Roosters in the church (and Fr. James wins big)

We made the journey from Germany to Belgium today. Not unlike Germany, the part of Belgium we drove through was full of dense forests. Unlike Germany, many cows in pastures dotted the countryside. The drive went pretty quickly and it was a beautiful day to watch the world pass by out the window. We even got a little peek of Luxembourg, as we had to cross through the country en route to Belgium.

I swear everyone in this country and Germany drive what we would consider luxury vehicles, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. What gives?

As we approached the Leffe Abbey located in the town Dinant, Gunther had to pull a tricky maneuver to get the bus through a narrow stone passage that was an extension of the cliffs surrounding the town. I had much faith in Gunther since he got us out of a few tight spots but it was quite the experience. Imagine seeing a bus stuck in a narrow passage. I’m not sure what we would have done had we ended up getting lodged. Everyone on the bus clapped when we made it through. At one point during the trip I suggested we play the game of “guest bus driver,” where we all take turns driving for a stretch. The idea didn’t really catch on. I can’t figure out why.

Gunther squeezing the bus through the cliffs in Dinant
Gunther squeezing the bus through the cliffs in Dinant

Dinant is the most picturesque town we’ve visited so far and quite possibly the quaintest town I’ve ever seen. It’s located in a valley on the River Meuse and there were many boats ported along the banks. Restaurants have outdoor tables along the river offering seats with quite the views. The streets are narrow and it’s almost like you’re stepping back in time. Especially when you hear the train roar through and see the ancient ruins lining the cliffs.

Dinant, Belgium
Dinant, Belgium

The Leffe Abbey is a Romanesque structure that felt to me sort of like a castle. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by Abbot Bruno and led to lunch. My first impression was that this abbey operated more like a monastery than any of the others we’ve seen. All of the Norbertines were cooperating in the cooking and the service provided us. We sat next to a little old man who was so excited to see us but we couldn’t quite understand the French he was speaking to us.

Leffe Abbey
Leffe Abbey

Following lunch, we were led to a room to watch a DVD the Leffe Abbey produced in 2002 for their 800-year anniversary. The video highlighted many of the common threads of the Norbertine community the main focus being that they live together and worship together but they also serve the community. Leffe has Norbertines that are involved with helping the sick, providing counsel at an AIDS outreach center and doing parish work, among other things.

Abbot Bruno gave us our tour. He was a very animated man filled with humor. In the beginning of the church tour he was telling us about our surroundings and then a loud rooster crow interrupted us. After meeting Felix at Schlagl, we’d learned to expect the unexpected so we were all looking around wondering where the rooster was. As it turned out the crowing noise belonged to the Abbot’s phone. Everyone just started roaring. The rooster is the symbol of the area of Belgium that we are in so he said it’s only right that it’s his ringer.

The gardens at Leffe were unbelievable. I felt like I was in the secret garden. There were winding vines, fountains and statuary everywhere. The old buildings added to the feeling of being swept up in a fairy tale.

The garden at Leffe Abbey
The garden at Leffe Abbey

Leffe can be translated to “life.” It’s quite fitting for these men who serve to be bearers of Christ. Abbot Bruno was quick to point out that it’s good for marketing their Leffe brew too. The Norbertines used to produce their beer until the production took on such a large scale that they had to hand the recipe and the production responsibilities over to a facility better equipped. Phil Oswald, the vice president of advancement at St. Norbert, came to the college from Texas and he said you could get a hold of the beer there, which puts into perspective the scale of the operation.

After our initial visit, we took some time out to check into our hotel and do some wandering around the town. The shops were so cute and the town was really bustling. I tried to search out some Belgium chocolate but it wasn’t as available as I expected, maybe I’ll have better luck in Antwerp tomorrow.

Yours truly, Sue Reilly and Mary Hill near the River Meuse
Me, Sue Reilly and Mary Hill near the River Meuse

We met for dinner at the casino across from the hotel and had some interesting grub. It was pork, I think, and some deep fried sort of potato. It was all very good but the meat was a little mysterious.

We met back at the abbey for post-dinner conversation. Four of the Norbertines joined us. Last year when the St. Norbert group was at Leffe, the Abbot said they asked him a lot of questions so this year they decided to ask us questions. One of the things they wanted to know was why the people in the group got involved with a Norbertine college and the Norbertine Order. I think they got the essence of the college in the various answers. President Kunkel told them about our charge to lead by word and example and about the outcomes we see from our students post-graduation. Bill Hyland explained how he found his Mecca there with the Center for Norbertine Studies where he has been able to combine his isolated studies of the Norbertine history and culture with the living order. Kathryn Hasselblad Pascale and Michael Ariens, either current or past members of the board of trustees at the college expressed that the time they’ve spent involved with the college has been one of the bright spots of their careers. Michael noted that he and his wife Mimi believe in the college so deeply that they sent 5 or 6 of their kids to St. Norbert.

One of the Norbertines at Leffe told us why he decided to be a Norbertine and it was kind of an inspiring little story. He was working elsewhere with people with special needs and one individual in particular had severe autism wherein he would rock back and forth in his chair and make a lot of noise. Each time this now Norbertine accompanied this individual to Mass or to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, he would quiet. It was almost like a miracle. At that point, this Norbertine really discovered that the Lord is present and active and that he needed to dedicate his life to this kind of work.

In equally big news, Father James Herring won big last night at the casino. After being turned away twice, once for not having on long pants and then because he was without socks, he finally made his way in and ended up winning on one of the slot machines. I guess I spent my night in the wrong place. Father James has agreed to split his winnings with the first person who calls 1-800-WIN-CASH. May the force be with you.


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