Drifting, dreaming, I wandered the labyrinth of geranium-lined, cobbled streets, sinking into cool azure cloisters, exploring century's old kitchens, baths, patios and the cells of long-dead nuns, servants and slaves. The 16c, high-walled Santa Catalina Convent was a huge city unto itself, and a tranquil respite from the traffic and noise of big city Arequipa.
Entrance was pricey, so I took a book on the lives of women mystic saints and spent the day lounging, reading and exploring. I walked mindfully around the various cloisters, feeling both rooted in the present and open to infinity. After sundown, I stepped back in time as fireplaces were lit and rooms illuminated by candle. Heavenly!
The buildings of this World Heritage Site, like many in Arequipa, were of sillar, a soft, white volcanic stone, and had beautiful, barrel roofs that helped withstand the city's many earthquakes. Because the sillar was soft and flaked off, interiors were painted--amazingly, in riotously intense burnt siennas, hot oranges and indigos and also with murals of saintly scenes--a photographer's feast!
Within a short time of Arequipa's founding, several monasteries and convents had been established, with the Dominican Santa
Catalina (St. Catherine of Siena) being the first in 1579. Like others in South America, it was founded by a wealthy patron, in this case, a rich widow.
Convents were supported by wealthy families who sent their second daughters there (first daughters were married off to cement political or financial ties). It added to the prestige of a family to have someone in a convent or monastery and provided spiritual insurance that someone was praying for the family's entrance to heaven.
Prospective nuns entered the convent with huge dowries (equivalent to $150,000 today), monthly fees and their own elegant furnishings and servants. As more nuns joined, more richly-appointed, multi-room cells were built along with additional streets, patios and buildings. At its height, Santa Catalina housed 450 women, a third of them nuns and the rest servants and slaves.
Since many of the nuns entered more from family obligation than as a spiritual calling, they continued their former, worldly lives with servants, music, parties, and visits from friends who brought tasty treats and finery--jewels, alpaca stoles and other non-nun-like delights. There was even a nearby orphanage for "accidents" and rumors
of babies being entombed in the walls. Life was a merry party until the arrival of the convent's most famous nun, Sister Ana de los Angeles Monteagudo in the 17c.
Bitchy, Blessed Ana, Convent Star
While in Arequipa, I saw a film on Ana, who was beatified when the much-traveled John Paul II visited in 1985. Ana took umbrage at the nuns' luxuries, confiscating and burning everything (I was annoyed she hadn't given it to the poor). Needless-to-say, she was unpopular with her sister nuns, who were even more displeased when she was appointed mother superior.
Other reforming nuns, such as St. Teresa of Avila, either talked her sisters into seeing the beauty of simplicity and poverty, or else established a new, poverty-oriented convent, but old Ana seemed self-righteous and imperious to me. Anyway, after a time, new, more poverty-minded nuns joined, and Ana became a beloved figure. I later attended a procession on her saint's day as her effigy was paraded through streets lined with her fans.
According to the film, three (pretty flakey) miracles were attributed to her: 1) burnt bread went back into the oven and came out
perfect--woo hoo, 2) a slacker shepherd lost his charges and then had a vision of Ana telling him where to find them, and then 3) a more valid miracle of saving people during a flash flood (common in this parched land).
At some point the naughty nuns returned to their profligate ways, so that in the late 19c, another reformer was sent in by the Vatican who freed the servants and slaves and confined the nuns to the convent.
Now, twenty nuns in traditional habits live in the convent, though in a newer, less-opulent addition. At early Sunday morning mass, they sit behind a lattice screen singing, but their singing was so bad that I ducked out. Too bad, I love good sacred music.
In 1973, the monastery was open as a museum and is Arequipa's principle tourist attraction where I later saw several excellent classical recitals in the gallery of religious art, as well as fine, free exhibitions of contemporary art.
Nun for a Day
I'm sure I was a nun in a previous life for I'm drawn to convents and monasteries, visit them all and feel
When walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compastelo, I stayed with Cistercian nuns in a royal convent, Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, outside Burgos while my blistered, bloody feet healed. There were 70- and 80-year-old nuns who'd never left the convent or seen a newspaper, a television, computer or car. I'm sure they'd known of the Spanish Civil War, but perhaps of little else of the world's drama (perhaps no great loss).
They spent their days in silence yet were so happy--always smiling. I joined them for singing prayers and Gregorian chant several times a day in the ornate chapel where 12c royalty had elaborately carved, stone tombs and we sat in richly-carved choir stalls. And for lunch and dinner, I was served wine, so I floated in a sweet dream that week.
I wondered if all nuns and monks have wine for lunch--it would explain those sweet smiles they always seem to have.
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