At the monastery
When I arrived at the women’s quarters at Monastery on Lenore I was taken for an interview with the Abbess. She explained she liked to meet all new arrivals but the present influx of visitors meant there were many she had not had time to see. She was an imposing woman and I found myself squirming beneath her cool, grey eyed stare. As she asked me a series of pointed questions about my likes, my dislikes and what I hoped to get out of my time at the Monastery I sensed she would not be an easy woman to fool. I muttered something vague about wanting time to write and draw, about seeking to understand the deeper meanings of femininity.
I had no clear idea of what monastic life entailed. I’d rarely set foot inside a Church and knew little about organised religion. Instead, I harboured romantic visions that Monasteries were places where medieval scribes produced illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells. Hildegard of Binger, the German nun of the middle ages, had always fascinated me. She was reputed to a migraine sufferer as was I. Scholars wrote treatises linking her written accounts of mystical visions with the physical and mental disturbances associated with migraine. Beyond that, Hildegard’s range of accomplishments was awe inspiring. She composed music, was a skilled herbalist and wrote on the medical use of plants of plants, animals and stones as well as on religious matters. She illustrated her manuscripts with beautiful paintings that glowed with luminous reds, blues and gold. Recently I had discovered that she was quite possibly the first woman to write a description of female orgasm.
‘When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain,
which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight
during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed.’
Pretty raunchy for a nun I thought. Perhaps the monastic life was different back then.
With all this in mind, I had high hopes that the Monastery on Lenore might offer me a quiet place to work and eagerly followed the Abbess to my room. It proved to be quite spartan. The only furniture was an austere looking single bed, a wooden chair with a woven rush seat and a small desk. A variety of pens, inks and brushes were arranged on the desk. Golden afternoon light poured in an open window and gave the wood work a warm, honeyed glow. Despite the simple surroundings I felt immediately at ease.
For several days I stayed within my room exploring ideas of the feminine in my journal. I emerged only to use the very basic bathroom at the end of the corridor. Meals were placed on a tray outside my door at intervals and occasionally I exchanged a word or two with the young novice nuns who bought them. These girls were always very self contained and didn’t strike me as sharing Hildegard’s insight into the female organism. Sometimes I could hear the voices of other visitors from the S.S.Vulcania. Bursts of laughter and snatches of conversation reached me from the courtyard gardens I glimpsed from my window. Something about the brief flashes of vibrant clothing and wild shouts of utterly impious joy reminded me that the feminine was more than ribbons and lace, piety and sanctified notions of motherhood. Disturbed by thoughts of birthing, blood and earthy, sensual pleasures I left my room and set out to explore more the Monastery.
Rather than returning to the refined cloisters I’d been ushered through on my first day I wandered away from my room into the courtyard garden. Sweetly scented herbs bordered cobbled pathways that led me away from the main buildings. Out past trees heavy with ripening fruit I glimpsed tumbling walls of worn stone punctuated by windows of stained glass and deep niches where time worn, lichen covered statues stared with sightless eyes. As I drew closer I spied an arch where an opened door of oak provided a glimpse of shadowy passageway within. Intrigued I entered and found myself in cool silent building that appeared to have fallen into disuse. Stone flags were arranged on the floor in a labyrinthine pattern.
I walked meditatively around it then when I reached the centre I looked out across the floor to the further wall. A small door seemed to beckon me. Not wanting to break the mood I retraced my footsteps through the labyrinth then hastened to the door. It opened easily onto a narrow flight of stairs that plunged downward. I helped myself to one of the torches placed upon a shelf just beyond the door and made my way downwards. After a short descent I emerged in a crypt where stone arch ways spanned a wide open area. Along the perimeter shafts of light penetrated the space from deep fissures in the ceiling that apparently opened out to the world of daylight above me. I turned off my torch and, after my eyes had adjusted to the half light, began to explore. The arch ways spanning the central area were laid out in such a way that they created a pathway to shadowy recess curtained with a heavily embroidered cloth. Curious, I made my way towards it. The silence of the place, the dusty half light and the musty air gave the moment a profound solemnity.
It was almost with a sense of trepidation that I pushed aside the curtain and I raised my eyes to gaze upon the statue within, a black Madonna carved from stone as ancient as the earth. As I looked into the intense blackness of the stone I plunged into a state of heightened awareness. I sensed something of the way the seed is nurtured deep within the darkness to burst forth as new life. I saw the sorrows of centuries and the grieving of mothers mourning the horrors of war and the death of sons. My vision seemed to enter the blackness where I saw the endless circling rhythms of nature, the ceaseless, cyclic turnings from birth to death to rebirth. The immensity threatened to engulf me and I cast my eyes downward. Upon the stone of the floor I saw that someone had been there before me, presumably not so long ago. There, directly in front of my feet, was the word CROW scrawled in white chalk.
Overwhelmed by all I had felt I made my way back to the monastery to pack my bags. The word Crow sounded a cawing deep within me and awoke the urge to retreat alone to the interior of Isle of Lenore and continue my searching there.