Peace from the Resistance
Truly special places cause all the other tourists around you to melt away, and you are left alone with the place. Yet, there is nary a spot of Amsterdam that hasn’t been overturned like a fertile field over and over. You will certainly find the Begijnhof by looking at the tourist brochures. It is in the center of the city, and easy to find. You can fit it in between breakfast and lunch, and if you’re lucky, you can come to it by way of an antique book fair set up in a nearby square. Begijnhof is a chapel, and was residence of a cloister of active sisters who did prayer works, and took in moor-less women. Historically this would have been wayward or orphaned girls (but not destitute). Now, it is a small leftover population of a certain order of nuns, and the courtyard is prime real estate to anyone looking for a quiet (very quiet) nook to tuck themselves into.
I tucked myself in there on a slightly rainy day. A great brick gate with an arched door introduces the courtyard from the alley. It seems you can miss seeing this gate and circle the block before discovering it again as I did many times. Several people wander in and out, with a brochure in their hands. A small door on the right with low stone lintels and gothic point says “order of –“ on it, and a sign that says Please Be Quiet in a couple of languages. People still live here, and it’s also Catholic Church territory.
The chapel itself is to the left, with an almost anonymous door in. Somehow, it looks as if it were appropriated from part of the existing building, rather than raised as an edifice, like most churches of that age were. After all, it’s not a cathedral, it’s a chapel. The grass in the courtyard is trim and perfect, just that medium shade of green that long-domestic grass can be—halfway between hope and habit. A low stone and brick retaining wall tames its edges, with peaked top, to discourage sitting. The surrounding tall buildings are typically 14th to 18th century Dutch townhouses, facing in, and their windows stared mutely down at me, seeming to also say, “hush.” One or two benches sit at the edge of the grass, in case you want to offer your daily prayers there. Although they looked as ordinary as any park bench, they didn’t look like chess-playing benches, nor “listening to my iphone” benches at all. “Prayer, you.”
So I entered the chapel, where I was indicated to go. As soon as I crossed the wide stone threshold, almost ducking my head without reason, my vision is opened to the ceiling and the depth of this church. I felt right away that the building didn’t have enough space on the outside to have this much space on the inside. This was before I’d read Harry Potter, but I’d liken it to the “Room of Requirement”, in which anything could manifest if you truly needed it.
My catholic upbringing led me to use the holy water to cross myself, and to kneel at the end of one of the wizened wood pews. I slid halfway in and –how can you believe me – my soul dropped in. I had missed her. It felt like a heavy bottomed boat would, full of cargo, under water and yet buoyant. My soul and I. It had been a long time.
My father was there. He kneeled and joined me, the way he would have of a Sunday in Charlotte, Michigan, in his suit instead of plaid shirt. But now, I wasn’t that twelve-year-old wiggling child. We were equal, and I was so very calm. I cried with open eyes, big fat tears rushing down my face and back into my mouth at the corners. I didn’t make a noise, except to breathe, and it didn’t matter if I had. The others felt it too. This is where you do this. There are only a few places I’ve been, from the most grand of cathedrals to the simplest of protestant houses of worship, where I feel that God actually IS.
How the Mind Plays Tricks
Now that I look back on my visits, I realize just how wrong my impressions were of the scale and decor of this church. It seems I have borrowed my impression of it from a historical point in time when it was as I remember, stone and squat but stately, maybe when it had been a clandestine catholic church, secret from the protestant city and before Mondriaan adorned the panels behind the altar. It’s amazing to me that memory does serve me–it serves the feeling, rather than the fact of the place.
“The kapel at Begijnhof – I prayed god to show me the support I know I need, and the sun shone through a small window directly on me immediately, and then receeded gently. I’m blessed.” -from my journal, 2011
p.s. – The photo is not of the Begijnhof out of respect for its quietude.