This contribution is from Madeleine de Boer at Holy Trinity. She is preparing to share with us in our Bible Studies in Utrecht this coming Lent some of the insights on Lectio Divina from a retreat she attended led by Hettie van Hessen-Eijbergen.
The year 2015 has been wonderful for Christian meditation! Our little group got together regularly for meditation sessions, organised by Hettie van Hessen-Eijbergen, at her home (which I wrote about before in the 2015 January HTC Newsletter). Usually there were about eight of us present. New people joined the group throughout the year and a few dropped out for various personal reasons.
Although a more or less fixed pattern is followed during each session, the evenings were always very different and full of surprises. The results (or inspiration rather), for instance, that Lectio Divina produced, were often amazing! Lectio Divina is ‘Godly’ or close bible reading. This happens in a contemplative manner, where one reads the text very slowly until one is touched by a word and remains with this word. New insights and experiences could be shared and discussed.
Frank and Priscilla came with me in the car to Brecht. It was a sunny, a glorious day. After an easy drive over the motorway of just over an hour from Utrecht, we came to the small village of Brecht. And just outside the village, there it was: the large very new looking brick-stone Nazareth Abbey behind a high wall, surrounded by gardens, some woodland and fields.
The Abbey was originally situated in Lier, Belgium, but was sold during the French revolution (1797) and left to decay. After the Second World War a plan was made to build a new Nazareth Abbey in Brecht, to replace the old one in Lier. In 1946 the Trappist monks of Westmalle began the building work and in January 1950 thirteen Sisters from the Abbey of Soleilmont were sent to the foundation of Brecht. In June 1986 the Abbey in Brecht was officially recognised as ‘the new Nazareth Abbey’.
At the time we arrived there were 27 nuns and one novice living at the Abbey. The Sisters live in silence and only speak when it can’t be avoided. Sister Theresa – the hospitality Sister, who is allowed to speak with guests – welcomed us and showed us around the Abbey. She told us that their daily lives evolve around three ‘pillars’, meaning prayer, reading the Word of God and work: “We spend a large part of our day in prayer: communal prayer (liturgical offices) and personal prayer (silent meditation)”. According to Saint Benedict, prayer, the Work of God, is of the greatest importance: ‘Nothing is to be put above the Work of God’ (Rule of Saint Benedict 43,3).
The liturgical Office (communal prayer) is celebrated seven times a day, in union with the whole Church and holding the whole of humanity with all its joys and sorrows, within the embrace of God’s love. These offices begin before dawn and continue throughout each day until the last office just before retiring. There is Vigils at 4.30 am, Lauds (with Eucharist on weekdays) at 7 am (Sundays 7.30 am), Tierce at 9.30 am (with Eucharist on Sundays at 11.00 am), Sext at 12.15 am, None at 14.15 pm, Vespers at 17.15 pm (Sundays at 16.00 pm) and lastly Compline at 19.30 pm. The Eucharist, source of all Christian life, is central in the communal celebration of liturgy. Through personal, silent prayer the sisters seek to live in union with God.
To nourish their connection with God the Sisters provide time each day for reading (the second pillar); tradition here speaks of Lectio Divina. Literature of spiritual authors can also be a beginning and invitation to prayer.
The third pillar of their monastic life, as mentioned, is labour. ‘When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks’ (Rule of Saint Benedict 48,8). Tradition favours manual labour, because this frees the spirit; handwork is positive for personal development and encourages reciprocal service. “Due to the daily work, we are able to earn our own living”, Sister Theresa concluded. The Sisters make candles, liturgical vestments, soap products (Trapp), flags, streamers and banners. Monastic work is important, but nevertheless subordinate: each time the bells ring, the work stops and the sisters go to the liturgical office.
We were invited to join in at least two services per day and could join in all, except the None service at 14.15 pm. Most of our group went to more than two services a day. Priscilla and I even decided to go to all services allowed, getting up at 4 am to be in time for Vigils
After Lauds there was breakfast – breakfast and dinner were in silence – and then the rest of the morning we spent alternating between church services in the big church – with the sisters – and Christian meditation sessions with Hettie in the guest meeting room. We studied and discussed bible passages and texts, for instance on prayer, listening, compassion and the temple of God (our physical body and the church). And during one meeting – after walking in process-sion to the small guest chapel – Hettie taught us the nine prayer gestures by Saint Dominicus.
In the afternoons there was some time off, in which we could go for a stroll or stay in.
In the late afternoon there was another group meditation session and in the evening we got together for a drink and fellowship.
The Brecht Abbey weekend an exhilarating experience for all of us. One of the magic moments for me was when the singing of the psalms – during the church services – turned into a deep silent rhythmic prayer!