So many images travel to my eyes, rise and fall from the heart and float away on the afternoon breeze. Brugge, Belgium is the old world. Homes from the 15th century line the canals with window boxes overflowing in cascades of red geraniums.
Our group goes to the Minnenhauf. It means “house of love.” We meet Sister Felicitous, who tells us about the women from whose ideals her order of Benedictines borrow–the Beguines. This area was filled with Beguines at one time, pious women who lived to serve, who made lace, with intricate knots and turns, reflecting the focus of a meditative state, focused singularly on devotion.
In the evenings the four or five nuns living at the Minnehauf sing in the chapel. They invite our group to join them and then be blessed with holy water. I don’t go. I sit in my room at night alone. The days are already packed too full for me, and I need time to process all that I see and taste and feel here. The reason I came was to pay homage to my home girls–these 11th century feminists, mystics who developed an esoteric evangelism and grabbed, however briefly, financial independence a time when neither spiritual nor financial independence was available to women. I’m afraid that if I fill up every minute I will miss their whisperings in the night air.
On a canal boat ride Sunday morning, I turn my face to the sun, close my eyes and just feel this place I am in, all of its history vibrating in what I breathe in. The swans stand in the park at water’s edge, long necks curved gracefully. I’ve heard that the Beguines brought the swans here. I’ve heard that the swans were a memorial to an innocent man executed in the city square. I don’t know which story is true. I know that the swan in Sufism represents the soul and that feels appropriate to either story. Maybe stories and history converge somewhere, and all of it makes sense in the end.
Today I taught my first writing class: Deepening into Your Spiritual Story–the Arc of Spiritual Memoir. I am animated, passionate and lit. I share my ever-changing, ever-growing process and philosophy about writing. I give exercises that place their pens to the page. An hour later I feel energized and happy to have shared something that I love so much with such a fine circle of individuals.
The Beguines were the first people in western civilization to write about Spirit in the vernacular of the day. Margareta Porete wrote a book called A Mirror of Simple Souls,” the premise of which is that the little church is the cathedral on the corner and the big church is the church that lives in the heart.” Later they burned her at the stake. I share this in my writing class. We are all connected by our stories. We communicate through story. We tell each other stories all day long and yet at the end of the day, or the end of a life, we sometimes fail to see what the story is or to ascribe meaning to it. That we seek meaning at all is unique to the human journey.
I am moved and inspired by the stories of the retreat participants. Former nuns, former and current clergy, people in the throes of unanswered questions and the inevitable loss that comes from living such a full, rich and long life. These people are of an older age, teaching and learning from each other about reclaiming the broken parts of the self in the last years of living. Surround those pieces in love, shrugging and saying “you know, life is messy,” and then be willing to have it be messy again.
This part of my story takes me to Belgium. And to borrow from Margareta Porete, the little adventure is the plane ride and the events of this place, and the big adventure is what is changing and growing within my heart.
Stay tuned for more adventures blogging through Belgium. Miss my friends and delight in this adventure. Hugs.