The day started out normal enough. Breakfast of homemade bread and jams, creamy sheep cheese from Sardinia, ricotta, and peanut butter from a large jar brought long ago from the Netherlands, all swallowed down with cappuccinos in our usual breakfast cups. That morning we were just a bit more rushed, hurrying out by 8 am to attend the morning mass at the Monastery of St. Luca in Fabriano.
Benedictine nuns in the sober habits sang the psalms in clear – sometimes wavering – voices accompanied by one of the sisters playing the dulcimer. A monk priest said the mass. Afterwards we stood around the 16th century pews listening to Don Ephrem tell stories of when he was first ordained as a priest in Syria. Barely speaking Arabic, he was sent off to a high mountain village to say the Christmas mass.
But first he had to hear confession. The problem was nobody spoke Arabic, they all spoke a mountain dialect. Behind the confessional screen, he begged for mercy, asking the elderly women penitents to recount their sins in a language he might understand. French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, slowly spoken simple Arabic? No, none of those. Only mountain dialect, a slowing dying blend of indecipherable Arabic and language once carried on the wind.
Persevering at the confessional, Don Ephrem figured they were all old ladies anyway, what grievous sins could they possibly have committed? So he gave up and absolved them all. Upon his return to Damascus, he was worried about the report he might have received from the parishioners. But they all wanted him back! They liked being able to confess their sins to a priest who didn’t understand a word they said! It freed them from all shame.
Afterwards, we leisurely walked through the medieval city of Fabriano, more cappuccinos and baked sweets at an open café. Cheery greetings to strangers of Auguri! Buon Natale! And then home, catching the Pope’s message to the City and the World on the car radio as we drove through the valley of the old Flaminian Way, where Roman soldiers once marched to the sea. The morning sun filtered over the soaked fields, glistening green against the purple mountains, whose tops were etched with wisps of clouds.
Christmas pranzo of homemade butternut ravioli and salad from the garden. My husband beamed from the pleasure of indulging in a second serving and the hum of red wine. We finished the meal with butter cookies cut into stars by the nuns, dipped into a small glass of Vin Santo, made by a friend from his own grapes. Fires burned in our two wooden stoves and all was well.
But where was our cat Kitty? No where to be found on this bright day full of promise. No matter. A nap and walk with the dog. Kees happily relaxing by translating an 8th century Armenian Christmas homily into Dutch. (Yes, it is weird… but that’s what theologian linguists do to relax!) At sunset we collect a bowlful of fallen almonds from an abandoned tree.
A cup of tea and, reluctantly, I start my computer and open Facebook. I try to limit myself to 5 minutes a day on this monstrosity. The first thing I see is a photo of the Nativity Play by the children from the Sunday School in Germany where I used to help out. Five years ago, I encouraged the Syrian Orthodox women to take the risk and have the children preform the play in Aramaic for the congregation. I am delighted to see a host of child angels in a photo along with the cardboard donkey and flock of sheep I painted for the manger scene so long ago.
But suddenly there is Peter (not his real name) from Uganda sending me a chat message! It’s been years since I heard from him. What a surprise! I am so touched across time and space and internet wavelengths that tears well up in my eyes.
Peter who used to come to Bible Study years ago. A tall handsome African who moved slowly and looked deeply. He was in the Netherlands to become a physiotherapist, but struggled with his studies and money. His parents had both been doctors and he literally grew up in a Ugandan hospital. He once told me privately and with great sadness about the tragic death of his twin brother, who died in his 20s from a toxic mixture of alcohol and criminal activity.
At one point during the Bible study afternoons, we were reading all the Gospel passages about sheep and shepherds, when we came upon these verses from John 10: 2-5:
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
It was Peter who then told us the story of the blind man in his village who spoke his own private language to his flock that no one else in the village could understand. He knew every sheep and goat in his herd by their mere presence. As the sheep returned from pasture in the evening and passed by him, the man would call out, “That little one did not eat enough.” Or “That one’s back leg is aching.”
How well this blind Ugandan shepherd knew each and every animal in his flock! Just imagine how well God knows us! Reflecting on the many Wednesday afternoons Peter and I and others from all over the world spent together in prayer, I am moved by our sudden contact again.
Peter eventually had to leave our little Bible circle and the Netherlands for Poland, where he obtained a full scholarship and finished his studies. Five years ago, he told me that there were very few trained physiotherapists in all of Uganda (300 for a population of 44 million people). It was his dream to return to help his people.
We type and chat away. I learn that he is back working in Uganda, busy most days until midnight, helping to heal his many patients. “God has blessed my hands,” he writes. “I have a reputation for healing. Many people come to see me. I am busy until midnight. I hope to give a better life to my daughter.”
What can I possibly say to this humble man who so long ago told a seemingly simple village story that opened by eyes to God’s loving attentiveness to all our needs? I am sitting in my study, staring at my computer and everything feels so normal. But something extraordinary is happening… God has suddenly entered in a profound and unexpected way, reconnected me to a kindred soul from long ago, a man who I really hardly know. Someone whose life was briefly linked to mine in quiet weekly reflections of life and all its mystery.
“I am so happy to hear from you. You have made my day!” I chat back. “I will pray for you and for all of your clients.” Suddenly I am reconnected to this Wounded Healer and to the people he administers to somewhere in the middle of Africa.
Suddenly I am truly celebrating Christmas. I am with the shepherds in the field watching over their flock by night. I hear them call each sheep by name. And then an angel appears, shining God’s glory all around them. “Do not be afraid,” the angel calls. “For I bring you good news.”
Later that evening, my husband Kees follows our dog Pina’s scent and discovers our little cat, sick and hiding in an abandoned nearby shed. We bring her in and set her near the fire. Soon she climbs into my lap, hot with fever, her tiny paw reaching across to Kees beside me.
May your lives be blessed this Christmas season and throughout the New Year.