Beginner’s Mind


The city of Dusseldorf has the cartwheel as its city symbol–its exuberance a reminder of one aspect of Beginner’s Mind. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today’s post is by guest-blogger Bob Sessions:

Unlike the Holy Rover, I had no official assignments on our trip through northern Europe last November. But nevertheless I quickly found myself traveling with a sense of purpose—the very definition of a pilgrimage. Whether taking pictures or simply reveling in the wonders I beheld, I learned a great deal about opening myself to spiritual experiences and growth.

I have long known about the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind, but this trip made me realize its truths deeper than ever before. While Beginner’s Mind is part of Buddhist teaching, it’s also a central goal of every meditative tradition, pointing to the necessity of reducing or eliminating barriers to contemplation such as our active internal dialogue (“monkey mind”), our prejudices and beliefs, and even our very selves (egos). While many people recognize that pilgrimage can help us open ourselves to the holy through spiritual experiences, I think it’s also important to realize that pilgrimage can be an avenue to Beginner’s Mind.

Having never visited continental Europe, for example, I was blown away by Dusseldorf, Germany, our first stop. Everything seemed different to me–the cobblestone streets, architecture, public art, small shops, riverfront, styles of fashion–even though this rich and vibrant city is very cosmopolitan, western, and new (since much of it was rebuilt after World War II).

As I was exclaiming about the wonders of this new (to me) world, Lori laughed and said just wait, reminding me of the places we still were to visit, including Amsterdam, Paris, the Rhine Valley and Belgium. She was right, of course, but the initial shock of the new was a crucial first step in opening my mind. What I was experiencing was a reality where my usual habits and presuppositions often were unhelpful, where I needed to observe carefully before judging or acting, and where many of my anticipations or predictions were off mark.

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One of my delights In Europe was spotting Green Men, an ancient symbol of the divine protectors of nature, including this fine example in Leuven, Belgium. (Bob Sessions photo)

Basically, I had two choices. Either I could follow my usual psychological strategy and try to fit what I was experiencing into familiar frameworks, or I could open up to the new and the unbidden—in other words, give up control. Initially, the former path is easier because it requires no psychological changes. All you need to do is use pre-existing categories to give your experience meaning and feel in control. To set such well-established mechanisms aside can be difficult because you are likely to feel out of control.

For whatever reason, the initial joy of discovering and exploring a new world was enough to allow me to suspend judgment throughout our trip. It was surprisingly easy, because once I slipped into Beginner’s Mind I discovered how much fun it is to experience life in such a fresh way. Almost every day brought rain or snow (after all, it was November in northern Europe) but the world I experienced sparkled with fresh possibilities and new delights.

I also realized that if I was to devolve into my habitual patterns I could at times have been the proverbial grumpy old man (or worse, the ugly American) because every day much of what the world dished up was contrary to my usual expectations. Twice I did grump: once when lost in Paris, and again as we were checking through customs on our return to Chicago and were waiting for our luggage. Both times I was startled by how quickly I fell into the pit of anger and self-pity, and I was embarrassed and sad to have jolted myself out of Beginner’s Mind and back into control mode.

When we were unable to find our hotel in Paris, happily, a kindly Frenchman jolted me out of my sour mood by helping us find our way, shattering my prejudices about rude and aloof French people. His graciousness ushered me back into a more open and less judgmental state of mind. And upon our return to Chicago, after several outbursts of frustration at the passing array of suitcases that were not mine I realized not only that my childish fits weren’t making any difference to the conveyer belt, but also that all I was doing was clouding my experience.

I was able to transcend my usual experiential lenses because it was simply impossible to keep up the pretense of independence and control when my dependencies were so palpable. Leaving much of my ego behind was also helped by my desire to know what it is like to be  German, Dutch, French or Belgium. You simply cannot get inside someone else’s experience if you begin with the assumption that their experiential filters are the same as yours.


The philosopher Montaigne models Beginner’s Mind near the Sorbonne in Paris. (Bob Sessions photo)

Some of our richest experiences in Europe came as a result of being invited into the home and life of Annechien, a dear woman in Amsterdam who is a devoted reader of this blog. Through wonderful hours of socializing with her I realized how crucial a part of Beginner’s Mind listening is. And again, I discovered the joy of experiencing the world on terms other than my own.

I am happy to report that the afterglow of our pilgrimage through northern Europe lasted for some time. My dreams, as well as my waking experiences, resonated with echoes of Europe, and I hope I never forget the gifts and wonders of that trip. But I also hope that I have learned to be more open, less judgmental and less in control in my home territory where I am so comfortable with my habits of body and mind. For here, too, the world sparkles with the unbidden.

Posted in Buddhism, Pilgrimage | Tagged | 6 Comments

On the Romantic Rhine

The Rhine River between Bingen and Koblenz is one of the most beautiful parts of Germany (photo by Romantic Rhine Tourism)

The Rhine River between Bingen and Koblenz is one of the most beautiful parts of Germany (photo by Romantic Rhine Tourism)

Today’s post begins with a literary mea culpa. I’ve written a number of travel articles in the past about the upper Mississippi River, which is not far from my home in Iowa. Almost all of them have included some variation of: “This part of the Mississippi is as beautiful as the Rhine River in Germany,” a region to which it’s often compared. I hereby confess the error of my ways. While the upper Mississippi is lovely, after having cruised the Rhine this past November I realize I could be convicted of journalistic malpractice.

For one thing, the Rhine has castles. Lots of them. And is there anything that can liven up a landscape like a castle? (Note to the Minnesota and Wisconsin Tourism Offices: invest in some medieval fortresses.) But there’s also the broad expanse of the river itself, bordered by high bluffs and slate cliffs, with steeply terraced vineyards clinging to the nearly vertical slopes and charming German villages on the narrow river banks. It’s all quite marvelously picturesque, causing Bob and me to dash from one side of the cruise boat to the other while snapping pictures.

