April 15, 2013

Lambing season begins at the monastery

Pregnant ewes

The stone walls of the old farmhouse are so thick that I don’t hear the rain, but when I wake up and look out the window, I can see that we’re in for another cold, wet day. I put on the teakettle and take a slice of the homemade banana bread that Retreat Friend brought. My instinct is to reach for my laptop computer, and then I remember that the monastery has no wireless. Instead, I put on my raincoat and boots — and walk out to the sheep barn to get the news of the day.

The pregnant ewes in the barnyard stare at me as I trudge through. A couple of them rise unsteadily to their feet. Some of them are so swollen they can barely walk, but they seem to be in no hurry to have those lambs. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re waiting for the spring weather. My own kids were all born on lovely, sunny days — well, except for Shaggy Hair Boy, who came amidst the gorgeous whiteness of an exciting snowstorm. I can’t blame any mammal for not wanting to give birth on a dark, rainy day.

The birthing pens, filled with new straw, remain empty until Brother Tractor and Youngest Monk bring in a ewe who gave birth out in the field. Her two little lambs are shivering despite their wool coats. The large one stands up and nurses vigorously, while the other curls into a ball on the floor of the barn.


It’s cold in the open barn, so I make my way over to the chapel. I pull the heavy wooden door open and step into the warmth of musty incense and melting wax. The chapel always smells exactly that way. You could kidnap me, put on a blindfold and earplugs, drive me in circles, then dump me into that chapel, and I would know exactly where I was by the smell. It’s a comforting smell. I like things that never change.

I descend the stone steps into the crypt below the chapel. The stone statue of Mary in the middle of the room glows, lit by about hundred votive candles flickering at her feet. A couple of the candles have burned out. They last five days, so they were lit by someone visiting earlier in the week. I pick up the empty jars, the glass clinking as I do so. In the side room, where I slide them back into separate compartments of a brown cardboard box.

I carry several new candles over to the low stone altar and sit down on the stone floor to light them, as I have many times before. I light the first candle for a friend who will be celebrating his 42nd birthday this week. As I lean to put the candle into an empty spot, I hear a hiss. I’m startled to see flames leaping from my shirt: my hair has caught on fire! I clamp the strands to put them out, and I’m rewarded with the unpleasant smell of hair burning.

I’ve never caught fire before while lighting a votive candle. I wonder whether the flames have some deep significance. Or perhaps it’s just time for a haircut.


I sit cross-legged on the stone floor and stare at the candles. The flickering can be very mesmerizing.

My meditation is interrupted by footsteps. They sound young. It’s too quick of a pace for any elderly monk. Legs stride into my line of vision, clad in jeans and sneakers, a nalgene bottle dangling from a young hand. Two high school kids, it looks like, probably here on some kind of retreat. One girl sits down on the stone floor, off to my right, her back against the brick wall. She fiddles for a moment with her nalgene bottle, but then she calms down and sits still, just staring into the dark spaces.

The other girl chooses the nook where some light falls in orange and yellow squares from the high stained glass windows. I’ve sat in that very spot, writing in my journal. I always like how the color stains the pages. She too carries a spiral-bound journal, along with a sheaf of papers which she spreads out on the floor. She bends over the papers, her long curly hair touching the stones, reading intently. Then she begins writing furiously.

I’m warm all the way through by the time I leave the crypt. I skip the bookstore to roam through the barns. It’s hard to resist the smell of hay. The newer barns are open and airy, with wooden stalls that are used when animals come inside, but the oldest barn has low ceilings, peeling paint, and pens that look like an old-fashioned zoo. Most of the rooms are used mostly for storing equipment.

In the barn -- a monk

I’m wandering aimlessly when I see a figure in a black robe. He turns. It’s Brother Jolly. He grins at me, “Want to see the newest addition? A baby donkey!”

I peer into a stall – an old concrete one that opens to a bigger stall in the new barn, with another door to the barnyard. The baby donkey is only a day old, but she looks like a full -grown animal, just in miniature. The only baby-like thing is the way she moves – jumping and prancing about as if she’s just figuring out what knees are for. The dim light of the barn is terrible for pictures, but I take some anyhow.

Newborn donkey

It’s still cold, and Brother Jolly keeps his hood pulled up. “Last time, she had a baby on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “So I was surprised that this baby came in April.”

“Well, it would depend on when she’s bred,” I say. He looks at me, but says nothing. Clearly, Brother Jolly doesn’t do much of the work on the farm. Brother Tractor is always all to happy to talk about the time they had a batch of early lambs because some rams got loose when the ewes were in heat.

I put my hand inside the stall and touch the rough fur on the baby donkey’s head. The mother ignores me: she’s busy eating. Brother Jolly and I chat for a few minutes, but then we hear the chapel bell. It’s time for the next prayer of the day.


Anonymous said...

This peaceful post is what I needed to read right now. Thank you.


rachel said...

Jo(e), have you read Barbara Kingsolver's latest, FLight Behaviour? i think you'd love her take and depiction of the class politics of global warming. There are wonderfully descriptive scenes of lambing in it as well!

jo(e) said...

Rachel:I've ordered that book, but I haven't read it yet. But if she's got scenes of lambing in it, I'll have to move it to the top of my to-read pile when it arrives.

Heidi said...

Love that we got a photo of a monk this year!

Anjali said...

Love the term, "lambing." What an amazing place.

Sandy said...

I LOVE your monastery stories and photos.