Well, mysteries seem to be abounding at the monastery this spring. Not only was a cat hiding in the monastery, but now we have another mystery! One of our chickens has laid her eggs where no one can find them. This ‘white’ chicken has been an anomaly since her arrival as a gift to the chicken sister last year. The sister’s daughter, as a very caring gift, bought and brought a white chicken for our flock. Now all the other chickens are brown, and White Chicken was not easily welcomed into the clutch. One cause for jealousy was White Chicken could fly! This created problems, as she would fly over the fence and be found delightedly foraging in the grass and garden. This caused much distress for the gardener, who was afraid of running over her with the lawnmower. He was decidedly unhappy about having to be aware of a ‘white’ chicken possibly in his path. So…solution found…we would simply clip White Chicken’s wings! This solution worked wonderfully for a while, but just like hair, feathers grow back. So, White Chicken must visit the hair salon periodically for a feather clip. Serious searches for her nest have been made, but with singular lack of success. One suggestion involved a prayer to St. Anthony, the finder and Patron Saint of lost items. A sister at my home community is gifted in this regard. Perhaps I shall have to phone home (as ET says) and request prayer concerning the whereabouts of the chicken nest and 10 eggs which presumably are still there. Today I stopped by the chicken house on a nudge from God, just in time to watch the feather trim. The chicken sisters’s grandson was visiting and he wielded the scissors as grandmother knowledgeably and securely held the chicken (this chicken sister knows her chickens!) The white wing feathers fell to the ground and White Chicken is actually and quite literally grounded for a while so we will have her eggs to eat!
About 5 days have passed and the sisters’ interest in ‘cat catching’ has decreased. The cat catching cage has been dismantled and put away and most of us have forgotten about ‘the cat’ assuming somehow ‘the cat’ had escaped outside when none of us were looking. There had been no ‘cat’ sightings for at least 4-5 days. Not so……. Kitty was still inside!!! Today, was the annual tea for the residents of homes within the Begijnhof walls and the sisters. It is a lovely affair with sandwiches, tea, dessert and pleasant conversation with ladies whom we see always at a distance crossing the courtyard or in a service but not to chat. So…. a good time was had by all. The flower sister offered a tour of the monastery, always a treat for those not living within monastery walls that we sisters simply call home. Cloisters, pools and prayer chapels hold a certain allure and curiosity when you are not a nun! ‘What do we do all day anyway in the monastery?’ On this tour, the chapter room was opened. Every monastery has a room known as a chapter room where important decisions and prayer are taken; it is also used for teaching times and retreats. Normally sisters would only be in this room one time a week and this week, the normal conference had been cancelled. Lo and behold when the door was opened……..there was KITTY in the Chapter room!! Who knows exactly how long kitty had been there, no food, no toilet facilities and chances of a sister hearing a meow were very slim. Perhaps kitty prayed. The flower sister who was giving the tour swiftly closed all doors in the corridor outside the chapter room and left open only the exit to the garden. Then the chapter room door was opened and zoom kitty flew out the garden door and into the freedom of the orchard and garden. It will be a long time before kitty’s curiosity brings her back inside the monastery walls or she may need more of her 9 lives! Mystery Solved!
One cat has found refuge within the convent walls — or perhaps she just got closed in and does not know how to escape to the pleasant open-air of the monastery orchard and garden. Normally, three semi-wild cats make the convent garden their home; they can be seen from the kitchen door waiting for part of the kitchen meals, or prowling the large orchard, the overgrown raspberry bushes, hiding along the canal, or basking in the sun on the high walls. Perched, they are safe and can peruse the comings and goings of animals, guests, and sisters alike. But…make no mistake, these cats are skittish and wary; they disappear and keep their distance at the slightest human approach.
NOW….one cat is IN the convent and apparently has been here for a week! Perhaps she has chosen her own cell. Kitty was first sighted by the Prioress. (That does seem appropriate for a prospective novice cat.) The Prioress began to doubt her sanity, until sightings were confirmed by other sisters, the handyman, and one of our personnel. The cat is definitely inside! What must she be eating, where is she hiding? Telltale droppings have been spotted. Surely kitty is here but where? She is mysteriously invisible during the day. Sightings mostly occur at night on bathroom treks. Truly, doors are closed in the convent, and no one is sure where kitty can be. The searches have been intensive, but with notable lack of success. So…a cage has been devised at the end of the sisters’ corridor on the second floor, with meat inside which presumably will lure kitty in, and then the door will close and she will be inside — awaiting carriage to parts unknown. But so far, kitty has eaten the meat and managed to exit the cage unscathed!! Two of the semi-wild cats are pictured here. No sign of the ‘mystery kitty’. To be continued…
My days in Italy are over and spring came at last to the mountaintop. I thought it never would. On the last few warm days of my Italian adventure, I drank my early morning cappuccino perched on the wall, reveling in the array of tiny spring flowers in the pots ready to burst into fullness and a rush of bloom. There is a “flower sister” in every monastery, and the villa is no different; she is now busy filling, pruning and watering as the flowers wend their way toward summer. I gaze at the morning strollers far below on the street and the Italian drivers who take the curve and make their way into town. Leaving is so bitter sweet. I am returned now to Brugge and here too is new life. A trip to chant office brought me face to face with the Begijnhof flower sister putting the first cuttings of lilacs, tiny tightly closed blooms into a bucket of warm water. Here they await their turn to be arranged and grace the altar.
On a trip to the kitchen, the kitchen sister grabbed my arm and rushed me out the back door to the storage area, past the mops, the pots, and the recycling to a secluded corner in the old stone walkway. There among the fronds and leaves, nested a Mama duck! She had trustfully chosen the peace of the kitchen cloister for raising her brood. “Ten eggs!” says the kitchen sister proudly. I am not quite so sure how she knows, but I did see Mama duck in the courtyard yesterday foraging for her own meal. Perhaps kitchen sister counted the eggs when Mama was off feeding. Mama is tucked in and protected from the garden cats who regularly appear at the kitchen door for handouts. All God’s creation finds refuge in His house.
