A brief history of monastic life in France

Covid-19 has forced the unusual situation of people having to withdraw somewhat from the world. For monks, though, this form of isolation has a long history

20 March 2021
By Nick Inman

For monks, it is not so much a matter of giving up aspects of life, but of liberating the mind to focus on more important things.

It is still possible to visit monasteries in France to try out this lifestyle although Covid restrictions mean they are not currently open. However, once the pandemic passes it is an option that might prove tempting to those who have profited from the slower and more detached life that Covid has brought us.

The idea of monasticism – withdrawing from the world in order to be as good as you can be in as good company as you can manage – was born in the deserts of the Middle East in the 4th century but given its distinctive form in France, particularly in Burgundy, during the middle ages.

The Irish missionary St Columbanus, not to be confused with St Columba, set up three early monasteries in the foothills of the Vosges at the end of the 6th century, and St Benedict of Aniane created an abbey in the Languedoc in the 8th century.

None of these institutions survive.

From the 8th to the 12th century, almost all monasteries in France were run according to the monastic rule of ora et labora (pray and work) created by Saint Benedict of Nursia.

In particular, the Benedictine abbey of Cluny grew immensely powerful, spreading its religious and cultural influence along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

Curiously, a number of ‘lay monasteries’ were established at this time in the western foothills of the northern Pyrenees. They were created by feudal lords or landowners, partly as a bulwark against the threat of Islam coming from Spain, and each was supported by a number of dependent farms. Barely a trace of any of them is left today.

Monasticism contains a number of inherent tensions

Prevailing orthodoxy is gradually undermined by movements of reform. So it was with Cluny, which had grown conspicuously wealthy in contradiction to the three vows taken by any monk: chastity, poverty and obedience.The Cistercians (the ‘white monks’ as opposed to the ‘black monks’ of Cluny), especially under the direction of St Bernard, sought a return to a simpler and more rigorous life in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict.

The Cistercians were themselves subject to reform by the Trappist movement that began at La Trappe (near Soligny in the Orne) in 1662. In parallel to Cluny, Saint Bruno set up his own monastery of Grande Chartreuse in the mountains of the same name, north of Grenoble, in the 11th century to offer his own concept of monasticism.

In the late Middle Ages, monastic orders proliferated and religious houses were set up by Augustine Canons, Franciscans and many other orders.

The Reformation, the Wars of Religion and the Enlightenment meant that the population of some monasteries dwindled and even died out altogether.

The dechristianising forces of the Revolution forced the abandonment of yet more abbeys and the dismemberment of their buildings, often leaving only an abbey church and possibly its cloister – Moissac being the finest example – but free of other dependencies.

The separation of church and state in 1905 dealt monasticism a further blow. Yet the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a trend in the other direction: the creation of new communities which revived and reoccupied former monasteries. In recent years, new monastic orders have been created and new abbeys built – such as Randol in Puy-de-Dôme and Le Barroux in Provence. Around a quarter of the monasteries built in France since the year 1000 are still occupied by religious communities.

To take monastic vows today (always after a suitable period of preparation) is not to escape from the pressures of the “real world” but to enter another which is, in many ways, more demanding.

Every monk or nun subjects him or herself to a rule intended to ensure stability and predictability through regular work and prayer; and he or she submits to the will of a superior, the abbot or abbess. It is a humble, secluded life.

Paradoxically, this giving up of everyday freewill is seen as liberating the mind and soul to concentrate on other, ‘higher’ things. Without the distractions of consumer life, the religieuse engages in a struggle with their thoughts, doubts and temptations.

Today, monasteries are divided into those that are active and those that have become monuments visited by tourists. While the enforced isolation brought about by Covid-19 is too much for some, monks have for centuries sought absolute peace and quiet. Nick Inman looks at monastic life past and present A brief history of monastic life – and how you can give it a try “ Many functioning monasteries have accommodation for anyone who wants to stay and participate in the life of the community or used as cultural venues or even hotels.

Fontenay, in Burgundy, Fontevraud and the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen all give a good idea of how a complete monastery looked in the middle ages.

There are around 6,000 Christian monks and nuns in France today who have taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Many functioning monasteries have accommodation for anyone who wants to stay and participate in the life of the community

Some only accept men or women, and all have particular regulations which guests are expected to respect. Religious communities that offer accommodation for those wishing to undertake a retreat include the St Martin du Canigou, in Catalonia, Solesmes, in La Sarthe near Le Mans, and the twin monastery/ convent of Belloc et Urt in PyrénéesAtlantiques.

Staying in a monastic community will give you an entirely different perspective. From the outside it is easy to underestimate, misunderstand or idealise the urge to live in a religious community.

It can seem like a way of escaping from reality but most monks would say the exact opposite: living without the material luxuries of consumerism is a way of getting back in touch with yourself and the nature of human existence.

A brief tour of France's monasteries open to the public 

Abbaye de Belloc-et-Urt

A modern Benedictine monastery and convent close together in the hills of the French Basque Country

Abbaye de Charroux 

Church with extraordinary sculptures. The remains of a monastery founded under Charlemagne

Abbaye de Cluny 

The home of monasticism, Cluny was founded in 910 and at its height was the mother house of 1400 dependent monasteries. It was sold off in 1798 and many of the buildings demolished.

Abbaye de Fontenay

Cistercian monastery founded in 1118 by St Bernard of Clairvaux. World Heritage Site. Fontevraud www.fontevraud.fr. A royal abbey associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once the biggest monastery in Europe it is now a monument and hotel-restaurant.

Grand Chartreuse 

Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. The subject of the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, by Philip Groning (2005).

Abbaye de La Trappe 

The original Trappist monastery founded on a strict observance of the monastic rule.

Abbaye de Mont st Michel

An active religious institution of men and women at the top of France’s most iconic landmark, run by the Community of Jerusalem.

Abbaye Notre Dame de Cîteaux

The headquarters of the Cistercian order. Accommodation provided to visitors. Active community of 35 monks.

Abbaye de Royaumont

Well preserved Cistercian monastery not far from Paris, now a hotel-restaurant and cultural and conference centre

Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou

In the Catalan Pyrenees near Perpignan. Runs spiritual retreats.

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Moissac

Visited today for its extraordinary cloister.

Abbaye de Saint Pierre de Solesmes

Near Sable sur Sarthe. Large monastery with 50 resident monks. Accommodation for men only.

Abbaye de Saint Savin sur Gartempe

World heritage site. Exceptional painted ceiling, for which it is known as the Romanesque Sistine Chapel.

Abbaye de La Sauve Majeure

East of Bordeaux. Splendidly atmospheric ruin.

Abbaye de Sénanque

Cistercian abbey, one of three major monasteries of Provence along with Le Thoronet and Silvacane.

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