Monastery Vacations in France

Glossy travel catalogs overflowed my mailbox in early spring. These days, modern travelers are wooed with the promise of novelty: Swim with the dolphins or search for Incan artifacts with archaeologists in Peru. Travel professionals recognize that often what is sought is not just another excursion but a Significant Experience.

Sandwiched between the travel catalogs in my mailbox was a gift copy of Hannah Green’s Little Saint (Modern Library, 2000). Papal biographer George Weigel’s book endorsement on the jacket promised the reader a “strangely compelling form of travelogue…. Green transforms travel writing into spiritual writing.” I was captivated. By the last chapter, I had resolved to see the French hamlet where Green had a significant experience: She had fallen in love with a child saint martyred 1,600 years ago.

The great monuments of France’s Christian heritage—places like Lourdes or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris—are popular destinations for tourists and pilgrims. But hidden in remote villages and undiscovered by most travelers are the country’s historic monasteries. Happily, the monastic tradition of hospitality is as strong now as it was in the Middle Ages; the monks are happy to welcome pilgrims and other wayfarers in search of something more than a vacation.

A recent book, Europe’s Monastery and Convent Guest-houses, lists dozens of religious houses whose rich welcome for persons of all faiths (or none) belies the pittance charged for bed and blessing. Here the traveler becomes a pilgrim, and a vacation may double as a retreat; an encounter for the soul as well as the eye and the palate. Before I began my own trip, I mapped a route that would combine spiritual discoveries with the celebrated delights of Normandy, the Loire Valley, and Provence.

Paris and Beyond

At 140 rue du Bac in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, just beyond a window filled with antique baby shoes, I entered the convent where the Virgin Mary revealed the Miraculous Medal to St. Catherine Labouré. Visitors scooped up books and medals along the narrow courtyard before entering the church. Inside, St. Catherine’s incorrupt body reposes beneath a statue of the white-robed Virgin of the Globe. Satan is pinned beneath Our Lady’s feet.

Leaving the Miraculous Medal chapel, I walked a few blocks to the shrine of St. Vincent de Paul at 95 rue de Sèvres. Though he once lived in splendor as chaplain to Queen Margaret of Valois, St. Vincent chose to dedicate his life to the poor. The St. Vincent de Paul Society carries on his work today in thousands of parishes around the world.

The visitor who seeks mildly austere accommodations as a salute to these Parisian saints will find the proper atmosphere at the Benedictine Priory at Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre. Those who prefer to adopt an ascetic routine only after departing the City of Light, might try the quirky but comfortable Hotel Buci Latin, which anchors the pedestrian promenade, rue de Buci, at the Boulevard St. Germain. Open-air markets and street-side restaurants abound, complete with mimes, jugglers, and fire-eating canines.

April in Paris is seductive, yet the adventures ahead beckoned. I sped north along the A-13 toward the famous Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. On the far side of St. Colombe, once a Templar stronghold, the sunny, green fields erupt in exuberant gold—perfect agricultural blocks of yellow chamomile, mile after mile. The undulating countryside seemed a giant quilt of emerald and gold.

Past the half-timbered town of Brionne, a small sign pointed toward the abbey two kilometers down D-580. This minor road is not noted on the Michelin map, but the lane was bordered by a creek, its banks smothered with blue hydrangeas and fat, woolly sheep—it seemed a worthy approach.

The abbey, named after a knight-turned-hermit, was founded in 1034, 32 years before the Norman Conquest. A number of its abbots became archbishops of Canterbury, including St. Anselm. Pope Alexander II was a student at the abbey.

Wisteria cloaks the stone walls, which are bordered with purple cabbages. Apple trees and pink clematis stir in the breeze. Though the cream-colored stone church, cloisters, and dormitories have been faithfully restored, the 15th-century tower of St. Nicholas remains as it stood centuries ago.

Notre-Dame du Bec-Hellouin maintains two guest-houses, one on the grounds for men only and another outside the walls for women and couples. Participants join the community at will for the Liturgy of the Hours and for Mass sung in French. A close relationship with Canterbury continues; thus the abbey is popular with English retreatants. Those who desire accommodations must write well in advance for reservations.

More spontaneous pilgrims will be pleasantly cared for at 18th-century L’Auberge de l’Abbaye. The inn’s restaurant is justly proud of its regional dishes featuring apples and Calvados. After dinner, one can walk up the green-canopied road above Bec-Hellouin—a good place to meditate and to pray. The gentle descent leads past cottages and farmyards.

