Het Begijnhof

11.01.2017

I’d been wandering through giant stores in swarms of people, going up and down escalators in a trance-like state, committing to nothing, not even really sure of what I came to get. I’d been craving alone time, banking on it as the solution to my problems. But being alone wasn’t giving me any relief.

The problem was me.

I combed through thousands of clothes, sparkly dresses, purses, pumps, stressed about the fact that the afternoon was waning and I was empty-handed.

I bought a sweatshirt.

My head pounded as I walked through a cloud of cigarette smoke, into the rain. I headed for home, restless and annoyed, weaving through strangers. I passed a familiar bookshop and remembered a quiet courtyard a friend had told me was nearby. She’d said it was hard to find, but for once, the first doorway I went through was the right one.

It led down a short tunnel with pretty gold mosaics rounding over my head. I emerged in oddly shaped courtyard, jagged angles of well-kept buildings smashed together, windows going skyward, different panels and trim on each, but the glass was all perfectly clear. Raised beds of grass, fresh spring-like green, surrounded a tilted brick church. A content little bell tower clutched the grey above and stark yellow leaves spotted the cobblestone, wet, glossy, more alive than dead. It was quiet, as promised.

I stopped to read the sign, which told a story I mostly already knew. “Het Begijnhof” dates back to the 1300s, and has been, for centuries, housing women seeking sanctuary. It was mostly a home for Catholic women who didn’t, for one reason or another, want to take vows of nunhood, but wanted similar things—stability, sisterhood, refuge, protection, peace. They had more freedom than in a convent. They could raise children here, they could leave and marry, or leave and not marry. Or they could stay. Even when Protestantism was militantly enforced in Amsterdam, Het Begijnhof was largely left to itself, and today it’s still occupied exclusively by women. “91 apartments is all the world can give,” I thought. I stood in front of a statue of a “lay nun,” standing determined, skirt in hand, and wondered from what the current residents were seeking refuge.

It doesn’t take much imagination.

I went inside an open door in the building across from the church, into the hidden church, the one the women used when Catholicism was forbidden. Nobody even goes in the real church anymore. I pulled back the hood of my coat, my boot heels awkwardly clicking against the footrests of the wooden pews. It echoed.

I sat in the back.

•••

I’ve been in this place for a while now, days into years. I remember God. I remember the feeling of basking in love and light. But I’ve felt lost from it for a long, long time. At first I didn’t know myself in this—I’d been unquestioning for so long. But now it’s God I don’t know. I’ve had to start from scratch, using the tools I was given as a child to build a house of faith I can live in as an adult. But building a house is hard in a city so full of well-established houses, a city continuously fiddling with locks and dams to keep from sinking into the sea.

•••

My eyes had been closed for a long, long time, tears streaming from underneath unflinching eyelids, unpatted, unprimped, dripping off my chin, neck strained, face to the ceiling.

This is how I pray now.

After a while I opened my eyes, and there in the chapel where tourists come to check their phones, and I had it out with God.

•••

It’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? That through centuries of wars and revolutions, there’s been this little courtyard where women could live peacefully in a place between vows and violence. They’re safe to be in-between here. That’s the sanctuary. It makes me want to believe, for the first time in a long time, that God is in control.

•••

I sighed, stood up, and went back outside, checking my phone, wiping droplets off the screen. Dinner time. Better get back.

I walked to the other side of the courtyard looking for an exit, and there he was—Christ, Jesus, carved in stone, hands softly on his chest, one finger pointing to himself, maybe as if to remind people that he’s important in all this—“It’s me you’re looking for.” Or maybe as if he were wondering if he himself belonged—“Who? Me?”

“So you’re here too,” I thought. “Hi.”

Hi.

I stopped for just a second before someone motioned to me to move. They posed for a picture with him as I walked away, back through the golden tunnel, home through the sinking city.

Home.

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