One Day at the Monastery: The Tribulation of a Lefebvriste Monk

Gerard, a young Frenchman from the Midi, became a Benedictine monk at one of France’s well-known houses. It was in the early 1950s. He would have prayed and worked till his dying days if the winds of novelty had not blown some dark clouds over his abbey. One day, in 1968, his Abbot declared to the Chapter that “monks ought to be in a state of substantial mutation,” a jargon-infested sentence that was not only contradictory in the order of logic, it was also a signal for the exercise of undiscipline and self-will. It was also the ecclesiastical translation of the graffiti that appeared at the time (spring-summer 1968) on the walls of Paris: “Let imagination come to power!” The Benedictine order had proved, of course, in its 1500 years, that it was not in need of learning about imagination from Parisian students, but after the Second Vatican Council this evidence may have been obscured in some minds.

Not, though, in the mind of Gerard who after some two years decided to migrate to another abbey. It was during these months that he could reflect not only on the Rules of his Order to which he was most loyally and fervently attached, also on the method of countering the feverish notions that swept over monastic life and ideals. He saw the ill effects of the logorrhea in the once silent halls and corridors, the consensus committees set up to discuss everything and mainly nothing, the dictatorship of the “base” over the Superiors, the proliferation of novelties. Gone were cloture, silence, obedience, the contemplative liturgy, Latin, the gregorian chant: in short, the Benedictine tradition.

The migration to another Abbey, famed Fontombault, was in a sense easy because he was well-received. Yet, Gerard had scruples about breaking his vow of stability, of being attached to one House, in his case Tournay, in the High-Pyrenees. It was finally the Rev. Father Gagnebet, O.P., noted Vatican theologian, who quieted his worries by defining for him the meaning of his vow. It was not, Gagnebet explained, the status of being chained to a building, a pile of bricks and mortar, but to a community governed by the Rules. If such a community changes its observances, you are exempted from your vow. You alone, in view of the number of the misguided, could not reform your monastery. Act according to what used to be the practice in our Dominican convents: to reform a house, one founds another, elsewhere. What is rotting, collapses by itself; what is healthy, develops.

At first, Gerard chose the rigors of a hermit in the High Alps region. He remained there for one year, at the end of which someone spoke to him of an abandoned monastery, more a ruin than a building, called the Sainte Madeleine, at Bedoin, in the Vaucluse department. That is where I was to meet him a few years ago.

 

Vaucluse is part of the Provence, the first “Provincia Romana” on the ancient land of Gaul. The visitor sees denuded hilltops, stony soil, an insistent sun beating down on the cypresses, vineyards, olive trees, and lavender fields; a luminous light towards evening, clear, transparent. The painter Cezanne is from this region, and the playwright-novelist Marcel Pagnol; so was the most Hellenic of French political writers, Maurras. Petrarch, here in the Vaucluse, had his small property that he could not bring himself to leave, and here he climbed one day with his brother the Mont Ventoux (the windy hill), earning the title of the “first modern tourist” in the eyes of posterity. He also earned the title of poet laureate in Rome. That was in the fourteenth century.

I first met Dom Gerard practically at the foot of Mont Ventoux, at Bedoin. I had come by car, in the company of delightful old Monsieur de Soualhat, retired director of the St. Gobain Enterprises, who has channeled considerable funds into various Christian enterprises. The previous evening, at dinner in the neighboring town’s only bistro, Soualhat had regaled us with one of the best meals I ever had and, with a rare charm, also with delightfully told episodes of the last war, the post-war times, and a long, laborious life in general. Conversation, dinner, the night sky of the Provence fused in my mind into a lovely impression, so that when I met Dom Gerard the following morning, I was ready for a more austere experience.

New Beginning

At the time of our visit, some years ago, Dom Gerard was surrounded by eighteen young candidates, engaged in building the premises while they lived in a disaffected old bus, the gift of a local entrepreneur. The whole thing began six months after Dom Gerard arrived in the Provence. A young stranger asked one day for permission to join him. Dom Gerard said “no,” since to the trials of monastic life the whole burden of a new beginning would be added. He explains now: We do not want people tired of life, frightened by the moral collapse of a civilization. This would mean accepting false vocations, vocations not grounded in the thirst for God but in anguish before responsibilities. A monastery, says Dom Gerard, is not a shelter for seekers of protection. We almost always begin by sending away the candidate knocking at our door.