“There are only 450 residents in the village,” says Anne Brodrick, whose 250-year-old cottage has been restored. “After the Second World War, the monks returned to the abbey, and village life was revived. The residents have resisted commercialization, but it is difficult to live here because there is so little work. Most people do not attend the office or even Mass, but we have a core community that does participate. It is a different way to live:’

Anne and her husband, William, an English barrister turned novelist, visited Bec-Hellouin on holiday. “We simply fell in love with this life. We knew we had to come here.” Two English couples recommended a routine of morning Mass with day trips to Honfleur (a seaside city favored by Pissarro and Cézanne) and Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), returning to the abbey in time for Vespers. My departure route westward skirts Lisieux, another option for a day’s roam from the abbey.

The Starry Virgin

Pontmain is not on any of my three maps. No guidebook lists this verdant speck of Normandy. The spires of the Basilica of Pontmain appear first as a mirage on the horizon, miles before the village comes into view. The vision is oddly misplaced in the rolling pastures 40 miles from the coast at Mont St. Michel.

On a snowy January night in 1871, the desperate villagers, near starvation, received reports that the German army had entered the gates of Laval, 40 kilometers to the south. French deserters roamed the farmlands searching for food; typhoid and smallpox were spreading. “Prayer is useless. God does not hear us,” grumbled the townsfolk. Fear pressed families behind closed doors.

Twelve-year-old Eugene Barbedettes left the family barn in the evening. The sky was heavy with cold, the night clear. Above the neighbor’s roof he saw a dazzling woman in a starry robe, her hands outstretched toward him. Eugene called for his brother and father. The children of the village could see the Virgin. They described a blood-red cross as it gradually appeared on her breast. She was unseen by the adults.

“Do pray, my children. God will answer you very soon,” she said. The apparition remained above the village for three hours. Three days later, inexplicably, the German troops withdrew and Pontmain was spared. An armistice was signed on January 28, ending the Franco-Prussian War. In 1872 the bishop of Laval authorized devotion to Our Lady of Hope and the construction of the shrine at Pontmain.

Every year, more than 250,000 pilgrims find their way to Our Lady of Pontmain. Few stay longer than an hour. They miss the woodland walk of Calvary where bluebells carpet the path along a stream. They never see the 20-foot red crucifix that was visible from my window at the Relais la Bocage, staffed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Here the rooms with a bath are appropriately spare. The turn-of-the-century building behind the basilica is permeated with a sense of contentment that comes with a simple life of prayer. Meals are lovingly served, worn books are piled in chairs and baskets, and evening fragrances soothe tired minds. As with many such religious houses, a pilgrim is left to structure his own day of prayer and play, exercise and study. Hikers can happily tramp from one to another of the villages within a five-mile radius, completing the circuit after lunch and before vespers.

If one must interrupt meditative days at Pontmain, it seems fitting to do so with a day trip to the Normandy beaches or to Villedieu les Poêles (Village of God of the Saucepans). This quaint city is famous for its copper pots and pans. A little farther west is the astonishing abbey of Mont St. Michel. If you have been to France, you may have already seen the abbey, but this angelic fortress of the faith cannot be visited too often.

Gregorian Chant and Notre Dame du Nid

Even pilgrims will want to spend at least one day tracing the Loire River around magical castles and medieval fortresses. In the midst of this fairy-tale region, there are several important abbeys. The modern music industry was no less surprised than the monks when Gregorian chant topped the charts. Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes is home to the now famous Benedictine monks whose voices fill the abbey church several times each day.

The Abbaye Saint-Pierre maintains a guesthouse for men. Two blocks distant the Abbaye Sainte-Cecile, a community of Benedictine nuns of the Congregation of Solesmes, welcomes women and families at Villa Sainte-Anne. Visitors are encouraged to be present several times each day for the singing of the Divine Office in Latin.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre stands majestically over the river Sarthe. Its stone archway leads into a small courtyard in front of the abbey church; the remaining buildings are cloistered. Inside the shadowy, candlelit church there is a remarkable bas-relief of the Dormition of Mary. Repose comes naturally here. One is barely conscious of the faint hum as the singing monks process from their cloister toward the church. Two by two the monks enter.

Locals and visitors fill half of the church. All one’s worries recede as the monks chant praise and supplication. I found CDs of Solesmes chant, as well as devotional gifts in the gift shop by the gate. Most treasured, however, is a book that details the genius of Dom Prosper Gueranger, abbot of Saint-Pierre, who is credited with the restoration of Gregorian chant.