Take time to look up for whatever you are seeking…
Last weekend found me in Ravenna Italy, the city of spectacular and ancient mosaics, and a city I had never visited. Turns out, only in the last 30 years has Ravenna re-discovered the treasure of its mosaics with the concomitant tourism industry. Although not Florence or Venice, it is well worth spending two or three days in this ancient jewel by the sea.
I visited San Apollinare in Classe, one of about 10 churches and baptisteries with ancient 5th and 6th century mosaics. It is truly stunning to think these mosaics have watched over Christians, young and old, nobility and peasantry praying since that time. Baptisteries were prominent and separate from the churches themselves. There pagans professed their belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Son of God, and became followers of Jesus Christ…all of this before the major schism of the church between East and West in 1094.
I went to Sunday mass at San Apollinare in Classe, built by the Bishop of Ravenna for workingmen on the boats on the sea. Now the church stands 9 kilometers from the seacoast! My home monastery in Brugge is also now 5 kilometers from the sea, where once the town was on the coast. The forces of nature do their work!
The mosaics at San Apollinare consist of many sheep streaming toward the heavenly city—our destination after this earthly life. The curious part is that I had to physically crane my neck and look up in every church or baptistry. You have to look up to see the beauty! I mused during the weekend with a friend searching for a belief that everyone is looking for something higher/ bigger than themselves. “Why are we here on earth? How did we get here? What is our purpose? How does the universe go on forever?” Scientists do not have all the answers and most who are really searching conclude there must be a higher power. A God? In Ravenna, everyone is looking up and they see either Jesus in Glory, disciples, Kings, Queens, Emperors worshiping. It is a testimony worth taking into account. Take time to look up for whatever you are seeking.
Our daily chant offices are sung in the Oratorio on the Villa grounds in Italy. Our Italian Oratorio will be proudly displayed on a representational box in a procession for the Madonna of Pisa icon visiting Barga for the 900 year anniversary celebration of the Pisa cathedral. Each church of the local Barga area will be carrying a Mary banner and a ‘box’! Each box will have particular drawings. On the two lateral sides, will be a representation of the particular church in the area, in our case the Oratorio, and then on the opposite lateral side a representation of the Mary/Madonna icon or banner in that particular church. The church banners are carried by strong young or older men; the ‘boxes’ are carried in the procession by children or in our case a monk, a lovely image, the monk and the children. A stirring vision of devotion, the monk and children, as each ‘box’ is placed on the high altar at the foot of the Madonna. One day God might use this image to spark a calling in one of the children’s hearts. On the ends of the boxes are a few sentences in Italian about the history of the church where each group of faithful prays and worships. In Villa Via Sacra’s case, the Oratorio has an amusing history; our Oratorio now consecrated, properly blessed and worshipful previously housed a pizza oven!
The Oratorio is similar to the warm monastery chapel at the Begijnhof in Belgium, my usual home in Europe. Here in Italy, the Oratorio has enough space for about 15 maybe 20 monastics and visitors and two ‘monastic’ dogs. Both my Begijnhof chapel and the Oratorio have wonderful paintings, icons and banners of Mary, the mother of God and Jesus as infant or Prince of Peace. The similarity continues with an array of books stored on shelves or in drawers for singing the chant whatever the season. The altar candles are lit and flicker brightly and shine steadily in both chapels for every chant service. We monastics begin our chant services daily, hoping to echo the steadiness of the candles and the love of Christ. The warmth and peace of the chapels and the processional banners or paintings on the walls surround and enwrap us.
The clouds of Italy have certainly enveloped our little mountain town of Barga. Cabin fever has been a constant long lingering illness for those of us on this usually beautiful Apennine mountain top. Many games and hot chocolates have been the order of the day. I myself have headed for Siena and Ravenna on days of business – a break in the clouds as they say. The small milk train I board has one track at the tiny mountain station. The train goes up to the terminus town, one or two stops beyond and turns around and rattles again down the mountain. More tracks open up in Lucca, Pisa and then a change of trains in Empoli or Prado and on to Siena or Ravenna but generally this is not New York or Boston. There is a casual laid back sympathetic, congenial unhurried atmosphere at the stations and during boarding….no bullet trains of Japanese fame or American frenzy and hurry. I thoroughly enjoyed the sun in the valleys and the budding cherry tress, the promise of spring to the beautiful Tuscan countryside — world famous these days. I arrived in Siena —the home of Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the church and confessor of Popes and also home to a beautiful Cathedral. The Michelangelo ‘Madonna and Child’ of Brugge (more famous recently through the movie, ‘The Monuments Men’), was originally intended for the cathedral in Siena. A wealthy Brugge merchant while trading in Italy, persuaded Michelangelo to sell him the statue, thus making this ‘Madonna and Child’, the only work of Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. I murmured a prayer of contrition in the Siena Madonna chapel; “I was sorry but we/ Brugge now had the lovely ‘Madonna and Child” by Michelangelo. Millions visit Brugge every year to visit her at the Church of Our Lady. Ravenna is famous for its mosaics, at least 6 churches or baptisteries with brilliantly colored mosaic apses or domes. Ravenna has history since the days of the Etruscans, and Dante of “The Divine Comedy” fame is buried here and of course there is the accompanying museum. As I wander in and out of churches, I watched a young Italian girl marvel at the sloped marble steps worn from the millions of faithful who have entered. As long as visitors and faithful alike enter the churches curious or devout, there is hope for the world.