This sister loves ducks, swans, birds, and pussy cats (which you know if you have read this blog before)! The annual meeting of the United Benedictine houses in Belgium held every year at one or the other monastery was held this year about 2 hours away from us, via the early morning train — a pleasant ride of watching cows, horses and pastures slip by in the sunny late spring light. We arrived by 9 am for our second cup of coffee and welcome treats. Last year’s monastery was in the countryside with lovely rolling hills around. This year’s monastery was in the middle of the city which apparently I am told was once the country side but NO MORE. A huge gate was opened and our car slipped through from a very busy city street. Miraculously, in the back was a huge open garden area punctuated with buildings for various uses one of which was a semi auditorium for meetings. Welcome time was chatting and friendly greetings for all who know each other; as we are different congregations, we meet maybe only once a year so chatting and friendly babbling was prevalent and a wonderful Dutch word or two was sprinkled in the conversation and welcome.
What about the ducks? Yes there is a pool in the garden where a mother duck and her two babies live. Living in a sisters’ garden is definitely the way to go for a duck! Safety is complete. Fear is non existent and Love is everywhere for these creatures. Mama brings her babies to the sisters. The babies eat from the sisters’ hands. I was enthralled; I took 50 some pictures; I loved it so I just kept snapping. St Francis and these sisters have a lot in common! Enjoy the show.
The second Symposium weekend celebrating the achievements of Protestants and Catholics during the 500 years since the Reformation was held in Strasbourg, France. I fell in love with the leafy city at river’s edge.
Strasbourg has changed hands from France to Germany too many times to recount unless you are a historian. The city has a distinct openness and flavor precisely because of the marriage of the two cultures — literally, German husbands and French wives and vice versa. Then there are the two religions, Catholic and Protestant intermingled over generations. The best of the bilingual living is the wonderful food and the semi-timbered architecture.
The cathedral is one of Europe’s architectural gems, having been on my art teacher’s ‘must see’ trips for her classes many, many years ago. This trip included visits to many of the interesting churches of the early Protestant era, Strasbourg being one of the first cities to decidedly turn Protestant.
We also visited a museum with a famous and magnificent triptych or maybe sixtych ( as there were movable sections for different times in the church year) by Matthew Groenewald. The museum had been the old Catholic Dominican Abbey in Unterlinden (Under the Linden trees).
The museum was the renovated old church but the cloister was untouched and you could still feel the loveliness of the old prayers being walked and said under its vaults. A pair of doves felt the same way as I did, having nested in one of the openings close to the spines of the vaulted ceiling of the cloister. The tourists trouped by me as I sat on a bench to enjoy the quiet. The doves know where to find peace.
The United Benedictines of Belgium meet every year with all the women Benedictine houses in Belgian being invited. This year the day of retreat was in a monastery, once in the countryside and now totally encircled by a city!! However, the monastery has preserved some quiet, open green space, gardens, pools, trees and all behind an imposing gate to a very busy city street. The garden and pools are gentle and restoring to the spirit, a hidden oasis in the city. The monastery church is impressive and majestic, built in 1622, as my fellow American sister noted, only 2 years after the Pilgrims, our first settlers to America arrived in America in 1620! Our ancestors were eating turkey with the Indians in the wilderness while imposing architectural churches were being built in Europe. This fact lends a little perspective to the newcomer American nuns. Apparently, the father of one of the founding nuns of this monastery was the architect and the original plans hidden in a hayloft to avoid the Nazi destruction in WWII! In this lovely church is also a Mary statue, quite normal in a Catholic Church, but lo and behold Mary has a veil with a handmade lace edging…now that was enthralling to this American sister lace maker.
Little blessings from God — “Even the hairs on our head are numbered” — are everywhere in a day if only the mind (or at least my mind) is empty enough to notice them and be thankful.
Now this sister is a long-time teacher: 60 years, that is a long time! A teacher always carries a pencil or pen in her pocket, or at least in easy reach, for presumably literary thoughts or just a note to tell a student this or that for encouragement or reprimand as the case maybe. When I arrived at the Begijnhof two years ago I decided, ‘No pencil in the pocket.’ My daily routine is to reflect, pray, be with God, do lace. No pencil! But…in praying in the chapel or in church I get ideas which I hope are from God about varying things in my life, how to say I am sorry about something, how to think enough of others to say this or that, encouragement or just updating the calendar… What, no pencil! This morning in the monastery chapel, I had an inspiration—or so I thought. I prowled every little drawer in the chapel looking for a pencil to write on a brochure I had in hand. Not a pencil to be found! These sisters pray; they do not chase pencils for thoughts! The mere fact that there are no pencils in these drawers or perhaps only in a more hidden spot is silent and mute testimony to the primary importance of prayer and praise in this monastery. No pencils needed for that!