This is how the first one was treated. After a few weeks he returned—and stayed. Meanwhile, however, the whole enterprise was transplanted elsewhere, to some 30 miles from the original location, to Le Barroux. A generous group of donors had purchased an entire hill for Sainte Madeleine, with a bare plateau for the buildings, olive groves farther down, and other land yet to be cultivated. We had arrived by car in the village, itself on a hilltop, as towns are generally located around the Mediterranean, from Greece to Spain, but also in Morocco and of course in Sicily. Le Barroux, again in harmony with the Mediterranean landscape, looks from afar like a pile of stones and rocks, as if carved out of the hills and mountains. Once inside, the village impresses with its solid walls, winding streets, almost mystery-filled silence. The inhabitants themselves seem to be carved of stone or wood, weather-beaten, tough. How could I not think of the now-ruin Mycenae, Agamemnon’s hilltop city where his wife murdered him in his bath on return from Troy? The people of Le Barroux could have formed a chorus for Sophocles.

From the window of our room, we could take in the quintessential Provence. It was not yet quite night, the luminosity as if resting on the sharp outlines, softened their effect, bringing out the shades of hills and valleys, the many turns of the roads, the rocks, the cypresses, and the distant towns. A very ancient earth, with long memories, and with harmonies that must be sought out, just like the beauty of character underneath the asperities in a Pagnol film. In the Middle Ages this earth gave saints and crusaders, troubadours and martyrs; it saw the flames of the autos-da-fe for Albigensian heretics and listened to the sweet compositions of courtly poets. As I was looking up in the direction of Sainte Madeleine, now hardly perceptible in the darkening sky among the woods, I understood the wisdom of the choice: this setting is not for hesitant people; here you serve exacting masters, God or the Devil.

Next morning a colonel of the Foreign Legion came to fetch me by car as I was finishing breakfast in the hotel garden. He and his family were spending a week of his furlough at the monastery, a kind of spiritual retreat, although there are no accommodations yet, only friendly addresses where one stays on a private basis, all under Dom Gerard’s protective care. At the monastery I saw indeed some 20 people or more, there for a passing or a longer visit, attracted by the combination of silence, the traditional liturgy—and the din of daily work: bulldozers, pickup trucks, the smell of mortar, the cutting of wood. The “medieval” aspect is unmistakable, at least to one like me who lives in the Babel called Manhattan. At Sainte Madeleine everything serves one purpose: the building of a counter-Babel for the adoration of God. As the Prior says, this rough and delicate landscape, with its clear lines, demands of the buildings a sober facade, constructed, as our ancestors did, from local stone. He adds: the peasants who are our neighbors are grateful for the preservation of this harmony. We avoid both the original and the servile imitation, we seek the roots and the tracing of clear lines (la justesse d’ecriture: the right measure of writing).

I admit to joy while I was contemplating even the external aspects of this life already settled in the midst of unsettledness. Is there a need to explain what affected me? Perhaps there is, in our finishing century. In the setting of our daily existence I am particularly struck by the near-total uselessness of most of our actions, a myriad actes gratuits, busybodying around vast vacuities. Banks, schools, subways, shops, concerts, meetings, airports—all seem like self-generated hustle and noise, which, if it were suddenly silenced by the Last Judgment or by the atomic bomb, would make no more difference than they make now with their tumult and turbulence. All of it is mostly unnecessary because done for no real reason, only for the short-lived and pseudo-satisfaction of tiny superficial interests. In short, there is no reference point.

My first glance of Sainte Madeleine abuilding told me of purpose. Whether it takes one day or a hundred years to build it, the monastery grows out of the soil and out of divinely guided will. Those who work on it—hired masons and the monks, the brother baker, the brother cook, the brother printer, the brother handling the pick ax, the brother librarian, the brother in charge of the poultry, of vegetable gardens, of guests, of payments, of studies, of carpentry—do so with a marvelously integrated double purpose, the art and essence of which is lost in our society “outside”: laboring on visible things for a higher glory. The true meaning of work, in the light of which the Benedictine rule, ora et labora, (“pray and work”) acquires a transcendent value.

