France says "No" - with help from Father Joe

So the French referendum has rejected the EU constitution, and the pieces of the jigsaw that make up Europe are once again thrown up into the air. Political bloggers such as Clive Davis are better qualified than me to analyse the implications of the "No" vote, but I cannot let the result pass without some personal comment. In a few days time I depart for my annual extended stay in France. It is a country I love, but also find deeply puzzling. The "No" vote seems to be more of a vote of no confidence in the Chirac government than a rejection of the new EU constitution. France is a fascinating mixture of traditionalism and extremism, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in the French attitude to religion. Although the national constitution makes France a secular state, Catholicism is still a strong force in society.

I had written the post below a few days ago ready to upload while I was on the road south to the Vaucluse next weekend, but I am posting it today as the referendum result reverberates around Europe and the world. The "No" result was determined by a large number of centre-left voters rather than the small extremist groups such as the royalists and Le Pen's National Front party which I mention. But the story of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at le Barroux is an interesting example of the tensions between traditionalism and extremism that make France unique.


The death of Pope John Paul II brought out the best and worst in people. One prominent British playright said the Pope 'meant nothing to me.' This struck me as a supremely silly comment. Whether you are Catholic or not the impact of Catholicism on society, politics, architecture, music and the world in general is imeasurable. I would be the first to agree the impact is most definitely not all for the good, and much has been written about, for instance, the Catholic Church's role in the spread of Aids in Africa, and the Catholic support for Franco in the Spanich Civil War. But without Catholicism classical music would not exist in the form it does today, and we would not have the inspitational legacy of sacred architecture, and much, much else.

I am not a Catholic, nor am I a candidate for conversion. Two of my paternal great grandparents were Scottish Catholics, and I was brought up in a vaguely Anglo-Catholic household. And as I have travelled on the overgrown path called life I have been awestruck by the magnificence of the cathedrals of Reims and Chartres, the power of monastic ruins such as Castle Acre and Llanthony, the humility of Mother Teresa, the beauty of the Requiems of Cristobal de Morales and Tomas luis de Victoria, the striking relevance of the fifteen hundred year old year old Rule of St Benedict, and the power of the the pre-Vatican II liturgy when sung in Gregorian Chant as restored by the monks at Solesmes Abbey.

I wanted to know more about the extraordinary power that drove these achievements. And I also wanted to understand how the same doctrine that created the Abbey at Cluny, could teach that condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of Aids. As part of my journey down an overgrown path I spent a week last autumn in the remarkable Benedictine community at the Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine at le Barroux in southern France (see my post Pliable's Travels). The Abbey and Monastery at le Barroux are an extraordinary achievement, and can be seen in my header photo. It is Romanesque in style, but was in fact built in the 1980's. There are various local rumours about where the funding came from. Word has it that one of the wealthy cognac dynasties bankrolled construction, and that a former Abbot was a member of the Calvet family who control a major Bordeaux wine brokerage. The monks are traditionalists in their approach to the liturgy and use of Gregorian Chant. There are suggestions that the monks come from wealthy families and are Royalists (souverainiste). American in France Ruth Philips on her blog Meanwhile here in France has alleged right-wing connections, and the support of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. The new 'conservative' Pope Benedict XVI also has links with Sainte-Madeleine . (It all sound like good material for a novel) But as a French family living close to le Barroux wrote to me in response to a question about the alleged political links of the monks ............. ...

"Where does it all end?!! Have a glass of cognac and enjoy the Gregorian chant and don't vote Le Pen! The Abbey is certainly a very beautiful place and was built by "Compagnons", very skilled tradesmen, who are certainly not extremists. Have you heard of the Compagnons? (See the footnote at the end of this post for more information on Compagnons - Pliable) Young people wanting to learn a trade can join and do a "tour" of France, staying in lodgings where a "mother" looks after them for the time they are there learning skills from experienced artisans. They then move on to another town, all this lasts a year and the rules etc are very strict and it is not open to just anyone. At the end of the year they make an objet representing so many hours of work showing what they have learnt in their year. There are museums that collect and show these objects, little roofs, stairs etc. I do not know much about them but I do know that anyone who has done his year is highly skilled in his trade and very serious about his work. I am sure this side of the monastery is more interesting!"

