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My late mother was once a nun. Around 1950, she joined the Order of the Franciscans in the village of Dongen in the province of Noord-Brabant. A few years later, she left. Monastic life did not suit her.

by Rick van der Made - 24 December 2019

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She returned to a profane life with a teaching degree (her “Catholic Pedagogy” by Brother Rombouts is still on my book shelve) and with an almost inexhaustible source of knowledge about the Church, the Bible, the Pope, Rome, and all sorts of known and less known saints. As she recounted the sad life and even sadder death of Maria Goreti, her offspring hung on her lips. Breathlessly, we listened to Goreti’s miserable life story and her final salvation: her canonization by the pope.

That was also applicable to the Epiphany story. We had a huge nativity scene. Every year we, the children, were allowed to carefully remove the statues from the excessive amount of newspaper wrappings and put them in the stable. If you pulled such a lump of newspaper out of the box, you had no idea what statue you were holding: it could be Maria, but it could just as well be the ox, or the cod. Not baby Jesus, but the camel was everyone’s favorite.

It was a huge statue belonging to the three kings from the east my mother could tell so visually about. One evening my sister and I had put a bowl of grass and a bowl of water in the living room, convinced as we were that the three gentlemen would come to visit us that night bearing gifts. Just as for the horse of “Sinterklaas” (St. Nicholas), we had prepared some goodies for the camel. We just didn’t dare to put out our shoes for presents, not wanting to seem greedy in front of Our Father.

Edward Burne-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1890
At our primary school, Sister Annie taught religion. She was as old as Methuselah and was not as good in storytelling as my mother, but she was important in my life. Around the age of ten, I was in the Christmas Play that Sister Annie directed with great difficulty and angelic patience. I was overjoyed that I was to play one of the three kings, even though it meant that I should only walk from left to right across the stage for ten seconds and not say anything.

This is in contrast to Josef, played by classmate Onno, who was a chatterbox in real life and made up three-quarters of his text, to Sister Annie’s horror, who was prompting off-stage with a far too loud voice, constantly shaking her head. We were happy singing the last song of the Christmas Play with all the actors, but no one was as happy as Sister Annie.

The  Franciscan Monastery in DongenThere was also a lot of singing in the Franciscan monastery. My mother still had some versicles and responses describing the symbolic explanation of Epiphany and the gifts. Every year on January 6, the day of taking down the Christmas tree ornaments and the wrapping of the nativity scenes in old newspapers, mother told her children the story of the gifts.

We were familiar with gold, and we regularly smelled incense in church. It was myrrh that always remained an unknown, mysterious thing. It turned out it was not only good for the skin, but it also had the power - as in a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers - to announce the death of the infant Jesus. Miraculous stuff.

Before I could do receive my Holy Communion, I had to keep a booklet, just like all the other aspiring communicants. The booklet stated all sorts of questions and assignments. Its intent was to provide socially-religiously desirable answers to the questions. At the question: “What would you like to ask Our Lord?,” my fellow communicants gave answers like “Peace on Earth,” or “Enough food for everyone.” In my booklet, the answer to that question only says “MYRRH” in capital letters.

To this day, Our Lord has still not answered that prayer. I see it as a good sign. Despite the fact that as the years go by, my skin could use a magical ointment, apparently, He still finds it too early to send me the announcement of my impending death.

But before it’s Epiphany, there’s the Christmas celebrations. For this, my oldest sister, her boyfriend, me, my younger sister and her girlfriend visit my brother and his husband. And although this pink family does not go to church very often, all four children have a large nativity scene in their house.

With a lovely little Jesus in the crib, with a huge camel in front of the stable.

I wish you happy holidays and a happy new year.



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