When I was young, very young, I wanted to be a nun. I had visions of rising straight to the ranks of Mother Superior and could envision myself as Mother Mary Martha. (In actuality, it’s probably the only time in my life when I had dreams of promotion – or something resembling ambition.) Then I saw a movie (I can’t remember which one) in which the postulate didn’t get to choose her name; she was given one. And I began to have second thoughts. I had visions of living out my days wearing a name I hated.
I even applied to the Medical Missionaries of Mary (I was fascinated by the whole alliteration thing, consumed by M). They told me to go live for a few years and then come back to them. I never did go back.
I’ve long had a fascination with nuns and convents. Remember Ingrid Bergman as Sr Mary Benedict in The Bells of St Mary? Audrey Hepburn as Sr Luke in The Nun’s Story? Susan Sarandon as Sr Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking? Or the pretend nuns – Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara? Or Whoopee Goldberg in Sister Act?
I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It could be as simple as a fondness for black and white as a colour combination. God knows it’s not a want in me to surround myself with women – I discovered long ago that I’m allergic to too much oestrogen. But the fascination remains, for whatever reason.
Years ago, visiting Dachau Concentration Camp, I heard the neighbouring Carmelite nuns singing. It was haunting. Mystical. I was entranced. Hearing something so beautiful in a place that was a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man was compelling.
Last week, in Milan, the lovely ES took me on a tour of churches. I was fascinated by one in particular: Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. The church itself is attached to the old Benedictine Convent. The nuns would listen to mass through a grid and receive communion through an opening in the wall.
Their hall is separated from the Hall of Believers (the public hall) by a partition wall and as I sat there in silence, I fancied that I heard strains of that haunting, disembodied singing again, although this time, in much more pleasant surroundings. The nuns themselves weren’t given permission to come over to the other side to admire the altar until 1794, so for centuries they had no idea of the beauty that lay on the other side of the partition wall.
Both halls are covered in frescoes by famous Italian painters. Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci, took his brush to these walls, as did Simone Peterzano – Caravaggio’s master. You could spend hours, literally, sitting in quiet contemplation of these works of art, which date back to the 1500s. My favourite was Noah’s Ark by Aurelio Luini. If you look at it closely, you can see all the animals in pairs, except for an extra dog … apparently, if my pathetically poor grasp of Italian can be trusted, it’s his signature insert.
This week, I’m grateful for the ministries of friends living abroad who are willing to take the time to show me their world, to share with me the places they hold special. A local’s insight is so much better than a guidebook written by someone who may never had sat in that particular church and felt its peace. If you’re in Milan – it’s a go-see.