‘Sunset over a forest lake’ – Peder Mønsted, 1895 – Wikimedia
Birgitta was sitting by the window, considering once again the recent chain of events that led to her present day situation. Twenty years ago, she came on this small Danish island for the first time, to never leave again. Lolland! What a beautifully telling name! She loved the place immediately. It is called by some the ‘pancake island’, for it is the flattest place here in the kingdom of Denmark. Its highest point: twenty five meters! But the skies were tall and wide with majestic clouds and the land imbued with a quiet remoteness that she loved on first sight. She had often smiled and still smiles on at the incongruous nature of her new home. For she was born in the heart of the French Alps, the daughter of a mountainous landscape where peaks are soaring high above deep valleys.
Birgitta was a Catholic nun here, in a small monastery on the outskirts of the charming town of Maribo. Her actual name was Brigitte, but the sisters around her had quickly, and laughingly at first, re-baptised her Birgitta, which was the name of the fourteenth century Swedish saint and founder of their religious Order. She liked her new name for its Nordic and melodic quality. She had fit well here, in this quiet building amongst the trees, close to a little lake that she could see from her bedroom window. She came from a very religious family, and had always felt an attraction for all things spiritual. The trigger to espouse a religious life came rather abruptly, after her first dashed expectations in life. So she embarked on the preparatory journey, a few years of education in France and trips to the mother house in Rome.
A majestic seagull flew elegantly at a short distance behind the window. Birgitta felt a sense of awe and her heart bounced at the subtle presence of God that made such communion possible. She was grateful for all these years spent here. She remembered how the Sisters had invited her to take over the kitchen work. She was fond of cooking, which she had learnt from her mother. She fell in love with the kitchen of the monastery. It was small in size, with high situated little windows that diffused a soft and oblique light which gave the room beauty and an old and mysterious patina. There was a worn out wooden table standing in the centre of the room, with a gas stove against the wall and a sink just below the small windows. On the sill, in the light, were standing jars of alfalfa seeds that she had learnt to water everyday so that they germinate and grow to make a crunchy, delicious salad. Pans and utensils were hanging all around, and a little furniture with plates and bowls was standing next to the entrance.
She had learnt to cook some local delicacies like quenelles with pounded fish or marinated herring. She cooked for the nine sisters that lived here and the occasional guests. Many Sisters were not fond of meat so she had favoured fresh vegetable dishes, quiches, and the occasional fruit tart. She had learnt Danish which she was able to speak with simple words and a French accent that was, so she was told, very charming.
Once a week, Birgitta would go with the car of the community to a nearby farm and marketplace to buy vegetables. She loved this quiet time spent by herself; a time that she would sometimes prolong to contemplate the beauty of the landscape. She enjoyed the cloudy winter days, when the cover remained high enough. It gave a dramatic and uniquely beautiful atmosphere to the land, which she felt was almost god-like. There was then a leaden and invigorating, suspended expectation that she particularly enjoyed. She was happy, and felt that she had found here a life of prayer and contemplation that suited her perfectly.
The sun was now playing hide and seek with the foliage of the trees behind her window. Birgitta was of a soft and introspective nature. She loved to retreat in herself and look there for the presence of God, a practice that she had been repeating steadily and with unabated manner and spirit. She had always preferred the practice of contemplation and praises to prayers, which she found had an objective quality that was hard to be rid of, and that made her feel like she was walking away from God. She rather liked to delve deeply within herself. There she could find her home, the place that she loved above all things, and that she felt was truly the presence of Christ.
The Sisters had times settled for Office and prayers four times a day, in Latin and Danish. Birgitta enjoyed the time when they sang Psalms together. Some of these psalms she would read at night, by herself, along with some passages from Isaiah. They had a poetical flavour that soothed her and some profound meaning that she was always eager to decipher. She felt a deep unexpected joy and gratefulness when she read words that reflected and verified what she had experienced in the secrecy of her self. These were her most cherished moments in the monastery, when she could quench her desire for understanding and improve the quality of her quest for God.
