Jarred hearts, dead nuns, and a spring bride: Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Convent
I’d been led to believe that a visit to Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Monastery) in Arequipa, Peru would be a serene, beautiful experience.
Sure, sure. Except for the presence of death everywhere. Other than that, yeah, total bliss.
The postmortem paintings of long-lived and now long-dead nuns are one thing. The hearts tucked in jars like holy hipster pickle products is a whole other thing. I so easily forget that Christianity is weirdly obsessed with saintly effluvia.
Then there’s the typical and overwhelming convent theme of life-without-sex-because-Jesus-is-my-man.
Nuns. I get them less than they get some.
For a while though, the nuns of Santa Catalina Monastery lived a lot like the average Arequipeño rich girl probably did. They might have been sequestered there by their families, trapped in a city within a city, but in the late 1800s the young ladies were known for their Paris Hilton living. Even cloistered they managed to drink and dance, surrounding themselves with servants and a fair bit of luxury.
They may have even strayed from their vows of chastity. Kick off your Sunday shoes indeed.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, particularly women having fun when they’re not supposed to. The servants got booted and the nuns were made to act like nuns. Contact with the outside world was forbidden. The monastery enforced it’s anti-fornication and pro-flagellation stance. Behind locked doors and high walls, the nuns lived (if you can call it that) and died.
Today, a few nuns live in Santa Catalina Monastery, but we don’t cross paths. Instead of the brides of Christ, I see a bride in white strutting for a photo shoot through the convent’s salmon- and blue-painted walkways.
Apart from the religious nuttery, this nunnery was also where people lived — sleeping, washing, cooking, and pooping — doing all those mundane things that keep our insides functioning. In the convent, there are many well-restored homes to explore, most only missing the still warm teakettle to feel like they’d been hurriedly abandoned just moments before.
As I walk the sprawling streets of Santa Catalina Monastery, I feel haunted by centuries of unresolved guilt. Not my own guilt, mind you. I left my guilt behind in a jar back at home.