They say it’s a city within a city, and marveling through the cerulean blue and burnt orange walls, we discover secret quarter after secret quarter, the nuns’ hard wood beds tucked in alcoves, straw mats and sheets remnants of a sliver of comfort.
And, their own personal kitchens and cuy habitations–AKA, rooms for their guinea pigs, fattened for future slaughter–and bathhouses.
These nuns live in the lap of luxury, once upon a time, sent across the continent for a lifetime, accompanied by personal servant and mucho dinero, for these are wealthy nuns, their sacrifice to a life a silence a penance for their families, proof of their devotion to the Church.
Imagining ourselves dressed in their habits, living between exclamations of color, we walk the Santa Catalina neighborhoods, from Toledo to Sevilla, arms turning shades of orange and azul as we brush against the pastel walls, elbows picking up colored chalk like pollen on bees. These women promise themselves to eternal vows of silence as manifestations of their devotion to their god, their religion, and having fleetingly practiced Noble Silence at a breakfast here and there, I cannot conceive of a lifetime of voicelessness, not for myself or for my hand servants.
Alas, these women do, their silence certainly equal parts gift and punishment, for their sacrifice to a higher power must have been the same equal measures of convenience and repentance. Photos of the later nuns reveal hard faces, bodies lost beneath mounds of holy garb, and one among the few appears to parlay miracles, if not words, Sister Ana of Los Angeles.
The kitchens recall medieval genius in their soot-covered mechanics, bathhouses outdoors, sinks made of half-broken vases filled by plugging the stream with a palm turned towards spicket.
It’s beautiful, this monastery with its arcade and frescos and rooms hidden within rooms.
We emerge refreshed, awed that such a structure arose five centuries ago, my favorite colors juxtaposed in splendid contrast, hot orange and cool blue.