When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a priest. As early as 10 or 11, I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to Christ. I remember my elementary classmates were all excited for high school, while my eyes were all set for the seminary.
I was a seminarian – and über proud of the life I had inside the seminary. My seminary life was not perfect but it provided a critical, ethical and even a social perspective of what it means to be in a community, which was also crucial in the development of my aptitude and attitude towards a perception of a self in relation to others.
In the Philippines, we know about young boys leaving their homes and “locking” themselves inside the seminary to become priests. Of course, we also know that there are places like the seminary, which are dedicated for women who wanted to commit a life for Christ. These women choose to live a simple life, be part of a community away from their homes, perform social works, and engage in catechetical missions. We call these places nunnery or convents.
In Medieval Europe, particularly in North-Western Europe, these places were called béguinages. The women committing to this simple life: the beguines.
The Béguines dedicated their lives to God without retiring from the world. Unlike the nuns-to-be in the convent, or the seminarians, these women, beginning in the 11th or 12th century, were not allowed to leave their communities. This is the reason why in the 13th century, they founded the béguinages or the enclosed communities designed to meet their spiritual and material needs. So much like the experience I had when I was still a seminarian. I lived in an enclosed community composed of places to sleep (dormitories for the minor seminarians or individual rooms for the major seminarians), church, garden for meditation and reflection, a gym, dining areas, recreational areas, study halls, libraries, clinic, etcetera.
The Flemish béguinages, on the other hand, are architectural ensembles of houses, churches, ancillary buildings and garden spaces. The architects of these buildings designed the structures using styles revealing aspects of Flemish cultural traditions (i.e. architectural practices). Today, the communities are a fascinating reminder of the tradition of the béguines that developed in north-western Europe in the Middle Ages.
I was fortunate to have visited four béguinages – in Brugges in 2017, in Antwerp, in Ghent, and in Mechelen in 2018. My visit to these places was nostalgic, particularly the beguinage in Antwerp locally called Het Hof Sion.
Antwerp’s was in the middle of the busy city and surprisingly very quiet. Just like the seminary in Pampanga where I went to high school, inside the complex seemed to provide a serene space to contemplate the passion and suffering of Christ despite the very busy neighboring surrounding of the complex. In Pampanga, the seminary was neighbor to a public elementary school and a university, and a few yards away is a national hi-way. In Antwerp, the béguinage‘s solemnity is paradoxically surrounded by pubs, a hi-way, and a University.
When I was inside, I wished I brought candles with me. For a strange reason, one song kept on playing my head:
“God of mercy and compassion,
look with pity upon me,
Father, let me call thee Father,
Tis’ thy child returns to thee.”
No kidding, I was in fact even singing it out loud once in a while. I used to sing that as a young seminarian. It continuously played in my head as I strolled the complex. In fact, I even imagine a brass band accompanying me as I walk the cobbled steps of the women who once upon resided the complex.
As soon as I stood in front of Señor Desmayado or the Scourged Christ, the song climaxed and suddenly I heard voices of children:
“Jesus Lord, I ask for mercy,
Let me not implore in vain,
All my sins I now detest them,
Never will I sin again.”
Honestly, I felt like I was a trespasser in this sacred, and quiet space. However, there was something in this tranquil and solemn complex that was telling me: “be not afraid, you are welcome here.” In fact, I felt being there was very necessary. It was a break from the loud world I was (and still) accustomed to. Walking inside the cobbled alleys in this sixteenth-century garden of peace was really a breath of fresh-air.
Along the alleys, there was this caption: “The last Antwerp beguine, Virginia Laeremans prayed here everyday.”
She died in 1986.
My stillness and tranquil walking was also dedicated to her.