Hazards of Lent eased by priest's new look at time

March 24, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Most tourists don't have the time or the inclination to test London's version of a light rail line, but this transit conveyance shuttles along the northern bank of the River Thames.

One day last week I found myself momentarily stranded at the eastern terminus on a rainy platform overlooking the river, the clipper ship Cutty Sark and the Borough of Greenwich. And, in the distance sat the tower of the astronomical observatory where scientists calculate Greenwich Mean Time. I stood squarely at the Prime Meridian.

The helpful light rail conductor pointed out the landmarks of the neighborhood as I started to chuckle. The whole world sets it clocks based on this convention, but not the house where I was raised.

As a child growing up in an old house on Guilford Avenue, I learned early on to deal with an extended family filled with lovable eccentrics and dominated by strident personalities. The combination worked well because no one took the situation too seriously.

There was, however, one person whose word was considered to be unchallengeable. This was a saintly and unflappable Jesuit priest, the Rev. Aloysius Mack, S.J., a frequent visitor. With his white hair, portly build and reddish face, this small man was a character lifted from the pages of writer G.K. Chesterton.

Father Mack and my grandmother, Lily Rose Monaghan, hit it off very well. He liked to eat and she knew which dishes were his favorites. Lily Rose, by birth a Catholic, never entered a church. Father Mack was not judgmental. They got along famously.

But the priest knew Roman Catholic church law inside and out. He displayed this wisdom with marvelous practicality.

Particularly at this time of the year, as Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter approached, Father Mack would lead us through the minefield of dietary restrictions, fasting and rules. His throne was an oak chair at the kitchen table, where he sat, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle in about 15 minutes.

One of the first conventions he suspended was the Greenwich time rule. Back then, this could be an obstacle for those fasting from midnight Saturday in order to receive communion Sunday morning. He made the distinction between Greenwich Mean Time created by man and sidereal time measured by the apparent motion of fixed stars.

As an 8-year-old, I was never completely sure what it all meant. In Baltimore, the learned cleric advised, you had an extra six minutes to down a Coke before sidereal midnight. And at other times of the year, you had an extra 15 minutes beyond what stingy Greenwich permitted.

This was all very important, because Lily Rose's kitchen was never closed. She had some fast-proof dishes ready that beat the Vatican at its own game.

Her soups, bubbling on the old Oriole-brand kitchen range, were especially delicious. And because these soups constituted light meals, they would be perfect under Lenten fasting rules.

One of her favorites was an aromatic lentil soup that filled the house with the scent of bay leaf. It took the edge off a rainy and raw March evening.

Lily's vegetable soup was also hearty and filling. I can see her at a Belair Market meat counter asking the butcher for a few extra soup bones (marrow included) for this soup.

The most outstanding was her noodle soup. Her German mother taught her to make spaetzle but she never called it that. It was just noodle soup. She mixed the egg and flour, the principal ingredients, in a big crockery bowl. She then rolled out that mixture on a sheet of cold Tennessee marble.

The rolling pin and the flour mixture kicked up a room-sized tornado of dust. She dried her sheets of noodles -- they really looked like irregular islands of dough -- over the kitchen radiator. Late in the afternoon, she cut the dried dough into strips for immersion into the soup kettle.

On certain days, however, my grandmother's casual inattention to Lenten rules presented a problem. Was it legal to eat lentil made with a ham bone?

If Father Mack were visiting, she'd give him a knowing wink, then seek his advice. "Eat the soup," he would say; "one bone never constitutes substantial matter."

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