Songs of innocence and experience

The power of music in the form of Gregorian chant first took me to Le Barroux outside Avignon many years ago and my earliest post about the monastery there was uploaded back in 2004. A number of return visits to Le Barroux and to other Catholic monasteries in France allowed me to explore the links between plainsong and mysticism.

But those visits also brought me face to face with the connection between traditionalist Catholicism and right wing politics. So, after careful research, I published an article on Holocaust Day in January this year detailing the link between the right wing cleric Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the controversial traditionalist Catholic Society of St. Pius X, and the convicted French war criminal Paul Touvier.

When Decca announced that they had signed the nuns at L'Abbaye de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux in a bid to win the biggest classical popularity contest of all, Christmas number one, I wrote and broadcast in praise of the Gregorian chant performed at the monastery. But I also pointed out the past connection between the monastic community and Archbishop Lefebvre. At the same time I contacted Decca, who follow this blog via Twitter, telling them that I would be in Avignon in November. I asked if they could arrange access to the nuns to discuss Voices - Chant from Avignon. Decca's response was swift and uncomplicated. Nancy Coburn, the nun's point person at the label, thanked me for my interest but explained that the limited interviews available with the nuns were being used for national press coverage.

Which is where this story should reach its happy ending. Voices - Chant from Avignon by the nuns of the Abbaye de l'Annonciation is selling in suitably large quantities and has been number one in the UK specialist classical chart since its release on November 15th, doubtless helped by exclusive national press coverage in the Daily Mail's You magazine, from which this quote is taken:

It is moving speaking to the sisters. Like watching a nativity play or witnessing a wedding, a whisper of your own lost innocence or idealism comes back to you.
But the story does not end there. I too have been moved by the innocence of the sisters. But, unlike the national media, I have also discovered their connections to darker experiences in the past and I wanted to understand how they reconciled this innocence and experience. So I travelled to Le Barroux last week and talked to the monks at L'Annonciation's motherhouse about their connections with Archbishop Lefebvre and his links with Paul Touvier. At this point several things need to be made clear. The monks I spent time with at l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine Le Barroux know me, they have read my blog and my articles about l'affaire Touvier, and they are aware I am by nature a sceptic. But still they welcomed me warmly even though I was not from the Daily Mail. They were anxious to explain their position, and two busy and highly qualified Fathers spent a considerable amount of time in separate conversations with me, for which I thank them.

Unfortunately another opportunity for a happy ending now passes us by. Extensive discussions at the monastery did not change the well documented facts. Archbishop Lefebvre supported the 'Catholic order' of the collabarationist Vichy regime and the Franco dictatorship in Spain, endorsed the far-right politician Jean Marie le Pen, and was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. Lefebvre, who died in 1991, was associated with Le Barroux until 1988. While he was on the run for the second time between 1973 and 1979 Paul Touvier received assistance from Lefebvre and his associates, but not, the monks assured me, at Le Barroux. Touvier was arrested at a priory in Nice run by Lefebvre's followers in 1989. At his 1994 trial, at which he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, Touvier was defended by a traditionalist Catholic lawyer and was accompanied by a traditionalist priest. When Touvier died in 1996 a traditional requiem mass was celebrated the chapel of the Society of St. Pius X in Paris.

Which left me to ask the monks the awkward question: if these are the facts how can the past links between Le Barroux and Archbishop Lefebvre be explained? The response was that the monastery was allied religously but not politically with Lefebvre. Doubtless there are many who will accept this explanation. But there are also others who will think of the many instances, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Spanish Civil War, where religion and politics have been inextricably linked. And, like me, they will find the explanation that religion and politics can be totally separated both disingenuousness and naive.

This article in not an attempt to poop on Decca's Christmas party. I have said before, and will say again, I hope lots of people buy the nun's CD. But we live in an information age, and I believe the control of information by parties with vested interests has to be countered. Paul Touvier was convicted in 1994 of involvement in crimes against humanity including the killing of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape during the Second World War. He had close links with the traditionalist Archbishop Lefebvre who in turn had links with the monastery at Le Barroux. And although the community at Le Barroux severed their links with Lefebvre in 1988, the nuns and monks there remain staunchly traditionalist Catholic with the associated baggage. Unsurprisingly, none of this is mentioned on the nun's Facebook page or in other Decca promotional material. So part of the backstory of a high profile classical album is not available elsewhere. Which is why last week I asked the monks at Le Barroux an awkward question and then wrote this post.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All the photos of l'Abbaye de l'Annonciation are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. My trip to Le Barroux was self-funded and I stayed in the monastery guesthouse at Le Barroux. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


P. M. Doolan said…
Wow! I'm impressed. I've published a number of small article on aspects of the holocaust, especially in Holland. thanks for bringing me up to scrtach on this one. The links between the Catholic Church and Vichey France, Franco's Spain, etc. is very grim. You are perfectly right for trying to bring this to the public's attention. I'm listening!

Kudos for your investigations and reports on the monks at Le Barroux and the nuns at L'Annonciation - I think you do a good job of bringing out the complexities in the identity of this community in a fair-minded and honest way, noting the good that they do while acknowledging areas where they need to be challenged.

There is one point in your post that I have to take issue with, namely this quotation from the Daily Mail's You magazine:

It is moving speaking to the sisters. Like watching a nativity play or witnessing a wedding, a whisper of your own lost innocence or idealism comes back to you.

I always cringe when I read lines like these, as the whole "innocence and idealism" bit says more about the writers than it does about people who live in monasteries. As a member of a religious order (and one who knows members of other orders and can thus make some comparative judgments), it strikes me that many outside observers see what they want to see and ignore the complexities and ambiguities of religious life.

As much as anyone else, those in religious orders are capable of losing our innocence and idealism - one may also query whether "innocence" and "idealism" are really the point of religious life; on reflection, I find that a sort of deep awareness of our own human failings and flaws (and essential lack of innocence) as well as a sober realism are at the heart of vowed life.

Though their lives may seem extraordinary to outside observers, monks and nuns remain ordinary people with ordinary problems. Of course, the tendency to idealise can go both ways - the people I know who are parents of young children often strike me as quite heroic, though I know they don't regard themselves as such.

I hope the above doesn't sound like a sermon, as it's not meant to be - if anything, I hope that I've confirmed the point of your post.

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