Friday is the day to eat fish, or better still abstain from eating meat. Fish is allowed, as Jesus served fish to his disciples. This small sacrifice has been a longstanding church decree to honor the great sacrifice Jesus made for mankind on the cross on Good Friday. Although my home community is in Massachusetts where fishing villages abound, fish is not considered normal fare for dinner. Perhaps on special days, people opt for the fish market and buy fresh swordfish,cod, or haddock (or in my younger years, tuna). When I was younger, it was an adventure to go to the fish pier and watch the boats come in and unload their daily haul of fish. A friend worked there, and I discovered it was a smelly and somewhat treacherous job.
Fish is served regularly at the Begijnhof on Fridays. It is not the fish sticks so common in America, and sometimes it is the complete fish, needing delicate de-boning to eat the savory fish meat — testing and increasing my fish knife skill. Sometimes the fish is a nicely breaded and browned filet, easily devoured without special skill or utensil. Today was a new and ever increasing challenge. It was herring! First of all, I did not recognize it, as I do not think I have eaten herring since childhood. (A Swedish neighbor made a pickled item called ‘sil’ which I remember not liking.) Second, I expected the fish on my plate to be hot and it was cold with onions. That was a surprise! As I eyed the slithery fish, I decided he was meant to be eaten skin and all so I did. I was hungry. After learning that it was herring I had eaten, and it was always served cold, I had a new appreciation for the expression ‘cold fish’. Eating herring once was passable, but the fish made unwelcome return visits throughout the afternoon. However, I felt strangely guilt-free eating a lot of chocolate to dispel the ever recurring taste of herring. Adventures abound!
My home community’s mission in Barga, Italy, includes several brothers and sisters; we sing the daily Liturgy of the Hours in Gregorian chant: Lauds, Midday and Vespers (scaled down from the USA where our community sings Lauds, Midday, Eucharist, Vespers, and Compline). This early morning in the mist and dark of early February in the Italian Apennines, we trudged to the Oratorio just outside the villa but on the grounds and prepared for Lauds at 7:15 AM. A faithful brother goes early to turn on the heat, as in the winter here, in the mountains it is cold. Two dogs live at the villa, and they follow us. Since puppies, they have been attending services like faithful monastics. Doggie beds are near the gas heater and they jump in and cuddle down until the end of the Lauds service. They seem to know instinctively when the service is finished or they understand the word ‘Amen’! As I was singing, I realized, had I been home at the Begijnhof in Belgium, I would be singing Lauds as well. My Belgian sisters were also singing the Lauds service! The week number was the same—monastics singing through all 150 psalms in four weeks. The only difference is the Lauds in Belgium is in Dutch and the Lauds in Italy is in Latin, but the psalms are the same for the very same day. This was a wonderful and warm revelation; all of us monastics were singing together the same psalm at the same time. I wondered how many other convents and monasteries around the world were singing Lauds, a true communion of language and voice of the church to God welcoming the new day. A relative of one of the sisters at Begijnhof is a young brother at a monastery high in the Alps, and they too must be singing Lauds. What a wonderful blessing to be singing praise to God ‘In Communion.’ A hint of heaven.
Obedience is one of the three vows of the monastic — poverty, chastity, and obedience. Obedience is bedrock for a nun. In St Benedict’s rule for monastics, the greatest influence on western monasticism, he states a monastic must, when the superior calls, drop everything and run to do what he asked. It is the call of God on earth! Now, sometimes that takes a form as simple as “Send in a note every Wed, keep silent in this or that hall, or I am sending you to our mission in Italy for three months!”
I was the recipient of the call for three months in Italy, at the villa mission house that is the location of the Mount Tabor Center for Arts and Spirituality. The call was a surprise for me and required a bit of calendar and personal adjustment. But as wise sister friend said to me, “willing or unwilling” you are going. So….here I am for three months, practicing my Italian which was slim to none in the beautiful Italian Apennines. I had signed on for an Italian course in Brugge, as I felt reasonably sure I would return to Italy, but not quite so soon! I wanted to speak a bit of Italian to be able to “buy my bread” as they say. Now I shall learn Italian on the spot in Italy — “Buongiorno, Pasta and Ciao”.
It is the goal of every monastic to be led by the Holy Spirit in both the large decisions and the small activities of daily life, and He is very creative. The Italian Apennines are a lovely view from the villa windows high on the mountain side. The sun peeks out over the mountain in the morning and hides itself at the end of the day. On the rainy days the mountains are wrapped in clouds or the clouds hang in the valley hiding the villages on the valley floor. Tonight a double sunset occurs, only twice a year, and is celebrated by a gathering in the Duomo (church) square at the top of the mountain. We monastics have been invited to sing a Gregorian chant or two on the centuries old steps of the Duomo. The obedience of the monastic includes ever-widening and often surprising blessings.
Winter is here at the Begijnhof. I sneak out to Lauds and cross the courtyard in the dark, cold, and sometimes windy and rainy dark of of early morn and back again at night in deep darkness. I go to the homey monastery chapel for a moment of personal prayer after breakfast, and the light slowly and just barely peeps through the stained glass windows. There is something cozy, like a warm coat snuggling around you being in the warm darkness. The outside terrace restaurant and cafe tables are all gone — stored until spring, leaving the Brugge streets strangely empty. Few to no people tourists are on the streets. I too pull inside interiorly, thinking, praying, contemplating. Where I am going and what am I doing — am I pleasing to God? I peacefully do my lace every day and watch lone birds perched in the leafless trees totally exposed to my view. No foliage for cover this time of year.