Across the river from the Abbaye Sainte-Pierre, there is a hidden flight of stone stairs that lead up behind an artist’s studio. There in a tangle of briars and neglected roses stands a tiny chapel dedicated to Notre Dame du Nid, Our Lady of the Nest. Inside the chapel is a small altar with candles and an endearing statue of the Virgin nesting a family in her hands. The pamphlet on the table explained that the chapel was built by a man whose marriage was troubled. He sought the aid of the Blessed Virgin, promising to build a chapel in her honor if his family was restored.

At Villa Sainte-Anne, Sister Marie of the Abbaye Sainte-Cecile was arranging flowers from the villa garden. She takes care that everyone has met and that dinner in the dining room is a family affair. Her eyes are wise and friendly—how many pilgrims has she welcomed? Sister Marie dashes away for compline with her community, and though most of the others return to Saint-Pierre for compline, I walk up the road to Abbaye Sainte-Cecile to hear the nuns chant.

The church is sweetly, elegantly feminine. Lilies and incense barely perfume the cool interior. I am alone in the nave. This community is cloistered; I cannot see the nuns. Their ethereal voices rise, then echo down into the nave from gothic vaults, as if to heaven and back. Later, I asked Sister Marie if her nuns had recorded their own CDs. She shook her head: “It is no matter. We sing for God.”

My Name Is Faith, and I Am a Christian

I’m unable to suppress my excitement as I wind through the mountains toward Conques. The village is described in travel literature as a forgotten medieval dream. The land itself is mysterious. Deep gorges, rivers rushing out of the granite cliffs shrouded in mist, tall chestnut forests. I have reread many parts of Hanna Green’s Little Saint, and I am anxious to see St. Foy in Majesty. Foy—the name means “faith”—stood before the proconsul Dacien in 303 at Agen, during the reign of Diocletian. She was twelve. Taught the tenets of Christianity by her nurse, this nobleman’s daughter refused to renounce her belief in Christ, “My name is Faith, and I am a Christian,” she said. Dacien had the child beheaded.

Her relics are enclosed in an elaborate jewel-encrusted doll reliquary. The oldest portion of the reliquary, the head, is from the fifth century. Kings and conquerors brought incredible gems to adorn St. Foy: pearls, aquamarines, jasper, rubies, onyx, topaz, and the rarest Byzantine intaglios. An astounding Carolingian crystal engraved with the Crucifixion adorns the back of her throne.

Austere, even stark, the Abbaye de Sainte Foy is a marvel of geometry. Massive pillars support the soaring heights of the cruciform abbey’s nave; the upper galleries lighten the stonework with gemeled arches. The original tenth-century church was built when the pious Robber Monk “translated” St. Foy from Agen to this hidden mountain village. According to Bernard of Anger’s eleventh-century Book of Miracles of Saint Foy, the whispered reports of miracles brought pilgrims who were crossing through France en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (see “Pilgrimage to the Stars,” May 2000).

Modern pilgrims to Santiago who still mount the craggy Route de Charlemagne winding from Le Puy through Conques are welcomed by the Premonstratensian monks at the abbey’s ample guesthouse. There are dormitory-style rooms but also single rooms with modern baths, which must seem heavenly to road-weary pilgrims. The monks and lay volunteers who staff the pilgrim’s retreat radiate love and dedication to their visitors. In the refectory, merry chatter in several languages bounces from the rafters. The food is simple but hearty; the local bread is delicious.

There are tears at the pilgrims’ blessing ceremony after vespers. The wayfarers are sent forth with a small loaf for the road, and the chanting monks are joined by all in singing “Ultreya, Ultr-ey-a!” (Press on!) I wanted to lace up my own boots and follow them. Century after century, saints and sinners have walked this way and prayed in this church; their prayers and ours are connected by this place.

At compline, the candlelit church is filled with the sound of a powerful organ played by Frere Jean-Louis. Shadows hover at the dome 72 feet above us. The sojourners file in; they gape. I watched a young pilgrim trembling with fatigue as he eased into a pew, his head tilted upward in utter amazement. The celestial music swelled and his eyes half-closed, his chest rising and falling. Surely this is the foyer of heaven.

