life that is connected to the church but not controlled by it. The biguine vows are not ecclesial. Although there is always a responsibility in this, there is also a beautiful freedom.

Editor’s note: Parts of these Q&As have previously been posted on the Jamberoo Abbey website.

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