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.
The New Year was a beautiful time here at the Begijnhof. New Year’s Eve brought a special adoration service in the church shared with a number of guests. Beautiful lilies and white roses adorned the altar, a reminder that in the new year, God makes all things new, with the purity and innocence of a beginning. Thank goodness that mercies are new each returning day and the turning of the year makes me think seriously again about a new beginning in my interior life. The last Mary song is sung and then there is a quiet walk across the courtyard to sleep in peace and stillness. Here at the Beginhof there is no watching the ball drop in Times Square. That is for another time, another life, and has little meaning for monastics in the convent.
New Year’s Day held a beautiful and hopeful Eucharist and a homily about Joseph of whom I dare say no one takes too much notice. Here are three important points borrowed from the homily which I actually understood in Dutch. One – the silence of Joseph- he never speaks in the Bible. Two – the actions of Joseph – although there is no word of response, he does what he is told. For example, he wanders wherever the angel tells him to go, Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Three – the righteousness of Joseph – his life is one of hiddenness, living out his quiet call to raise Jesus. These meditations are good guides and certainly worthy of contemplation for the coming year. Silence before God, wandering to His will and living righteously in quietness and silence. I could well start with these meditations for the coming year.!
Many years ago, when I began again to live alone, a mournful feeling came with my new circumstances that first Christmas…no special person to give me Christmas gifts! That Christmas in faraway Canada, there were a few gifts I wished for, a pair of gloves, a pocket book and one other thing which has since been lost to memory. Along with Christmas crowds, I sauntered the beautifully Christmas decorated mall in Ottawa to shop for others. As I strolled, passing the lighted and decorated store windows, I spied the sort of gloves I wanted, just my style, then just the color pocketbook I would like and whatever the third thing was, also suddenly appeared in a shop window. Finally, the light broke through, God was giving me my Christmas presents; He had not forgotten me and He knew what most appealed to me, my colors and my style! All I needed to do was to buy the presents. I suppose I could have wrapped the gifts and put them under the small table tree I had that year, but I didn’t; it was enough to know God had not forgotten me.
This year, in far off Belgium, is no different. Although I am a sister now, and not shopping in decorated malls for anyone, God has still not forgotten me. I received a beautiful video of the couple I cared for in America with the lady singing ‘I wish you a Merry Christmas’ and her husband’s voice there also, wishing me a blessed New Year. l was touched by the caregiver’s kindness in sending this to me. A friend in America is determined, although she has little money, to always remember me at Christmas with a charming wee gift. We were able to Skype a wonderful surprise Christmas chat when we were both online at the same moment – by accident? I was searching for a comic book and a children’s book about a Christmas story in Flanders. I found the children’s book in the library and the comic book in a store around the corner. These surprises qualify, for me at least, as small miracles and Christmas gifts. But….. perhaps the greatest Christmas gift of all is the Joy, Happiness and Peace in my Heart. Merry Christmas!
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!!!” The words pierce the air in a classroom, a convent, or an office. Those of us who grew up in snowy regions of America know that ‘The first snowfall ‘ is the best, and a trumpet call to all who will listen. It is always a wonderful surprise when the steady stream of white flakes fall to the earth for the first time each winter, sticking on the grass and bit by bit covering all with a snowy soft blanket. My mother had a picture window put in in our smallish home where I grew up. She adored it and I never tired of looking at the snow out the window and the birds pecking at the feeder. I am sure I was the quintessential 7 year old with her nose pressed against the window pane. So it was here in Brugge. I have waited three years for it to really snow. I had seen the postcards but the sprinklings for the last two years can hardly be described as snow although I have photos to prove that there was at least a dusting BUT this year IT SNOWED!! Three inches came down. The snow, in fact, ground Brugge to a halt; stores closed, buses stopped, traffic snarled. In New England, in America it takes more like three feet to bring the cities to a halt not three inches. However, in a spirit of diplomacy, I did not mention this fact. I rushed to my window, threw open the shutters and snapped photos of the courtyard with the snow coming down. Then I raced downstairs and out to the courtyard and snapped more photos.
I feared the white stuff would instantly disappear, which in fact was quite possible, but it lasted for 2 days. How wonderful!! God had again answered my prayers and gave me snow.