Another note on pencils. I did actually invest in some new pencils to study my Nederlands/Dutch. A teacher and a student often begin a new term with a new pencil or pen. The inscription on a pencil in a nearby store caught my eye and enshrines my hope of passing the 10 levels of Nederlands. I have succeeded through Level 7. Three more to go. “Alles begint met een potlood en een droom.” For those of my readers who are non-Dutch speakers, which may be everyone I know!! (one Dutch speaker faithfully reads my blogs), the translation is, ‘Everything begins with a pencil and a dream.’ A positive and encouraging thought to live by whether in the religious life or the life of the world.
Time is a paradox in a monastery…both of little importance and of vital importance. There is time to think, time to pray, time to work, and time to be with God. “For every thing there is a season.” The round of seasons are very important here at the monastery, from spring with the daffodils in the courtyard, to the heat of summer and mounting numbers of tourists of all nationalities, to the closing days of autumn with the leaves gently dropping to blanket the courtyard in colors of brown, yellow, orange and red, to the silvery flakes of snow in the darkened and silent courtyard as we cross bundled for Compline in the dead of a chilly, cold winter. Daily Offices are times that punctuate the day to renew the spirit of the earthy pilgrim. Lauds at 7:15 wakens the church and opens the day. Eucharist and Midday prayers at noon raise the heart in the heat of the workday. Vespers ends the daily work and Compline puts the church and us to bed asking for a restful night to awaken again to greet the new day given by God. “This is the day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it.” So the days/times of a monastic are structured but there is always time to pray and to talk with God’s people. No work is so important but time for God is vitally important. Now how do we nuns arrive at these places, church, meals, recreation ON TIME? Bells ring to call us to prayers. One nun even has an alarm on her phone to call her to prayers. Modern technology! A tiny clock is strategically placed in the hall where we all must pass. We can set our watches by it; I have seen more than one nun check it on her way by. There is even a stray little alarm clock near the chapel where a passing nun can check. Also in the hall stands a lovely old grandfather clock whose movement I think no longer works but may have at one time called nuns to their prayers. Each evening a sister passes and pulls the weights but I have never actually seen it keep accurate time. I will have to ask about this! The tiny clock though keeps us all ON TIME so we can move together as a sisterhood to pray and praise God.
Every year there is annual week-long retreat here at the Begijnhof as there is at my home community. The challenging aspect of retreats here is they are in Dutch naturally…..but last year’s was about taking the beam out of your own eye before looking at the sliver in your brother’s eye….. how difficult is that in any language! Even if you only get a few words you have enough to pray about for the whole 45-minute session — at least I did. This year, a monk came from an ecumenical men’s monastery in Belgium: Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks working and living together in harmony. This Dom was a wise oldish monk with a lively smile, complete with well trimmed and clipped beard; he truly looked like one of the desert fathers and spoke and prayed like one as well. He has been a monastic for over 50 years and has the wisdom of a life lived and given to God to show for it. I honestly felt when he said Holy Ghost or Jesus Christ or God the Father that he knew these persons personally! He spoke in a reverent way about them as if he had just finished a conversation with them. I was awed as much by his demeanor as by his words which of course I only understood maybe 50% this year. I tried to laugh and nod at the appropriate moments even if I only grasped the general idea but not the specifics of the point being made. The retreat is held in the chapter room, the room in the monastery as at my home community and all monasteries, reserved for important decisions and thoughts. The walls are lined with portraits and photographs of Prioresses, Priests and Beguines from earlier Begijnhof years, an august array lending solemnity to the proceedings and sessions. These previous travelers watched and encouraged us on the Pilgrim’s path.
The past three May weekends in Paris and Strasbourg, France and in Florence, Italy, there were Symposiums celebrating the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation sponsored by Mount Tabor Center for the Arts and Spirituality. Protestants and Catholics celebrated together the achievements over these 500 years. These Symposiums were a two-day series of lectures and museum visits presented or conducted primarily by well-versed theology professors, but also by art historians and artists themselves. A lot of stimulating thoughts were presented and debated. The topic in Paris was the Holy Ghost portrayed as a bird/dove in art and His presence and meaning in theology both historic and modern. I learned a whole lot!! It was like being back in University; mind you in France, the language was French but in Italy, Italian of course. Another wrinkle to the weekends! I became attuned to seeing the bird/the dove/the Holy Spirit in art and looking for where He was in paintings and sculpture and how He was portrayed. In historic art, the bird is figurative: one sees the literal bird. And in modern art, the bird is often abstract, one senses the spirit of the bird. Now I am seeing birds and thinking of the Holy Spirit, listening to them outside my window and thinking of them flying around where they will as the Holy Spirit blows where He will, the breath of the spirit. A hefty metaphor here. I have looked around the Begijnhof after I returned seeing birds in the paintings and sculptures where I never saw them before. Look, there He is, the Holy Spirit! Pentecost is Sunday — the coming of the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the Apostles (and us). Behold He comes. Veni Creator Spiritus!