CHRISTMAS AT THE FRIARY ALL WORK AND PRAY DOESN’T MAKE THE FRIARS OF ST MARK’S AN AUSTERE LOT, SAYS VICTOR CALLEJA AS HE JOINS IN THE CHRISTMAS CHEER. hen some schoolchildren were on an outing at the Augustinian Priory of St Mark’s, one of them asked the friars if they were allowed to drive. A simple enough question from innocent children – however, it also reflected my thoughts and feelings about friars and life in priories. In fact, until my visit to St Mark’s Priory in Rabat, I never imagined that friars lead normal lives or that they celebrate Christmas and other feasts like the rest of us. But that is exactly what they do – for them, Christmas is fun, festive and colourful. The only big difference is that they dedicate more time than the rest of us
to the contemplative, spiritual side of Christmas. The most important thing I discover in my interviews and meanderings in the beautiful and peaceful priory in Rabat is that life in a convent is more normal than one might imagine and that friars and students living there know how to enjoy life. I approach the priory in a state of intimidation, imagining that I would be greeted by an austere guide who would tell me all about the silence during meals and the meagre helpings dished out. However, the reality is completely different. The prior, Fr Leslie Gatt, greets me heartily at the door and immediately tells me that life in the priory has changed drastically over
the years. The silence during mealtimes which used to be a rule that had to be obeyed till some decades ago is not followed any more. And so, like in every numerous family, meals at the priory are usually full of banter, fun and laughter. Also, unlike past practice, the friars and the novices now go about their work and do not just live a contemplative life. They work in the community, teaching and studying. And yes, they do drive. One of the biggest changes is that there are less friars and students in formation nowadays – there are only seven currently living at St Mark’s. That means the friars have to be more flexible. Gone are the days when every convent had its own Fra doing the more menial jobs and being 쑺 Christmas Times
THE PRIOR OF AUGUSTINIAN PRIORY OF ST MARK’S, FATHER LESLIE GATT
at the beck and call of the friars. The friars don’t even have a sacristan so all work in the sacristy is shifted to one of the friars, with more than a helping hand given by the students. As food is so central to our life, I ask who does the cooking. The only fulltime employee is a lay woman who has now been at the priory for 11 years and loves every minute of it. So I am guided to the kitchen to meet her. On the way, I imagine a rotund, red-faced woman with butter marks on her apron. Even here, my preconceived perception is woefully wrong. The reality is that Pauline is a modern cook who is rather slim, loves cooking but is also very much concerned with dishing out healthy grub to the priory’s community. I catch a glimpse of the food displayed – there is a vast range of salads, chicken and some beautiful pies. It’s debatable how healthy the pies are, but while in days gone by fry-ups and all things nice and unhealthy were the staple fare, now the emphasis has shifted to a healthier way of life. I only see and hear about the Christmas preparations so I do not actually experience the fun and jollity. But I am shown photos of previous fun-filled events which prove that the friars and students definitely know how to live it up and that fun and friars do go together. Some shots show a carnival party that included an array of costumes which would make even the most austere
friar laugh merrily. All the friars and students were disguised in very welldesigned costumes and get-ups. There was a Barack Obama lookalike whose mask was put on the back of the head with the trousers and jacket worn back to front. “He was quite a sight,” I hear some of the students snigger. “He couldn’t walk properly as he had to walk backwards and this added to the fun and mayhem.” There was someone dressed as a sheikh, a clown and also what definitely looked like a mask of a monkey on one of the faces in the photos.
CHRIST REMAINS ❛❛ AT THE CENTRE OF THE FRIARS’ LIFE, BUT A LIFE IN CHRIST HARDLY MEANS LEADING A BORING LIFE.
