A Capuchin Retreat

The move from the hustle and bustle of the backpacker Piazza district to the peace and tranquility of the Friary was just the (self prescribed) ticket. After receiving an invitation to join the community for a few days, I set off on the bike in the pouring rain to find the compound 10kms outside Addis city centre. The short but eventful ride involved negotiating around huge mud filled craters big enough to swallow a bus whilst being followed by groups of excitable young children shouting a chorus of ‘Faranji!’ (foreigner). Arriving at the Friary – ecstatically drenched and splattered from head to toe in the ubiquitous reddish-brown mud of the rainy season – was one of those priceless moments in serendipity. It transpires that the mission is affiliated to the Capuchin order of Franciscan Brothers; a religious order who take their origins from the days of St Francis of Assisi back in the thirteenth century. Maybe it’s just happy coincidence, but the resonance of the Capuchin metaphor (where ‘cappuccino’ – meaning small cap –  is said to derive its name from) couldn’t be more poignant for a coffee enthusiast on a bike in search of the bean.

The following morning, the ringing of the church bell to signal early Mass gently awoke me from a deep sleep as a fragrant smell of incense started to fill the room. Pulling back the curtains, I could see the palm and young eucalyptus trees in the quadrangle below covered in a glistening coat of fresh morning dew.  The swirling mists and vapour trails that hung low in the humid morning air were incandescent with the first warm rays of the early African sun. As Mass got underway, the resonant chants of the male members of the congregation lifted as the women joined in with round-upon-round of ululations. Waking up that first morning, and every subsequent morning, has been a magical experience.

The Friary is a small close-knit community. The simple surroundings are home to a Brotherhood of five Fathers and eight Brothers who are studying in preparation for their formation, or acceptance into the order. Irrespective of status, all wear the familiar brown hooded habits of the Capuchins, punctuated by a waist height cord of white rope to signify their solidarity with the poor. The rope is commonly tied with three knots, each representing their vows of initiation; poverty, chastity and obedience. Their duties consist mostly of work in the community, pastoral matters, study and time put aside for reflection.

Father Daniel, a priest with a fierce intellect and encyclopaedic memory, told me over breakfast this morning that they essentially act as social workers in the community; serving an important public service that the Government can’t – or doesn’t – provide. Whilst ‘good works’ are bread and butter for the Brotherhood, he said, there wasn’t enough time to concentrate on philosophical or theological matters. ‘We have a rich history in Ethiopia with a wealth of ancient literature going back more than a thousand years. Do we translate or spend time interpreting our philosophical or sacred texts for today’s modern age? No. We are a nation in danger of forgetting our own history and with each passing generation, we are losing the keys to unlocking the greatness of our past’, he said with a sigh.

Behind the living quarters stands the spacious Capuchin Franciscan Institute of Philosophy and Theology which draws students, academics and pilgrims from all over the world. A seat of learning and academia with an extensive network spanning the African continent and beyond, the Institute is complete with a well stocked library bursting with poetry, religious and philosophical literature. There are airy classrooms and an auditorium for lectures; the most recent focusing on the Franciscan view of incarnation. There’s even a Spiritual Director’s office. To the side of the high vaulted and colourfully interior-decorated church is the garden from which all the fresh fruit and vegetables are grown. From organic cabbages to potatoes, carrots to oranges, runner beans to bananas, barley and teff (the grain used to make Injera, the staple food of Ethiopia), every meal that is produced from the Friary’s nutritious soils. A dozen goats meanwhile keep the lush green grass of the Institute garden in check and ensure a ready supply of fresh milk is on tap.

If the austere aesthetic of monastic life represents a lifetime commitment to material poverty, then the debates that take place around the dinner table and in the common room are far from impoverished. Listening to the Brothers discuss alternative perspectives on ‘Original Sin’ from a feminist standpoint with sincerity and passion wasn’t something – and please forgive my prejudice here – I was expecting to hear. There is also a playful humour that touches every conversation, even if the topic of discussion does concern the apocalypse. Whoops of unrestrained laughter are a common feature of the intellectual exchanges whilst differing points of view are presented and openly challenged with unbridled glee.

It’s taken a few days but the contemplative rhythm of the Friary has helped to clear the malign residue left over by the Mefloquine, and I can now start to think clearly again. Without a shadow of doubt, Larium derailed my body and mind for a good week or so. Now firing on all cylinders after a quiet period of retreat, it’s high time this Bean on a Bike hit the road once more!