You know anything about beguines? In the 13th through 16th centuries, these were lay women who lived in monastic communities--basically nuns without the vows. They would commit to living by the rules of the community, but were not bound to it for any period of time and were free to leave when they wanted. At a time when the options for a woman's life were quite narrow, this seems like an incredible opportunity--the benefits of community living without the lifelong restrictions of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Maresi, by Maria Turtschaninoff, has had me thinking about beguines. The Red Abbey is a community of women and girls, on an island where no man may set foot. From all over the world, they come--sent by their families for the best education, or fleeing oppressive societies where women may not be educated, or just because it is a safer place for them than wherever home was. They come as novices and they stay as sisters, or they return home, or go off into the world to use the things they've learned to make the world better. They are protected by the Mother, the three-faced goddess.
Maresi is one of the oldest novices in the abbey, and she loves it there. She loves the rituals and the food and her friends and the library. She loves studying with Sister O and looking after the youngest novices. When Jai arrives--frightened and on the run--Maresi shows her the ropes and they become friends.
There is danger and drama in the book, and that's all great and thrilling, but the thing that makes this book so incredibly wonderful is this lovely community, this ideal of people who work hard for common goals and give each other freedom to be themselves. The sisters have different tasks and different lifestyles, and the novices work where they are needed and where their skills fit best. Maresi has her opinions of everyone, but when the cards are down, every member of this community stands together.
I've been thinking a lot about community lately--about the groups we belong to that consist of many loose ties, small tugs of obligation and connection to people you would probably not have chosen individually, but who together make your team. Community is hard, because not every relationship is comfortable, and because it is almost inevitably going to include people you'd rather omit if you could. But you can't; you're stuck with them, and they're stuck with you, and if you're not better off because of each person included, you are better off because it's hard to get left behind.
The Red Abbey is an idea of community in a dangerous world; it's a place where people protect each other and know the value of themselves and their sisters. I could read my way through the cycle of days over and over again, even without the storms and pirates and demanding goddesses.
This book makes my heart swell with gladness to read. Maresi and Heo and Jai and Enneike and the Rose and Sister O and Mother--I would very much like to meet and live and belong with these wonderful women.
(I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley, but that was ages ago and I didn't read it till now. So thank you, Netgalley, and I'm sorry that I waited so long!)