June 14, 2006
Recently, my wife and I took a retreat to the Loire valley in France. We have been living in Paris for the past year and attending the American Church in Paris. So when they announced that their summer adult retreat would be in a monastery in the French countryside, we were on board.
The Loire river runs from the French Alps, crossing the entire width of France until it finally dumps into the Atlantic Ocean. The well-known region of the "Loire valley" sits just south of Paris and is known as the "corbeille à pain" of France, because its rich soil and flat landscape makes it ideal farm land. The river was once wide, deep and majestic, servicing trade. It was also large enough to carry Viking vessels up river, which in turn carried Vikings, who then raped and pillaged the struggling Gauls during the decline of Rome's imperial power and control of the region in the 5th century AD. As you can see, the rich soil around the Loire river eventually gave way, and the river has since filled with silt, making it currently unnavigable by large boats.
Around the time of the raping and pillaging, a young man of royal blood was born in the North of Italy and named Benedictus. At a very young age he had a conversion experience that lead him to turn to a life of solitude. As he became well known for his miracles and his piety, several monks encouraged him to join them. Although Benedict himself tried unsuccessfully to live in the monastic communities, he is known as the patriarch of western monastacism thanks to his only surviving writing, the Rule of St. Benedict, which encapsulates the values of monastic life and strictly regiments behavoir in the monasteries. Though Benedictines are not affiliated by any central bureaucratic organization, they all are linked by their devotion to at least the spirit of these rules.
The Abbot of Fleury, from Orléans, actually saw to the construction of the church and some of the buildings that currently stand at St. Benoît-sur-Loire, which is why it is also called Abbée de Fleurie. In any case, the massive romanesque church that rises out of the Loire valley in this tiny town of about 2,000 people, is impressive in its own right. But the church is also notable for housing the relics of St. Benedict in a beautiful reliquary beneath the choir (these were obtained through some questionable means in the 13th century). Moreover, the monastic life itself, which continues to be practiced by a small community of about 40 monks cloistered there at the church is a whole other impressive religious symbol, an icon of faith.
The monks attend and administer 7 offices, or services, each day. These services consist of chanting prayers in Latin, singing around 4 or 5 hymns, and a reading from the New and Old Testaments, these latter two in French. They claim to run through the psalms once every week and a half. Though when they enter the monastery, the monks agree to remain there for their lives, they do not spend a great deal of time doing the kinds of activities we would consider to be "community building." The monks eat their meals in silence. And every evening after Vigiles, at around 9:00 until after Laudes and then breakfast at around 8:00, they observe what is called the Great Silence, which is just what it sounds like. In fact, one of the central ideas of the Rule of St. Benedict is that the tongue leads to sin, so most speech, and certainly any jocular, rude or hurtful speech is prohibited.
The word monk, or "moine" in French, comes from the Latin "mono," suggesting that what it means to be a monk is to be alone in front of God, "seul devant Dieu." In a sense, speech, even in a cloistered community detracts from that focused mission. While there for the weekend, our group observed the Great Silence, though we were allowed to speak at lunch and dinner. For the purposes of a short retreat, I found the silence liberating. Even as my wife and I shared the same room and spent the evenings together, we freed ourselves from the need to communicate, the need to reassure each other, the need to fill space with words.
Both nights there, we walked down to the river at sunset and just enjoyed the atmosphere, the surroundings and the silence. Each morning, I ate my breakfast slowly and thoughtfully, being freed from the obligation to chat with my neighbor. Before I paint too rosey a picture of this habit, however, I must say that we had the opportunity to meet one of the monks there at the monastery. He was young and had only been at the St. Benoît for five years, yet he was preparing to take his final examination and looking forward to taking his oath to join the community for life.
His name was Tanguy, and he was bright, quick-witted and honest. Even though he spoke to us in English, which was certainly a bit uncomfortable for him, I think he affected everyone in the group. In fact, our discussions after the fact testified that we were most startled byTanguy's admission to seeing a psychotherapist in Orléans once a week. I'm not sure if it was the honesty and openness, or the idea that a monk–of all people–would need help with his mental health, but what I found most amazing was what Tanguy said about the reasons why. He said that living in a community is difficult (which is no secret). But especially since his community had all voluntarily chosen to submit themselves to such a high standard of excellence–refraining from speaking rather than saying a hurtful word–he said there were none of the usual outlets or ways of "getting things off your chest." He joked that if they were not given mental health benefits, the monastery might be little different than an asylum.
This is coming from someone who had chosen to give his life to worship and to live as a symbol of religious faith in the most austere of environments. I wonder where the rest of us stand on that scale: probably either in the loony bin or at war.