Portraits (no photographs here) are also everywhere in the Begijnhof: faces from other centuries, Beguines, Saints, Nobility and bygone priests and modern day sisters. The famous Flemish primitives were portraits of ordinary workaday people but not so much here in the Begijnhof. The first portrait with whom I made serious acquaintance was the Beguine in the hall on the way to the chapel. She is more than life size and very imposing. When I inquire about her identity, no one seems to know. Perhaps, she is meant to be unknown representing the hidden and devoted self sacrifice of the Beguines; their creed was living in mystical union with God and serving others and not themselves. Best, she is unknown and only her good deeds follow after her. Her hand rests on a skull, silent reminder that life here on earth comes to an end and keep your eyes on death, the door to heaven and eternal life. The next portrait is a rather holy looking priest, deacon or bishop in the entrance hall of the old ‘Grand Dame of the Beguines’ home. I hope he was not as unapproachable and serious as he looks.
The chapter room has other paintings of rather serious and unapproachable Beguines some who were prioresses in their own right and then one portrait of a man, the founder of the Filles de L’Eglise, who has found his way onto the wall. Fortunately, the later Prioresses have photographs on the wall and have a smile and they feel considerably more approachable. The Begijnhof guest house has ten huge portraits on the wall, all of a single family I am told, but no one seems to know whom or why. Or at least no one I asked seemed to know.
These portraits are comforting; these long ago devout personages albeit now in heaven are walking along with me on the Christian path. God says he is not the God of the dead but the living so somehow although my limited human nature can not grasp the concept they are walking along with me. Here are bygone persons who tried to live as I am trying to live, devout whether they be a priest, a Benedictine sister, Beguine or nobility. We are truly a family of God and maybe — no, surely! — when my time comes, I will meet these portraits alive and welcoming in heaven. That is the hope, comfort and joy of the Gospel.
Paintings of Biblical figures, Beguines, sisters, and wealthy Flemish nobility accompany me as I walk the monastery halls heading toward Lauds, Midday and Compline, or as I simply wander the cloister heading for a cup of coffee. The convent chapel and the library have wonderful paintings of Biblical scenes and Saints as does the recreation salon. The office where classes are held by Skype for my students in the US also has paintings on the wall. “What are they?” my students ask. Occasionally, (I hope not too occasionally) they are not listening to me, but peering at the wall behind me. Looking around I see a painting not noticed before and respond! All of these paintings speak of bygone devoted eras, silent witnesses to faith in God, devotions of the patron, the painter, the family from which the lovely painting came, or all of the above. The paintings have come to rest and bless us, and no doubt past and future generations also, here in the Begijnhof.
The Begijnhof church has exquisite life-sized paintings — nothing small for these 14th and 15th century painters. The painters and the populace believed God was great, and so should the paintings be to envelop us with the majesty of God and His love for us, his creatures and children. “What is man that thou art mindful of him? The son of man that thou visiteth him?” The visitors to our Begijnhof church, and there are gazillions of them, are blessed by the shortest stop in our church and by the shortest glance around our church. The Begijnhof is a UNESCO site and on every tourist’s and tourist group’s list. Summer is here at the Begijnof and the paintings will continue to silently bless the faithful and the ‘not so much’ as they continue their active lives on our monastery and church walls.
Florence the city of art and the Medicis, the perfect site for the third weekend of the Symposium celebrating the achievements of Protestants and Catholics since the reformation. An astounding fact from the first evening’s lecture settled in my mind: Martin Luther had been to Florence! Of course we all know Luther was an Augustinian monk when he nailed the now famous theses on the Wittenberg church door igniting the beginning of Protestantism (protesting, of course but I had never really thought about the origin of the word Protestant). No records exist of where Luther went or where he visited on his trip to Florence although documentation exists that he was there. The first evening of the Florence Symposium was in the newly opened Innocenti Museum (in what had been the hospital for orphans and other abandoned children in Florence, run by the Silk Guild); now it is a museum with stunning Della Robbias, Boticellis and Ghirlandaios and other treasures. This site, as well as others for our tour, were chosen as Luther was above all what we would call today a social activist, and was interested in what was being done or not done as the case may be for societal needs and those of the poor, hence the reasoning behind our visit to this hospital/museum. Surely, this was a ‘must see’ quite possibly on Luther’s list.
Another highlight was the exhibition of a Catholic man and a Protestant woman opening in the studio adjacent to the Museum of the Duomo. This jointly intertwined exhibition, not just a side-by-side presentation of artists, illustrated concretely how belief can be drawn together for believers and society. The pillars are abstract reaching down into your spirit and connecting you with Humanity. The artist when asked why he chose the medium of abstraction the answer was, “I want to reach everyone” (regardless of race, color, creed) — this writer’s interpretation!
The roses on the garden wall are in full bloom, as I walk behind the convent in the large and sunny garden during our annual retreat, when one has both time and silence to reflect, punctuated by lectures of a Father from Chevetogne. Chevetogne is an ecumenical monastery of monks in Walloonia, the French part of Belgium where Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers work together to live in harmony. Chevetogne is worth a look on the Internet; they have a guesthouse for women as well as men. It is a fascinating place on many levels, a beautiful old chateau surrounded by rolling pasturelands and with a Latin church on one side and a Byzantine church on the other. Chevetogne is tucked into a quiet rill with pastures all around inhabited by cows who move from one pasture to the other on what seems like cue in the early morning and late afternoon. I do not pretend to understand but then I am not a cow! I did enjoy watching the journey twice each day though from my guesthouse window. Back to the roses on the garden wall. The fragrance does not come through the blog but the scent is heavenly to match the beauty of the blooms.
New life, as the roses on the garden wall, and the love of God and his incredible patience with his creatures is the topic of the retreat. I am abundantly blessed and uplifted…..Yes it is a paradox the love of God and the fear of God. God is giving me what I need from what I understand as the conference is in Dutch!! My church Dutch and religious wordlist is pretty good, but a multitude of words I do not know. I fumble in my dictionary to find them, only of course to discover the thought of the lecture has moved way beyond where the word was. God is good though and I am blessed as the roses on the wall.
Every year, the Benedictine sisters here at the Begijnhof renew their vows, having long ago taken their vows for life. Last year I attended the service, but it seems alas, the significance did not sank in. This year I am all ears and eyes!
Beautiful white flowers appeared before Compline (the flower sister being hard at work) in readiness for the Eucharist service. My seat is in the front row of the choir, near the altar so I have a particularly good view of the flowers and the lace edging which graces the altar cloth. The sister who made the lace edging cannot see it from her seat, maybe all the better so pride, the chief of all sins according to St. Benedict, does not creep in, which it so inevitably and easily does to mar our presence with God. The flowers are white roses and baby’s breath, then white chrysanthemums and lilies on the high altar.
So…… determined not to forget I took a picture as the blooms will possibly be all gone again, whisked away by the ubiquitous flower sister for a new arrangement for Sundaytomorrow. I clutched my hidden camera to Lauds feeling slightly guilty tucking it swiftly into my shelf. Now taking pictures of sisters and priests praying is not my style although the tourists seem to have have no such inhibition! After breakfast, I returned when the choir section is closed and quiet, no tourists as yet! Here am I sitting in my choir seat, writing this blog in the blessed peace and silence so worshipful and centering with the sweet fragrance of the lilies simply wafting over me and enchanting me with their heavenly smell. Wow! I will renew my vows; certainly in my heart as my Begijnhof sisters renew their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to their Beloved.
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.