The Advent Candles
written by: Monika Brewster
Sister Maria Noel lit the first candle of Advent, the candle of Hope.
She hoped the three weeks would pass quickly. Because then the girl boarders would leave on their Christmas holiday and peace would return to her beloved convent. She watched from behind the grille; a blue crocodile of girls shuffling into the chapel, whispering and giggling.
Although Sister Maria Noel wasn’t involved in running the boarding school, she was the victim of the girls’ pranks. As the sacristan of the convent chapel, she found strange objects in the pews; a dead bird wasn’t the worst. Once she had to dispose of a goldfish which was swimming in the holy water. The carefully stacked hymn books were toppled over, and she constantly scraped chewing gum off from under the pews.
Working in the vegetable garden in the summer, her long skirts gathered, the girls would snigger and point at her.
One hot day, a group of these juveniles had caught her without the black veil, wearing only her starched white coif. They had surrounded her wanting to know the colour of her hair. It was all so tedious. She loved the convent best without all these pimply, short-skirted adolescents.
On the second Sunday of Advent, Sister Maria Noel lit the candle of Preparation. Time was passing quickly. She felt happier, more at peace. All she wished, for now, was snow.
When the third Sunday of Advent dawned, she saw the mountains shrouded in thick mist. Hesitantly at first, the odd snowflake fell – then gradually more – more intense – a heavy curtain of silent white. Sister Maria Noel rushed outside, amongst the gravestones of her departed sisters, and tried to catch a flake. The world had become a Winter Wonderland and in two days’ time the girls would leave.
Solemnly she lit the third candle. It was the candle of joy. Ten years ago, when she had taken her final vows, she chose the name Maria Noel because of her love for Christmas.
As soon as her fellow sisters had proceeded out of the chapel, followed by a shuffling and pushing throng of girls, Sister Maria Noel started to tidy up, extinguishing the three advent candles, and stacking the books.
A protracted ‘psssst’ made her jump. Sister Philomena pointed her raised walking stick down the cloister.
‘Maria Noel, Mother Superior wants to see you.’
Sister Maria Noel straightened the cloth on St. Antony’s altar and joined Sister Philomena.
Mother Superior was a formidable woman but with a kindly smile. ‘Sit yourself down, Sister Maria Noel. I have news from your brother. His wife is ill, and he requests your help at this difficult time. After contemplation and prayer, I have concluded that you must indeed go to his rescue.’
Sister Maria Noel sat with folded hands; her head bent. The decision had been made without her. Her vow of obedience rendered her helpless. She would have to go, there was no alternative. The most wonderful time in the church calendar was approaching and the community would celebrate the Birth of Christ without her. Had she not just lit the candle of joy this morning? She should be happy to help her brother. His children needed her.
The old black VW beetle, driven by one of her fellow sisters, skidded down winding roads to the railway station, below towering cliffs sparkling with icicles and past slopes of crisp snow. The mountains were at their winter best. Majestically they towered into a deep blue sky.
Tears stung Sister Maria Noel’s eyes when she stepped out from the railway-station in Zürich and saw slush on the road and people hurrying through icy fog, with their collars turned up. Hearing the noise of the traffic she put her hands to her ears. When she waited for the tram, the front of her habit got soaked by a passing car. An icy wind made her shiver. She pulled at the cape, smoothed her veil, and took the rosary beads into trembling hands.
Her brother, Paul, lived in a tenement flat in the suburb of the city. They had grown up on a farm not far from the convent. When their parents passed away, he had sold the farm and moved into town.
How could he have turned his back on the mountains? After only a few hours Sister Maria Noel longed for them. She even felt sympathy for the girl boarders. Most of them came from towns or cities. They were forced to celebrate Christmas amidst the roar of traffic and people rushing round oblivious of Jesus’ birthday. Not surprising they were so contrary, so worldly. In future, she would have more patience with them.
‘Emma is still in hospital, but I have to return to work.’ Paul said, wiping a calloused hand across his eyes. He was a man of few words, which suited her.
From behind their father’s back, the children peered, open-mouthed, at Sister Maria Noel, Johan with his mop of dark unruly curls, and the blonde twins, Emily and Martha. Martha was called after her – her name before she had taken the final vows.
Sister Maria Noel had no time to brood. To keep a household was not much different from being a sacristan. Shopping, tidying, cleaning, and washing were easy, looking after children was a challenge, in fact, it was just as difficult as dealing with the teenage girls at the convent. She kept her distance. Everywhere she went, little eyes followed her. To be watched constantly, questioned, and spied upon made her feel uncomfortable. How could she make friends with her nephew and nieces? She must look so alien to them with her starched veil and black habit.
When Sister Maria Noel had some time on her own, she realised that her heart was aching with sadness. How she missed her fellow sisters, the convent, and the mountains.
On the fourth Advent Sunday, after dinner, they sat around the table. Sister Maria Noel had made a wreath from pine twigs and had bought four red candles in the corner shop. She lit the three candles and told the children that they symbolized Hope, Preparation, and Joy.
‘The fourth candle is the candle of Love.’ Sister Maria Noel sighed, a shuddering long sigh, staring into the glare of the strip light and trying to block out the loud music of the radio. Johan gazed at her, jumped from his chair, stood on tiptoe and turned off the light and radio. He lounged against her, with pleading dark eyes looking up at her. Sister Maria Noel patted her lap. Johan climbed up and traced her face with his finger. ‘Light the candle of love, Manoel.’ The two little girls squeezed close to her. ‘Sing, Manoel.’
The light of the candles bathed the room in a soft glow. ‘O come o come Emmanuel.’ One baritone voice, one soprano and three children’s voices sounded out in unison. Sister Maria Noel knew it was going to be a wonderful Christmas.
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