There are nearly 40 castles overlooking the Rhine River in this region. (Bob Sessions photo)

There are nearly 40 castles overlooking the Rhine River in this region. (Bob Sessions photo)

Bob and I had flown into Dusseldorf (thank you, American Airlines, for assisting me through your media program) and then traveled south by train to the start of our cruise. Our final destination was Bingen, home to the 12th-century mystic and abbess St. Hildegard (more about her in later posts).

But while I was eager to get to Hildegard’s home, along the way I fell in love with the Romantic Rhine region. The 65-km stretch between Koblenz and Bingen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honored both for its natural beauties and historical significance. In addition to our boat cruise, we stayed overnight in the picture-perfect village of Kamp-Bornhofen, hiked along the Rheinsteig (a trail that traverses the bluffs along the eastern side of the Rhine), and saw the Lorelei Rock, where legend says a bewitching siren tries to lure sailors to their doom.

Given my interests, you won’t find it surprising that I was also happy to visit two pilgrimage sites on the Rhine. I want to tell you about them in part because they illustrate two types of pilgrim journeys. Sometimes it’s good to make plans in advance for one’s arrival at a holy site, and sometimes there’s value in showing up unexpectedly. Both are perfectly fine ways to be a pilgrim, but they have somewhat different gifts to offer.


St. Apollinaris Church in Remagen is known for its beautiful frescoes. (Bob Sessions photo)

Our first visit was to St. Apollinaris Church in the town of Remagen. The sanctuary is famous for having a relic from St. Apollinaris, a second-century bishop who was one of Christianity’s first martyrs. In Roman times this spot overlooking the Rhine was the site of a temple to Jupiter. I could see why people would want to construct an altar here, for its setting on a high promontory is spectacular, with a panoramic view of the Rhine River and surrounding bluffs.

While a church has stood on this site since at least the ninth century, the current building was constructed between 1839-43 in neo-Gothic style and is filled with richly colored frescoes illustrating the lives of Jesus, Mary and St. Apollinaris.  Downstairs, a crypt contains a 14th-century stone sarcophagus that holds the head of St. Apollinaris. Twice a year the head, which is encased in a silver reliquary, is taken out and used to bless pilgrims (it’s said to be particularly good for people with head-related health issues).

Sister Catharina gave us a warm welcome to St. Apollinaris Church. (Bob Sessions photo)

Sister Catharina gave us a warm welcome to St. Apollinaris Church. (Bob Sessions photo)

Our tour was conducted by Sister Catharina, a Dutch nun who belongs to a religious order known as the Community of the Crucified and Risen Love. She was a gracious and kind host, pointing out details in the church’s murals, taking us down into the crypt, and showing us the views from the terrace overlooking the river. As she spoke I was struck by the international character of the site. There we were in Germany, talking to a Dutch nun, in a church that holds the remains of a Roman-era saint and attracts pilgrims from around the world.

I also loved her story of the wandering relics of St. Apollinaris, whose skull went from here to there and back again before finally resting in peace in the sarcophagus (for the whole story see St. Apollinaris Church in Remagen). He’s certainly among the more well-traveled of all the saints I’ve encountered.

The next day we toured another sacred site along the Rhine, the Franciscan Abbey of Bornhofen in Kamp-Bornhofen. In contrast to our visit to St. Apollinaris, here I hadn’t let anyone know in advance that we were coming—which I realized might have been a mistake when we entered the church to find it empty and all of its informational brochures in German. Because I knew this is an important pilgrimage site, however, I was determined to find out more. Exiting the church, I knocked on an adjacent building and, when I got no answer, stepped inside. In the antechamber I found a doorbell that I pressed, and then for good measure pressed again (when the Holy Rover wants information, get out of her way).

And then a monk in a brown robe appeared from behind an inner door. While I knew rationally that he hadn’t suddenly appeared from the Middle Ages, he looked as if he might have. I tried to explain to him why we were there, but he spoke little English and my German is exceedingly rusty. But finally we learned that he is a Polish monk who is part of a Franciscan community at the abbey and that he could show us around.


The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows of Bornhofen dates back to the 15th century. (Bob Sessions photo)

Despite the language difficulties, over the next hour we had a delightful visit with Father Kalikst. He told us that the church was founded in the 13th century and that its statue of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus is said to be miraculous and attracts many pilgrims (which explains the many “Maria hat geholfen!” plaques in the back of the church). We saw the famous statue, and then toured the pilgrim hall big enough to hold hundreds of people. Between my fractured German and Father Kalikst’s limited English, a lot of the details escaped me, but the most important communication was nonverbal. Father Kalikst welcomed us, strangers from a strange land, fulfilling the most fundamental of all monastic commandments: to greet everyone who comes to the door as Christ.

As we parted, there was much enthusiastic shaking of hands. We asked him if he would give us a blessing. “My English is no good,” he protested.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Give us a blessing in Polish.”


Father Kalikst of the Franciscan Abbey of Bornhofen (Bob Sessions photo)

So there we stood on the steps of the church that has a miraculous statue of Mary that I still don’t know much about, and Father Kalikst put his hands on our heads and said a bunch of words that I didn’t understand. But it didn’t matter, because you don’t need to know the exact words of a blessing to feel its power. At the end he smiled and said in his Polish-accented English, “Go in peace.”

Which we did, grateful for the hospitality of monks and nuns who welcome strangers dropping into their lives from places far away, and thankful as well for how much can be communicated without words.





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A Christmas Greeting From the Holy Rover

The Virgin Mary who kept an eye on my son in Belgium (Carl Sessions photo)

The Virgin Mary who kept an eye on my son in Belgium (Carl Sessions photo)

Before our son Carl left for his study-abroad semester in Belgium, I played a trick on him. “Think of me every time you see an image of the Virgin Mary,” I said, to which he blithely agreed. Hah! I knew that given Belgium’s strong Catholic heritage, he was likely to see her all over.

But even I was surprised when I entered Carl’s rooming house on our visit in November and discovered that there was a large stained glass window of the Virgin Mary right above his front door, benevolently beaming at him every time he passed by below.

I take two things from this. One, God has a sense of humor. Two, God wants 21-year-old sons on their First Big Adventure in Europe to think multiple times every day about their mother.

All of this is a preface to a little video Bob and I have put together, a Christmas greeting to faithful readers of this blog. Be grateful that we did not include all the pictures we took of the Virgin Mary and Child on our European trip, as you likely have other things you hope to do today. But here is a selection of some of our favorites. I’ve combined it with a royalty-free clip of some Renaissance music from the Partners In Rhyme Blog. I don’t know the composer or musicians, unfortunately, but I like the mood it conveys. I hope the video might help you reflect on the deeper meanings of this holiday season.

The Holy Rover will be taking a couple of weeks off over the holidays, but I’ll be back in January with more European adventures. Merry Christmas to everyone!

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The Venice of the North

In Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Carriages offer rides through the historic quarter of Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Before leaving Belgium we need to make a brief visit to Bruges, one of the most picturesque cities I’ve ever visited. Remember how I told you that the Belgium city of Leuven is pronounced in two ways? Bruges is the same way. If you’re a French-speaking Belgian it’s Broozh; if you speak Flemish it’s Broo-gah. Whatever way you pronounce it, it’s gorgeous.


Boat tours wind their way through the canals of Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Alas, that’s part of the problem in Bruges, which reminds me of a celebrity who’s mobbed by paparazzi wherever she goes. Even in November, Bruges was full of tourists, and in the height of summer I’m sure it’s even more crowded. But don’t let that keep you away, for even surrounded by gawkers, she is one extraordinary beauty.

Bruges became a major trading port in the 13th century, growing wealthy from international trade. But by 1500 its connection to the North Sea had silted in, cutting it off from its most lucrative industry. Bruges settled into sleepy decline, its medieval buildings spared destruction because so few people were interested in living there.

In Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

The Beguine Museum preserves a typical home of the Beguine religious community in Bruges. (Bob Sessions photo)

It wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that the outside world rediscovered Bruges, drawn by its time-capsule vibe. With its cobblestone streets, cozy brick cottages, grand public buildings, and clip-clopping carriages, the city is a delight for the eyes. Most charming are the canals that thread through the historic district, waterways that give Bruges the title of Venice of the North.

One of the most peaceful places in the city owes its existence to those indomitable Beguines that I told you about a couple of posts ago. Founded in 1245, the Bruges Begijnhof is now home to a group of Benedictine nuns who worship in the Church of the Beguinage. Next to the church is the Beguine Museum, located in a former Beguine house. Its spare interior gives a sense for the daily lives of these women who took vows of simplicity and service. Outside, the enclosed courtyard to the Begijnhof exudes tranquility, making its “silence” signs seem superfluous.

Statue of Mary and an angel in the Church of Our Lady in Brughes

Statue of Mary and an angel in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

From the Begijnhof we went exploring, fortified by some Belgian chocolates purchased from a quaint shop (hey, it’s research). Next stop was the Church of Our Lady, which is famous for having one of the few Michelangelo statues to have left Italy during his lifetime (those wealthy Bruges burghers had plenty of money to throw around). Unfortunately the church is under renovation and so we weren’t able to see its most important treasure, but I was quite taken by the more modern representation of Mary and an angel that you can see at right. It’s a curious statue in many ways: the angel is smaller than Mary, for one thing, and seems tentative in his approach to her. Her face and body are bisected by a line, perhaps indicating the two-fold nature of the child she carries.  I stood in front of it for a long time, pondering.

But an even grander church is located on the town’s central square. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a gilded wonder that houses a relic brought back from Jerusalem in 1150 from the Second Crusade: a vial said to contain some of Christ’s blood.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have an extremely high tolerance for unusual religious sites, so I was delighted to see the church and also the relic, which is displayed reverently on a pillow at certain times of the week (we got the chance to see it–it looks like a vial of dried blood). The upstairs chapel is exuberantly neo-Gothic in style, with an ornate altar and brilliantly colored stained glass windows. This is just the sort of thing that horrified my Protestant ancestors, but we don’t all have to worship in Quaker meetinghouses, do we? And if that vial helps someone have an experience of the holy, it doesn’t make any difference if it came from Jerusalem or a local blood bank.


The Basilica of the Holy Blood’s neo-Gothic altar in Bruges, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

Let me close by telling you about my favorite part of our visit to Bruges. After being surrounded by crowds much of the day, my son Carl and Bob and I had a late dinner and emerged afterwards into nearly deserted streets. A light rain was falling, and we walked back to the train station past buildings lit with sparkling lights, their reflections shimmering in the waters of the canals. It was easy to imagine the people who had once taken this same path before us: medieval tradesmen, ship captains coming back from lengthy voyages, wealthy burghers and their wives dressed in silks, and Beguines in modest dress on their way to tend to the sick.

It was really quite magical and I mentally thanked all those people who had thoughtfully vacated the city so we could have it to ourselves.

Many popular destinations are like this, I think. You go to Rome or Paris and may well be disappointed to be surrounded by picture-snapping tourists (even though you’re one of them). But if you’re patient and lucky, you will get a brief respite when the crowds thin, the light shifts, and suddenly the city reveals its inner character to you.

We had such an experience in Bruges that night as we strolled along its canals, marveling at the beauty that surrounded us. I don’t know what to think about the authenticity of that relic in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, but I do know this: Bruges is authentically entrancing, especially on a misty night when the past doesn’t seem past at all.

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The Greatest Belgian


Father Damien became a Roman Catholic priest at the age of 24. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Before we leave Leuven, Belgium, there’s someone I want you to meet: Father Damien, who in 2005 was voted De Grootste Belg, the Greatest Belgian, in a poll conducted by the Flemish public broadcasting service.

Never heard of him? Neither had I, but after visiting his shrine I’m most grateful to have learned about his remarkable life.

Jozef De Veuster was born in 1840 in the Belgian village of Tremelo. As a young man he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Fathers, taking the name Father Damien and following in the footsteps of his older brother, Pamfiel. When Pamfiel caught typhus as he was preparing to become a missionary in Hawaii, Damien went in his place.

At first he was happy in his new home, but gradually he became restless, wondering if he was making a genuine difference in the lives of the islanders. When he learned that the Kalawao leper colony on Molokai Island was in need of a resident priest, he immediately volunteered.

Father Damien not only convinced his superiors that he should go to the colony: he told them that he wanted to stay there permanently. His reasoning was that if people knew that he was only temporary there, they wouldn’t fully trust him. Permission was granted, and Father Damien traveled to the leper colony.


The leper colony on Molokai Island (photo from Father Damien shrine)

Keep in mind that this was during an era when leprosy was an incurable and terribly disfiguring disease. The government of the islands quarantined lepers in remote colonies, in fact, because of the fear that the contagion would spread. The colony on Molokai was particularly isolated, located on a strip of land separated from the mainland by a steep mountain ridge.

When Father Damien arrived, conditions in the colony were wretched. Crime was rampant; misery ubiquitous. During his 16-year tenure there, he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of its more than 600 residents. Living among them, he bandaged wounds, dug graves, led services, organized schools and choirs, constructed a water system, founded two orphanages, and badgered the Hawaiian government for better housing and medical care for the colony.

Doctors now know that leprosy is actually not very contagious and only a small percentage of the population is susceptible to it. But Father Damien was one of the unlucky ones. In 1884, after 12 years living in the colony, he began to experience the tell-tale sign of numbness in his feet. Gradually he came to share in the disfigurements and disabilities of his parishioners, finally succumbing to the disease in 1889 at the age of 49. In 1936 his remains were transferred to Leuven, which is near the village of his birth.


Father Damien’s remains are housed in the crypt of Sint-Antoniuskerk in Leuven, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

But Father Damien’s influence didn’t end with his death, for stories of the “leper priest” spread around the world. Mahatma Gandhi was one of many who took inspiration from his life, saying that Father Damien had a great influence on his own work among the outcasts in India. Father Damien’s statue stands outside the Hawaii State Capitol Building, and Barack Obama, who spent part of his growing up years in Hawaii, has expressed his deep admiration for him. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien as a saint in a ceremony that was attended by native elders from the island of Molokai. He is popularly known as the patron of lepers and of all outcasts.

I visited Father Damien’s shrine in Leuven on a cold and rainy November day, in weather very different from that of his adopted homeland. Father Damien’s shrine is located in the lower level of Sint-Antoniuskerk, a modest brick church that also has displays about his life arrayed around the perimeter of its sanctuary.

Father Damien

Father Damien near the end of his life (image from Father Damien’s shrine)

As we entered the crypt area, I knew we were in a holy place. With its fresh flowers and lighted candles, it felt like a shrine that was cherished and cared for.

As I stood in front of the shrine, I was struck by the changes that had occurred in Father Damien’s face through the years. As you can see from the photo at the beginning of this post, as a young priest he was a handsome fellow, with finely etched features and a piercing gaze. Contrast that with the photo at the right, which shows him shortly before he died.

I think that as a person ages, one can often see their character and life experiences written on their faces. Worry and stress mark our visages, as does joy. In one sense Father Damien died a disfigured and ugly man, with a bandaged arm and gnarled hands. But there’s something about that image that captures one’s attention, isn’t there? His picture intrigues us, I think, because it provides visible evidence for his reckless giving away of himself to others, despite knowing what the ultimate cost might be.

Father Damien is indeed De Grootste Belg.


Father Damien amid the community at the Kalawao leper colony on Molokai Island (photo from Father Damien’s shrine)

Beginning with this post, I will occasionally post videos of the holy sites I visit. Here’s the first one:

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With the Beguines in Belgium

On the central square in Leuven, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

On the central square in Leuven, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

The long silence on The Holy Rover is a result of a trip my husband and I took over the past three weeks to see our son Carl, who is spending a semester studying in Belgium. I had never been to Belgium, Bob had never been to continental Europe, and before you know it we had planned a trip that also included Germany, France and Amsterdam (in the military this is known as “mission creep,” but it also happens to travel writers).

Given our interests, it’s not surprising that our journey took us to many holy sites, some major, some obscure. Over the next weeks, you’ll be hearing about them, making this winter a kind of Holy Rover Channels Rick Steves. I hope you’ll come along with me, as there are a lot of people and places I’d like to introduce you to.

We begin in the Belgian city of Leuven. Before Carl landed there I knew very little about Belgium, and even after our visit I’m still trying to figure out the country. Despite being about the size of a postage stamp on most maps, Belgium is a sometimes-fractious blend of two distinct cultures. The north is Flemish (a form of Dutch) and the southern region is home to the French-speaking Walloons.

As far as I can tell, pretty much everything in Belgium gets divided. For example, Carl’s temporary home is Leuven to the Flemish and Louvain to the French. In the 1960s there was so much acrimony at the city’s main university that the school split into two parts (they even divvied up the library books). The historic campus in the heart of the city conducts itself in Flemish, while a newer campus on the outskirts does so in French. One can either find this depressing (is there any hope for world harmony if even Belgian academics can’t get along?) or somewhat amusing. I found it both. Carl is studying at the historic campus, and I just hope he doesn’t get caught in the cultural crossfire before he leaves. 

A 50-foot tall statue of Mary and a young Jesus overlooks the city of Leuven. (Bob Sessions photo)

Surprise! I especially liked this 50-foot statue of Mary and Jesus that overlooks the city of Leuven. (Bob Sessions photo)

If you’re a beer lover, you may already have heard of Leuven, which prides itself on being the Beer Capital of the Beer Capital of Europe. I found it totally charming, with its cobblestone streets, cozy pubs, and Oude Markt (old market square). But what really captured my heart, to the point of wanting to move there, was a portion of the city known as the Grand Beguinage.

If you think of beguine as only a dance, you’re missing a nearly forgotten but important part of Christian history. Beginning in the 13th century, a movement began of lay women who lived in loosely structured religious communities while serving the poor and sick. With many men killed in the Crusades or lost to the myriad dangers of medieval life, there were a lot of unattached women in Europe. In the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium in particular, hundreds of Beguine communities formed. Their members did not make permanent vows and were not affiliated with any monastic order, but instead pledged more flexible vows that typically involved piety, simplicity, chastity and service to others. Some eventually left their communities, while others spent the remainder of their lives as Beguines. 

A painting of Beguines by the Belgian artist  Louis Tytgadt (Wikimedia Commons image)

A painting of Beguines by the Belgian artist Louis Tytgadt (Wikimedia Commons image)

These communities varied greatly in size, with some Beguines living alone and others residing in walled neighborhoods that housed a thousand or more women, typically in close proximity to a church. Those who did not come from wealthy families supported themselves by manual labor or teaching. 

The Beguine movement flourished for centuries in Europe, despite drawing at times the ire of the official church. During an era when single women were highly vulnerable, these enclosed communities provided a safe haven as well as spiritual sustenance. 

The more I learn about the Beguines, the more I want to revive the order. What a splendid model they created, a kind of halfway point between monastic and secular life (I also love what the elected leaders of each community were called: The Grande Dame). Now there’s a title to aspire to.

And when I saw the digs these women had in Leuven–well, I was ready to sign up on the spot. 

Even in a city full of picturesque neighborhoods, the Grand Beguinage of Leuven seems like it belongs in a fairy tale. The community was founded in the early-13th century and at its height housed 300 women. Though their numbers gradually dwindled, Beguines lived here until the 1980s. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the enclosure is maintained by the University of Leuven, which uses it as a residence facility for students, professors and visitors. Thankfully, the public is welcome to stroll through the area, which is exactly what we did on a brisk November afternoon, marveling at its canals, foot bridges, small brick homes with steeply pitched roofs, and winding cobblestone streets.

The Grand Beguinage of Leuven (Bob Sessions photo)

Where I’d love to live in the Grand Beguinage of Leuven (Bob Sessions photo)

My new home is pictured above. In the event that Bob goes off to the Crusades (unlikely, I realize, but one never knows), I daydream of moving into this little cottage by the canal, a block away from an equally charming church and hopefully with a group of like-minded women friends. It’s not that I don’t like men–some of my best friends have a Y chromosome–but I think it must have been a wonderful existence for those Beguines. Living in community, supporting each other, and serving the poor, they always had someone to talk to and someone to care for them. And while I haven’t been able to find historical evidence for this, I’m almost certain that many of them kept cats. Certainly the neighborhood is made for them.

I’ll tell you a bit more about the Beguines when we travel to Bruges, but in the meantime let me leave you with part of an obituary that The Economist published on Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine, who died on April 14, 2013:

In her energy and willpower she was typical of Beguines of the past. Their writings—in their own vernacular, Flemish or French, rather than men’s Latin—were free-spirited and breathed defiance. “Men try to dissuade me from everything Love bids me do,” wrote Hadewijch of Antwerp. “They don’t understand it, and I can’t explain it to them. I must live out what I am.”

Prous Bonnet saw Christ, the mystical bridegroom of all Beguines, opening his heart to her like rays blazing from a lantern. But a Beguine who was blind [as was Pattyn] could take comfort in knowing … that Love’s light also lay within her…

When she was known to be the last, Marcella Pattyn became famous. The mayor and aldermen of [her home city of] Courtrai visited her, called her a piece of world heritage, and gave her Beguine-shaped chocolates and champagne, which she downed eagerly…The story of the Beguines, she confessed, was very sad, one of swift success and long decline. They had caught the medieval longing for apostolic simplicity, lay involvement and mysticism that also fired St Francis; but the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive. With the Protestant Reformation the order almost vanished; with the French revolution their property was lost, and they struggled to recover. In the high Middle Ages a city like Ghent could count its Beguines in thousands. At Courtrai in 1960 Sister Marcella was one of only nine scattered among 40 neat white houses, sleeping in snowy linen in their narrow serge-curtained beds. And then there were none.

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The Sistine Chapel of Mississippi

Mural by Walter Anderson of Ocean Springs, Mississippi (image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art)
Image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art

Sometimes holy places are easy to find, and sometimes they emerge only upon reflection. I was reminded of this truth on a recent trip to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to attend a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers (an added treat was a visit with my friend and Holy-Rover-commentator-extraordinaire Mississippi Marian). I knew I would enjoy the Gulf Coast, but I didn’t expect to find a spiritual destination on my trip. But suddenly there one was, popping up in a most unexpected place: the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

The term “eccentric” doesn’t really do justice to Walter Inglis Anderson (and keep in mind that he lived in the mother lode for eccentrics, the same state that produced Eudora Welty and William Faulkner). Born in 1903, he was raised in an artistic family and attended two of the nation’s top art schools. As an adult, however, that early promise fizzled. He was an occasional husband and largely absent father to his four children, earning a small amount of money working in his brother’s pottery business. As the years passed he became increasingly reclusive and peculiar and was periodically hospitalized for treatment of schizophrenia. Dressed in mismatched clothes, Anderson would ride his rickety bike around the streets of Ocean Springs. Even his own children would cross the street to avoid him when they saw him coming.

