Thursday, 30 August 2007

The World is my Cloister

Hello from deep in the heart of Holy Cross Monastery of the Madres Benedictinas in beautiful Sahagun. I went inside on Friday, as a volunteer host at their little pilgrim hostel. It´s Thursday now, less than a week later, and man am I ready to go home!

It´s not that the place isn´t truly beautiful. I have my own little room with private bath, my own chapel with a fine Mannerist virgin, (the statue kind, smarty pants!) and a really sweet herb garden inside a small cloistered patio. I have plates and cups and saucers, a microwave, a coffee maker, and three rooms full of bunkbeds (14 in all) to keep track of. The floors are tile, and easy to clean. The pilgrims are not abundant (my biggest night I had nine so far), and all but one have so far been good, clean, sober folk. They know how to behave in a monastery. (the exception guy was young and French, so I guess he couldn´t help himself.)

The cloister is a few yards away from the big clock tower, the last remainder of a monster Benedictine monastery that once was Spain´s largest. Inside, high above the town, are a set of very large bells. (If you look back a few entries to the photo of Peluqueria Conchi, you´ll see the clock tower too.) The bells toll the quarter hour. And at the top of the hour they toll from one to 12, depending on what time it is. At 7 p.m., when the nuns sing Vespers, and at 8 a.m., when they have Mass, the bells in the tower are joined by another collection atop my very roof. It´s a beautiful noise, really, especially when you´re just in town for alittle bit, passing through. But Sweet God in Heaven, at 2,3, 4 and 5 a.m. I hate them right down to the clappers.

Another bell is quickly becoming the secondary bane of my existence: the front gate. It´s the entry into the hostel, and pilgrims ring it to summon me to let them in. Which isn´t a problem. It IS a bit of a haul from my chair in the garden, into the hall, up to the entryway, but it gives me time to wonder who might be there... maybe the Prize Patrol from the Lottery Board!

More often than not, it´s one of the Asturian Prayer Warriors. These are a group of aged Asturian tourists who are booked into the Benedictine House of Prayer, the allied accommodation run by the same 9 or 10 nuns who run the pilgrim place. Their rooms are more plush, they probably pay a nice fee for room and board, and most of their rooms are just upstairs from the pilgrims.

They`re sposed to be on religious retreat, studying how to be Prayer Warriors in the style of St Francis de Sales. (Or something like that.) They´re supposed to keep to quiet circumspection and follow all the house rules.

These buggers, I am here to tell you, are on vacation. In Sahagun.

A lot of Spain heads up to Asturias this time of year, where the beaches are undiscovered and truly lovely. And while Spain heads to Asturias, the Asturians -- at least the lower middle classes -- head south to fly-over country. Here on the meseta the only tourists are pilgrims or other Asturians. They say they are here for their health, to breathe our dry, high-altitude air. They hole up in monasteries, which are cheaper than hotels and have better food. There, they proceed to behave as if they were staying at the Holiday Inn. They iron their clothes before heading out to the sports complex to sun themselves. They leave their curling irons switched on and short out the electricity all over the old building. They watch football matches on the sole TV, with the sound turned WAY up, then they go to bed. Without turning off the TV. Or the lights.

They wouldn´t be my problem, but for that door. Only their ´´spiritual directors´´ have keys. And the spritual directors go to bed at 10 p.m., like good Christians.

This is quite unusual for Spain. The rhythm of living here demands everyone stay in bed til about 9 a.m., start work at 10 or so, and hang out til about 1 or 2. Then they close up shop and go home for lunch or a nap. Everything comes back alive at about 4 or 5 p.m., and shops stay open til 8. Dinner is at 9 or 10 p.m. And then, if you´re 30 or under, you go out dancing til the sun comes up. (If you are older you hang out with your friends playing cards or drinking orujo and singing.) Going to bed at 10 p.m. is for Germans and worn-out pilgrims and nuns.

The nuns, all of them about 4 feet tall, are a sweetly savage race. My first day here they gave me the news on locking up. Ten o´clock, not a moment later. First lock the street doors with a key. Then lower the stanchion at the bottom, securing it to the floor. Then take this iron bar from the closet, and put it across both doors. And secure that, finally, with the padlock kept in this little drawer.

Then lock the door leading to the pilgrim hostel, so the pilgs don´t get up and wander around the cloister at night. (The place is full of Mannerist virgins, after all.) The windows facing the street are barred and covered in wooden lattice, purportedly to keep the nuns invisible to passing traffic. We are completely, utterly safe from invading moors in the night. But if the place catches on fire we all are toast.

Anyway, three nights in a row I did the Katy Bar the Door drill, just as the big bells banged out ten. And within 20 minutes of so, the little group of Asturian Prayer Warriors was out there blasting away on the door bell.

This isn´t a sweet ding-dong bell. It´s like a Change of Classes school bell, and it´s audible through the entire building wing. All the God-fearing pilgrims are blasted from their beds. And I get to undo all those bars, locks, and stanchions to let them in. I open the door. They breeze past me, dropping sweet little jokes about St. Peter holding the keys, etc. My Spanish cannot struggle past my rage in any legible form, so I can only stand there and fume. They never say ¨sorry about that.¨

Last night I managed to tell them they´d better pray to St. Peter to get them their own keys. And one old guy shot back, ¨At least St. Peter can understand us when we talk.¨

I kinda lost it. ¨I don´t speak Spanish well, but I understand you perfectly, Mr. Rude,¨ I said. (¨rude¨ is ¨maleducado.¨ ¨Badly educated.¨ It strikes at the bad guy AND his upbringing!)

And this morning I told the abbess on them.
I feel so like a third-grade summer camp counselor!

There´s lots of summer camp elements to this experience, really. There are bunkbeds, and fellow inmates from all over, of every race and language. Afternoons are waaaaaay long. There´s a chapel, and cafeteria food on a tray. (except the food here is fantastic and very healthy.)

Boundaries are well-kept, though. I can only go out and move around in the morning, because I gotta be here at noon to let people in the door. The tiny sisters come by to empty to donations boxes and make sure everything is put away and the flowers are watered. I read a lot, and practice Spanish, and write in my journal. And answer the doors.

Meals are how the day´s progress is measured, (seeing as there´s no arts and crafts or horseback riding offered.)
Like being at camp, or school. Or jail. I bring a plate and bowl on a tray to the kitchen door, and they hand it back out to me, piled with trout or steak or wonderful soup... they cook VERY well. It´s strange, though, eating alone on the patio, way over on the other end of the convent. Sometimes I eat in my room, even though that`s frowned-on. I don´t want to consume this bounty in front of the pilgs, some of whom are eating out of packets and cans.

I share my bread and fruit with them, and sometimes my homemade cuajada, a sort of yogurt. Like a camper who gets a package of cookies from home!

Enough of this. Gotta pay the barman for the computer time and head back in time for the noon bell concert.

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