Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Taste of Heaven for Body and Soul

A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns

Mount Saint Mary's Abbey
Near Wrentham, Massachusetts

Tourists in New England expect to see lobsters. The crustaceans appear on menus, license plates, and store shingles. There are lobster candies, cookie cutters, and key chains. Of course, real New Englanders know to go down to the dock for live lobsters, fresh from the trap. What neither tourists nor natives expect to see here is a creature who looks like he was headed for the Inca ruins of Peru but ended up at an abbey closer to Boston: a llama named Oblio. Llamas are sometimes called "camels of the clouds" for their ability to haul mountain loads, yet Oblio looks like he's dressed for a dinner party in a snowy white tux with black tails. Visitors who buy the abbey's wool blankets can thank Oblio for protecting the sheep from coyotes.

In addition to a llama, this monastery is home to some of New England's best candy. Mount Saint Mary's Abbey was founded in 1949 by nuns from Saint Mary's Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland; it was the first American monastery founded by Cistercian nuns. The abbey church is austere in a way that reflects Trappist traditions; its stark white walls and low ceiling make the space feel humble and intimate. However, one's eye is drawn to a detail that is as unexpected here as a llama in Massachusetts: the Salve Regina window, which was made for the nuns by a monk from Holy Spirit Monastery in Georgia. It is so colorful that it looks as though the glass had been fused with celestial fire. The nuns agree that it's unusual, but like the way its light capture the tone of each prayer throughout the day.

Candy lovers in New England fondly remember Crand's Candy Castle in Enfield, Connecticut. Its owner was a Greek immigrant named John Crand who taught the nuns how to make candy He insisted on using the best ingredients regardless of cost and that's the way the nuns make candy to this day. ...
Although it is difficult to communicate it without including an entire chapter here, this book covers much more than indicated by the subhead "A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Nuns and Monks."

On one level, this is a guidebook to finding delicious viands made the really old fashioned way in the U.S. and Europe, by techniques honed over hundreds of years in some cases. Not only do we find foods to purchase but recipes have been included which either use featured items as ingredients or which duplicate fare one would likely eat while visiting.

On the other hand, it is a tour guide of interesting, historical monasteries, abbeys, and convents to visit. Scherb gives a good sense of place for each site, some of the area or order's history, and tips from food authorities. For example, in the Holy Cheese section, tips are featured from master cheesemonger Steve Jenkins for selecting and buying the best monastery cheese. Additionally, the author is thoughtful enough to include suggested itineraries for areas that have a lot of sites one might want to visit.

The greatest treasure in the book, however, from my point of view is that Scherb doesn't look at these places simply as purveyors of excellent food and drink. She is careful to consider each place as a whole, for not only what they can offer our bodies but also our souls. Necessarily this includes Catholicism as that is the basis for the religious life in these places. However, Scherb does an excellent job of providing each person with food for thought no matter their religious leanings. Consider this from the introduction.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the example of monks and nuns is that a life lived simply can be both rewarding and sustainable. Monks and nuns don't live to work, they live to pray. They work only as much as they need to, but they give it their best effort every day. They work whether they are young or old according to their abilities (an octogenarian nun was recently spotted making chocolates at Bonneval, while monks of a similar age staff the reception desk at Gethsemani).
More specifically, this example from the entry about Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Oregon shows that periods of quiet and contemplation away from the busy world benefit us all.
Dawn is the perfect time of day to read and contemplate. One can sit in a rocking chair in one's room and gaze out at the pond and forest while reading from J.R.R. Tolkein, Thomas Merton, or Thich Nhat Hahn (all are available in the bookstore). Or one can read Saint Therese of Lisieux (whose photo hangs in the monastery's book bindery) and contemplate just how different the world might be if everyone who visits a monastery were to practice a thousand little acts of kindness when they go home. ...
There are many benefits for both body and soul through A Taste of Heaven.

(This book is not yet published and will be released on August 6.)

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