But underneath that troubled exterior, his early artistic promise hadn’t died at all. After Anderson’s death in 1965, an astonishing body of work was revealed: more than 30,000 pen-and-ink drawings, watercolor paintings, wooden carvings, and sculptures.

Image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art

Image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art

Anderson’s art reflects not just a love of nature, but an almost total immersion in it.  One place in particular was his muse, a windswept barrier island called Horn. Over the course of nearly two decades Anderson made countless trips to Horn Island, laboriously rowing 14 miles across open water in a small wooden boat loaded down with his art supplies. There he would stay for weeks at a time, enduring extreme heat, sweltering humidity, biting insects, relentless sun and fierce winds.

Anderson did all of this because he was entranced by the flora and fauna of the Gulf Coast. There was hardly a single animal or plant he didn’t capture in his art: oysters, shrimp, fish, crabs, pelicans, turtles, herons, marsh grasses, insects and trees. Some creatures he would paint twenty times until he was satisfied with them, covering page after page with his sketches. At night he slept in the shelter of his overturned boat; by day he would climb trees, crawl through marshes, and lie nose-to-nose with hermit crabs. One time he even chained himself to a tree during a hurricane because he wanted to fully experience its power. He also produced thousands of pages of journal entries reflecting upon his experiences, writing by the flickering light of a campfire.

His wife Sissy would later say this: “Being with him was like having intense sunlight concentrated on everything … he knew things not only by observation, but by a sort of intuition. He himself was later to define it as the ability to become one with any living thing, a tree, flower, ant or bird.”

Walter Anderson's Little Room (image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art)

Walter Anderson’s Little Room (image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art)

Of all the works discovered after his death, the most surprising was found inside a locked room in the cottage where he had lived alone for 18 years. When his wife broke open its padlock, she discovered that every square inch of the room was covered with murals–a kind of Sistine Chapel of Mississippi, one might say. According to Anderson’s journal, the room’s swirling patterns and dreamlike images were inspired by Psalm 103, that exuberant hymn  that begins, “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” But the Little Room, as it has come to be known, is also a hymn of praise for all that Anderson had experienced on his many trips to Horn Island.

Today Walter Anderson’s artistic reputation is steadily rising and his works sell for many thousands of dollars (benefiting, I’m happy to say, his long-suffering family). A lovely museum showcases his life and work in Ocean Springs, whose residents have come to realize that the hermit who once rode their streets on his rickety bicycle was actually an artistic genius. And in 1978, Horn Island was made a federally protected Wilderness Area, ensuring that its windswept beaches and marshes will remain untouched by human encroachment.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of holy places. I love Walter Anderson’s story in part because it shows that while sometimes a pilgrim needs to set out on a journey of many miles, equally valuable pilgrimages can happen when a man sets out in a rowboat to a tiny nearby island, opening himself to the power and wildness he finds there. Anderson’s story is also a testimony to the high price that spiritual seekers often pay for a call. Walter Anderson paid that price freely, but not without considerable suffering both on his part and that of his family.

And, finally, it’s intriguing to speculate on the role schizophrenia played in Anderson’s creative genius and spirituality. According to his daughter, Mary, his mental illness made him “cracked open, vulnerable and acutely receptive to everything that comes through the senses.” That’s a pretty accurate description of a religious mystic, many of whom balance on that fine edge between sanity and what the world sees as madness.

Image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art

Image courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art

If you get the chance to visit the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, go to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art and stand in the middle of the Little Room that has been moved in its entirety there. I’ve never been to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but I have a sense that there’s a kinship between those two spaces made sacred by creative passion. Both serve as signposts to heaven. In Walter Anderson’s case, that heaven was populated by scuttling crabs and gliding herons, its air filled with the call of seagulls, the swish of marsh grasses and the rhythmic lullaby of waves.


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On A Wild Goose Chase Atop A Tall Pillar

Maxime Qavtaradze has lived atop a rock outcropping in the nation of Georgia for 20 years. (Daily Mail photo)

Maxime Qavtaradze has lived atop a rock outcropping in the nation of Georgia for 20 years. (Daily Mail photo)

It’s Monday again. If facing a new week seems overwhelming, I invite you to take a few minutes to visit one of the quietest places in the world: a one-person monastery atop a 130-foot rock pillar in the country of Georgia. The story ran in England’s Daily Mail awhile ago, and I’ve been meaning to post something on it ever since. Is this man a fool, a crank, or an inspiration? I’m not quite sure, but I do think there’s something intriguing in his story (you can read the whole article at Getting Closer to God).

Maxime Qavtaradze led a troubled life as a young man, drinking and selling drugs. After a stint in prison, he decided he needed to make a change. Did he take up yoga, move to a new apartment, get a cat? Nope: twenty years ago he climbed atop a remote outcropping and began praying. The pillar had actually been used for this function before. For many centuries it had been the site of a hermitage occupied by a series of “stylites,” a term that comes from St. Simeon Stylites, a Christian ascetic who spent 30 years on top of a column in the fifth century. The practice was meant to remove people from the temptations of the world so they could focus exclusively on God.

After two years of sleeping in an old fridge (no explanation in the article of how it got up there), locals helped Maxime rebuild the ancient church atop the pillar and also constructed a tiny cottage for Maxime to live in.

Two decades later, Maxime is still living atop the pillar. He uses a 131-foot ladder to get up and down (the effort takes about 20 minutes). He usually leaves his perch twice a week, and in between his followers use a winch to haul supplies up to him.

(Daily Mail photo)

(Daily Mail photo)

A small religious community has sprouted at the base of the pillar, many of whom are young men inspired by Maxime’s example of austerity and simplicity. The resurgence of Christianity in Georgia after the fall of communism has led many to seek out religious inspiration. Some find it here, in the example of a man who lives as a kind of cliff-dwelling bird. His life brings to mind the Celtic Christian term for the Holy Spirit: Wild Goose. He’s on a wild goose chase up there, isn’t he, in more ways than one?

