Refectory of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns - Orbis Lituaniae

Refectory of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns

Refectory – a space bound by rules and rituals

Following the Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae by Charles Borromeo, in most cases a refectory (dining-room) was installed on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. It used to be a vaulted room of an oblong rectangular shape, in which monks (nuns) had their meals, performed spiritual practices and public penance.

One side wall was geometrically divided by the windows, the other was adorned with pictures, with the Crucifix always hung on the back wall.

According to the tradition taken over from Spanish monasteries, quite often a skull was put on the middle table.

The tables in a refectory were placed in a U-shaped configuration. No tablecloths were used to cover the tables, only small linen table-napkins were placed next to the dishes. A jar of water and salt was served. Bread and other food, as well as beer or wine was served in portions. The monks were nurturing the spirit of poverty, therefore simple clay and wooden dishes were used by them. Silence was observed during the meals, with the texts from the Holy Scripture, St. Theresa’s sacred texts and other sources being read to them. A strict seating procedure was also observed: next to the Convent senior, the professed were seated (the priests who have given the following four solemn vows  – chastity, poverty, obedience, and a vow of particular obedience to the  Pope), further places were taken by novices. A separate table was set for the sick members of the monastery or nunnery. The monks would enter the refectory and leave it chanting, forming a procession.

Noisy monks disciplined by the Crucifix

On a wall of the Pociej Chapel in St. Theresa’s church in Vilnius, hangs a crucifix. The legend has it that it was related to the tradition of Discalced Carmelites’ behaviour in the refectory. This is how the story of bringing the Crucifix from the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Monks in Lublin to Vilnius St. Theresa’s church is narrated by the of preacher of Blessed Virgin Mary church Maximilian (Karpovich):  “It happened at times that certain young monks, having entered the refectory, started talking somewhat loudly, even though the Rule established those hours as silent; when they raised their voices, they heard the voice coming from the Crucifix: Silentium fratres! (Silence, brothers!).”

As a rule, meals were served in the refectory twice a day: lunch was served from ten to eleven, dinner was held at six p.m. During the religious holidays or during the performance of more challenging spiritual practice (intensive prayer), breakfast or snacks were served.

Strict adherence to Saint Theresa’s rule forbade the Discalced Carmelites to consume meat; it was served only to the sick. However, fish was a very important dish made for lunch during non-fast days. For example, in the territory near Gudagoy monastery fish-raising ponds were installed. Quite often, fish was supplied to monasteries by fishermen.

Moderate lunch crowned by the most delicious beer in Vilnius

The amount and quality of food depended on liturgical time. During the days of fasting, butter, milk, eggs and fish was refused by the Discalced Carmelites. From Saint Easter to The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), apart from the bread and beer, lunch was made of three courses, dinner consisted of two courses. For the first course, soup was served, to be followed by fish or porridge as the second course.

Beer was drunk on a daily basis both in monasteries and nunneries. Depending on the time of the year, it was served cold or warmed up. At dinner, beer was often served as the only drink. The manuscript of ‘Customs’, stored in the Krakow monastery of Discalced Carmelites, serves as the evidence that during the most severe fasting, all food was restricted to bread and beer. In 1655, the Discalced Carmelite nuns are said to have been forced to leave their nunnery in Krakow and temporarily settle down with a landlady of the queen Marie Louise Gonzaga. The landlady in question wanted to treat the nuns to meat but the latter reportedly asked for “the beer to be warmed up and some porridge to be made.”

The popularity of the beer was also determined by the fact that it was produced by the Carmelites themselves.

The beer made in the brewery of St. Theresa’s monastery was regarded as the most delicious in Vilnius.

Wine was drunk during the major holidays and longer journeys. Most likely, it was brought to the Discalced Carmelite monasteries from Italy. Wine was also often used as a means of payment settlement for various services provided by the services.

Culinary secrets displayed by the nuns fascinated even the King

The chronicler of Krakow’s Discalced Carmelites narrated the story of “discovering” the following dish in her convent. One year, during the Advent, some prunes remained unconsumed by the sisters. The responsible sister asked the senior what to do with the prunes. The senior advised her to put some butter on the prunes and to serve the dish for Christmas. Ever since then, (brewed) prunes in butter became one of the most favourite treats of Discalced Carmelites.

The Spanish Discalded Carmelites invented the recipe of sweet almond dumplings (this tradition is still alive in Avila). Most likely, the tradition of making almond soup, served on St. Joseph’s feast, has most likely come together with the Carmelite almond-based confection from the Mediterranean countries. The sisters of the Krakow’s St. Martin’s convent made almond dumplings and heart-shaped bagels as gifts to other monasteries in the city. The manuscript on “Preparations to Celebrate Christ’s Birth”, along with the texts glorifying the Blessed Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus, as well as detailed instructions on how to avoid the plague, a unique Discalced Carmelites’ recipe of making gingerbread cookies the can be found: Informacija iako Pierniki z miodu robić.  It was namely the gingerbread cookies and aqua vitae (vodka) that the King John Casimir Vasa during his visit in the Vilnius Discalced Carmelite convent in 1655 was treated to by the sisters.

The Vilnius chronicler testifies the following: “Our Mother poured some aqua vitae into a glass and handed it to him (i.e. the King John Casimir); he also accepted from the Mother the modest gingerbread cookies with great love and asked the remaining ones to be wrapped in paper.”

Tojana Račiūnaitė