Peace in the Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, located well south of Cuzco and both closer to the coast and lower in altitude, made for a warm and welcome change of scene after being steeped in Incan lore and thin mountain air for so many days (not that I didn’t LOVE all the Incan amazingness and beautiful mountains!). The city is full of exquisite examples of pearly white colonial architecture and the vibe is considerably more down to earth than lovely, but ultimately touristy, Cuzco.

We had a few days here and I’ll write later at greater length about those days, but for now I want to share some snaps from, what was for me, the great highlight of our time in Arequipa.

The city is home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a maze-like convent dating back to the 1500s.

Despite a dubious past – for much of the Monasterio’s history its nuns were women of wealthy backgrounds who continued to enjoy the good life, complete with servants and slaves, live music and parties in spite of their cloistered existence and alleged vows of poverty – the place still managed to produce one saint, Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, and in the late 1800s, the entire place was reformed by a strict Dominican nun, Sister Josefa Cadena, who ran a tight ship and brought life in the Monasterio in line with typical convent standards. (More details can be found here.)

Screen through which nuns would speak to people from the outside world.

Today, only a handful of nuns remain at the Monasterio. They live in a small section of the 20,000 square meter complex which is closed off to the public. The rest of the Monasterio, however, is open to visitors and is well laid out to receive them, with ample and interesting information about the place’s history posted in most rooms in both Spanish and English and even a café that serves quite decent food located about halfway through the tour circuit.

From what we’d read in Lonely Planet, I knew the Monasterio would be worth visiting. I wasn’t prepared though for how totally charmed I would be by the place.

The cells, courtyards and walkways are a mesmerizing interplay between, dim rooms, cool shadow and rock and bright hot sun and illuminated, brilliantly painted walls and cheerful frescos. I suppose the resident saint and the changes put in place by the reforming sister have been effective enough to balance out the alleged wickedness of some of the earlier nuns – the atmosphere of the place is peaceful and hallowed.

We ended up spending half a day there, making our slow way from room to room, hall to hall, enjoying the peace, the stillness, the warm, summery air, the beautiful grounds and the cheerful colors of the place.

I think I must have been a nun or monk in a past life. I just loved spending time in this place. Somehow the thought of a life of spiritual devotion in a location so simple but so lovely seemed quite appealing. Especially when reading a message from the sisters currently serving there:

Since the origins of Arequipa there was a need of founding a contemplative Dominican Mothers’ convent… (Permission was given to begin) the construction of the convent in 1570.

Nowadays we are 30 sisters, of ages ranging between 18 and 90.

In the serenity that our hearts have been originating during long hours of silence, listening to God, in the perseverant praise that springs up of the grateful soul, we are able to acknowledge the presence of God in the small events of everyday life.

Our spirit takes us to offer prayers of intercession and reparation for all the humans to be saved.

Our day starts at 5 a.m., and we pray starting from (during) the praise of Jesus Eucharist, from (during) our studies, doing our manual work in order to win our daily bread. In every single moment we pray for the world and with the world. In the Church we are the presence, not the visibility.

After more than 400 years we are still here, because our contemplative vocation is LOVE. This is our great secret of being happy: to be in love, neither with an ideal nor a project, but with Jesus Christ. 

There are plenty of times I will disagree vehemently with the Catholic/Christian church, but when I read something like this, I can’t help but feel pretty inspired by these women’s devotion to attempt to live in selfless prayer.

And if you’d like an audio to go with the photos, click below to hear the convent bells ringing as we left the peaceful sanctuary for the city streets at closing time. I always think there’s something magical about the sound of church bells…

Church bells

A beam of light shoots through the blackened walls of an ancient kitchen

A collection of old medicines

In the Monestario garden

I love swallows! 😀

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