The article quotes Maxime as saying this about his isolation: ‘I need the silence. It is up here in the silence that you can feel God’s presence.’

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The Gift of Pain

(Today’s post is a sermon I gave yesterday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, Iowa.)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)

Cleansing of the Ten Lepers from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis (WIkimedia Commons image)
Cleansing of the Ten Lepers from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis (WIkimedia Commons image)

In the Gospel reading this morning, we encounter the most feared, isolated, and vulnerable people in the Bible: lepers. Ten of them have been healed by Jesus, but only one comes back to give him thanks. We are meant to notice the fact that this man is a Samaritan, a member of a group considered to be social and religious outcasts by most Jews of the day. While the other nine rush off to begin their new lives, only one returns to express his gratitude to Jesus for the miraculous transformation he has undergone.

There are nearly 70 references to leprosy in the Bible, which is not surprising given the fact that it was the most dreaded disease in the ancient world. Biblical scholars say the term likely included a wide range of skin conditions, of which the most devastating was the illness that is now termed Hansen’s Disease. In Jesus’ day, this virulent bacterial infection not only crippled people’s bodies: it also robbed them of their home, family, community, livelihood, and dignity. Because of the contagious nature of the disease, a leper was cast out from society, reduced to begging for food and prohibited from participating in religious rituals. It is no wonder that lepers dogged Jesus’ steps, for once it became known that he was someone who could heal this deadly affliction, they must have flocked to him at every opportunity.

While leprosy has not been completely eradicated in the world, its terrors are greatly lessened because of advances in medical treatments. The story of how these breakthroughs were made is recounted in a fascinating book by physician Paul Brand. Published in 1993, it bears the seemingly contradictory title The Gift of Pain. I’d like to tell you about it today as kind modern-day parable of healing, one with surprising implications for our own lives.


Paul Brand examining a patient in India (Leprosy Mission photo).

Paul Brand grew up in India as the child of missionary parents and, after receiving medical training in England, returned to India to devote himself to those afflicted with leprosy. He did so at a time when medical science was just beginning to develop treatments for the disease. While newly discovered sulfa drugs could halt the spread of the bacterial infection, even after being treated most leprosy patients continued to suffer terrible disfigurements. Dr. Brand was the first to figure out why that happened. He came to realize that the crippling power of leprosy came not because the flesh was rotting away, as had been previously thought, but because the disease destroyed the body’s ability to feel pain. That simple fact accounted for the great majority of the damage that was done.

Leprosy patients would sprain their ankles and not realize it, for example, continuing to walk on the injured foot until it was irreparably damaged. They would go blind, because without sensation in their eyes they didn’t feel the need to blink, which keeps the eyes lubricated and free of impurities. In a normal body, pain sets limits on our movements and warns us of potential damage and injury. But leprosy patients, without a pain reflex, have no built-in warning system. Much of Brand’s work, therefore, focused on teaching his patients how to compensate for that lack of sensation.

We might think of all of this as a curious medical oddity, but Brand believes that we have much to learn from the experiences of those afflicted with leprosy. His book is a heartfelt and often moving meditation on the gifts of pain. After many years of working with people who feel no pain, he describes how he came to realize that it can be an indispensable teacher and an opportunity for growth.

He writes: “I began to view painlessness as one of the greatest curses that can befall a human being…My esteem for pain runs so counter to the common attitude that I sometimes feel like a subversive, especially in modern Western countries. On my travels I have observed an ironic law of reversal at work: as a society gains the ability to limit suffering, it loses the ability to cope with what suffering remains…traditional cultures may lack modern analgesics, but the beliefs and family support systems built into everyday life help equip individuals to cope with pain.”

I’ve been fortunate thus far in my life not to have to deal with great pain. But through our healing ministries here at Trinity I’ve been part of the lives of many who are not so fortunate. I am profoundly grateful to have been a companion on the healing journeys of these people. Some have returned to full health, and some have lost their battle with disease. In seeing how these people have dealt with the challenge of their illnesses, I find myself agreeing with Paul Brand that we make a mistake in not reflecting on the complex meanings and potential gifts of pain.

I think of Terry Breitbach, who died of cancer a year ago this past summer. Those of you who knew her will remember her love of life and infectious laugh. Despite the suffering she endured, in the last year of her illness she often spoke of how incredibly fortunate she was and how grateful she was to be surrounded by people who loved and cared for her. Terry taught us about one of the paradoxical gifts that can come with pain: the gift of finding deep joy in simple things. In the last months of her life she spent a lot of time simply watching the world. She especially loved to sit in her backyard, delighting in the glinting of sunlight on the leaves and the sound of bird songs. I remember her saying that she used to feel guilty about sitting doing nothing, but that she’d come to believe that God wants us to savor how beautiful the world is. “I’m making up for all those people who are too busy to do so,” she said.

Rembrandt's Christ Healing a Leper

Rembrandt’s Christ Healing a Leper

I’ve also seen how other people can be changed and deepened by someone’s pain. In Dick and Debra Dorzweiler’s neighborhood, for example, people have rallied to care for a woman dying of pancreatic cancer. Neighbors who once were casual acquaintances have stepped into the difficult and challenging role of caregivers for someone without a family. This, too, can be a gift of pain: the way it can deepen the bonds of a community. Paul Brand, who spent his life treating serious illness, writes this: “The best single thing I can do to prepare for pain is to surround myself with a loving community who will stand beside me when tragedy strikes.”

Learning from suffering, clearly, is an essential part of a spiritual path. The Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr says that God has two main ways to teach us: through love and through suffering. Everybody prefers the former, but for many of us the lessons are more deeply learned through pain. Without it, we remain content in our cozy cocoon of ego and self-regard. Difficulties, failure, humiliation and defeat force us to look where we never would have otherwise. Rohr writes: “It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and … find it again–[but this time] on a new level.”