Life continued in this way for years. Birgitta had her moments of deep dejection, when she couldn’t find in the habitual, routine based communal life here, this deep sense of freedom and naturalness that she was expecting. She knew that the truth of Christ could not be something constrained and fabricated. She knew how her heart was sometimes bouncing with a joy and a love that she was surprised to find so limitless. This she kept in her heart as the secret mark of truth for her inward marriage with god.
‘Sunset at a lake’ – Peder Mønsted, 1900 – Wikimedia
She looked again by the window to connect with the landscape which she inspected with a new sense of curiosity and wonder. She was not prone to much thinking in her deeply contemplative life, but the time was ripe and opened itself to consider the new turn that her life was now embarking on. It all started about a year ago when Birgitta began noticing a deep sense of peace growing while working in the kitchen. She was puzzled at first. She thought that her prayers had provoked this, but she quickly felt that these moments in the kitchen were the real praying, and that she would bring this quality into her formal times of prayer. A subtle joy was pervading her whole kitchen. It wasn’t that she was joyful herself, but rather that the joy was filling the space around her, and this place was herself. There was such subtlety at work in these quiet moments spent in the kitchen, that she often found herself in awe, with tears of love running down her cheeks.
All her work in the kitchen had become the expression of one big ‘thank you’ to God, and this gratitude made her in turn expand her being to infinite proportions. It would inform her reading and understanding of the scriptures, her relationship with others and every things. Her body would move and perform the required tasks, while her whole presence remained still and at peace, and her mind was embracing, espousing the contours of the whole kitchen and beyond. Cooking was like nourishing God’s belly, and doing the washing up like washing God’s face. Cutting vegetables was hymns and their frying in the pan songs of glory. She was part of a dance, with every sound being like a gentle, poignant music. It was as if she was the musician and God was the orchestrator, or she was the orchestrator and God was the musician. Nothing could be distinguished from anything else, and the taste of it all confined to the pinnacle of love. She had not a shadow of a doubt that this was God.
Her kitchen became the furnace, the burning core that put fire to the whole house. Her kitchen was itself like the closed closet of the heart, and her working was like the opening of the closet’s doors and the flooding of pure consciousness in all her gestures and movements. It had all become like a warm bath in which all her activities were clothed with a golden hue of love and thankfulness. And yet nothing was really happening. Life had acquired a deeply moving simplicity and humility. Her kitchen work had pushed her into a newly found relationship with her prayers, her relationships, and was now informing her being in a train to Copenhagen, and her looking at the landscape through the window.
It had been hard to break the vows that she had embraced with such certainty and passion twenty years ago. But it all came to her as the only viable thing to do, for the will and act of ‘being a nun’ was part of an old, and now ending structure. The world would now become her cherished monastery, and she would find there the light and softness that was once awakened between the four walls of her little kitchen in Maribo.
Birgitta praised the love shared all these years amongst the Sisters and the quality of friendship between them. She loved her life in the monastery, but the burning fire of her new understanding was now eager to be shared through the expanse of the wide world. She had no doubt that her choice had been the right one. She intuitively felt the beauty all around her and the expansion of this presence in her heart. The constraint she sometimes felt in the monastery had vanished, and she experienced her newly found freedom as a deep abiding presence inside her.
The train had slowed down, and the landscape was now filled with the houses and tall buildings of the city. It became suddenly apparent and real to her that she was now leaving her monastery for good, and that she was about to cross the threshold of Copenhagen station and the new life that was awaiting her beyond. She was now offering to her new quality of being the limitless boundaries of a whole world.
Birgitta’s curious mind was throbbing and joyfully being attracted to everything around, the noise of the trains, the doors slamming and the noisy crowd on the platform, the smoke of cigarettes and the litter lying on the ground. She could feel from the people the hurry, the stress, but melted with it all with a peaceful joy. She took it all in as her very own self. She now knew that she would meet all her coming challenges with this new light and understanding, and the presence of God’s being in her heart.
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by Peder Mørk Mønsted (1859-1941)
– Peder Mørk Mønsted (Wikipedia)