Easter at St. Bernard’s

Here’s a story I wrote many years ago, when I had aspirations to be a different sort of writer than the one I became. The memory of it popped into my head on Saturday as I was raking hay in the garden, and later I found the typed manuscript pasted into a journal from 1993. Ann Peyton, my teacher, thought it was ok back then, and I read it on Holy Saturday night these 26 years later and thought, well, a little polishing up and it might be even better. Here it is. Happy Easter. –– John

On the morning of Easter Sunday, there is an egg hunt on the grounds of St. Bernard’s. It is an annual event, always directly after the 9 AM mass: screaming children scurrying, adults on the sidelines, Father Fred directing and guiding, his black vestments down to his black shoes, floating about the green grass.

This year, before mass is over, and after the Egg Hunt Committee of the St. Bernard’s Women’s Club has all the eggs hidden––some in easy plain-as-day flat-out-middle-of-the-lawn spots, others in more difficult spots (like the purple one hidden inside the bottom of a rain gutter)––well, somewhere in the midst of this a raccoon comes on the scene, steals a yellow egg from the exposed roots of a large banyan tree, shimmies beneath the shrubbery and devours his prize. This is true. I saw it happen.

He wore a blue jacket. Large brass buttons. Nothing else, of course. Maybe it’s the tail situation––I couldn’t tell you, really––but animals never wear trousers. Not in stories like this, anyway.

So this raccoon eats this stolen yellow egg, taking great care not to spoil his blue jacket, and he is amazed to see, out of the corner of his eye, another egg, a bluish-green color, right there beside him under the shrubbery.

“No way!” he says, and he swaggers up to it and devours this one, as well. He belches once or twice and rolls onto his back in that delightful sated feeling that comes after a good meal. He is contemplating sleep, rolling to his side. There is another yellow egg ahead of him on the grass. His eyes widen. He jumps to his feet, runs and grabs the yellow egg, thinks, “I will save this for later,” then scurries toward the wood past the sanctuary of Mary, Mother of God.

There is a red egg at her feet and this raccoon, he cannot believe his incredible good fortune. He drops the yellow egg, takes the red one instead, and runs for the wood. His belly aches a little but he runs anyway with his red egg and blue jacket with brass buttons. He jumps into a rotted old tree. Home.

“You guys! You will not believe this. Look!” He shows the other raccoons in the rotted old tree the red egg. “It’s like, raining eggs out there. They’re everywhere! Hundreds, maybe thousands! Eggs just… everywhere! Yellow ones blue ones red ones, green ones, too! And they are…” (he sucks in some air) “…everywhere.”

Naturally, this news gets all the other raccoons pretty worked up and soon there’s a clamor going through the rotted old tree and through the whole neighborhood: raccoons jumping out of morning naps, scurrying into jackets and overcoats and running outside to see this great event: colored eggs falling from the sky. They process through the wood and toward the grounds of St. Bernard’s.

Now, at about the time that the raccoon in the blue jacket with brass buttons had picked up the red egg at the foot of Mary, Mother of God, Father Fred was blessing the congregation and saying, “The mass is over. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And the congregation said, “Thanks be to God,” and the organist began a triumphant tune and the children were suddenly reborn and they jumped up and grabbed their baskets and took moms and dads by the hands and ran to the church lawn. And Father Fred took his place at the center of the lawn with his black shoes sunken in the green grass and his black vestments floating above them. He yelled GO! and the screaming children blasted out from all sides. They dove and slid and colored eggs were scooped up right and left up and down here and there and the whole thing was over in seconds. The colored eggs at the grounds of St. Bernard’s were gone in three blinks of an eye. Father Fred gave jelly beans to the children and the ones he liked got pats on the head, as well. Then the congregation rushed off, saying “Happy Easter,” “Goodbye,” “Dinner’s at 4,” and Father Fred went back to the church to prepare for the mass at noon.

The grounds of St. Bernard’s were deserted when the entourage of jacketed raccoons arrived to delve into the multitude of colored eggs that been sent from on high. They burst from the wood smacking their lips and sniffing the air and dusting the sleeves of their jackets. They looked around, expecting piles of blue eggs, yellow eggs, red eggs and green ones, too. But there were none.

The raccoon in the blue jacket with the brass buttons was in a panic. “I… I don’t understand. I ate two eggs, I did. I found them here, in the grass. I even left one––a yellow one––here, by the pretty stone lady.”

The other raccoons grumbled amongst themselves. They were rather upset and raccoons don’t hesitate to show their displeasure, you know. They were grumbling and turning away, hissing at the poor little fellow and making obscene gestures as they passed. And the raccoon with the blue jacket and brass buttons was left alone at the foot of Mary, Mother of God, sobbing and quite shaken. He was very embarrassed. I know. I saw the whole thing. I would have been embarrassed, too.

But don’t feel bad. Raccoons are resilient creatures. As it turns out, he’s found the purple egg that was hidden at the bottom of the rain gutter. I never would have thought to look there and apparently none of those children thought of it, either. But the raccoon with the blue jacket and brass buttons has found it. He devours it, taking care not to spoil his jacket. Then he scurries off, into the wood.

