Today at recreation, the daily hour where the the sisters laugh, share, play games like Scrabble (in numerous languages), there was a long mural displayed on the table. The paper was covered with lovely calligraphed lettering of Bible verses in Dutch; all kinds and types, shapes and sizes of calligraphed letters. I never knew an A could be written in so many different ways and still be an A!!
This mural is the creation of the American sister spending time in Belgium to study with a master calligrapher. We sisters oohed and aahed, but we follow in a creative tradition here at the Begijnhof; the Begijnhof’s own lace sister has just finished a new lace border which appeared on the altar while I was away. Cloisters and monasteries over the centuries were fraught with the creativity of God and although the sisters here are older; they still embody and carry on that tradition whether the gifts are flower arranging, candle making, administrative, cooking or lacemaking. God leaves no one out; we are truly the body of Christ with eyes, ears, feet and hands; each one needing the other and enjoying the gifts of the others making a complete and living body. The photo albums of the Beguinage are nostalgic and blessed, in themselves a walk through a myriad of beautiful processions and professions with embroidered vestments and decorative flower arrangements. We, newcomer American sisters, calligrapher and lacemaker, are simply treading a well traveled road made flat and plain by the sisters before us at the Begijnhof. We are so glad and grateful to share in this tradition here at the Begijnhof. The lacemaker works on a large altar cloth edging for the convent chapel in America and the calligraphy sister letters 24 large calligraphed Bible verses for the Sacred Art gallery in Italy.
The silence, quiet and prayer at the Begijnhof creates space for the breath and wind of the spirit to touch us (we hope) as we gratefully work to carry on the creativity and blessing of this tradition passed to us.
The American sister at the 800-year-old Beguinage monastery, as this blog claims, has been joined by another American sister! She has come to Brugge to the Begijnhof to study calligraphy with a master teacher in St Kruis, a stunningly peaceful leafy suburb of Brugge. The ride on the bus and the meandering in among the beautiful cleanly lined homes is heavenly and even waiting at the bus stop is a pleasant oasis. A contented gray cat perches in the window, manicured gardens line immaculate driveways and a large well ordered farm with cows and horses grazing peacefully and lazily borders the suburb. My sister does not yet speak Dutch but it is coming. This morning was her first prayer in the open prayer time in Lauds. Her arrival prompted the priest to invite us after Mass to his home beside the church; he is the only man allowed to live in the Begijnhof courtyard! The priest speaks English and had great curiosity about our home convent in America.
Adjusting to new language, new country, new convent, new culture is nothing short of overwhelming but the new American sister is astoundingly content and happy. The peacefulness of the Begijnhof and the 800 years of continuous prayer has an overwhelming and pervasive effect on making and keeping the courtyard holy….a fascinating concept. Everyone feels it but no one can exactly put their finger on what it is….quiet, peace? We sisters, though, faithfully carry on the 800-year tradition of prayer, private and corporate every day as the tradition was passed to us from the faithful portraits and paintings lining our walls. These bygone sisters, priests and Beguines have tread this earth before us. May all who come and walk our courtyard be as blessed as our new American sister.
Spring has sprung but this year there are no Mr. Ducks chasing Mrs. Ducks in the cloister or even sitting on the rooftop as last year. There has been a bird flu going around in Belgium and our ducks have caught it so there simply are no ducks! There are easily 70% fewer ducks than last year. None are nesting in the back canals of the monastery secluded from the tourists. I have seen one pair and I hope somewhere there is a nest. Last year there were easily 10 to 20 pairs and lots of little duckies; they would sun on the bank and in the grasses and leap into the canal as I approached on my morning round with my coffee. I am really not so terrifying but they do not know that.
The Brugse swans have also been safely collected and hidden away in some protected spot to avoid the bird flu. Fortunately, the swans have recently returned to the canals before the height of the tourist season. Their lovely regal selves floating along the canals are beautiful. The tourists who came when the canals were only water did not know what they were missing; a postcard of other times, other years would have to do! I had gotten used to the canals without them but I sure did miss them. (The sister who does the daily run to the bakery for our fresh bread confessed she missed them also!) Spring has also brought the return of the tortoise who lives in our cloister; he can be seen sunning himself in the afternoon sunshine. The wisteria out my cloister window blossoms bigger every day. The human creature in all of this lovely God-created nature sits by her window and peacefully meditates and does her lace amongst the loveliness of God’s creation.
Good Shepherd Sunday……such a wonderful image of God watching over his sheep! As wandering as we might be, he loves us and seeks us out and brings us to safety. Psalm 23, one of the most beloved psalms in all Christendom, is chanted in Lauds. In the Eucharist, I was struck by how many good shepherds God sends our way. Our priest is a perfect example; he is a pastoral priest and his gifts are to care for his flock; every week he carefully guides us toward God and leaves us with something to take home for the week in a short homilie. Short is the key word here…I am always humbled by how he does that in a page and a half! I sit behind him in the choir so I can see how long the sermon is on paper! Our organist choir director is another good shepherd; he faithfully comes every week to rehearse 6 oldish nuns and helps us when our voices to do not measure up to our hearts. He sings steadily and solidly in church supporting us in both his singing and playing, never really playing over us or at his own speed but matching his support to our need. Quite a feat I have decided! A well-known Belgian soprano singer also comes nearly every week and sings under us or matches her voice strong and steady voice (in her own right) to ours. Then of course, there is our Prioress who faithfully tends this small flock. The community honors her with a flower bedecked staff at her place on this Sunday. Occasionally, our Prioress is away for a day, even overnight and we falter a bit truly like sheep without a shepherd. Surely all of these are goede herders/ good shepherds. Thanks be to God.