Why Anonymity

But a third, inseparable dimension is also added. No artisan’s signature marks any of the great architectural and artistic achievement of abbeys, cathedrals, churches of the Middle Ages. We know some names, but only from indirect sources: an architect here and there having studied at some famous school where he is on the student list, another having been paid and the record of it survived, etc. The ignorant say that such anonymity is additional proof of the medieval contempt for the individual and his worth; but the Rules of Saint Benedict expressly specify that the worker must yield to the work, whether it is modest or sublime. “When one of our monks,” the Prior says, “draws an inordinate pride from what he does, the Father Abbot assigns him to other tasks.” For it makes little difference: any act may be performed ad maiorem Dei gloriam. When Theresa of Avila was growing old and it was painful for her to climb stairs, she said to the religious wanting to spare her: “I climb these stairs for the missionaries.” This is what Simone Weil called “a well-used suffering”; she insisted, even in her New York and London exile, on eating only as much as a Frenchman’s ration was, as long as the war lasted.

I spent the day at Sainte Madeleine. The colonel who had driven me introduced his wife and four children, but it was already time to go to the chapel. One by one, the monks and visiting priests entered, the former just having put their tools aside and still out of breath. I was struck—how to put it—by the ease, the naturalness of their dropping to their knees. It was one single movement, no careful folding of joints, no half-gesture to reach out with the hand. A long habit of instant obedience. In general, all gestures and body movements were simple, direct, only the required amount, so to speak.

Mentally, I compared the mere mechanics of these movements with those of my students, since their ages were roughly the same. And thus I understood one more thing about our civilization, our way of life, its dragging indifference, purposelessness, mind and body corrupted by lack of direction, a way of walking equally distant from the animal’s grace and the intellect’s concentration. I also understood why kneeling is today quasi-forbidden at the communion rail: it is the spontaneous movement of worship, the self-humbling of the strong. But kneeling will not do for atomized individuals for whom the soul is an archaism; who are not spontaneous but wound-up robots; and who are told by their manipulators that they are autonomous, masters of themselves and of the universe.

Kneeling has thus become a language, one almost fears to say, a language of defiance in the face of official sanctions. It has taken its place beside liturgical Latin and a few other “controversial” practices, one of the many so-called “non-essentials.” What those who so defined them—and relegated them instantly to the dustbin—do not seem to comprehend is that liturgical language and gestures, while they do not contradict reason, are helpful precisely because they take place in the penumbra of reason where will comes to balance it. Worship calls into play many of our faculties, and like an immensely skilled pianist, it uses counterpoint in a masterful fashion.

The worshipper does not have to comprehend each and every symbol of his faith while he performs the act of worship. This would be counterproductive, as are indeed many of the acts the believer is compelled to make in these times. Mystery must also have its share in worship, and by mystery I mean the not-quite-comprehended by the mind, but nevertheless grasped by soul and body. Mystery calls forth an inner dialogue, shared with others, between the lower and higher order of creation. Kneeling or Latin or even the mumbled prayer expresses a fuller integration, a deeper reception, than does standing or the language of daily use.

The Lefebvre Connection

The monastery has grown from one adherent to 18, and now it stands at 40. If more will come, a new house will be founded elsewhere, not necessarily in France. Dom Gerard has very good connections with Brazil, where he once spent a few years, sent by his original Abbot. Meanwhile, however, he has assumed crushing responsibilities since Sainte Madeleine is not yet listed among the monasteries. Not that the wheels of ecclesiastical bureaucracy move slowly, it is that Sainte Madeleine has the reputation of a “Lefebvriste” community.

Much has been written about Archbishop Lefebvre, and it cannot be my intention to add to that painful literature. The monks, consecrated by him, certainly walk on a sharp edge since at this writing the future of the movement is undecided. There are signs of acceptance: before the extraordinary spiritual and material effort that Dom Gerard’s undertaking represents, other Houses of the Benedictine Order have moved closer, watching, deliberating, and showing brotherliness. To gather 40 robust youths in a few years by promising them not an established routine but backbreaking labor for who knows how many years—this is no small thing that official silence may blow away. After all, 14 centuries of Benedictine order represent a cohesion in which the entire contemplative tradition of the West has its roots and style. Sainte Madeleine, “Lefebvriste” or not, makes not the slightest attempt to suggest modifications. Dom Gerard categorically states that the Founder’s Rule offers a matchless means for the apprenticeship of contemplative life. It is unlikely that he who had been a victim of innovations, would now propose further changes.

