Three HTC-ers at the Nazareth Abbey weekend, August 2017
The three of us – Danielle, Madeleine and Nicky – set off on the Friday the 18th of August. Madeleine, our trusty chauffeur, drove us to the Nazareth Abbey, Brecht in Belgium, 30 km south of Breda. This Abbey is home to now only 30 nuns, mostly elderly, both Cistercian and Trappist in origin. These days the sisters are occupied mostly with the making of robes, flags and also good quality soaps, shampoo and cleaning materials. A large building – not so old, quite rural – with a warm atmosphere came into view as we drove up the drive. We were to stay in the wing where guests are accommodated and where the meeting-room and catering area is. Altogether there were nine of us in the group coming together for Christian Meditation and Prayer, in this beautifully peaceful setting, lead by Hettie van Eijgenberg from the Utrecht Salvatore parochie and with an input also from pastor Zwijnenberg.
The history of this abbey records that it was established in Lier in the 1300’s and during
the French revolution the abbey was abandoned and then sold. Only the entrance port and a shed remain from that time. Then in the 1940’s work began to build and shape a new abbey ‘op de Brechtse Heide’. In June 1950, thirteen sisters from the abbey of Soleilmont in Charleroi settled in the new abbey in Brecht, where in 1986 the abbey received official recognition that it is the continuation of the old abbey Olv van Nazareth in Lier.
We were greeted very warmly by one of the hospitality-sisters on arrival, and shown the dining area where we would be having the meals – cooked lunch, bread in the morning and evening – and where we were to do the clearing up afterwards and shown how to set the tables for the next meal, which we did in turns. The meeting-room nearby was used for our meditation and prayer sessions and we were expected to join in at least two of the seven services in the course of the day.
Having arrived at about 15.30 we had time to come together for some meditation and prayer as a group before Vespers at 17.00 hrs. A beautiful long corridor with stain glass windows lead us to the church – the distance giving time for preparing to come before God. A vast spacious church – simply brick – and magnificently vaulted, with wooden seating for the sisters down each side of the knave. We could sit there also and better hear the crystal clear voices of these elderly nuns, with voices like young girls. There were also some readings from the Bible during the longer services – again with such clear diction, and much singing of mainly psalms. These were sung in psalm cadence with first part and second part coming from the sisters on both sides of the church in turn. We could join in softly so as not to disturb the delicate balance of rhythm. The sound still rings in my head (Nicky) – beautiful rise and fall of crystal voices.
At the front of the church is a dramatic and moving figure of Christ – huge, and hanging forward from the cross – dominating everything.
After a silent meal in harmony there followed the last service of the day – Completen at 19.00 pm. This was a short service and the end of the day for the sisters who then retire until the service of ‘nachtwake’ at 4.30 am. We could then take coffee or tea from the ‘automaat’ and chat for a while before also going quite early to bed in our simple but comfortable rooms – looking out over fields and cows, beyond the walls of the Abbey. The bell sounding a quarter before each service invited us also to join the ‘nachtwake’ at 4.30 am – a time to worship while the world was still sleeping. Madeleine and Flore and I were there for this service lasting an hour. A small rest was possible before the first morning service on the Saturday, at 7.00 am Lauden – then a quiet breakfast at 8 am.
The meditation and prayer sessions were new for me (Nicky) and another two members of the group. Some were part of Hettie’s monthly Christian meditation and prayer group. I found the silences when we meditated, with guidance, on some text, and sometimes a psalm, deeply restful and really giving a feeling of going more deeply to that inner part of us where ‘God can speak to us or we can experience a sign from Him’. And openness to receive should be the most important attitude ‘ontvankelijkheid’; accepting ourselves, and others, without judgment. We learned that placing our feet firmly on the ground while meditating helps to ‘ground’ us physically – our connection with the earth giving a feeling of safety and self-trust. We were seeking that quiet meeting place with Jesus within our hearts.
The rhythm of the day, of work, yet returning at regular times to worship – is the life of the Abbey sisters – continually and with a devotion radiating out from them.
On the Saturday evening there was the showing of a film for us about the life of the Abbey and the sisters, and how it is to become a nun, which was really interesting and giving much insight. In between services and our group sessions we could wander in the grounds, and beyond for quite a way into fields, once used for farming.
Across the open fields the sun coming up and going down were moments to hold on to and added to our sacred time in this place. What we shared in the group with each other was also very special and enabled us to feel a bond though on our separate journeys.
Our theme for lectures by pastor Zwijnenberg was the psalms, described as the pilgrimage songs of the pilgrims on their way to the promised land. In the first century of Christianity the book of Isaiah and the psalms were the most read and studied prophetic books of the Holy Scriptures.
In a little chapel off the corridor leading to the main church we were shown – and practiced – the nine prayer attitudes of St. Dominicus, by Hettie. All our sessions were supported by printed out text, which was very enlightening and includes some beautiful psalms that we meditated on. Madeleine especially admired the poetic translation of the psalms by Ida Gerhardt and Marie van der Zeyde.
The Sunday Lauden was a little later than during the week, followed by a peaceful breakfast and meditation in our group. At 11.00 there was the very joyful eucharistie celebration with some congregation from outside the Abbey, also and lead by three Roman Catholic priests, with much incense and song.
After cleaning our rooms – making them ready for the next occupants – and a warm meal, we enjoyed our last meditation and prayer together. During this session we had and an opportunity to tell what the weekend had meant to each of us.
Then final goodbyes and the return journey with much to talk about.