‘When I am old I will wear purple,’ a very popular poem maybe 30 years ago, left its imprint on my heart. Yes, when I was old, I too would want to do as I please, not quite so as a sister, but the essence is to be oneself. My time has come, I can wear purple when I want, meaning I can be myself no mask needed anymore. God does not seem to be concerned that I am old. In a world which seems to be so in love with youth, old age seems something to avoid at all costs — witness the wrinkle creams, a booming business, or the face lifting of movie stars. How to age gracefully is my prayer. “Cast me not away in my old age and I shall be ever full of sap and green,” the cry of the psalmist. So would we all hope. Being older than a few years previously, aging occupies my thoughts a bit more.
May I turn out to be like this older sister at my home convent. I sent out an ‘All points alert bulletin,’ i.e. a request for prayer to all sisters at home for a very important intention/prayer. I needed to have an army of proverbial ‘prayer warriors’ sent out to do battle. Prayer gets amazing results! An older sister now in a wheel chair wrote to me specifically that she would take this intention/prayer need on and would I tell her of any new developments. Her email was extremely active and present to the need. I was blessed and encouraged that both she would be so interested in this retreat house which she had once visited with me and that she would devote time to this prayer. She certainly seemed ‘ever full of sap and green’ in her spirit if not in body. I hope that I will be as active and see my ministry and contribution as clearly when my time for wheel chair living comes.
Gentle is one word I would not apply to myself. I tend to be flighty, opinionated, heavy handed and impulsive. Not a great combination as one searches for God who is meek and lowly in heart as we are told in the scriptures. Transformation is definitely in order when it comes to this creature of His. So…God has asked me to make lace. I do not often discuss lace making in these blogs but I do a lot of it!!!…in the recreation salon, in my room, at the Kantcentrum school…crosses, handkerchief edgings, and designs. Bruges is well known for its lace making and the Annual Lace Days are coming soon in August. Groups from all over Belgium and the Netherlands come to exhibit and do lace in the small square as it was done 100 years ago in the sunlight. You must see to make lace and you must be gentle and patient!! Now these virtues are what lace is teaching me. To make the threads lie where they must, you must treat them gently and not yank on them; the threads will break, a definite No! No! The straightening, tightening of the threads so the lace is a pretty and beautiful, not messy and disordered, requires just the right amount of tension and patience. The loops and curls need considerable practice to lie flat, not having funny floppy ‘ears’ another No! No! Even winding the thread on the bobbins works better if it is wound in an orderly fashion. I am learning to be gentle and treat the thread and bobbins with respect. They in turn are teaching me patience and perseverance. Now the trick is…to transfer these virtues into my daily life as I live with others of God’s creatures. Gentleness is a lovely virtue; walk softly.
A friend sent me a postcard from Burano, Italy, home of magnificent and old needle lace; it was of a 97-year-old lace maker at work. Brugge, Belgium and Barga, Italy also witness that old lace making still exists, and certainly old lace makers! Lace lasts long after its lace maker has gone to her heavenly reward…witness the two altar edgings in the Begijnhof church, each 500-years-old, and the altar edgings in churches in the hills of the Apennines in Italy. There I too met a 93-year-old lace maker.
My American sister in religion and I did a goodbye skit before she left to return to America. We were costumed as the two co-founders of the Benedictine monastery here at the Begijnhof. The last Beguine who transformed into the new Benedictine order Prioress was a lace maker. Every sister after her at the Begijnhof took lace classes; it was what you did as a sister in Brugge. The carefully ordered paper notebooks of these sisters (some of whom are long dead) still exist to prove and testify to their lacework.
The last lace piece of the Benedictine Prioress (who died at the ripe old age of 97) hangs on the wall in our recreation salon. The handkerchief edging is perfect and symmetrical at the beginning, the height of her craft; as her fingers became less nimble and accurate, the lace edging reflects that but it does complete. She was not the only 90-year-old doing lace in Brugge. I have no idea how many lace makers hide in the medieval homes in Brugge but one is in my Tuesday afternoon class — she is 96 — and another is 92. It is hard to take in: they come every week with their lace pillow and whiz away at lace making. Now our own Begijnhof has its 82-year-old lace maker and of course me the youngster of the bunch. Our own lace maker has added lace to our main altar, very new compared to the side altars. My own altar cloth edging, made for my convent in America, completed only a week ago after 5 years. Yoo Hoo! Lace making takes time, meshing well (no pun intended!) with the contemplative life.
Today the handyman and the gardener came to cut down, or rather prune, the wisteria out my window ledge of which I have written before: its beautiful and sweet smelling blossoms, blooming twice each year. BUT…. Wisteria grows profusely, a tangled renewal of vines, renewing itself at a shocking speed so much so that it climbs all over the wall and window and wishes to intrude determinedly into my room. NO! I reach out and trim the vines back with my paper scissors (perhaps not the correct instrument!) but frankly I could not keep up with the vines these past two years.
The wisteria’s undoing was to come: the vines became the ladder for a lovely white mouse which made itself known in one of the sisters’ rooms. Now the mouse, he or she, was an unwelcome guest promoting the unbridled trimming of the wisteria. It has been slashed down to the first floor level. Also, a small mouse/rodent poison capsule appeared under my bed as with all the sisters’ beds in case there are other brother and sister mice lurking about. The mosquitoes and bees have also diminished without the wisteria blossoms so all in all this was a good move!