When they have parties, they also play games, tombola and pranks. During one of these parties, they organised a raffle with various prizes up for grabs. When one of the invited relatives won his prize, he immediately asked for the best wine bottle there was. This turned out to be just a silly ladle ably camouflaged as a wine bottle. After seeing these snapshots of jovial frivolity, I am asked up to the rooftop to enjoy the wonderful view of Rabat. And I also find out that the friars organise regular barbecues and hold their birthday parties here when the
weather permits. So fun is, although not the order of the day, definitely a part of their life. Fr Leslie tells me that Christmas is lived the same as in any family and when we meet, preparations for Christmas were in full swing. The seven friars and students living in the priory all meet to discuss what has to be done for Christmas. Life at the priory is far from boring or just a matter of solemn praying. Christ remains at the centre of the friars’ life, but a life in Christ hardly means leading a boring life. Obviously a lot of the discussions centre round Christmas eve mass and the other church services during the festive season. Food naturally plays a part. Nowadays, Pauline is given Christmas day off so that she can enjoy it with her family. So on Christmas day, the friars trot off to a restaurant to carry on with their fun and celebrations. For the Christmas period, all sorts of food is prepared from stuffed turkey to Christmas log. Also, during the festive days all the presents accumulated are kept under the Christmas tree but they are not saved up for Christmas day. Whenever someone has a craving for sweets, one of the presents is opened and enjoyed by all. The same goes for the wine and spirits given to them – during the festive period a few bottles are opened and enjoyed. After Christmas eve mass, all the congregation is invited for a drink. All church-goers are usually regaled with a traditional giant mince pie, cakes and hot chocolate. Besides this, the friars are also making preparations for a 쑺 Christmas Times
CELEBRATIONS celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of one of the friars as well as for a party for all the friars’ parents and close relatives. After all the Christmas eve festivities, with choir singing, midnight mass, the traditional child’s sermon, drinks with the church-goers and all the rest, the friars and students all head to their little living area where they feast on loads of sweets, panettone and Pauline’s giant mince pies. These, it seems, are some of her less healthy but gorgeous feats. Just mentioning them seems to give all those around who had obviously tasted and enjoyed them, a real lift. During this little party, the friars and the students all open some of the goodies they receive. These usually range from wine and champagne to chocolates and more sweets and cakes. “After the hard time preparing for the Christmas eve service, we all feel we deserve a bit of a celebration. And we forget all ideas of exercise and diets and indulge to our hearts’ content.” At St Mark’s, an annual party is held for all the helpers of the priory and the church adjacent to the priory. This year, the party is going to be even more special as it will also be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Fr Ambrose Delia’s
ordination. I am so touched to be told that the present prior was actually baptised by Fr Ambrose 32 years ago. I have to find out more about the food so I wonder aloud to the jovial Pauline – how is life here and what do the friars grumble about? And seeing a huge rolling pin, I tease her about using it on the friars if they grumble about her cooking. She laughs cheekily but reassures me that the friars are never any problem. “They are like my second family,” she
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enthuses. So they don’t have strange individual tastes which you have to pander to? “Oh no, they all seem quite content with my fare, although I do love to bake cakes and apple pies which they keep begging me not to.” On my way out, Fr Leslie accompanies me to the door, still waxing lyrical about the beauty of the priory and its history. I keep looking at the austere portraits with their beady eyes all looking down at me from the impeccably kept walls. Seeing me looking up at them reverentially Fr Leslie tells me they were the Augustinian doctors of theology. Why did they, I quipped, all look so sad and severe? Would you, I ask him, be depicted like that once they transfer your semblance to a frame? Fr Leslie laughs his infectious laugh and assures me no one ends up framed like that nowadays. He adds with a beaming smile, “And they would have a tough job getting me to look austere or serious.” I fully agree with him as he is the pure example of bonhomie with a right touch of the spiritual. I glance at the portraits with less fear while saying my goodbyes, thinking that these modern friars pray a lot but also laugh a lot without any guilty feelings about being seen to be enjoying themselves. ❆
Meeting the friars as they prepare for Christmas