The Family Tree (May 30, 2015)

sister

Written by John Watters

In contrast to the warm group reception we received at the convent in Vrbove, a solitary nun was waiting for us in the light rain outside Doksany convent.

It wasn’t a snub: The sisters here are cloistered, and engage only as necessary with those outside the walls of the convent.

Sister Augustina, who had represented Doksany during the General Chapter in De Pere in 2012, welcomed us in English, then brought us to marvel at the stunning baroque church attached to this convent in a tiny village a half hour from Prague. Like the churches we had seen at Schlägl, Roggenburg and Geras, this one invited silent awe at its baroque statues, paintings, relics and exquisite woodwork. (If these churches don’t inspire you to enroll in an art history class, I don’t know what would; the spectacular works they contain beg for a deeper understanding of the artists, their times and their intentions.)

We had a special moment in the church when Sara Tutskey, one of our traveling party and an accomplished organist, was permitted to play a few notes on the church’s magnificent organ. She has had the opportunity to sit at the fine instrument at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, but this was undoubtedly her first chance to play in a baroque church hundreds of years old, beneath magnificent frescoes. It was a treat for all of us, to be sure.

Leaving the church, we had a bit of a surreal moment. We exited the 18th-century worship space and found ourselves standing in an even older, medieval town square. But it only extended upward about 15 feet, and the street ran only as far as a corner perhaps 20 yards distant. What’s more, the imposing stone walls of the “town” gave off an odd sound when tapped … more like plywood.

This was a film set – for an ongoing TV series having something to do with musketeers. The walls were of painted canvas, and were indeed backed with plywood.

For some reason, beautiful, ancient Doksany was deemed the perfect location to disguise with a completely different version of reality. It was as if you decided that the ideal place to put your paint-by-numbers unicorn masterpiece was smack dab in front of the Mona Lisa.

To make matters worse, the unquestionably needy sisters of Doksany receive no money for their inconvenience, or for the affront to their aesthetics.

Where the grounds weren’t given over to serving the needs of Athos, Porthos and Aramis, they were a romantic mix of weathered sculpture, gently crumbling stucco walls and absolutely massive trees of many varieties, each hundreds of years old.

There was one tree in particular we were there to see. A ginko behind the former abbess’ residence was planted in 1627, when St. Norbert’s remains were transported from Magdeburg Cathedral, which had for decades past been in Protestant hands, to Strahov Abbey in Prague. The traveling party stopped along the way at Doksany, and planted this tree in memoriam.

The region was in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, which saw widespread death and destruction (the Czech region alone lost about a third of its population). Catholic convents and abbeys were often either direct targets or collateral damage during this and other conflicts. So it wouldn’t seem to be a time for taking the long view with such activities as tree planting. (Comedian George Burns, late in life, said, “At my age, I don’t even buy green bananas.” One could forgive the Norbertines and other orders for having such an outlook in the 1600s.)

But as we’ve seen time and again on this tour, Norbertines have a remarkable will to endure and a seemingly unshakeable conviction that they will do so. From the monasteries that have rebuilt after countless disasters, to the houses that have been reestablished after being dormant for a century, to the sisters of Vrbove who persevered for over 20 years until they were able to return to their convent, the order has exhibited a resilience, and, I guess, an optimism that could only come from deep faith.

So I think there was a certainty among that traveling party in 1627 that there would be a Doksany far in the future, whose residents would know the history of their tree and pause in its shade to reflect – just as there was a certainty in the heart of Fr. Anselm Keefe, when he planted a multitude of saplings on our own once-barren campus in De Pere, that there would still be a college there to enjoy their rich green canopy nearly a century afterward.

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