Now if you do not like the visits of unwelcome or rather uninvited guests you should never buy or live in an old house. I have not always been a sister and lived in a three story 150-year-old house in America which also had guests, probably residents long before my arrival, and quite occasionally we had to bid them adieu. Carrier pigeons had once been raised in the barn at the end of the driveway, which made for fascinating discoveries by the local children.
Lovely traditions and secret corners exist in old houses and monasteries begging for discovery; white mice and other four-footed residents are perhaps not one of them. Personally, I prefer the company of the portraits of the Beguines and the priests who also roamed these halls.
This convent is filled with the simple and the lovely. Simple interactions during the day…a few words exchanged on the walk to and from the chant offices in the church whether over a sore throat, the loud bull frog in the cloister, a pussy cat on a stalk, or the doves looking for breakfast after the rain. Prayers are also exchanged, the cancer of a beloved, an ill niece or sister, the death of a favorite pet. These snatches unite us as we go about our daily rounds of quiet prayer and praise in the monastery or church. We are united to one another and to the world.
During ‘vacation’ week i.e. no guests at the guesthouse, it is the simple things that are the most pleasurable, toast for dinner, or conversation in the recreation salon instead of silence over a meal. Sisters can go out on a day trip or visit a museum en masse but it seems the simple things make vacation best: a stroll in the morning garden to see the beets and lettuce after the week of rain. How happy the plants are and how much they have grown with the watering and the sun of the loving God. The ducks are swimming too in the canal with their babies now grown into teenagers; they leave their sunning on the grass at my approach glad for the safety of the canal. My walk is with coffee cup in hand, another simple pleasurable thing.
Sisters’ saints name days (mine was last week, Mary Magdalene) are celebrated simply with flowers at your place in the refectory, a hug and wish for a blessed day. When the day is done, these simple flower arrangements often make their way to the Mary or Jesus statue in the cloister. Walk slowly through life and find the joy and loveliness of the simple things.
Is anything by chance? Chance is not in the vocabulary of a nun; all incidences and meetings seem led by God. On the infamous Brewery tour with my American friend, a gal from Iowa, a small heartland state in America, came up and introduced herself. She is with Navigators, a well-known American evangelical outreach group; she was on a mission trip to pick up refugees in Berlin. She was presently married, a recent state, but on this trip without husband, having long been single doing the Lord’s work. She obviously decided that nuns, me a Catholic and she a Protestant, were on the same trail and so we shared and prayed — something Evangelicals are wont to do even at a table in the local Brewery!
One afternoon, I was hurrying down the street quite a way from the Begijnhof returning from lace school, actually huffing and puffing trying to reach the Begijnhof church before the bells rang and announced my tardiness. ‘Sister, Sister,’ I heard in English. ‘Can you direct us to the Beguinage?’ Well, of course I could (who knows how she knew I spoke English) so the ladies came in tow as I tried to slow my pace somewhat thinking, well, God would want me to be caring rather than fly off to Vespers (as worthy a goal as that might seem) leaving the women in the street with circuitous directions!
There are other close religious encounters too many to recount in a blog! My friend met two Scottish couples also heading to Brugge on the train from Brussels airport; they helped her with her suitcases and directed her when to get off since she spoke neither Dutch nor French, the languages of Belgium. I, who stood at the bottom of the escalator in the Brugge train station looking up for her, was approached by a man with two bags in hand saying, ‘You must be Sister Madeleine’. Well yes, of course I was, but who are you?? swirled in my head! ‘Your friend is coming…here are her bags.’ Are these coincidences? No, these are the providences of an all loving, all caring, and all seeing God.
The local brewery, local meaning literally right around the corner from the Begijnhof, has been already a subject of a blog. Annual Lace Days are held on the upper two floors of this brewery / conference center and it is a destination for many, many a tourist, especially the young. This nun, however, had never taken the actual tour of the Brewery; Brugse Zot, the local brew remains my favorite although two other famous darks and one light are also brewed here. A friend had come to visit and wished to go to the Brewery and was willing to both pay and take this aged nun along. Aged became the key word. Now mind you this Brewery has been making beer since 1856 on these same 4 floors. The ground floor was fascinating with big stainless steel vats with the different stages of beer making. So far so good…. Then the very cheerful guide who reminded us several times to not lose our card for the free beer at the end — ‘No card no beer’ —announced that there were 222 steps. I thought well I can do that…not as many as at the Belfort, the bell and carillon tower in town, 356 steps, which I also had never done so frankly knew little of what was involved which became immediately self-evident!! The ticket was already paid though and we were on the tour as they say. Well nothing doing…the stairs were steep, narrow and minuscule not even holding a complete shoe sole. Hand railings were adequate, thank the Lord. One set of stairs had to be descended backwards by all concerned no matter your age. At some point, it was a unanimously decided albeit by silent assent by the tour participants that getting the 72-year-old nun through this tour was a major concern. One gal cheerfully carried my bag the whole time so I had two free hands to clutch the handrails. The men gladly deferred to going behind and in front of me to catch any missteps and if there were only 5 places to sit in the dusty ancient albeit interesting rooms of this old bottling and brewing facility then one was always left for me. We arrived on the roof of the building for a supposed beautiful view of Bruges which in fact it was but the wind was so brisk and swirling that day that I spent the whole time clutching my veil to make sure it did not sail over the 15th century Brugge rooftops to be impaled on a chimney! Forget the view! The anticipation of the Brugse Zot kept me trudging onward down more narrow steps and around dated corners of this wonderful ancient Brewery imagining the shadows of long ‘gone to glory’ beer workers. An earlier blog covered how the beer actually gets bottled in this modern world and then shipped away. Only the brewing happens here now….on the first floor! Brugse Zot here I come!