Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Answer of Begijnhof (Amsterdam)

Recently, I was thinking of lifestyle options for women these days. There is always marriage, that centuries-old institution that ensures a woman a legal (if not emotional or sexual) partner. A more informal path is cohabitation, (i.e. living in sin), although by universal consensus the woman ends up doing most of the work anyhow, so why not get the seal of legitimacy? Then there is singlehood, with the presumption that single women are "in transition," and they are eventually looking for "someone" and the inevitability of at some point, when the timing is the right and the stars are aligned, consummating their life to completion with a mate. Or there is the convent, a place of belonging for the religiously inclined and celibate, content to commune with God and serve in community.

I must admit, none of these options satisfy me. I am not the best at "sharing," nor am I amenable to the restrictions placed on nuns, the most salient of which is their inferior status versus men, reinforced by archaic guidelines of the Catholic Church. Nor do I think my life is on hold until I met someone, because the reality might just be that there is no romantic mate for me. Look around us. Not everyone has someone and half the couplings are mismatched at any rate.

But there are examples of innovative living and inspirational communities throughout the world. The Begijnhof in Amsterdam is one such model, which I stumbled upon when visiting Holland. It actually refers to small inner court of tall historic buildings in the heart of the city, adjacent to the English Reformed Church. The buildings feature Gothic woodwork and elegant facades. There was a statue ensconced by green-gold leaves. There was an aura of serenity that pervaded the small block of gardens and homes. It was more than a sense of peace; it was the smell of self-acceptance.

The Begijnhof (Beguine's Court) was first mentioned in documented records in 1389. The Beguines were a group of single patrician women, women of status and property, who maintained their assets and lived in community performing altruistic works. One would compare them to nuns as they took vows of chastity, although they had considerably more autonomy and they were free to leave the community at anytime to get married. Best of all, they retained separate residences and didn't "share" their living with the entire community.

The last Beguine died in 1971. This beautiful community lasted over 600 years, which is longer than most Empires and older than America itself, and it was a sustainable lifestyle for 100-150 women at a time. Ironically, the Begijnhof predated the women's liberation movement and yet it offered women more freedoms than some have even today: manifest destiny, control over one's income and assets, a supportive network, a private dwelling, and the choice to leave at anytime.

So maybe the answer to this modern-day, successful and solitary woman conundrum is not marriage nor the blatant defense of a single life nor the nunnery.

My answer? Start a Begijnhof. Right here in America

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