 

Image: Even bunnies wear blue jackets with brass buttons. This is one of the handmade paper eggs from Germany that we sell at the Convivio Book of Days Catalog. Happy Easter!

 

Ocean Breeze, Palm Trees, Distant Moon

And so we are in the midst of Holy Week. It came with a shock this year, as we watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame burn in Paris, a loss for which it is for many of us impossible to find words. Holy Week is a time I hold dear, even though I don’t think of myself as a particularly religious person. I write about all these holidays, these holy days, and they hold vast spaces in my heart, and I listen to an awful lot of sacred music and I sing hymns as I go up and down staircases, just because I like them, and I feel sick about Notre Dame, but more for its beauty and history than anything else. My connexion to things religious is mostly, for better or for worse, human. I say a silent grace before meals, when I think of it, but more often than not there is already a forkful of dinner in my mouth when I am beginning to say it. And I pray, mostly when I’m driving to work each morning; at some point a few years ago I decided I could make better use of my time during my daily commute if I switched to prayer instead of all the cursing and swearing that had, up until that point, been more typical of my drive.

These things are in my DNA. As a grandson of early 20th century Italian immigrants, I grew up with St. Anthony in the backyard. In the house, there were all manner of saints and blessed virgins under glass domes on bedroom bureaus and crucifixes hanging on the walls and prayer cards with saintly images leaning on picture frames. St. Joseph, St. Rocco, St. Anthony again, the Infant of Prague, Santa Maria della Vittoria––the Black Madonna of Lucera. The year after my grandpa died, which was just after I graduated high school, there was, during Lent, forty days and nights of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at our neighborhood church, St. Paul’s. I wanted to keep Grandma engaged. I had no idea what Adoration was, but Grandma expressed an interest, and so I brought her the first night when Lent began. And I brought her the second night. By and by, I brought her each night that week, and each night after. I don’t think we missed once, all through those forty nights. We would sit there, she and I, in the dark candle-lit chapel. Grandma would mumble her prayers in Italian, we would chat quietly, we would sing and pray when the priest came in to sing and pray with those of us who were gathered. We made friends: Father Brice, the pastor, Father Alonso, who was from Spain and who spoke so slowly that Grandma had no trouble understanding his English, Pat McAuliffe, the woman who made sure everything in the church was in order, and who often was out of her shoes anytime you entered the sacristy unannounced. Grandma and I would go late in the evening, maybe 9:30 or 10, and stay past 11, every night for forty nights. It was one of those things I never would have imagined myself doing, but I did it for someone outside my self, I did it for Grandma, and it turned out to be one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced. Which is often the case when you step outside your self and do things for others.

It was probably those forty nights that fostered my love of churches at night. And so it is that I have come to love another of Grandma’s traditions: the visitation of three churches at night for this same overnight watch on Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday. And still, all these years later, you will find Seth and me doing this on Holy Thursday this week, as we do each year. When we go and sit there in the still and candlelit darkness, I do pray a little, but mostly I just sit. I am right up against Seth, usually, but I also have Grandma nearby, and all the people who have come and gone in my life. We are all quiet, taking in the creaks of the building and the sounds of passers-by outside the doors and the flickering of the candles. This year, I suppose, I’ll have Notre Dame with me, as well. The heart expands, and expands.

Friday is Good Friday. I have never, in all my life, been to church for a Good Friday service. Each year I think maybe this year I’ll go. And maybe this year I will go. I have taken the day off from work, so that’s a good start toward the possibility. Friday night will, as well, begin Passover. It is a high holy week across faiths this year. Saturday brings Holy Saturday, the Easter vigil. Some years, if we have it in us, we endure the Vigil Mass, which can go on for many hours. It can begin only once darkness falls, so it is a late night. One year I really wanted to go but couldn’t for one obligation or another, so I went to the Creole service that began at 11. I was the only person there at St. Ann’s who was not Haitian. I was warmly welcomed, but my French is rusty and my Creole not much better and though I could understand only very little, still I could follow along. This, through years of experience. We sang in Creole, people shook my hand and offered me the sign of peace in Creole, and when we stepped out into the night onto the city street, it was well past 1 in the morning. I felt light and at peace. Again, one of the most special things I’ve experienced.

And maybe this is what I love about Holy Week. No matter how far I’ve strayed, I always feel welcome in the churches I visit on my journey this week, especially on Holy Thursday, that somber yet beautiful night through which many of them will keep their doors open clear through to the next morning, for we are invited: to keep watch, and to be present. The distant moon, our constant companion. Along with it, the ocean breeze, the silhouettes of palms. It is the most beautiful time of year here in Lake Worth. Open, welcoming, warm. As Lent concludes and we ponder the mysteries of this week and as we approach Easter… this warm, welcome openness I wish for you, as well.

 

Image: When I am visiting churches on Holy Thursday night, I like to wander around. I’m not sure if it’s sanctioned or not, but nonetheless Seth and I tend to wend our way into chapels, peep into unlocked doors, ascend staircases. This angel greeted us in an upper choir loft of one of those churches, perhaps St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach or St. Edward’s or Bethesda by the Sea on Palm Beach.

