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The last beguine

The statue in the Amsterdam Beguinage (from insolitamsterdam.com) Facing page, Romana Guarnieri

Stories

26 September 2020

Her name was Marcella Pattijin, born in 1920 in the Belgian Congo and, blind since birth, lived in a women’s religious community in Sint-Amandsberg, Belgium. She died in 2013 and the world greeted her as the “last beguine”. The pious Marcella had perpetuated the medieval tradition that pushed so many women to consecrate themselves to God without taking the veil and freeing themselves from ecclesiastical control. Neither wives nor mothers nor nuns, theirs was a choice of faith and extreme freedom and accompanied by a life of prayer, penance, chastity, and charity work. Starting from the twelfth century, this reality spread to Northern Europe and the beguines, accepted and disowned in alternating phases by the Church, were often accused of heresy.  In fact, they were even sent to the stake as happened in 1310 to the mystic Margaret Porete of Flanders, one of the most famous figures along with Hadewijck of Antwerp, Mary of Oignies, Mectilde of Magdeburg. Still today, the term “beguine” is associated with hasty superficiality, bigotry, backwardness and intellectual closure.

However, in recent times another extraordinary woman has been able to overturn this prejudice: her name is Romana Guarnieri, whose father was Italian and mother Dutch, and who is considered the last beguine of the twentieth century.  She died in Rome in 2014 after making a profound indelible mark on the culture of the Church. Animated by an unshakeable faith, a scholar of medieval mysticism, and a very fine writer, who lived alone in a large studio-house overlooking the dome.  She was convinced that intellectual research could be an instrument of personal sanctification but also of the salvation of others. “Being beguine, for me, means continuing the choice of the female figures I studied. To be in the world without being in the world”, she explained, “to be everyone’s and nobody’s. Or rather, of the One: but He is absolute freedom”.

Her existence consecrated to God and rigorous studies was characterized by a sensational discovery, which would lead to international repercussions:  in 1944, on a shelf in the Vatican Library, Romana identified the Mirror of Simple Souls, a mystical-philosophical text by Margherita Porete, which later became a classic of spiritual literature. In the fourteenth century, those parchment pages had led the author to die burnt alive in a square in Paris because, as a woman, she had no right to write a book, let alone to venture into theology. Romana was born in The Hague in 1913 into an intellectual family, whose father, Romano Guarnieri, was one of the founders of the University for Foreigners of Perugia and her mother Iete van Beuge was a painter. After her parents’ divorce, at the age of 12 the future beguine arrived in Rome with her mother who had remarried an Italian architect. She took her high school diploma at the Liceo Visconti and graduated in German literature at the Sapienza University. Although baptized, she grew up in an agnostic environment hence the thought of God did not occur to her. However, in 1938, her life arrived at a turning point when she encountered Don Giuseppe De Luca, a very cultured Roman priest and animator of Catholic culture of his time. He helped her discover the faith, and taught her the value of prayer, and above all encouraged her to continue her research and directed her to editorial activity. In clashing with her family and professors, Romana gave up a university career (at La Sapienza they had created a Dutch-speaking readership for her) to dive into historical studies, particularly on the history of piety. She pronounced her vow of chastity and established a long intellectual association with De Luca which generated the Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura [History and Literature Editions], the Italian Archive for the History of Piety, and was interrupted only after the death of the priest in 1962.

Romana continued to analyze medieval mysticism, women’s religious movements, to write books and essays (her bibliography includes approximately 200 titles), to cultivate friendship with other scholars and theologians. In her Roman home, frequented by young people and intellectuals, in 1987 “Bailamme”, a magazine of spirituality and politics, was founded. In her later years, she was forced to remain in a wheel chair; Guarnieri closed her eyes on December 23, 2004, and great sadness was felt by those who had known her, both of her person and through her works. Her nephews Adriano and Massimo donated the 5,000 volumes of her library to the Veritatis Splendor Institute in Bologna: a precious testimony of the intellectual, religious and human parable of the last modern beguine that illuminated the spiritual thought of a century.

by Gloria Satta