In late January and early February of 2009, I got to go to Holland. My brother was being installed as full professor at the University of Tilburg and would present his inaugural at a special convocation. The year before, I had seen a movie that is still one of my favorites, “In Bruges”, a rather dark comedy filmed in the medieval city of Brugge. I found the cityscapes compelling. When I knew I was going to see my brother in Tilburg, I decided to make a side trip to Brugge. I had read that many convents across Europe serve as hostels so I researched that possibility for my visit. I discovered that there was a convent called The English Convent in the heart of Brugge and began to explore the possibility of spending two nights with them. Though the sisters of the convent did not practice that particular form of hospitality, they were very gracious about inviting me to join them for Compline while I was in town.
Hans, my big brother, was sweet about wanting to send me on this outing with friends, by car. I really wanted to go by myself. So early on a winter’s morning, I went to the train station in Tilburg and caught a train to Antwerp, in Belgium.
The station was amazing. So many layers of history in that place. As the train goes through the Dutch countryside into Belgium, you still see bunkers from World War II. I read Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War avidly as a teenager and walking through the train station in Antwerp, I was so intensely aware of the ghosts of that war around me.
I caught my connecting train to Brugge and finally got there early in the afternoon. It was cold, grey, windswept, and beautiful. Just beautiful. I was staying in a B&B in one of the oldest parts of town; walking with my backpack on my back through fog that would break here and there along the way from the station to the B&B was like moving through a dream. I spent the whole afternoon walking around with my mouth hanging slack. There were places I recognized from the film, especially the belfry. There were a lot of areas that were way too touristy to be very attractive. But in the dead of winter, the city was almost empty and revealed itself quietly and gently.
I walked to the convent in the dark. It was cold, cold, cold outside as I walked, and when I came in and was led to the chapel by a nun who kept silence, I found a space that was almost as cold. Slowly, many of them bent over or shaky, or supported by a walker, nuns began to come into the chapel. They smiled at me, one put her aged hand on my shoulder in greeting. Another gave me a copy of the liturgy in French. Candles were lit. One of the sisters sat down in front of an organ that wheezed.
And then, in the cold and candle light, sisters, most of them very old, about 25 of them, began to sing Compline. Their voices were frail and reedy, yet still exquisite. I had enough of a working knowledge of French to be able to follow along and at some points, try to join in the chants, with some of the nuns sitting close to me smiling their encouragement. At the end of Compline, a few of them spoke to me in broken English and I replied in even more broken French. We hugged and I went back out into the darkness and walked around the city till late into the night, willing myself to be there. Really be there. I had not had my hip replacement surgery yet and my hip hurt like hell. But I couldn’t not try to take it all in.
I think back on Brugge and I realize that night was so dark, the light so weak, the voices singing so old. Really, what difference did it make to the order of things in the universe that a few handfuls of women had gathered to pray? Probably nothing much changed and the next night was almost the same and most nights since then. I myself haven’t thought back on that service in years. But somehow, tonight it all came flooding back and I realized that I had been made to feel at home, I who was a complete stranger in a surreal, strange land.
I baptized two beautiful children today. When I try to think about my hopes for them, there are many. But one is simple. That one day, far from anything known or familiar, each of them may find a community, young or old, male or female, the particulars are not that important, but a community that invites them to join their voices to others in songs of praise and thanksgiving.