Women on the Margins


We agreed that growing up we absorbed some (or all) of the Church’s traditional teachings about women:

• Women are weaker than men, physically and intellectually.
• Women are more emotional and less rational than men.
• Women’s lives should be private, confined to the home and child-raising,
• Women’s ministries should not be used in the public arena of the Church.

We observed that the Catholic Church today still reflects the Church of the 11-13th centuries:

• Ecclesiastical power was centered in the pope’s person (pope alone speaks for Christ)
• A system of seven sacraments established (and with increasing devotion to the Eucharist)
• Universities established (the avenue to all significant positions in church and state)
• Church now more remote from ordinary people (clergy regarding laity as not fully Christian)
• Lay people still hoped for authentic religious experience, inspired by the vita apostolica

The vita apostolica:  As the church became more structured, hierarchical and clerical, lay people were beginning to practice the vita apostolica (the apostolic life) of Jesus and his first disciples. The Crusaders brought back a new form of spirituality from their years in the Holy Land; now wandering preachers, speaking in the vernacular, began to proclaim the gospel to ordinary people and told stories from Scripture. These wandering preachers emphasized that everyone – clergy and lay people – was called to serve Christ. At the same time singing women known as ‘Beguines’, living without supervision from husbands or the church – began to practice the vita apostolica, and the Beguine movement spreads across Europe

People on the margins: the Church may reject them and censor their ideas, but people living on the margins of Church and society often  are working to bring the world (and the Church) closer to God. The mystics and visionaries of the Middle Ages were just such people on the margins.

The visionaries: A number of laywomen, almost all in convents, wrote during these years. Their writings, rooted in their own experience and reflection, sought to convey their insights and teach other women how to pray. Their writings demonstrate a mystical spirituality – in which the visionary participates in the sufferings of Jesus, and then directs her energies to the life of love and compassion for others. Since these women believed (and taught) that the life of prayer was open to everyone and anyone, the official church was frequently threatened by their words and teaching.

These women called for Christ’s work of compassion in the world around them. As practical ministers – as well as theologians, writers, and spiritual guides – they focused on Jesus’ compassion and called for compassion from the organized church of their own day. If there is a common theme that links these women writers, it is that they found compassion lacking in the church’s ministry.

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