Beatrice of Nazareth (c. 1200–1268)
Beatrice of Nazareth (c. 1200–1268)
Belgian nun, mystic, philosopher, and prioress at Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth who experienced visions of God and described the nature of mystical experience. Name variations: Beatrijs; Beatrice of Tirlemont. Born between 1200 and 1205; died in 1268 at Nazareth priory in Brabant; daughter of Bartholoméus (also mentioned as Bartholomaeus, Bartholomew, Barthélémy) de Vleeschouwer of Tirlemont (merchant and lay brother) and Gertrudis; had one brother and two sisters, Christina (Christine) and Sybilla (Sibylle); educated at the school of the Beguines at Léau, at Bloemendaal (Florival) Convent, and at Rameia (La Ramée); never married; no children.
The Seven Modes of Sacred Love; On the Intensive Use of Time; On the Threefold Exercise of Spiritual Affections; On the Two Cells Which She Constructed in Her Heart; On the Five Mirrors of Her Own Heart; On the Spiritual Convent; On the Fruitful Garden of Her Own Heart; On Her Aspirations to Achieve Self-Knowledge; On a Certain Rule of Spiritual Life Which She Kept for Some Time; and two prayers, Oh, Righteous Lord, and Oh, Most Righteous and Almighty God.
Beatrice of Nazareth was a Flemish holy woman and writer who was born into a wealthy, devout family: her father Bartholoméus was a lay brother who established three of the convents to which Beatrice would belong; her mother Gertrudis was noted for piety and charity. Beatrice, a shy and frail child, was so religious that she had memorized the Book of Psalms (commonly a first reader) by the age of five.
When Gertrudis died, Bartholoméus sent seven-year-old Beatrice to be educated at the school of the Beguines in Léau where she received a rudimentary education in the liberal arts trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic—and extensive religious education. Beatrice seems to have been an apt pupil, as revealed in her later writings. She completed the trivium program at the Bloemendaal convent and also completed the quadrivium, comprised of music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy.
By 1215, Beatrice's health was so poor that Bloemendaal almost denied her application to become a novice. She was determined, however, and strictly observed the rules which required, among other penances, self-starvation and sleeping on thorns. Though the severe asceticism of the Cistercian tradition made her extremely ill, she would drag herself to class or ask support of another girl rather than "let any of her time pass without the viaticum of knowledge." Of her own volition, she would rise in the middle of the night to sing the Holy Office. Incredibly devoted, Beatrice stood out in a society that regularly encouraged extreme displays of devotion.
When she was 16, Beatrice took the vows of a Cistercian nun and was sent to the convent in Rameia, where she learned calligraphy and manuscript illumination, talents which would serve to provide copies of liturgical materials for the establishment of new religious communities. She also had her first vision at Rameia in 1217 and met Ida of Nivelles , an older novice who acted as her spiritual guide. Such deep personal friendships were part of the Cistercian tradition, and Beatrice shared many throughout her life. Her friendship with Ida was so close that Beatrice would be made ill by Ida's death in 1232.
Upon her return to Bloemendaal, Beatrice suffered a great depression. The Book of Her Own Life, which is based closely on her diary of religious experience, records many visions which occurred during worship or religious meditation. These were usually abstract visions, of symbols or powers without context, such as the blood from Christ's wounds cleansing her soul. Other sensations, particularly voices and touch, often complemented the visual simplicity. In one early vision, Beatrice was embraced by Christ and accepted as his bride: "Let us make a pact, let us make an alliance, that we may not be separated from each other, but that we may be truly unified together." Although she recognized the significance of this vision, she lived in fear that she would be inadequate to the task, unable to serve Christ properly.
But on September 14, 1225, shortly after she and the other nuns of Bloemendaal had left for the convent at Maagdendaal, she experienced another vision during communion: the embrace of Christ and the assurance of God that she was chosen by him and that she would not yearn for death because of suffering, but only because of her yearning for heaven. As a result of this, her fears were dispelled. Her next years were marked by the remembered pleasure of this vision.
In February 1234, a vision of the Trinity revealed to Beatrice the mysteries of divine and human life. Experiencing the operation of divine justice, she learned that the Father is the creator, the Son provides wisdom, and life continues by virtue of the Holy Spirit. After this vision, she was ill for a year, caused, she wrote, by God taking over her will.
In May 1236, along with her sisters, her brother, and her father, all of whom had been with her for most of her life, Beatrice formed the Cistercian house called Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Brabant to which she was elected prioress. She remained at Nazareth for over 30 years, earning widespread recognition for her deep piety and spiritual advice to others. Beatrice believed she had a special message from God to share with others, and wrote an autobiographical record of her spiritual growth and acceptance of God's love, published as The Seven Ways of Loving. In this highly emotional book, written in Flemish and later translated into Latin, Beatrice describes her visions and gives her interpretations of them, while revealing her thorough knowledge of contemporary theology. The Seven Ways describes the levels of ascent, the many stages before the soul can find union with God. At the sixth stage, the soul surrenders to love in peace and comes to know God. At the seventh stage, the soul cries out for God's love, wishing an end to the earthly existence that now seems like a prison. Writes Beatrice:
Love has drawn her and guided her, has taught her Her ways; the soul has followed Love faithfully, in great toils and countless works, in noble aspirations and violent desires, in great patience and great impatience, in suffering and in happiness, in numerous torments, in quest and supplication, loss and possession, in ascent and in suspense, in pursual and in embrace, in anguish and cares, in distress and in troubles; in immense trust and in doubt, in love and in affliction, she is ready to endure everything. In death or in life, she wishes to devote herself to Love; in her heart she endures endless sufferings and it is for Love alone that she wishes to reach her Fatherland.
Considered a spiritual authority, Beatrice of Nazareth was consulted by people from all classes on a range of religious questions. She died at the convent in 1268.
Brunn, Emilie, and Georgette Epiney-Burgard. Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. NY: Paragon House, 1989.
McDonnell, Ernst W. The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture. NY: Octagon, 1969.
Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 2. Boston, MA: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.
Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada