Home again to my Belgian Brugge home at the Begijnhof. Upon my return, the Christmas cactus welcomed me; it is just coming into bloom. The rest of the year, the cactus waits in silent readiness for its most important event of the year, its time to shine – Advent and Christmas. The beautiful fuchsia colored flowers in gay profusion cover the points of the leaves. The plant acts dead the remainder of the year! At Christmas the cactus shines.
When I was very little, my grandmother had one room in our home. In this room, was a sunny window where lived a number of Christmas cacti which she had insisted on moving from her home in faraway Baltimore. The plants were in 2 to 3 foot tall baskets sitting and basking in the light from the sunny window. At four or five years old, I wandered in and out of her room and mused at the plants which were just my height. I wondered why Gramma kept these half dead plants all year and then I saw why at Christmas. The cacti were beautifully a blossom. It was Christmas. “How did they know that?” I wondered in my innocence.
Advent has come again to the Begijnhof and the beautiful Virgin Mary has returned to her center place in the recreation room to read her bible and await the birth of her son and her place in the history of mankind. We sisters come to the recreation room to celebrate the beginning of Advent and the Immaculate Conception Dec 8 to follow her example and wait with her for the coming of Our Savior. Once again.
The faithful are the faithful no matter the country, no matter the weather. The weather in the Italian Apennines was lovely for my first two days at my home convent’s Italian villa. I was compiling a lace exhibit. I drank in the blue skies and fluffy clouds high above the mountain peaks outside the villa. Then came the the rains! Dec 8 was the Celebrazione Della Concezione Immacolata, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception.
The night before, Dec 7 is the rosary walk but 8:30p.m. saw pouring rain running down the slippery cobblestone streets of the old city. One brother and myself braved the downpour dressed in rain slickers and sporting large umbrellas. The Vespers service in the church at the bottom of the old city was lovely, warm and bright with a prominently displayed icon of the Virgin Mary surrounded with white celebratory candles and dozens of white roses. After the festive service, the faithful mounted the slippery streets to the Duomo atop the hill of the old city. All picked their way over the cobblestones furrowed by troughs of running rain water. A mass of umbrellas, lighted by the hand held candles, repeated the rosary, climbing the hill following the Mary icon at the front of the procession held high by the local priest. The faithful are not deterred by the weather; all arrived breathless and full of praise, grateful, warm and blessed at the Duomo. Rain or Shine.
Chocolate chip cookies are quintessentially American. Every country’s American embassy handbook lists where chocolate chips can be obtained whether in Managua, Cairo or Taipei. Often, perhaps more than often, this is difficult; every American expat wants to find chocolate chips and make chocolate chip cookies. In Taiwan, it was a garage door on a certain street that was open only once a week. The chocolate chips were in a three foot tall sack, like grains or flour in an organic food store in the US, but…. there they were …..the desired item…chocolate chips! I baked the scrumptious cookies, six at a time, in a Chinese/American microwave but there they were…. the delicious mouthwatering cookies. The cookies were gobbled and relished in front of an American movie on TV…..a taste of home many thousands of miles away. Chocolate chips are sometimes shipped overseas in suitcases – an item with the value of gold – the taste of home in a foreign country.
At the small Italian villa of my home convent, there are of course chocolate chip cookies. I am told they are a great hit with the local populace and hence are the American offering at local parish and community events/even before any Italian was spoken.The cookies also serve as thank you gifts for locals eg. electricians and postmen who have been especially helpful. Chocolate chip cookies even make what otherwise might be slippery international introductions a welcome format. The cookies open doors….not the least of which has been a local family owned vineyard and winery and a factory of one of a kind Crèche figures. Buon Appetito e Bueno Natale.
The painting over the altar at the Begijnhof church struck me again as I returned from my home stay at my convent in America. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for whom the Begijnhof is named, is kneeling and giving herself unreservedly before the cross of Jesus, her arms outstretched in openness. Christ on the cross has arms outstretched in Givenness for us sinners, his ultimate purpose on earth. We begin this walk through Advent to the birth of the baby in the manger and struggle to be given to God first and then to our neighbor—the crux of our Christian life.