At any rate, the quarter-ready structures of the monastery are enlivened by a constant stream of visitors. The order of the house is naturally not interrupted; the visitors blend with the day’s routine. Each in his heart regards the monastery as his own undertaking, not because of the sums (or objects of need, from chalice to typewriter) he eventually contributes, rather because he feels he has a vital stake in the founding and its spiritual prosperity.

France is still very much a Catholic country, its religious fervor being a counterpart to its equally resistant radical tradition from the Cathars to the Jacobins. The visitors’ presence seems to underline the will to assert Catholicism, even if now, alas, in the context of renewed controversy. Other nations’ Catholics may be aghast at certain events taking place within the Church of France. Just one example is the very old church of St. Nicholas de Chardonnet which, four years ago, was occupied by “integrists” who one day simply blocked the return of its curate, a “progressiste.” The cardinal archbishop of Paris vainly protested; only the French State which since the laws promulgated in 1905 owns all ecclesiastical buildings, could expel the present occupants. The latter hold Tridentine Masses, filling the church each time, something that cannot be said of most other churches in Paris. Yet no government, not even the socialist-communist one, would undertake the expulsion of the “occupants” and thereby incur the accusation of religious persecution. It is hard to see policemen dragging out the worshippers.

Sainte Madeleine is not on “occupied” grounds, the place was bought and donated by friends, and they are also the ones who guarantee the costs of the construction, a tremendous amount of money to disburse, some $400,000 monthly. This financial burden seems to be borne with an evident gaiety of heart which, in its contagiousness, affects the visitor also. This is partly because the visitor is at once integrated in the everyday life of the monastery. The cloture is respected, although in its physical reality it is still only a line drawn on the ground by the architect. The female visitors are placed in the charge of local nuns, the male visitor enjoys whatever comfort can already be offered within the one-and-a-half standing buildings.

He is asked, if he happens to be a professor, a priest, a journalist, a traveler in distant lands, a businessman, to speak of subjects of his competence, and the audience, a very attentive one, is exhorted by the Prior to absorb news from the outside world or topics pertaining to general studies of theology, philosophy, Church history. The overall atmosphere is one of study, work, and prayer, each permeated by the spirit that emanates from sturdy faith and lifelong commitment to the call of God.

“The community,” Dom Gerard explains, “provides a precious help, after St. Benedict who conceived the monastic family—neither too fragile, nor too ponderous—as a means permitting the soul to pursue its quest for God. Without guidance, without the environment helping to sustain the burden, one’s back may quickly break.” This is exactly what must have been in Benedict’s mind when he weighed the lessons drawn from individual hermitage, which was by his time a several centuries-old practice by the desert Fathers. His new idea was the corporate living for monks. While this way of life has been so deeply incorporated with our culture that most community phenomena in fact imitate it, without being aware, the idea and the ideal are renewed in our century. What did the California communes attempt to do, after all, if not search for a formula of combining individual thirst for some kind of absolute that the prevailing ethos forbade them to call God? Many other contemporary “group experiences” follow the same path, but in our age they are almost by necessity misled. They then get trapped between the Scylla of atomized individualism and the Charybdis of the faceless lonely crowd.

Sainte Madeleine, like its sister institutions, embodies the happy equilibrium. It is a crossroad and at the same time a symbol of strong relationships: linking man to God, and with this precondition inscribed in the Absolute, linking man to man. What would sociologists say to such a complex of attachments, where the linchpin is invisible yet an all-commanding and supreme giver of meaning? I am sure that a sociological, nay a psycho-sociological explanation is ready, far more complicated than reality. Men, in order to be human and at times just a little more, need a transcendent reference that the Freudians, way off the mark, call the need for a father figure. But this transcendent reference must also be accessible in flesh—incarnation—in stone, light, symbol, beauty, music, color, rich fabrics, harmony. Liturgy is supposed to satisfy this desire on one level, splendid places of worship on another.

Hence Dom Gerard’s insistence that, although the financial resources remain modest, Sainte Madeleine should be beautiful and should beautifully blend with the local style, “of Roman spirit and of the style of the Provence,” as he puts it. The visitor remarks: the cathedrals are gothic, the abbatial churches Romanic. True, answers the Prior, the Romanic architecture is best suited to Benedictine peace.