Visitors not following the pilgrimage road through Conques will be well cared for at the Hotel St. Foy. The restaurant surprises the diner with sophisticated interpretations of regional dishes. A potage of potatos dotted with the morning’s harvest of English peas and a croix of fresh green and white asparagus left little room for chicken with chantrelle mushrooms and a creamy risotto.

A misty rain glistened on the slate roofs of the village as I departed Conques. I believe it is impossible to leave this mysterious place unchanged.

Deep Retreat

Ahead lay Provence. Writers, artists, poets, loafers, and lovers—all sing the praises of this well-traveled Eden. Most reside in sybaritic hotels and bougainvillea-draped villas. Too many visitors miss the beauty and solace of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque.

A spectacular twelfth-century Cistercian abbey, Senanque lies in a narrow valley surrounded by its own fields of lavender. The gray-stone abbey church is a marked contrast to the soaring volume of the Cathedral of St. Foy. Cistercian form called for reduced heights, and spires were forbidden until the twelfth century. Here, the architecture reflects the Cistercian virtues of order and simplicity.

The approach to the abbey is through neat rows of lavender. Unsure of where to proceed (and suitcase in hand), I entered an impressive gift shop. Abbey products and gifts included lavender products and a daunting selection of theological volumes. A young man directed me outside through iron gates and around a drive marked “Privé.”

I pushed the bell beneath a sign that read, “Ring the bell, and have patience?’ This admonition set the tone for the days to come as I accustomed myself to the monastic rhythm.

My welcome was kind and gracious. The monks were intrigued that an American laywoman had written to request a retreat at Snanque. Frère John, the hotelier, summoned Frere Colomban, whose English was less limited than my French, to translate our conversation. Frère John wondered if perhaps Americans, used to convenience, would hesitate to come to Sénanque where the rooms are simple and the baths are reminiscent of college dormitories. Frère Jean-Marie, the superior, estimated that between 500 and 600 people spend a few days at Sénanque each year—mostly French, some Swiss and Italian, and rarely Americans. “There is always someone here,” he said.

Frère Colomban escorted me through the cloisters with its incredible variety of capitals, the ancient chapter house—how cold it must be in the winter!—the private chapel, and the library. My own room overlooked a walled garden facing the woods. Beneath my window, a monk was hanging laundry on the line.

That evening, three of us from the guest quarters joined local residents for vespers in the abbey church. Its foreshortened cruciform interior is bridged above by a magnificent central dome. Except for the altar candles, the church was unlit. The monks of Sénanque took their positions, and Frère Colomban unwound a thick rope that hung from the ceiling and was wrapped around a pillar. In the hushed and darkened church, there was an anticipatory pause. Then Frère Colomban pushed back the long sleeves of his habit and lifted his arms as high as they could reach along the rope. His body strained upward then sank downward. Above us in the octagonal dome the abbey bell sang out over the valley.

The guest refectory looks out over the monks’ large and supremely orderly potager (kitchen garden). Meals are vegetarian and simple; this night, poached leeks dressed in olive oil, linguine with zucchini, hearty bread, yogurt, and chamomile tea. Visitors to Senanque observe the rule of silence. Music or readings accompany meals. Everyone clears his own plate and sets out dishes for breakfast.

Frere Jean-Marie has a heavenly voice. He leads the others in the solemn night prayers at compline. The abbey church is utterly devoid of ornamentation—as one would expect in a Cistercian abbey—save a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary whose red and gold veil shimmers in the candlelight of the night-dark church. The chanting voices lift the soul.

Footsteps brush quietly along the ancient cloister. Ahead of me in the dark, someone inserts a key into the heavy oak door that leads to the monks’ private chapel. We have come for vigil. It is 4:30 in the morning. This is my first vigil: It has taken me three days to complete an entire cycle of the Divine Office. The body rebels, but now the soul impels. I smile at my little victory. This is a secret knowledge, difficult to learn in the world outside these walls. Here I have had a glimpse of discipline, order, and detachment. And patience.

The TGV train for Paris leaves from Avignon, just an hour away. The gates of Sénanque close behind me. Above the monastery, the road winds three kilometers up to Gordes, one of the most romantic villages in Provence. Yellow roses as big as saucers cling to its walls. It is a breathtaking cliffside collection of villas, hotels, and shops. There is a colorful street market here on Tuesdays. The people are beautiful, outdoor restaurants clatter pleasantly, and rosemary perfumes their terraces. A week ago, I would have been content here. Now, though I see the loveliness of this storied village against the sky, my heart is listening for the bells of Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque.

  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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