After the initial decision to become a monastic, the first step is to give away all earthly possessions, material goods, money, etc. Becoming a sister late in life, I did have ‘things’ to give away, and then on Profession day all I had left to give was my heart. The wonderful Christmas song ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ celebrates this Givenness…. “What shall I give him? Give him my heart.” My heart seems to be enough and sometimes the most difficult gift to give. Around the Monastery, if you are looking (sometimes I am) there are paintings, symbols to remind you of being given. This Advent and New Year has a new word: ‘zorgzaamheid’, taking care of others, Givenness. The painting above the altar of Sts Elizabeth, the Sr. Marie Margaret Alacoque painting in the convent chapel with arms outstretched to receive the stigmata, the pictures of Mary of the Vineyard holding a cluster of fruitful grapes, the plaques on the wall of sisters who have tread this way before me, given in life to God and now in their heavenly reward, all remind me of Givenness to God. Would that Givenness be renewed for me this Advent.
On my home leaves from my Begijnhof Brugge home to my American convent home, I always bring a bit of Belgium with me, like unsurpassed Belgium chocolates — which I said the first year, the gift was not the chocolate but the carrying of them. Chocolates weigh a lot for 60 sisters!!! One year it was Speculos, the tasty and typical Belgium cookies found in convenience stores and specialty shops each with their own unique and varying recipes. Last year, I made pannekoken and this year it was a dinner of Flemish beef stew and Rijstaarten, ( a kind of rice pie) for dessert. Flemish stew is made with Belgian beer. When in Belgium and making stew, the choice of at least a 100 varieties of beer are available. When in America, the choice is two Belgian beers. The other 98 are simply unavailable — the result of tariffs to keep the American beers afloat. Each country has to keep their own populace employed. A wonderful blog entitled ‘Everybody eats well in Flanders’ has superb recipes which I eagerly copied for Flemish stew and rijstaart. I practiced the rijstaart on my Begijnhof sisters before I left and repeated it in America for my American sisters. My home sisters were delighted with beef and beer and homemade dessert! How could I go wrong?
The Bejignhof’s formal name is “The Monastery of the Vineyard.” Photos and statues of Mary with a cluster of grapes abound on the monastery walls. A few weeks ago, the scripture was of the vineyard owner sending representatives and then his son to check on the fruitfulness of the vineyard and the wicked servants disposing of all of them. A sober reminder that we must faithfully tend our vineyard for the ultimate judgment of God the Father. The Feast Day of Mary of the Vineyard comes in the fall, harvest time, and we sisters celebrate the vineyard with grapes everywhere. We eat a lot of grapes too! The vestry is open during the day and the public can go in and view the very old and precious Mary statue, carved from one trunk of a tree, and on this feast day surrounded and beautified by flowers, vines, and grapes arranged by our flower sister. Chairs are set out for prayers and our daily rosary is done in front of Mary of the Vineyard on this day. Several now familiar Dutch hymns focus on the vineyard: “I am the vine and my father the vine gardener.” The Begijnhof does not grow grapes but my home community does so I know something about grapes and vine care and pruning. Begijnhof orchard trees still give much fruit: apples, pears, cherries, black raspberries, and even chestnuts despite the age of the trees. The vineyards at my home convent are now put to bed for the winter. My American sisters just visited a kindly orchard owner where we picked 500 pounds of apples—much applesauce and many pies to come! We sisters have a lot in common with the vineyards and orchard trees and let’s hope we are as fruitful.
My birthday at the Begijnhof entitled me to the white birthday candle at my place for the day. The candle is decorated with a cross and a heart at the center and a vine overtop of the cross laden with great, full, ripe clusters of fruit. I am reminded that I am to become fruitful!
“Sow fields, plant vineyard and gather a fruitful harvest.” Ps. 107
“I am the vine, you are the branches, he who abides in me bears much fruit.” John 15:5
Swans…. I thought I had left my beautiful swans behind floating serenely on the canals of my Brugge home. I often peek out the Begijnhof doors to watch the Swans…sleeping, their heads tucked under their wings or gracefully swimming avoiding the tourist boats. They preen, nibble, and forage on the grass outside the Begijnhof walls. But no…. American swans, their cousins, must have known I was coming and would miss my lovely white birds. Swans are lovelier in looks than in temperament but no matter. I take care of an older woman whose home is on one of the Cape Cod’s many fresh water kettle ponds lying between the coastlines of the Atlantic ocean and the Cape Cod Bay. The home has a spectacular view and a pair of swans make their home on the scrub pine covered shoreline somewhat protected by the dense tree cover along the shore of the pond. The lady loves to watch the swans and every year there remain two swans, whether the babies stay and Mom and Dad move away or vice versa, but the population is stable at two. This lady has a grandchild who thought playing with the swans was an amusement until one day the swans had had enough and chased the boy up the dirt path in determined search of protection from his mother. The glimpse of the American swans on the sun-sparkled water comforted my Brugge memories.