This week in Madonna House certainly saw the annual tug-of-war between winter and spring begin in earnest. One day was bright, sunny, warm, with temperatures well above freezing; the next day it plunged down to -20C; the following day back up into the melting; today as I write in the early morning it is -15C. The usual tug of war, absolutely normal for this northern clime, with us serving as the rope.
There is one delightful aspect of our life that this precise weather pattern brings, and I know that anyone reading this who knows MH will know what I’m talking about already. Namely, that quite a large number of trees, anywhere you look on just about any of our properties, has sprouted these metal spouts hammered into their trunks, with buckets hanging off them. On the warm sunny days, already the little plink-plink-plink of sap can be heard filling up these buckets one drop at a time.
Yes, it is maple syrup season in Combermere. While I have a rule about not mentioning MH people’s names on this blog, I will make an exception here. Fr. Louis Labrecque, native of la belle province of Quebec, is our sugar bush operator, and operate it he does, with virtuosity. He grew up as a Quebecois farm boy, and his family ran their own sugar bush operation, so he has literally been doing this kind of work since he was a very small child.
We have an actual sugar bush, a distinct area of primarily maple trees, but in the years since Fr. Louis has taken it over he has expanded the harvest far and wide through the MH land. While the actual number of taps we put in is a mystery known only to God and Fr. Louis, he has been heard to say that in the spring “An untapped maple is a sad maple.” I don’t see too many untapped maples left on our properties. The joke has been that if you stand still too long outside in March, somebody will come along and drill and hole in you by mistake.
The sugar shack where all this goes down is a fascinating place, with its ingenious series of barrels and lines draining into a large wood fired evaporator where the sap gets boiled down (40 gallons of sap for one of syrup). It is quite a draw for MH people on Sundays especially, when we have a bit of free time and the Lenten discipline relaxes. Fr. Louis always welcomes helpers to collect the sap, and always has pancake batter ready to mix up to feed the volunteers (and anyone else who shows up) with fresh-from-the-boiling maple syrup.
The syrup is actually a fairly important part of our food harvest for the year, as it along with the honey from our bees, is our principle sweetener for baking. It is a tremendous amount of work, the collecting being a lot of heavy hauling, and the boiling down requiring long hours into the night when the flow is heavy. But it is also a place of laughter and joy—joy in the sweet harvest of the Lord in the waning days of winter.
Besides that season getting inaugurated, what else happened? Our three directors general (lay man, lay woman, priest) left for another trip, this time to MH Belgium for a visitation and for Rome to consult the relevant congregations about our community’s canonical status. On a personal note, I am the assistant to the director general of the priests, so when he’s away I have a little bit of extra responsibility and work at this point.
We are reading an absolutely marvelous book for our post-lunch spiritual reading these days. Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Archimandrite Tikhon, about the Pskov Caves Monastery in Western Russia. It is a new book, which won a prestigious award in Russia in 2012, its year of publication.
This monastery was the only one (according to the author) not to be suppressed ever throughout the Soviet period, and the author who is the head of a daughter monastery of it in Moscow has written a luminous account of the life of these modern Russian monks, how they survived through the difficult years of communism, and their humor, humanity, and holiness. Since Lent can be a bit of a heavy time in MH (and elsewhere) it has been great to read something that is genuinely uplifting and inspiring, not too mention quite funny at times. It is fantastically well-written, and I recommend it highly.
Beyond that, it’s a pretty ordinary week, I guess. Guests coming and going – we seem to have a number of short-term people coming through right now for a week or two, which is unusual for this time of year. So I guess that’s all for today – the news and views from our little corner of God’s world.