Then one day I spied it, a yellow daffodil blooming in the courtyard. Surely he or she is mistaken — it is not yet Spring! Her comrades are bursting through the ground but not yet near to blooming. I run out for a photo. In the courtyard is one patch open to the sun, and this is where this bright and breezy precursor of the host of daffodils to come was blooming.
I will be away at my home community’s Italian villa for a few months, so I especially appreciate this early bloom coming to say goodbye, and reminding me that I will return after her comrades have bloomed and passed. Thank you Daffodil for the breath and promise of spring and new life.
My community at home and my community here at the Begijnhof both have churches where the public come and hear Vespers and Lauds, the offices of the church sung and of course the Eucharist. However, both my convent at home and my convent here have small, cozy, warm chapels within the convents; each seats about 25 tops, more like 12-15 comfortably. At home, the sisters use this chapel for private prayer as do the sisters here and of course, that is where my prayer plant of earlier blogs still lives. Only when, for example, the enormous production of Pilgrims Progress is staged in my home church, do we have regular daily offices in the small convent chapel or when we are snowed in, which happens often in snowy New England. At those times, it is deemed too dangerous to walk over to the church. Now that time arrived here in Belgium! I have had to wait 3 years for this real snowfall. Whoopee! I tore outside with my camera when it was really snowing and took tons of photos if only to preserve the fact that it really did snow at the Begijnhof. Our Prioress and priest agreed kindly that we sisters should have the offices in our small cozy chapel in the convent and not venture out. Only Mass would be said at the public church. So……we sang our chants and offices in our homey chapel in the presence of the prayer plant and the small lighted candles. I loved it! Just the seven of us! Our voices, seated close together blended here somehow more than in the big church. Maybe it will snow again this year. I doubt it! If not, I have a wonderful memory.
“The Umbrella Connection” sounds like an old James Bond thriller though the following story is more of a comical “Adventures of Tin Tin in the Monastery”. (If you have not read The Adventures of Tin Tin and his dog Snowy, a Belgian comic strip, as they search out solutions to mysteries in the hotspots of the world, you have a lot of fun in store.) It rains a lot in Belgium….so there are many, and I do mean many, umbrellas in numbered racks both on the monastery side of the courtyard and also on the church side in the vestry. Very often, as you come out of daily office or Mass, it is pouring. I thought that all the umbrellas in the numbered racks on either side were for using and proceeded to use them at random to cross the puddly, rainy courtyard. Today I was corrected once again for taking the wrong umbrella. How could I have used the wrong umbrella when there are at least 20 on each side and how would I know which umbrella was the wrong one? Somehow though I had managed to do this. How did these umbrellas work I needed to know? I decided to become the sleuth, Tin Tin and get to the bottom of the Umbrella mystery in the Monastery! As with most mysteries, there is a logical trail…… each sister has a number and HER umbrella is in that number on the rack on each side. Now the plot thickens as they say. I had not only used someone else’s numbered umbrella and undoubtedly many someone else’s at different times but I had replaced these umbrellas in the wrong numbers on the racks on whichever side of the courtyard I happened to be going to. Mea Culpa Mea Culpa. I was definitely at fault here and needed to learn my lesson. Not having a number, one caring sister took pity on me and shared which number was hers and gave me permission to use her umbrella whenever it rains which will be often. Is this a homely example of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Lay down your life for your friends”?
In previous years, I had not been at the Begijnhof for the arrival of The Three Kings at the crib of the baby Jesus. The sisters were quite excited and spoke a lot about the impending arrival of the three Kings. I frankly had never spent much time thinking about the kings other than to sing the well known Christmas Carol ‘We Three Kings’. Christmas in the US is pretty much over and done with on Dec 26 as unfortunately so much of the celebration revolves around commercialism and sales and then more sales after Christmas. My home community celebrates the 12 days of Christmas and Epiphany. In some countries Epiphany or Three Kings Day is the day when gifts are exchanged. In northern Italy, the Befana arrives with treats and candies for all. In the small town where I spent Three Kings Day last year there was a procession in the streets. I enjoyed and entered into the anticipation of these Kings arriving this year in Brugge. The crèche in the church where we said the Rosary each day had been surrounded by a shepherd and sheep of whom I grew quite fond over the Christmastide days. One day I arrived and the shepherd and his sheep were gone! Presumably back to the hills…..( or maybe storage to await next Christmas’ announcement of the Angels. ) In their places were the three Kings. The Magi had indeed arrived! The Kings surrounded the crib, two on bended knee and one standing tall, each with their special gift outstretched toward the newborn babe, gold for a king, myrrh, embalming ointment for death and frankincense for priestly duties. Outside the raised stable, on the church floor, stood the camel, handsome and regal with a servant boy holding his rein. They too worshipped at the crib. I was enthralled but this year there was only one day to be enthralled; the number of days between Epiphany and the feast of John the Baptist change every year, depending on the liturgical calendar. So, the next day, they were gone. Presumably those Kings have a long journey and needed to return. I’m grateful, though that the Kings did come and discovered the young child; they will never be the same, nor will we because of Christmas.