One of the great models for the transformative power of suffering is St. John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. During his life he suffered terrible persecution, trials, and illness. Bleakest of all was the experience of feeling abandoned by God, a trial he called the Dark Night of the Soul. But his greatest insight came when he realized that the spirit of God was present in that darkness, working a transformation in him far deeper than what would have been possible without it.

orthodox-icon-theotokusSt. John spoke of this experience as a kind of “luminous darkness.” One can sense the truth of that memorable phrase, I think, in viewing great religious art. Think of the rich hues and gilded lines of Russian icons, for example, with their faces that radiate both sorrow and peace, or the tenderness of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Or a crucifix, that powerful symbol of the God-who-suffers-with-us.

In saying all of this, I realize how easy it is to talk about the lessons of pain while you’re not presently experiencing it. Most of us would likely agree with the words of St. Teresa of Avila, who said that given how God treats his friends, it’s no wonder he has so few of them. And I’m sure you, like me, know people for whom physical and mental pain are relentlessly debilitating and isolating. There is no gift for them hidden in its talons. Instead, it breaks them. But I hope you also know people who have been broken open by pain, transforming them in ways that allow divine light to shine forth from them. These people are beacons among us, showing us what is possible.

If all of this sounds contradictory, it is, in the way that most spiritual truths are. I’m afraid it’s paradoxes all the way down.

Paul Brand

Paul Brand

But in pondering how to deal with suffering, we can take inspiration from the life of Paul Brand, the tireless physician and humanitarian. After his death in 2003, one of his colleagues in India recalled one telling detail about how he worked. He said that when Dr. Brand saw patients, he never focused just on their disability. As he examined them, he would gently cradle their damaged feet or hands as he looked directly into their eyes. He talked to them about their lives and their struggles. He saw them not just as patients, but as fellow children of God. And for people who had been cast out by their families and communities, that was perhaps as healing as any medical treatment he could offer.

In doing so, Brand was following the example of another healer who reached out to outcasts. Writes Brand: “I have sometimes wondered why Jesus so frequently touched the people he healed. Many … must have been unattractive, obviously diseased, unsanitary … With his power, Jesus easily could have waved a magic wand. In fact, a wand would have reached more people than a touch. He could have divided the crowd into … groups and organized his miracles–paralyzed people over there, feverish people here, people with leprosy there–raising his hands to heal each group efficiently …. But he chose not to. Jesus’ mission was not chiefly a crusade against disease …but rather a ministry to individual people, some of whom happened to have a disease. He wanted those people, one by one, to feel his love and warmth and his full identification with them.”

(Wikimedia Commons image)

(Wikimedia Commons image)

Brand’s words point to the reason why the healing stories of the Gospels continue to have such immediacy and power. We do not suffer from leprosy, yet we too at times have been isolated and rejected. We live in a time when medical science has made tremendous strides in treating illness, yet most of us will at some point face a health crisis. Like those people in the Gospels desperate for healing of the body, we may not realize that the real healing we need is of our souls. And so we wait, by the side of a dusty road in Galilee or in a pew here in Iowa City, longing for the Great Healer to reach out his hand and make us whole.

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Krista Tippett’s Ministry of Listening

Krista Tippett, host of the NPR program On Being

Krista Tippett, host of the NPR program On Being

I enjoy my work, but if there’s one job I envy it’s the one held by radio host Krista Tippett. Each week on her National Public Radio program On Being (formerly known as Speaking of Faith) she interviews someone fascinating. One week it’s the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, another week a specialist in whale songs or a Orthodox theologian from Turkey. These wide-ranging conversations about religion, spirituality, ethics and ideas are almost always thought-provoking and often quite moving.

The current issue of Christianity Today has an article that puts the spotlight directly on Tippett herself: The Public Listener: A Conversation with Radio Host Krista Tippett. The veteran interviewer has the tables turned as she answers questions about her own spirituality, the media coverage of religion, and how to promote civility and dialogue in the public arena. Here’s an interchange I thought especially interesting, one that resonates with my own experiences in writing about other faiths:

You write in your book Speaking of Faith that your own starting point and perspective is Christianity. What is it like as a religion journalist to identify with a particular religious tradition and also to step foot into these other traditions by way of your show?

This would probably be one of those old taboos [about journalism] that needs to be broken down. I don’t know why we would think a business journalist was qualified to do what he does if he didn’t have his own bank account, or a political correspondent who didn’t vote.

I make no apologies for the fact that I have a religious life of my own. I’m speaking as a Christian because I’m speaking as myself.

When I first started this, there was a young Catholic reporter who was excited about the show. I’d just done something with the Dalai Lama, and she said, “Do you feel you get converted by talking to these amazing religious leaders?” The truth is, I don’t.

When profound encounter happens, it has paradoxical effects. At one and the same time, you are able to appreciate and even to learn from this other person and their tradition. But the other thing that always happens—and I’ve honestly never heard of a story that it hasn’t happened in—is that you become more richly planted where you are. You become a better Christian.

I think that some of the most deadly phrases in the English language are ecumenical and interfaith. They’re so boring, but the experiences people have are not boring, and the experiences are transformative, and they’re not relativistic.

We did some audience engagement research a couple years ago, and there was wonderful stuff in there about how people really use On Being. A majority said they’re able to have conversations with people they couldn’t have had conversations with before. The same kind of huge majority said it had deepened their engagement with their own tradition, and that is the way it works. That’s a long answer to say that it works for me, too.

Read the whole interview if you’re a Krista Tippet fan (as I suspect many of you are). And if you’re not familiar with On Being, listen to a show on-line or on the radio or download a podcast (I’d highly recommend her interview The Last Quiet Places with Gordon Hempton in particular).

Let me leave you with my favorite line in the interview: Tippet says she has a “ministry of listening.” Isn’t that wonderful? Would that we had more journalists like her!

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