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Abstinence

Just for fun, a short story about Lent

by Kell Brigan

Sister Mary Stephen badly bruised her hip the morning of the first Thursday of Lent. Mother Zoe suspected that Sister Mary Stephen had been fasting the day before, which was Ash Wednesday, even though Sister was over sixty and not required to do so. In fact, Mother Zoe had specifically forbidden her to fast since Sister did have a tendency to overdo such things. Nevertheless, that Thursday morning, while retrieving the back-up bin of oatmeal from the top shelf of the pantry, Sister Mary Stephen had gotten dizzy (which she later denied) and slipped.

The doctor admitted Sister Mary Stephen into the hospital overnight for tests and also to ensure that some swelling near her hip joint was brought under control. Sister’s absence left the Order without anyone to cook their meals. The Order’s seven senior members were even older than Sister Mary Stephen and none shared her unusual stamina. Sisters Ashley and Rosa, the two youngest members, were already busy teaching mathematics and computer science a half-mile away at St. Hildegard’s school.

Mother Zoe made some calls around the diocese to ask if anyone knew of a nice devout girl they could bring in to cook for them. The parish phone tree went into action and a candidate emerged. Adele Esperanza was on spring break from the junior college and came from a large family. “She’s always been a blessing in the kitchen,” Adele’s mother said on the phone.

Adele arrived the next morning. She stood in the doorway of the convent, rosy-cheeked and ready to work. She had put her hair in a bun and folded a white apron over her arm. She also carried a small black fabric case with the logo of the junior college which Mother Zoe recognized as a set of chef’s knives. Mother Zoe approved. This girl meant business.

Mother Zoe and Adele discussed her duties and how long it would take for Sister Mary Steven to recover. Adele was pleasant enough, but not chatty. She showed a reasonable interest in the convent (which was, after all, just a typical suburban house), but was not intrusively nosy. Adele accepted her instructions with only a few pertinent questions and confidently surveyed her work space, opening drawers and noting the contents of the refrigerator.

Mother Zoe explained that the sisters ate their meals in silence, except for feast days, Sundays, or those mealtimes when Mother Zoe read to the group from one or another improving book. “An unusual tradition, these days,” Mother Zoe said, “but we find it calming. Perhaps it will be best if you take your meals in the kitchen, whenever you wish.” Adele agreed, her small smile unwavering, and did not seem to mind.

The sisters had made do with leftovers all day Thursday and Friday morning’s breakfast had been only juice and toast. When the women filed silently into the dining room after the noon Angelus that Friday they were hungry. Even Sister Mary Stephen’s grilled cheese sandwiches (white bread, processed cheese, no butter) would have been welcome. Instead, the first thing they noticed was the energizing scent of an herb. It filled their noses with a richness that was almost medicinal. “Thyme” Sister Ashley punched on her smartphone. She discretely showed the screen to Sister Rosa, who nodded, her eyes wide with a questioning anticipation.

Two white porcelain tureens sat covered on either end of the table, each accompanied by a basket of rustic, homemade crackers sprinkled with a variety of toasted seeds. A colorful lettuce and tomato salad sat in a large wooden bowl in the middle. Mother Zoe vaguely remembered that the serving pieces belonged to the Order, but it had been years since she’d seen them.

After the sisters had said the Grace, Mother Zoe invited them to sit and gingerly lifted the lid from one of the tureens. A steamy wave rose from the dish, which was filled with a rich brown vegetable and lentil stew. Mother Zoe silently filled plates and bowls and passed them to the sisters. She invited Sister Rosa to do the same at the other end of the table. When all were served, Mother Zoe watched as the sisters politely dipped their soup spoons and tasted the new dish. Immediately all the women sat up straight and exchanged happy glances.

Mother Zoe was not sure how she felt about this. She tasted the stew, which was full of cubes of carrot and celery slices and flecked with the fragrant herbs. It was delicious. The crackers were covered with dried onion, sesame and poppy seeds. Mother Zoe took a bite from one. It complemented the stew perfectly.

