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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Canadian Cardinal consecrated French Benedictine monastery

Voices Aug 28, 2017

Canadian Cardinal Édouard Gagnon consecrates the altar of the new Abbey of Le Barroux in 1989.  (Courtesy Abbaye du Barroux, www.barroux.org)

In Europe, hotel developers and holiday seekers alike are keen on monastery properties because they are almost always found in prime locations, often perched on top of a hill or overlooking the sea, with majestic views and pristine landscapes.

A great many European monasteries in recent years have been closed and turned into hotel or spa resorts.

At a time when many monasteries are closing, others are just beginning. In the south of France pilgrims are drawn to one particular Benedictine Abbey founded in 1978. Today it is a thriving community with nearly 60 monks, located on 75 acres of woods and wine country just north of the village of Le Barroux, near Avignon. (Prince Charles once spent time in the area convalescing after an operation).

A glimpse into the Middle Ages

This is the Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux where serious pilgrims arrive for a glimpse of the ethereal, something so delicate and light it seems too perfect for this world. More specifically, a visit to Barroux is a glimpse into the otherworldly Middle Ages.

It is one of the few monasteries where visitors can witness the full paradox of monastic life in the Latin Church: to watch tonsured monks sing – exclusively – Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant is so rare today that many, even Catholics, only hear it on recordings. 

The monks are also some of the few who have maintained the “monastic crown,” or “tonsure,” coming from the Latin word tonsura (meaning "clipping" or "shearing"). This is the Roman custom of shaving the head so as to allow the hair to grow in the form of a crown (a tradition said to have originated with St. Peter’s baldness). 

The story of the monks of Barroux is fascinating – the monks built from nothing a magnificent Romanesque monastery. They began construction in 1978. By 1981 they moved into their new home, before it even had heating and electricity.

Built to resemble a classic style monastery of a bygone era, all of the buildings included modern technical appurtenances to suit the life of the monks. The exterior walls were made of exposed buttered stones, a local calcareous rock native to the region.

Three stones

The interior of the abbey church is made up of three stones of different colours, coming from neighbouring countries on the Mediterranean basin.

The monastery church, which took three years to construct, was completed in 1989 with great fanfare. That same year, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines promulgated a decree from the Vatican raising the monastery to the rank of Abbey, with all the appropriate titles, rights, and privileges. 

To celebrate, Canadian Cardinal Édouard Gagnon of Quebec, then President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, was invited to visit from the Vatican to consecrate the newly constructed chapel. It was an unforgettable day on the feast of the Guardian Angels, Oct. 2, 1989. The Canadian prelate, accompanied by the Archbishop of Avignon and 14 other prelates, consecrated the new monastery chapel in a five-hour ceremony. 

Being raised to a monastery sui juris by the authority of Pope St. John Paul II, the monks were delighted to be received in private audience by the Holy Father in 1990, when John Paul II received a delegation of the community in the Apostolic Palace, along with their founder, Dom Gerard, and their Vatican patron and helper, fellow Benedictine Cardinal Paul Augustin Mayer. Cardinal Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI, was another early supporter, visiting the new Abbey in 1995. 

A guest wing for male visitors was constructed to allow the monastery to welcome pilgrims wishing to visit and take advantage of the life of prayer and contemplation. Men who visit eat and pray with the monks and have the opportunity for spiritual guidance.

Women visitors are accommodated at the nearby Maison François-Joseph, located 600 meters from the monastery. They visit the monastery chapel to pray the Divine Office and Holy Mass with the monks.

Two kilometres away

Two kilometres from the Abbey – about a half-hour walk through majestic wineries and rustic countryside – is the sister abbey for nuns, the L'Abbaye Notre-Dame-de-l'Annonciation, founded in 1979. The Benedictine sisters, numbering about 40, stand like sentinels on the ramparts of monasticism, assisting the male monks in their prayer and work. 

The sisters moved to Barroux in 1987 and built their lovely monastery, also in matching Romanesque beauty. Their community is exclusively contemplative in an enclosed monastery, much like the men, living lives of prayer, study, and manual labour.

During the Medieval period monasteries built Europe. The same can be seen today in similar ways. Monks and nuns preserve culture while the monastery acts as a centre and refuge for the arts and all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Acting as centres of learning and preserving civilization, monasteries remain silent sign posts pointing toward the eternal, to something greater and to the life to come. They are built elevated and in stone, the obstinate uncompromising reminder that another world exists, of which the present world is only a glimpse, a foretaste. They are symbols of peace and safe harbour.

The life of a monk or nun is, to a great extent, an inner adventure. The motive is thirst – for the absolute, for another world, for the infinite.

Monastic life

The monastic life is guided by the monastic liturgy of the Church, which kindles and guides souls who have given up the world, guiding them toward eternal things. The Gregorian chant helps to capture this.

The monastic is a man or woman who aims with all his or her being toward a life given to continuous progress toward God.

The life of monks and nuns is not easy. Their schedule reflects the passing hours and seasons. Seven times during the day and once during the night they gather in their respective chapels to pray. The rising bell is at 3:15 a.m. Lights out at 8:30 p.m.

The day begins with the praying of the night office of matins (in Latin vigiliae) at 3:25 a.m. After, all privately study in their cells (rooms) the lectio divina at 4:30. At 6:00 they begin with lauds (meaning praises), the prayer of dawn. Private Mass for the male monks is at 6:30. At 7:30 is prayed prime, the first hour of the day (according to the Roman method of counting time). At 8:30 classes begin. At 9:30 they all pray terce (third hour), in memory of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Next is the sung conventional Mass together. 11:00 is manual labour or study. Sext (the sixth hour) is prayed at noon, when the sun is at its zenith. 

As the day winds down, at 2:00 (the ninth hour) is prayed the office of none, when the sun begins to decline, recalling the shallowness of earthly things. At 2:15 is manual labour or study until 5:00. Vespers is prayed at 5:30, when the sun goes down and the Vesper “evening star” comes out. Dinner at 6:30. Compline is sung at 7:45, dusk. On Sundays there is no manual labour.

Visitors marvel at catching a glimpse of the monks and nuns riding their bikes in their flowing Benedictine habits.

Various artisanal products and farm fresh organic goodies made by the Benedictines in traditional/ non-mechanized ways can be purchased in the gift shops, including unique soaps, oils, chocolates, wines, pure honey, cookies, free-range eggs, liqueurs, and much more.

 J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.