Music for the week: Several years ago, the Boston Camerata released a wonderful collection of songs for Holy Week. It’s called “Lamentations: Holy Week in Provence.” It is exquisite.

 

Bracellae, or Your April Book of Days

In our Lenten journey of 40 days, we have reached the midpoint. This past Sunday was Midlent, Laetare Sunday. In the UK, it was Mothering Sunday: Mother’s Day. A simnel cake is what’s traditional there for the occasion. But in our house, we made pretzels. Homemade, from scratch, from simple ingredients. The pretzels were delicious, and they are the cover stars for your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for April. The calendar is a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper, and a fine companion to the Convivio Book of Days blog.

My family has been making pretzels each Lent for a couple of years now, for we enjoy projects like this, and, as luck would have it, the humble pretzel is the perfect Lenten food. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. We add shortening, too, and ale to the water for boiling. What’s more, the classic pretzel shape of this centuries-old bread evokes the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over their chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: classic pretzel shape. In fact, the name “pretzel” is thought to be derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially. This penitential bread has a history that goes back perhaps to the 6th century. Some historians think pretzels may be even three centuries older yet. And so while Lent will still take up the better part of this month, take some time to make and enjoy some pretzels. It’s a fun and rewarding family project! At the end of this blog chapter you’ll find our recipe; plan ahead, for the dough needs to rest overnight in the refrigerator.

Oh and please come see us this Sunday, April 7, at the Springtide Festival & Makers Marketplace at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton! We’ll be there with all of our springtime offerings from the Convivio Bookworks Catalog––all our new handmade paper egg containers and handmade chenille chicks from Germany, handmade pysanky from Poland and the Ukraine, our Sabbathday Lake Shaker herbs and teas, Royal River Pottery by Seth Thompson, and more. Besides us, there’ll be about 18 other makers and small boutiques, plus live music all day by Rio Peterson (Smiths and New Order covers!) and by the Lubben Brothers, (our great local band of bluegrass/folk triplets), games and crafts (learn how to use natural dyes to color eggs), and the most amazing doughnuts. The market starts at 10 AM and runs through to 4:30 PM. Free admission and free easy parking… just follow the blue and white MAKERS MARKETPLACE signs that will be posted on FAU campus roads that day. It’s the last market at FAU until the fall. My mom will be there, my sister will be there, and did I mention amazing doughnuts? Some people come to the markets just for the doughnuts. Seriously. Plus they’re just great fun. You should come, and if you do, please say hello to me. For updates, here’s the Facebook event page for the market.

My suggestion for a perfect weekend for the locals? Make pretzels on Saturday, come to the Springtide Festival & Makers Marketplace on Sunday. Sure sounds good to me!

P R E T Z E L S
2 cups warm water
6 teaspoons yeast (two 1/4 ounce packages––we recommend rapid-rise yeast)
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
6 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons course salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter (or shortening), cut in pieces, plus more butter for the pan (or vegetable oil cooking spray)
1 bottle ale or beer
1/2 cup baking soda
Course salt for topping, plus poppy seeds & caraway seeds (optional)

Take note, this recipe is best begun the night before you intend to make the pretzels. First, add yeast and 1/2 cup brown sugar to a bowl, then add the warm water. Let yeast mixture get foamy (about 10 minutes).

Next, mix the dough. Mix the flour and course salt in a bowl, then add the butter; mix until crumbly. Add yeast mixture and combine until the water is absorbed. Next, knead the dough on a board (or use a mixer with a dough hook attachment for this step, which makes things a lot easier). Once the dough is smooth and elastic, let it rise in a bowl (it will grow considerably, so use a large one). Wrap the bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 8 hours.

When you’re ready to shape the pretzels, roll the dough out into a rectangle; it should be about 14 inches in one dimension and 12 inches in the other, which is important if you want pretzels that are uniform in size (and if you don’t care about uniformity, make them any size you wish, which is what we did on Sunday). Cut the dough into twelve 14″ strips. Roll each into a rope double in size (so, at least 28″ long), then form into whatever shape you like. For a classic pretzel shape, form each long rope into a U, twisting the two ends in the middle twice, then fold the twisted portion down and press the ends of the ropes into the circular part of the pretzel to seal. Set each pretzel on the baking board or on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450º F. In a large pot, heat 8 cups water, ale (feel free to have a sip or two, so long as most of the ale ends up in the pot), baking soda, and remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar to a slow boil. Simmer pretzels, one at a time, for about 30 seconds, holding each below the surface with a slotted spoon, if necessary. This step is what gives the pretzels that delicious combination of crusty exterior and soft, chewiness inside. Transfer each simmered pretzel to a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pretzels with salt, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, or some combination of toppings. Bake in the upper half of the oven for 5 minutes, then rotate baking sheet and bake 4 to 6 minutes longer, until the pretzels are dark brown. When done, cool on a wire rack… but these are best served warm, so let them cool for just a few minutes. You’ll get 12 large pretzels from this recipe. If that’s too many, the finished pretzels freeze really well. To enjoy them later, thaw and reheat in a 300º F oven until crisp.

 

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