Monday, November 01, 2004
I've just returned from France, the whole trip was very stimulating. I tried to make it a pilgimage (personal rather religous) and travelled light (relatively - I took seven books!) with just a rucksack and used public transport - which is very good in France. I got a lot out of my time at Ste Madeleine, but equally learnt a lot from being close to the French people, and on my own which meant I was closer to the local people. Once again I'm afraid I was left wondering what we are doing wrong in Britain, the French education system seems to be so much better, their town centres are so much more civilised and safe, and the absence of rubbish tipping (fly tipping) by the edge of public roads was noticeable compared with England. It was also interesting to see numbers of young people at Mass in Nimes on a Sunday. (By the kind of serendipidity that this site was created to exploit I was reading Patrick Humphries' Nick Drake - the biography (see A troubled cure...for a troubled mind above), and found the book rich in links to Nimes, Arles and Avignon.
I spent three nights in Nimes bed and breakfasting at Thierry and Jean-Luc's lovely little city centre studio with a wonderful little terrace looking across the roof-tops. Here is the view from the terrace - click on the link for more details, recommended.
I spent five days at Ste Madeleine monastery in Northern Provence. The Abbey and monastery are quite strict Benedictines verging I think towards more disciplined orders such as the Cistercians. To be close to the monks and understand their commitment was inspirational. I found my stay gave me a lot of new perspectives. I can't say it was relaxing but that wasn't why I went. It took me some time to understand the pattern and niceties of monastic life. Silence and the outside doors locked after Compline (20.15h local time - 19.15h body clock time) was a challenge for a serial insomniac.
There were no new religous revelations for me, more a confirmation of what I had concluded already. The life and power of the community confirms an Almighty power, but I'm afraid my unease with some aspects of Catholicism remain. As Ste Madeleine is a religous order in its own right it reports (if that is the word) directly to Rome, rather than through the French Catholic church. There were a number of unidentified dignatories among my fellow guests who were involved in much serious discussion, I am afraid I wanted to drag them all outside, point out the fantastic scenery and weather and shout "Isn't it all wonderful - praise the Lord!" Thank goodness it wasn't a Trappist monastery - they were built in damp and flat regions to avoid tempting the eye with wonderful scenery.
There were some other fascinating and inspiring guests though, including the Chaplain of
Chavagnes International College. This is an English boarding school for boys outside Nantes for an interesting and very valid take on education (would be interested in any views on their policy on television and the Internet as set out in the FAQ section).
Moments such as being led through into the enclosure for my first meal, and entering the refectory with sixty monks in black habits standing lining the sides were quite extraordinary. Being served very good steak while the Brothers had a boiled egg were more perplexing.
All the offices are sung in unadorned Gregorian Chant. The wonderful Baroque stye organ in the Abbey is only used for Sundays and Feast days. I slipped in one morning when a monk was practicing on the organ, and found its sound like a burst of sunshine after relentless the wonderful but relentless gregorain Chant. Compline sung from memory in the dark was very moving though. I bought back lots of CD's (the Abbey has a very good shop which sells their bread and produce plus a lot of books and music) including the Pergolesi Five Part Mass (I'm writing a separate post on that), the Couperin Organ Masses (with plainchant),Ramaud Motets and a wonderful cheap four CD set from Erato (£17 for four CD's) of all of the well known settings of the Stabat Mater. I also bought in FNAC in Avignon the new ECM
disc by pianist Vassillis Tsabropoulos and Anja Lechner on Cello Chants, Hymns and Dances.Again I will write another post on this fascinating disc when it has spent more time in the CD player.
I took with me the Benedictine Handbook (which includes the Benedictine Rule) which I would thoroughly recommend. It is beautifully published and printed here in Norwich by the Canterbury Press - part of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It has a chapter by Esther de Waal. I also tried The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris which I found both too American, and if you'll forgive me a bit 'holier than thou'. Also sampled was Henri Nouwen's The Genesee Diary about life in a Trappist monastery in the States, but again I couldn't really relate to it I'm afraid.
Anyway, that is a very much layman's take on my pilgimage to Ste Madeleine. I would like to return, and think I would get a lot out of another visit as I now know the rhythms and nuances of monastic life.
We're off to see a visiting gospel choir tomorrow night at the United Reform Church in Halesworth as part of their very good Arts Festival.
Saw the wonderful Yukio Ninagawa production of Hamlet
with Michael Maloney in Norwich a couple of weeks back - fantastic!
Going to see what remains of Fairport Convention in a few weeks - open the window as wide as you can and see what flies in!
Picture below is Norman Foster's fabulous Carre d'Art
gallery in Nimes, with the Maison de Carre temple in the foreground.