The time has come as it does every year for home leave. I will leave the Begijnhof for 6 weeks in America at my home convent and return again in time for Advent and Christmas. Mornings are dark now as we slip out to Lauds and cross the very darkened and quiet courtyard. Even the birds and doves are not up yet poking in the grass. Every night we cross again to church and Compline also now under darkened sky and we return by night. The glowing spire of Onze Lieve Vrouw, the grand Bruges church of Our Lady, is alight arching over us. Onze Lieve Vrouw is not quite completely visible as the autumn leaves cling tenaciously to the trees but we know she is there, her silhouette glowing behind the tangle of leaves. Yes, there are things I will miss on Home Leave, the quiet, the contemplation, the time for reflection and thought, important at my age in life. I return to a convent in the prime of its life, filled with energy, life and outreach by young and old alike. The Reformation Symposium has moved to America for two very busy weeks, welcoming the French and Italians, hosting European theologians and artists, just one of the many outreaches of my home community. The swirl of the community life will both enliven and tire me, again a symptom of my age in life. God is Good.
The subtext here is I do not know how many blogs I will get written in the next 6 weeks! The muse as poets and writers will testify, visits capriciously and then I must write. For those of you who read these blogs faithfully and there are some of you, more than I would have thought from stray revealing comments, thank you and God bless you until we meet again.
“Study in Black and White” is a lace design that caught my interest in a Bruges Flower Lace book. As an aside, this book was the first lace book I bought; I had not the slightest idea how to do the lace. I simply liked the designs! The book stayed many years on my shelf until I came to Bruges. When asked to mount a small display of lace (for which of course varieties of lace must be made) I choose one design from this book. It pleased me making it, as all lace does. If you look closely, the patterns as well as the colors are inverted. Continuing my study in Black and White, I turn to pussy cats. Now, it seems the newly elected White Arch cat of the courtyard has a twin in contrast, a Black cat. A recent misty Sunday morning, I stopped before heading determinedly for my coffee to take in the wonderful quiet and the bucolic view from our monastery courtyard door. Silence reigned and the giant trees were covered with autumn leaves wet with dew from the early morning rain. It was early and there I spied one of the ladies in the courtyard calling among the bushes what I thought would be the white cat, but No…. an all black cat appeared! Apparently, one White cat and one Black cat live in this courtyard home. Now the black one had a mind of his own wanting to sniff wonderful flowers and bushes in the tiny Banneux (a chapel to honor the apparitions of Mary in Banneux Belgium) garden next to his or her home. Who knows what bugs and small insects and even a mouse or two might have been straying there, only a cat would know for sure. Maybe even an early morning bird, but our birds are too big for cat catching. The bird might eat the cat! At last the cat was coaxed into his home garden for hopefully a safer breakfast and his mistress also as she was out in her bathrobe cat chasing. A wonderful homey start to the morning and I was off for coffee.
Exploring and becoming acquainted with my roots and family was my main reason for visiting Ireland. However, I am always on the prowl for lace. Lace was done in Ireland but I knew precious little about it. Carrickmacross lace greeted me on the wall by the elevator at the Sisters of Mercy guest house in Dublin. I was directed to take no pictures inside the house, none of the chapel or of the garden of memory in the courtyard or anything else for that matter. But…I confess I could not resist and upon coming in one quiet evening, snapped a photo of the lace on the wall Carrickmacross done by long ago sisters. Do not worry I confessed and repented of my disobedience. Most Irish lace is needle lace or embroidery with lace stitches, much of it is done and appliquéd on netting—very different from the Belgium laces. Small museums exist in out of the way villages visited at obscure hours or by a knock at a house number. Ireland is a small country land and population wise.
A Vermeer touring exhibition was in Dublin at the National gallery for 2 months and lucky me, during the time I would be in Dublin. Tickets were available on the Internet but without bank credit cards that is not an option for this sister. I trotted over to the ticket counter the day after I arrived in Dublin, to discover the exhibition was completely sold out!! Hmmm, a miracle was needed! The kindly ticket taker (they like their nuns in Ireland, a long history of the faith, thank you, St. Patrick) said sometimes people come and will sell their unneeded tickets, stay around a bit. I wandered over to the wall to lean, no chairs in sight. After 5 minutes, I decided OK 10 more minutes and then off we go. Lo and behold…a beautifully dressed white-haired lady heads right for me waving a ticket. “Here, this is for you! My 96-year-old, art-loving sister, Marguerite, fell, nothing serious, but going through an exhibition was not wise.” My Miracle, right on schedule! Of course, Marguerite is getting lots of prayers for a speedy recovery and Marion assured me her sister would love the tale of her ticket going to an American lace-making nun. The very famous Vermeer ‘Lacemaker’ was in the exhibition and as we all know standing in front of the painting is ‘way better’ than the posters or reproductions. I lingered in front of her, praising God for His goodness to me for all things, my Begijnhof, my Ireland, my home convent, my guesthouse, my lacemaking and my miracle of the Lacemaker.
