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Begin the Beguine

I was in Amsterdam for a break recently.

Just off one of Amsterdam’s busiest streets, the Kalvestraat, is the Begijnhof which was originally a beguinage and is one of the oldest parts of the city. To this day it houses both a Roman Catholic and an ‘English Reformed’ church. The latter is also a Church of Scotland.

800px-BegijnhofAmsterdamEurope

The Beguines /bəˈɡnz/ and the Beghards /bəˈɡɑrdz/ were Christian lay religious orders that were active in Northern Europe, particularly in the Low Countries in the 13th–16th centuries. Their members lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows. That is, although they promised not to marry “as long as they lived as Beguines” to quote one of the early Rules, they were free to leave at any time. Beguines were part of a larger spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. (Wikipedia)

We discovered the Begijnhof on a previous visit to Amsterdam quite by chance and sought it out once again on this visit. The city’s oldest house is here – the Houten Huys 34 Begijnhof, the black timber building photographed here by my daughter.

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This is the small but ornate chapel in the Begijnhof.

chapel

And the rather more plain kirk.

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I’m not religious in the least but there is a need for places like this in a bustling city and I can’t deny the presence of some kind of spiritual calm in the Begijnhof. It is incredible that the Kalverstraat with all its trams, cars, people, barrel organs, buskers and the like is a mere few yards away. And yet the only sounds in the Begijnhof are the respectful hushed tones of the visitors and birdsong.

In the chapel, a lady was lighting a whole host of candles:

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If my understanding was right, I think they would, for a small fee, (50 cents I think) dedicate a candle and say a prayer for a departed loved one. A nice gesture if you believe in that kind of thing and pretty businesslike given the amount of visitors and the costs of keeping the building.

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