Thursday, November 30, 2017


At the end of October, I took advantage of the generous fall break accorded to students in France to spend a few days at the Abbey of St. Wandrille in Normandy. Founded in 649 by the Frankish monk for whom the abbey is now named, St. Wandrille has been dissolved or pillaged numerous times; writing about the monastery in a slim volume called A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor observed that "St. Wandrille seems to have been spared by none of the disasters of French history," and indeed the community has been ravaged by foes as various as the Vikings, the Huguenots, and France's republican government, only to be reestablished and rebuilt by subsequent generations of resilient Benedictine monks. Once part of a powerful network of Carolingian monasteries spread across Normandy, since the nineteenth century St. Wandrille has belonged to the Congregation of Solesmes.

I was inspired to visit St. Wandrille by the testimony of two authors who wrote with great affection about the monastery and about the Benedictines who live there. One of these two authors was Fermor, who arrived at St. Wandrille in the early 1950s expecting "necropolitan gloom or bigotry" only to find that the monks' "company was like that of any civilised well-educated Frenchman, with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness that is common to the whole community." The other author who led me here was the twentieth-century French theologian Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), who left behind his youthful Protestantism and entered the Catholic Church in the 1930s under the influence of the monks of St. Wandrille and retained an affinity for the community for the rest of his life.

The architecture of St. Wandrille vividly evokes the abbey's long and sometimes tortured history, with the ruins of the medieval abbey church (destroyed during the French Revolution) preserved alongside a complex of seventeenth-century buildings constructed when the abbey belonged to the Congregation of St. Maur. As Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in A Time to Keep Silence, a visit to St. Wandrille offers a poignant reminder that the Benedictines "were . . . for centuries the only guardians of literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities in a world of which the confusion can best be compared to our own atomic era." Fermor notes with regret the destruction of once significant monastic centers like the abbeys of Cluny and St. Germain-des-Prés (writing in the 1950s, he colorfully describes the remains of the latter monastery in Paris as being "just visible between zazou suits and existentialist haircuts from the terrace of the Deux Magots"), but he finds reason for hope in the fact that "in scores of abbeys all over Europe, the same liberal traditions survive and prosper." Were he able to see St. Wandrille today, in an ever-more secular and postmodern Europe, Fermor would perhaps find all the more reason to insist upon the importance of monasteries like St. Wandrille, even as the "scores of abbeys" preserving venerable traditions are fewer than they were sixty years ago.

If Patrick Leigh Fermor appreciated St. Wandrille primarily as a place where a valuable cultural patrimony was preserved, Louis Bouyer knew the abbey first and foremost as the setting in which he became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. Having visited St. Wandrille for the first time in 1931 as an eighteen-year-old already studying for the Protestant ministry, Bouyer returned repeatedly to the monastery over the following decade before being received into the Church there on December 27, 1939, at the age of twenty-six. In the Memoirs that he wrote decades later, Bouyer recalled that it was at St. Wandrille "that I had been convinced by the Benedictine life that the Catholic Church, despite the possible inadequacies of many of her representatives, beginning with some of the most eminent (as Saint Paul says, ‘those who appear to be something’), was nevertheless the survival of the one Church founded by Christ on the apostles."

Despite his admiration for the Benedictines, Bouyer did not become a monk - he was ultimately ordained as a priest of the French Oratory, and spent most of his life as an academic theologian - but he was nevertheless bound to the monastery by ties of friendship that endured until his death in 2004. Bouyer spent most of his last two decades living at St. Wandrille as a permanent guest of the community, regarding the monastery as his home base even as he spent several months of each year teaching at the University of San Francisco (in his Memoirs, written in residence at St. Wandrille, Bouyer refers at one point to "my Norman masculine abbey where I usually live when I am not on the edge of the Pacific"). No matter how familiar St. Wandrille became to him, Bouyer seems to have always viewed the abbey with a sense of wonder. As he wrote, "There is a discreet charm, a serene beauty in this little wooded valley. The buildings that remain there, the best of the Maurists' construction, around a cloister from the last centuries of the Middle Ages, illumine and animate it without in any way eclipsing or overriding a nature that . . . [is] a witness to that implicit art with which the Benedictines have humanized it everywhere just as they themselves were being sanctified in it."

Describing the ruins of the medieval abbey church and its modern replacement, Bouyer noted "the felicitous contrast between the ruins of the ancient church, bursting up to the sky, and the at once rustic and cheerful destitution of that fifteenth-century barn with impeccable taste transformed into an oratory simply with an altar, a sanctuary arranged with a precise sobriety for which one can no longer hope today!" It is poignant to read these words knowing that Bouyer would be buried on a hillside overlooking the ruins and the new abbey church that he describes; it is perhaps the monks' greatest tribute to Louis Bouyer that he would be buried in their midst in the abbey cemetery.

The "precise sobriety" that Bouyer described is indeed a hallmark of the abbey church at St. Wandrille, though the austerity of the physical setting does nothing to diminish the beauty or solemnity of the monastic liturgy. Patrick Leigh Fermor took evident relish in quoting some lines of the hymn Te lucis ante terminum chanted each night by the monks at compline: Procul recédant sómnia / et nóctium phantásmata; / hostémque nostrum cómprime, / ne polluántur córpora. As Fermor glosses these lines, "The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth-century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi." For my part, I am pleased to note that this text is still chanted in its integrity at St. Wandrille, even as many other monasteries have adopted a revised version of this hymn from the 1970s that disappointingly banishes any mention of the insidious phantasmata.

To bring this post to an end, here is a photo that I took one morning as I walked to the abbey church for the celebration of lauds at 7:30 am, just as the sun was rising over the Norman countryside. During his years of residence at St. Wandrille, Louis Bouyer often eschewed the celebration of lauds with the community, admitting candidly that "I do not attend the night office, and I go to Lauds in the morning only when they are fully sung (recited psalmody invariably puts me to sleep with its monotony)." Though I only spent a few days at St. Wandrille, I made a point of attending all of the offices in the church, whether sung or recited, and even though this meant having to rise at 5 o' clock for matins. It was, to be honest, a thrilling experience, and one that I hope very much to repeat someday soon. AMDG.


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