21 April 2011

Santa Catalina Convent - Corruption, Flagellation and Chocolate?

Locked up tight, not unlike its residents...

Arequipa is a beautiful town in the Peruvian Andes, its colonial buildings carved from white volcanic rock and its food legendary for being spicy and cheesy. Needless to say, I was happy to arrive here on a relatively painless (compared to others in Asia) night bus from Nazca.

After some adventurous experiences I was ready to spend a few days unwinding in this little city, strolling its "squint your eyes and you can make believe you're in Spain" streets, drinking equal parts good coffee and good wine and getting ready for a few intense days of trekking in the Canon de Colca - world's second deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and beat only by 150 metres by its cousin a short distance away).

Secretly, though, I was most excited to visit the Monasterio Santa Catalina, a convent built in 1580 and still in use today. See, I have a fascination with nuns. Perhaps it was my atheist upbringing, but the first time I visited the Vatican City I used up half a roll of film (yes, it was that long ago) with photos of their different coloured habits. Even at home in Vancouver I nearly cause my mum to crash the car as I point and shriek "Nun! Nun!!" every time we drive near the convent on Victoria Drive. It's a weird quirk. I choose to find it endearing.

I also have a fascination with Catholic iconography - I have covered an entire wall in my apartment in juicy eye-rolling Jesuses (Jesi?), piously blue Marys and sacred hearts and crosses of all kinds. Catholic customs and iconography are deliciously eerie, creepy and archaic - like a live action 1970s Mexican exploitation horror movie. I even have plans for a tattoo of Mary's sacred heart. (Confusing for a pseudo Buddhist/Hindu yogi, I know. Just go with it. I do.)

Oh, Mary.

The Santa Catalina convent is enormous, a true city within a city, twenty thousand (!!!) square metres of passage ways, houses, courtyards, kitchens and chapels. It was built in 1580 by a rich widow, one of the first colonial settlers from Spain.

It was hard, but yes I was.

It was a custom of wealthy Spaniards of the day to commit their second eldest son or daughter to the cloth, bringing them as students (bait? fodder? playthings?) to a monastery and convent at the age of 10 or 12.

But this rich widow, Maria Guzman? She, um, kind of misunderstood what being a nun is all about, namely the whole "giving up earthly possessions" thing. Her convent was only for the rich, and she demanded that the family proffer a dowry of the equivalent to 50,000 dollars, as well as have the girls arrive with all kinds of fancy gifts. Sounds more like a madam to me....

Elaborate hinge.

The young nuns also arrived with another commodity - up to four slaves each. The elder nuns, with their earthly needs (and my mind goes totally dirty here) being met, basically spent all day embroidering, chatting, eating off of posh china and even throwing parties with hired musicians. Nice work, if you can get it.

Like an eerie little nun ghost.

I'm making things in the convent sound a little too easy, a little too sunshine & lollipoppy. The twelve year old novice nuns were not allowed to act like children, no running or playing at all. Instead they were forced to sit alone in their cells for 23 hours a day, praying, painting and most likely developing mental illnesses.

One way to make your teeenaged daughter behave...

The only way, technically (when they weren't throwing parties) that the nuns could communicate through the outside world was to their families, once a month through these double wooden grates. It was actually kind of sad to think of the wee little gals, who must have been so lonely, sitting 400 years ago in the exact spot where I was seated.

My slave simply must ask your slave where she got this wonderful blue paint.

The grounds of the complex were absolutely lovely, decorated like a Spanish village in bright splashes of colour. I mean, if fate frowns down on you and you're the second born, I can think of worse places to be cloistered.

Like a pretty little Spanish town, complete with fiestas.

The older nuns, and especially the older and very wealthy nuns, actually got little houses to live in within the convent. Their size and grandeur varied, but these were very posh digs. Large bedrooms, sitting areas, servant's quarters and huge kitchens - apartments that could reasonably house full families all for one (probably very bitter) old woman.

Talk about pins and needles.

Of course, some of these nuns were truly pious women, here because they genuinely felt called to their marriage to Christ.

These nuns practiced self flagellation daily, whipping themselves with flails, wearing thorny leg braces and sleeping on mats woven from needles. BDSM types, eat your heart out - this is how you truly mortify your flesh and get closer to God. (Or a man in a gimp mask who makes you call him God.)

El Misti - the volcano that rises above Arequipa

By the late 19th century, word of a convent in the middle of Peru that outrageously flouted Vatican rules, that housed pregnant nuns, hosted wild bacchanalias and had slaves working within its walls got back to Rome and Pope Pius IX. He wasn't too happy (probably jealous) and he sent a strict Dominican nun to come and clean things up. She freed the slaves and made the convent more convent-like, banning the pretty little apartments, wild late night parties and the visits from men (I'm totally out at this point).

This reformation was in 1871 and the convent continued on a more traditional bent for one hundred years, when the Peruvian government forced the nuns to open their doors to the public. One corner of the grounds houses a small cloistered section where 20 nuns, from the ages of 17 to 97, still live in silence to this day, separated from the rest of the world by those same wooden screens. I imagine it to be a bit Grey Gardens-y in there.

We could hear them playing volleyball over one of the tall walls. This blew my mind.

When not playing ball games (do they wear their habits during? If so, I need to see this) the nuns who once lived here at Santa Catalina in luxurious sin now spend their days as chocolatiers, making sweet treats to try and hook foreign dollars in what is now Arequipa's main tourist attraction.

Like a little nun Rapunzel. Nunpunzel?

And what an attraction! My hours wandering around the complex filled me with the same intense mysterious wonder that all of Catholicism inspires in me - a mix of awe, historical curiosity and, let's be frank, shock that this religion still has so many rapt believers.

Then again, it all makes sense. We as humans seem to like ritual, dark magic and tales of strange sex, something that nunneries - and Catholicism in general - have in spades. Viva La Santa Catalina!

If these walls could talk - they'd probably ask for a ball-gag.


tanya said...

Love it! Glad you're back on the road and posting again.

Did you get to try some of the nun chocolate?

Bob said...

I need a new bumper sticker


great post with ur usual flare

Ivana said...

As a history freak I LOVE the background you Gie to your posts. This mixed with your sekse of humor and good wringing makes your posts very addictive. Reading ALL of them! Keep it up.