I am one of those obsessive people who tries to read and research as much as they can about a subject they are interested in. One of the things that struck me was the lack of accessible literature about the Benedictine way of life. Of course there is the Rule of St Bendict, which is readable, meaningful, and important. But I found other books such as the Genesee Diary largely impenetrable.

So I was intrigued by the publication of a new book called Father Joe. The prognosis looked unpromising. The author is Tony Hendra who progressed from Cambridge University (by one of those strange coincidences that are a feature on an overgrown path he went to St John's College which is where we saw Monteverdi in Cambridge) , through Monty Python to National Lampoon and Spitting Image. Along the way Hendra did two marriages, and moderate quantities of drugs and alcohol. Throughout his journey along this particularly thorny overgrown path he maintained a relationship with Father Joseph Warrilow, a monk in the Bendictine community at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. Quarr Abbey was founded by a group of monks who fled from France in 1907 at a time of religous persecution.

Father Joe is the story of the remarkable relationship between Tony Hendra and the Benedictine monk. At one level the book is a fascinating semi-autobiography which avoids most of the pitfalls of the usual media personality best seller, although Hendra does take himself a bit seriously when expounding his views about creation. But at a deeper level Father Joe is a surprisingly useful, and accessible, primer to the Benedictine way of life. Tony Hendra has created a readable, relevant, and remarkably erudite portrait of why Bendictine communities are as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the sixth century .

There are concepts in this book that once again made me stop and think.... laborare est orare - to work is to pray, contemptus mundi - detachment (not contempt) for the world, and the disturbing questions 'Do you do the work you've chosen with joy and gratitude? Do you do it conscientously? Do you do it for others first, and yourself second?

I wish I had read Father Joe before I visited the Benedictine community at le Barroux. It is a rare insight into the continuing relevance of the contemplative way of life, and I recommend it.

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Footnote from "Compagnonnage" is a French tradition which goes back to the Middle-Ages. Highly skilled workers travel and work in different places in order to acquire the knowledge of their specialty from a master ("maître") ; their field can be anything from carpentry to cooking, pastry, plumbing, ironworks, stone-cutting, etc... Moving from one employer to another, they make their "Tour de France" and progress from "apprenti" to "compagnon" and finally "master". This is a medieval tradition going back to the time of the builders of Gothic cathedrals. The Compagnons du Tour de France stay in specific hotels for young workers, called "cayenne", managed by a woman, "la mère" who takes care of them. To become a "master" of the Compagnons du Devoir (founded 1347), they have to realize a "chef d'oeuvre", which is something professionally very difficult, submitted to a college of masters. Needless to say that this is extremely close to freemasonry.
All famous chefs in French restaurants have been through this cursus and can use the title "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" which is its classical expression, but your plumber can also be a "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" and, in this case, you can be sure he is a good plumber. In Paris, you can admire a sample of very impressive "chefs d'oeuvres" in the Maison du Compagnonnage, 2 rue de Brosse 75004. Compagnonnage is a fascinating world of highly skilled professionals with very high technical and ethical standards grounded in a very ancient tradition. Each of them is given a name which includes his region and a moral characteristic (for instance : Tourangeau la Vertu or Périgord Coeur-Loyal).


Anonymous said…
An interesting sidelight to the vote is that the territories (French Guiana &c) were expected to vote heavily for the Constitution.If that was indeed the case - as I suspect it was - it means that the home vote was even more opposed than the numbers might indicate.
It's fascinating that Chirac has put de Villepin in as PM. Seems a bit like circling the wagons to stave off the barbarians.

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