Monastery guesthouses are the ‘in’ thing in the last 20 years, touting the quiet and retreat time away. There is even a book where to find monastery lodgings as monasteries do not advertise on the Internet! Finding the Begijnhof in my early years was definitely a miracle of God. The guests who do come to monastery guesthouses share the secrets of other monastery retreats with one another. I now know of a secret guesthouse in Florence, Italy which I hope to have reason to visit sometime. Last June, I stayed at the Sacre Coeur guesthouse in Paris. Finding the entrance, totally unmarked, on a back street behind the overwhelmingly large and beautiful Sacre Coeur on Montmartre was a challenge. I stumbled first into a Carmelite monastery also on the same back street and returned one afternoon for a heavenly Vespers sung by unseen sisters behind the veil. In Ireland, I stayed with the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns who began, not unlike the Beguines, working tirelessly among the sick, the poor and the uneducated. Sisters of Mercy were like the Beguines — unsung and scorned upon their founding as nuns of earlier centuries were supposed to be enclosed!! This order survived and was taken on by Rome and still today reaches out to Dublin’s poor, and those of us lucky enough to discover their guesthouse. Then it was to the countryside of Ireland near Limerick through green and hedge-crossed fields of cows and sheep lazily munching under a beautiful sun and fluffy white clouds, a wonderful treat weather-wise in Ireland. However, I was told most of the rain comes at night! Glenstal Castle — turned abbey monastery and accompanying guesthouse — offered a lovely retreat with miles of green countryside to walk and gardens to enjoy and plenty of Irish porridge and Latin offices to bless me. These guesthouses do in fact offer simple rest and quiet nourishment of soul and body.
The white smoke has gone up and with it a new Arch-Cat of the Begijnhof courtyard has been chosen or perhaps more accurately self appointed. As it happens, it is not only white smoke but an all white cat, a wee bit smaller than the last Arch-Cat but definitely ready to assume his new exalted position. Now the reason I can report so accurately on this turn of events is of course because I cross the courtyard 7 times a day and have time to survey all. This white cat was not too much in evidence when Bertje, the last Arch-Cat was about but now he parades at all hours in the courtyard. His walk (or shall I call it, strut) head and tail high in the air, is proud befitting a recently chosen Pontiff. White cat knows he is now the high authority, the Arch-Cat, and the domain is his. Last evening before Compline in the fading light, I called to the new pontiff and he gave me a discreet nod acknowledging my call. Yes I had an audience! Today, he had a grand audience with many tourists clustered around taking pictures obviously enthralled by at the attention of White cat or at least his tolerance of their attentions. Then off the new Arch-Cat sauntered through the open garden door and into his garden home. This has been definitely a peaceful passage of power to the new reigning Pontiff. New sightings will be reported in future blogs. The resident paparazzi had hoped to include a photograph but so far no success. This early morning’s sighting was in the gray still darkness. (A white cat is easy to spot even in the dark!)
One can be King of the Castle but…since the Begijnhof is a religious house, one must be an Archbishop I should think and by extension an Arch-Cat if you are a feline and the undisputed high authority. Bertje was definitely the Arch-Cat of the Courtyard here at the Begijnhof. However, our beloved Bertje is no more. Now there was no funeral Mass or procession but I am told he was laid safely to rest. My final view of Bertje was him scampering at a ‘hellbent’ clip across the courtyard one evening to visit his girlfriend who lived in the small street on the far side of the courtyard. He misjudged and there were still some tourists in the courtyard, so being late summer he leapt into an open window, swooshed past the maroon curtain and into someone’s home! I am told this lady likes Bertje so I guess he was escaping to a safe haven. Then the news comes one day at recreation Bertje is dood (dead) — what? I just saw him! Apparently, he was climbing trees or at least one tree and fell and broke a leg/hip which cost a great deal to repair plus a long convalescence without walking, not at all to Bertje’s liking, so he was sent to pussy cat heaven where he can chase lady pussy cats, climb trees and drink warm milk to his heart’s content. That sounds sort of good to me too! So the Arch-Cat is no more…a vacancy requiring perhaps white smoke to appoint a successor. I think of him…alas my searches to catch a glimpse of him are to no avail as I cross the courtyard. Of course other pussy cats live in the courtyard but none with the ‘chutzpah’ (a Jewish word meaning daring and bravado) of Bertje. RIP — Requiescat in Pace.
My streets are quiet again. It is September, even in the last week of August I walked out of the Beguinnage over the bridge, off to lace school. Where are they? Where are the tourists? I do not have to dodge, head down, to pick my way across the bridge. The bridge is empty…well one or two groups of 3 or 4 but not groups of 20 and 30 with cameras and selfies and umbrellas held high in the air by the guide. The tourists are gone! School opens and calls for the families, books to be bought, new backpacks to be purchased… we definitely could not do with last year’s! The vacationers are home to rake leaves and bed the garden for the coming winter and head back to work. I walk on…..on the sidewalk, no more having to step into the street to actually make forward progress. The benches are open devoid of tourists I do not have to hunt one in an out of the way street for a place to eat my picnic lunch before heading on to lace school.
The air is brisk and cooler in the mornings and evenings as I cross the courtyard; sun still lights the middle of the days.The leaves are beginning to fall, floating to the ground in the gentle so far breeze; the giant, protective trees reflect each season of God’s creation. The quiet and stillness soothes my soul as I too prepare for more quiet, more cold and more peace. There is joy to every season. We have only to look for it.