The next day, just before lunch, Sister Mary Stephen came back from the hospital. Mother Zoe was helping her get settled in her bed (doctor’s strict orders) when a gentle knock sounded at the door. Adele entered with a bed tray on which she had placed a covered dish, a plate of radishes and tiny pickles, and another small basket of the crackers. They smelled freshly toasted. Perhaps Adele had made a fresh batch that morning.

“I thought Sister might be ready for some lunch,” Adele said. “It’s yesterday’s lentil stew, but I actually think it’s better the second day anyway.”

“That’s not right,” Sister Mary Stephen said. “Can’t have stew on a Friday in Lent. What were you thinking, girl?”

“Oh, it’s vegetarian,” Adele said. “I make it for my roommates and me all the time.” She placed the tray over Sister Mary Stephen’s lap and lifted the lid off the dish. Sister Mary Stephen grunted, bent and sniffed.

“What’s in this?” she asked.

“Oh, the usual,” Adele said. “Carrots. Onions. Celery. Vegetable broth. Some herbs.” She clasped her hands together. “Oh, sisters! Such wonderful herbs you have in your garden! I snipped some of the thyme and sage and added it at the last minute. It made such a difference.”

Sister Mary Stephen glared at her. “Those herbs are decorative.”

“Don’t worry, Sister,” Adele said. “I was careful when I made the cuttings. I took only a couple of sprigs and made sure they were from different spots on the plant. We have a kitchen garden at home, too.”

Adele waiting for a response, but Sister Mary Stephen did not speak. Mother Zoe thanked Adele and said she might want to return to the kitchen to begin lunch for the rest of the sisters. Adele agreed and left.

Sister Mary Stephen stared at the closed door a moment and then muttered something about “all this fuss.” Mother Zoe puttered about and made sure Sister had her books and a bell and that her pitcher of water was replenished.

“You’ll have to watch that one,” Sister Mary Stephen said. “Herbs, of all things.”

“Well, they were good enough for Saint John,” Mother Zoe said.

“Ha! Maybe next she’ll be serving up locusts!”

A few days later, Mother Zoe admitted to herself that Sister Mary Stephen might have a valid point. The consistent excellence of Adele’s dishes would have been welcome any other time of year, but was interfering with what, during Lent, should have been a penitential attitude within the Order. The sisters had never had any trouble embracing poverty and remorse when Sister Mary Stephen was doing their cooking. With Adele in the kitchen, the sisters were decidedly, well, cheerful.

Leaving Adele’s excellent cooking unconsumed wasn’t an option. The Order had a tradition of eating what was served at table in reasonable portions with no fuss over personal preferences. (Sister Rosa called it the “We’re Not A Restaurant Clause.”) Telling the sisters to leave most of their meal uneaten would violate this rule, not to mention leave everyone hungry.

Mother Zoe decided to speak to Adele after supper that evening. Surely they could work something out. “You see, dear,” Mother Zoe said. “Your cooking is a bit of a distraction. It is Lent, after all.” Adele looked up from clearing away the now-empty platters that had held roasted pork loin in a butter sauce with capers, green beans with almonds and herbed garlic toast.

“But, Mother, I’ve been so careful,” Adele said, concerned. “My mother always taught us to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. We usually give up chocolate, too.” Dessert that evening had been a raspberry crumble.

“Of course,” Mother Zoe said. “You’ve done everything quite properly. It’s just that we’re not used to meals that are this…” The only word Mother Zoe could think of was “delicious.”

“Is there too much seasoning?” Adele asked. “Is there anything you would like me to leave out? One of my brothers is allergic to nuts so I know how to work around that sort of thing.”

“Yes,” Mother Zoe said. “That would help a great deal. You understand, you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just the way we are, you know. Something simpler. Less seasoning would help so much.”