Here at the Beguinage the sisters have what are affectionately called ‘personnel’, five people who work at the monastery and who are NOT sisters. Personnel do jobs caring for and tending the Beguinnage which traditionally were done by sisters in years gone by when the sisters were both younger and more numerous.These ‘personnel’ can be seen at any time of day Monday thru Friday busily, caringly and quietly going about their assigned tasks. A spirit of helpfulness and kindness surrounds them, from the gal who does the sisters’ ironing until all is beautiful and wrinkle free (she willingly does my habits and the sheets! ) to the faithful laundress who does our lakens/sheets every month, folds our weekly laundry and lays it out appealingly on the table in the sewing room for our retrieval. Others mop the tile floors until they gleam especially after rainy days, which are many in Brugge. We sisters diligently wipe our feet but we do track dirt along the the floors coming and going from our seven services a day out into the courtyard and across the often muddy path to the church.
Kitchen personnel help cook and do all our dishes at midday meal and breakfast during the week. A handyman and gardener complete the ‘personnel’; they rake and clean up the large monastery grounds Spring and Fall and literally and figuratively fill in all the cracks. The handyman recently bore small holes in my lace lamp to my great delight allowing my lace lamp to be attached solidly to my pillow and not fall on the floor when I am being Italian and waving my arms about telling stories of my Italian and Dutch adventures. Once or twice a year at Christmas and Easter, the ‘personnel’ buy, prepare (the handyman is an amateur cook!) serve and clean up a special meal for us sisters.
Personnel seem to be everywhere and nowhere quiet, efficient and blessing us. Older sisters, at one time did all these jobs themselves with no need of personnel…BUT now since they/we are in need, ‘personnel’ are here and we are very blessed by their presence and their attitude of service. May the good Lord bless them in return.
Wednesday brought a trip to the Sint Salvador Cathedral in Brugge to the annual Chrism mass which this year was presided over by the newly installed Bishop of Brugge. This was special and frankly I could not wait to go! A cold was valiantly trying to catch me but I might have had the ‘bird flu’ and I would still have tried to go. The bird flu has truly devastated the winged population here, last year there were flocks of ducks mating and nesting and sitting atop the roofs and in the canals, this year not. Flocks of large black birds usually foraged in our courtyard for morning breakfast but no….maybe a couple or two which I try always to greet to encourage their return. Return to the Chrism mass…the cathedral has been undergoing renovations, (a regular sight in Brugge churches) for the past I think 3 three years ever since I came for my long stay. At various previous visits to the cathedral, the working walls moved steadily around, varying sections being open for a congregation sitting in different places not being worked on, on movable chairs. The organ console had a way of moving also!! Today the whole central aisle was finished and wow was it beautiful. The paintings were cleaned and the colors bright and arresting; the statues had freshly scrubbed arms and legs and layers of dull dust removed. I loved it. The Bishop was bedecked in wonderful ritual robes and various parish representatives carried the oil for blessing to the high altar. It was a moving and blessed service including a small reception at the end which I was privileged to attend.
PS. This sister was happy she knew all the responses in Dutch and even managed a slight conversation at the reception with a friendly priest and a chat with some other sisters in the diocese. God is Good.
Maundy Thursday, is Jesus’s celebration of the Passover meal with his disciples for the last time before his crucifixion. Often this comes after a traditional foot washing ceremony. At the Passover meal, Jesus gave his disciples the bread and wine and commanded them to do this in remembrance of Him. Frequently, Christian and Catholic Churches celebrate this meal with a local Jewish synagogue to share in the Passover tradition. I have done both myself. Here at the Begijnhof, a Mass is at 5 pm and then the host is taken to a side altar with sisters carrying candles behind and singing in Latin Pangua Lingus. After is a time of still prayer for whomever wants and a lot of people stay in the church. We sisters then return to our monastery and have a meal of fresh bakery buns and sandwich meats and a simple dessert. The highlight though is that it is served by the Prioress and her Subprioress and we other sisters stay seated while served and cleared. I could hardly do it! I am trained to serve (I needed glue on my seat to sit still!) especially when one sister is a good deal older than I. For me, it was truly emotional thinking of Jesus serving his disciples and washing their feet. I felt like Simon Peter “wash not just my feet Lord but all of me.” We are 8 sisters here a little like the 12 apostles. It is hard at my home convent of 60 sisters to get the feel of a Passover meal with a small group of disciples! This meal seemed so like what it must have been like for Jesus. I looked around ……each sister has a distinct character but here we were all together living for Jesus. The Bible definitely does not paint Jesus’s disciples as carbon copies of one another. Each apostle had a distinct character. God created each one and used each with their gifts.