Beyond Divisions

The monks at Sainte Madeleine pray day and night for peace in the Church. They must be of a tough fiber, Dom Gerard notes, because they build the monastery and a better future for the Church of which they are militants in more than one respect. Primarily, they are God’s militants; in the second place, they fulfill their monastic function, aware that such a place is intensely a place of mediation between people bringing their trust and God who never deceives them—not even, it is ever hoped, in the person of His servants. These two militancies would be sufficient in normal times; in ours, however, a third one is added, the need for reconciliation. These 40 young men, among many others, must provide proof that ideology has not led a successful assault on the Church, in spite of the frightening phrase used by Fr. Yves Congar when he labeled Vatican II the “Church’s October Revolution.” There can be no leftism and rightism in the Church, not only because of the obvious implications, factional warring, “class struggle,” but chiefly because this would mean the triumph of pride, the world’s victory. Pride attaches itself to everything man does; it is the heart’s poison; it is the shadow even of the mystic’s elan. This is the reason why Benedict insisted so much on humility, man’s modest withdrawal behind his achievement. This is the spirit of Sainte Madeleine, this is what fills the heart of its visitors with hope and faith.

The young monks are of many nationalities, from Brazilian to Lebanese. There is one from Illinois, and he asked the Prior’s permission to see me. I guess that more than anything else he longed to speak English, an understandable desire. We spoke for half an hour, undisturbed. He is 22 years old, and had been at Sainte Madeleine for eighteen months, still unbelieving in the transplant from his small town to the Provence. He is a carpenter by trade, and is so occupied at the monastery. “The French are very political, and they kid me a lot,” he complained mildly. “But I begin to understand, and the Father Prior does not allow things to get out of hand.” There, in front of this rough yet soft landscape that we saw through the window, I explained to my young compatriot the extent to which secular and Church history are intertwined in France, that he must understand this very different tradition. I asked him if he is nostalgic. Just a little, he replied, “I am still amazed at my good fortune of experiencing the roots of my belief. This is such an ancient Catholic country.”

I was leaving, this time with a young monk from Brazil as my driver. The Prior was there to take leave and to hand me a book, a beautifully and lavishly printed text by one of his mentors, Henri Charlier, poet, mystic, sculptor. Only on arrival to the hotel did I open it. The inscription read (I translate): “In memory of a luminous day on a place of toil where even the sweat sings.” Signed: Gerard, OSB.

Epilogue

What was here recorded occurred some seven years ago, when the watch-word of this proud and humble founder of Le Barroux was still that “we must at times leave behind legality in order to preserve justice.” He had no reason to regret it: on July 2 1989, in the presence of religious and civil notables, Cardinal Augustin Mayer, sent by Rome, conferred the abbatial blessing on Dom Gerard, promoting him to the title of Father Abbot, and as such, to the episcopal rank. Sainte Madeleine is now an autonomous Benedictine Abbey, but unlike other abbeys of the Order, it keeps the Latin Mass, the Tridentine liturgy, the Gregorian chant, and its members are also authorized to teach the Tridentine catechism to the children of the Provence. “We were not asked to sign anything in return,” announced a spokesman. Unlike Lefebvre, however, the abbey remains part of the Catholic Church, under papal authority.

The event was preceded and followed by controversy as it had been expected it would. Some see in it the Vatican’s diplomatic finesse of dividing Mgr. Lefebvre’s remaining partisans who at one time thought of Dom Gerard Calvet as the traditionalist Archbishop’s eventual successor. Thus, in this view, Rome “caught a big fish.” Others find that Dom Gerard—as many continue calling him—went as far as he could (he attended Lefebvre’s 1988 consecration of bishops at Econe), but chose to remain with Peter when the break became manifest. His critics prefer now not to mention his name; his well-wishers at the ceremony of July 2 are happy that a very great spiritual enterprise brought magnificent fruit. The bishops of France were not invited, not even that of nearby Avignon. We wanted, says Dom Gerard, to avoid embarrassing them.

The unity thus restored—and Le Barroux is one of its primary symbols—shows again that God writes straight at times with crooked lines. Archbishop Lefebvre’s stance has clarified basic issues, has helped Rome to deal with excesses on both sides, to weigh the enthusiasm of the aggiornamento against uncompromising faith. The moving ceremony at Le Barroux may be, for eyes more spiritually perceptive than ours, a counter-weight in the divine economy to the theology of liberation in distant South America. It is also a pastoral warning to episcopates and intellectuals that Rome possesses a built-in compass allowing her to remain at the center; not as a sign of hesitant timidity, but like the hand which confers the blessing to all sides.

Thomas Molnar

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Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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