“There was no doubt about it. Sister Evangelina’s action had been brilliant. A masterstroke. To say that a fart cleared the air may seem a contradiction in terms, but life is full of contradictions.”
Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950’s by Jennifer Worth
Hubby: Father Zachariah, I’m taking over my father’s business next year and I wonder if you have any advice for me?
Father Zachariah: There were once three monks. One monk rose early every morning and left the cottage to work in the fields. It was back-breaking work. He only returned home as darkness fell, but he provided all the food and income for the household. The second monk was very ill and spent all day in bed, praying. The third monk remained at the cottage to care for his brother. Which one has done a full day’s work, I ask you? Why, it is obvious. The work of all three is equally pleasing to God.
The air of mystery and wonder surrounding our first visit to the Essex monastery in January 2015, with our friend Al and his theology students, has remained with Hubby and me ever since. Like the smell of jasmine in spring, it has lingered in our minds – sweet, elusive, inviting.
Last weekend we (+ a dear friend) finally returned for a weekend retreat (booking made by snail mail). Though this second visit was more earthy than mysterious, it was good to turn off my phone, smell the crisp country air and remind myself of life lessons from an Orthodox Monastery that escape me in the city.
The monastery is beautiful, renowned for giant-sized mosaics, stunning iconography, extensive apple orchards and uncompromising hospitality.
On Saturday night, as I sat in the candlelit chapel, journal in hand, listening to the Gospel reading in French, exquisite icons on roof and walls, incense prickling my nostrils and a friend by my side, I was caught up in the spell of the place. The deals that need to be won at work, the traffic of the nearly 3 hour drive from London, my neglected housework and other worries seemed unimportant.
That is … until the spell was broken by a rather different and less mysterious smell. A fart!
Undoubtedly fuelled by sauerkraut, rice and tuna (we’d eaten this for 3 meals already), the smell was distinctive. I had my suspicions among the robed women on our side of the chapel. But as my friend and I struggled to take control of our giggles, I was reminded that robed, or not robed, we are all human. A fart is a levelling thing.
So it was the simple things about life which characterised the weekend: a pink sunrise; Hubby’s fun time setting the Archimandrite’s table correctly with Sister P while practising his Romanian; redistributing tuna into new bowls while Sister A explained how carrots don’t grow well in muddy soil; pretending to be on the Olympic Washing-up team with Sister F; a sunny walk along muddy paths and green fields; red-breasted robins; getting to know a young postulant who smiled and told us she NEVER misses a meal; watching generosity and hospitality at it’s best; being reminded that you don’t have to watch TV or go online to care about and pray for a broken and hurting world.
Sadly I am not very saintly. A weekend at a monastery was enough for us. Last night, with gym bags in the boot of the car, Hubby and I made our way to the treadmill. Somewhere along the way, we took a detour and found ourselves in the bar instead, a house white and a minute steak with chips in front of us.
I enjoyed every bite. I don’t think I’ll eat tuna again. I blame the fart!
P.s. Read the full, hilarious account of Sister Evanelina’s fart on page 313 of the book.
P.p.s. The monastery is unique as it houses monks and nuns and is ecumenical, so avoids all the trappings of nationalistic orthodoxy. During our stay, we heard Romanian, French, German, Russian and Greek spoken in matins, vigils and vespers, in the dining room and in the gardens.
P.p.p.s. We did escape the monastery for a couple of hours to visit the famous Tiptree Jam Factory – SB the Tawney Marmalade is for you!
P.p.p.p.s. The meal of rice, sauerkraut with onion and tuna surfaced at all meals in different varieties. The monastery do not believe in waste it appears, as possibly had to use these supplies up before Lenten fasting. Perhaps it also mirrored the message of ‘suffering’ preceding Easter? When we left, Hubby, our friend and I drove immediately to the nearest services and bought mars bars and crisps to satisfy our cravings.
P.p.p.p.p.s. Regarding the steak and chips, though the fart must take some responsibility, I was the one who suggested it to Hubby as an alternative to the gym.