Adele smiled broadly and said she understood.

The next day, at lunch, Adele slipped a note to Mother Zoe assuring her that everything on the menu was low in sodium and included no herbs or spices likely to interfere with anyone’s digestion. The menu featured corn chowder nicely accented with parsley, homemade buttermilk biscuits and an arugula salad with carrot curls dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Dessert was vanilla custard with caramel.

At the conclusion of the meal, Mother Zoe put down her fork, stifled a small burp and inwardly sighed. Dessert. At lunch. Mother Zoe had never heard of such a thing. She looked up to see Sister Mary Stephen, who had ventured forth from her room to join them at table, staring at her and shaking her head. Something must be done. That afternoon, Mother Zoe prayed and pondered and finally she had the beginnings of an answer. After that evening’s dinner (Thai spring rolls and buckwheat soba noodles with mint, pea pods and chicken), she again spoke to Adele.

“It’s a tradition, you see,” Mother Zoe said. “Every year when we attend the Reconciliation service at St. Hildegard’s, we abstain throughout the day. We usually have only bread and water.” Adele nodded, said she understood and that she would not cook anything special for the following day. Mother Zoe was pleased. At least they would have one day when they could focus on their meditations. How could bread and water possibly distract anyone?

The next morning, Adele arrived at the convent early so she could make sure the bread would be done before the sisters were up. She had started the rye flour sponge the evening before so the flavor of the loaves would have just the right degree of complexity. She mixed the sponge with whole wheat flour and put it aside to proof. While it was rising, she pulled out a pan to use to toast the pumpkin seeds.

At 7:00 AM, Mr. Carnelie from down the road arrived with the five gallons of mineral water she had requested over the phone the previous night. He ran the touristy hot springs up on the hill and sold his spring water by the gallon. He insisted Adele give it a taste. The water lived up to its reputation. It was refreshing and had just a hint of pleasantly bitter minerality.

When Mr. Carnelie had heard she was picking up the water for the convent, he had refused to accept any payment from her. “Nothing is too good for our blessed sisters,” he had said. He insisted she have the water for free. “After all,” he had said, “it’s not like I had to pay God for it.”

After she had thanked him and Mr. Carnelie had gone, Adele scrubbed the organic citrus she had bought the night before on her way home. She carefully stripped inch-wide lengths of peel from the outside of an orange, a lime and a lemon. She slipped the fragrant peels through the narrow mouths of the water jugs, replaced the lids, and put the jugs into the refrigerator to chill. The water had a bit of carbonation, and with the hint of fruit, it should be delicious. It would be perfect alongside the subtle sweetness of the bread, with its mixture of whole grains and the toasted seeds the sisters enjoyed so much.

The sisters arrived in the dining room at noon. Adele had opened the curtains. The room was bright from the sun and the toasty aroma of the bread and the tangy scent of citrus filled the air. They gathered around the beautiful loaves and chilled pitchers. When Mother Zoe said the grace, she also led the sisters in the Serenity Prayer, which was unusual, and she seemed to place a special emphasis on accepting “the things I cannot change.”

After the Grace, Sister Mary Stephen silently left the group and went into the kitchen. No one else was there. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sharp huff. She walked to the pantry and got herself a slice of store-bought white bread from the loaf that had gone untouched for the past several days. Then, she got herself a plastic tumbler from the cupboard and walked over to the sink to fill it from the tap.


So, I’m home getting over a cold and cooking up my piously meatless Friday lunch (those fancy French lentils with thyme & garlic), and it occurred to me once again how meatless meals aren’t exactly a privation if you know anything about cooking — the old “Does it count as penance if it’s broiled lobster?” question.

A couple years ago, I wrote this short story inspired by the idea of When Foodies Do Lent. I never was able to sell it to anybody, and it’s been sitting in the electronic equivalent of my sock drawer ever since. Feel free to just pass it around or use it as you might wish.

Thx. Kell Brigan

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