Tag Archives: Senanque

Return to Sénanque: a summer retreat


In August I went back to Notre Dame de Sénanque to spend five days in silent retreat. This time, the valley was drenched in the scents of summer. It was also much more crowded in the abbey than when I was last there during the Christmas holidays. The hôtellerie monastique was full and every day hundreds of tourists toured one of the Provence’s most iconic places. In the evening, quietness would return to the valley and abbey. Only the chants of the monks occasionally filled the air. The silence was easy to bear and the pattern of the services now familiar. Yet I also found myself facing more profound concerns about taking the next step in my faith. Being raised in a secular and rational environment, it is not self-evident that that next step is adult baptism.

I was welcomed back heartily by Frère Jean, the hotelier, and quickly settled into the rhythm of monastic life. Every morning I was woken up early by the chants of the monks floating through the courtyard into my open windows. I’d have breakfast while the morning flavours started to stir. Then I’d head out on my morning walk, climbing 40 minutes to reach the village of Gordes, have my coffee and write my diary. I’d walk back just in time for mass, organise lunch and write my book in the afternoon. After a few hours, I’d climb up to my secret sunning spot, quickly covering up my bikini if I heard footsteps approaching. Dinner would follow, and evening service. With the last light and the heat disappearing from the valley, I finished every day with a run through the mountains.

When I arrived hitchhiking on the first day, I had to wait for two hours before Frère Jean had time to receive me, a good introduction into the different pace of time in the abbey. Then he remembered me and expressed his profound happiness to know that I was considering baptism. He had been very anxious over my soul. He was still puzzled that I hadn’t chosen a Catholic community  but an Anglican one and tried to steer me to the right faith. I was firmly resolved when explaining that it was very important to me to have found a church that was actively involved in the community where I live. Moreover, I feel much more comfortable in a faith that allows priests to have wives, and women to become bishops and priests too. Frère Jean settled the matter with a joke. He was looking forward to the day when he would receive me back at Sénanque as a Anglican bishop.

Meanwhile, I got a much more beautiful double room and Frère Jean put me in charge of coordinating lunch and dinner time food service. He often asked me to come into his office to translate some bits of English that he didn’t understand. ‘What does this word ‘hi’ mean?’ ‘Well, it’s like salut which isn’t perhaps the way you would expect people to address a monk but then the English written language is much less formal than the French.’ I asked him whether we could have a small performance for the Assumption of Virgin Mary day by a classical pianist who often comes to stay at Sénanque. Frère Jean had to ask the prior for permission. When we all gathered for the concert the next day, he said: ‘You see there is a French saying that whatever women want, that is what God wants.’

So we enjoyed a lovely private Liszt concert in the abbey. But Frère Jean later told me that those moments were rare. That life at the abbey is hard. I said that I had rather been struck by how animated and fulfilling their lives seemed with the rhythm of prayer, study, work on the fields and giving people spiritual guidance. He said, ‘Yes but the early morning hours after vigiles at 4.30am, they are the longest period of meditation. We never travel anywhere, the world only comes to us.’ We were conversing against the backdrop of a picture of the Alps covering the whole wall of the parlour. He continued, ‘Very few people nowadays can stand this type of life. We need more people in the abbey to manage all the work. Last year a monk joined us but he left after a month and we haven’t heard from him since. Now we’re expecting four new monks from Vietnam but God knows how difficult it will be for them to settle in such a different culture.’

It was harder for him to respond to my search to make sense of religion at a later stage in life. I had been struggling with British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s stance on religion: ‘When one can’t find out whether something is true or it isn’t, one should suspend judgement’. I was much impressed with his book ‘The conquest of happiness‘ which is a great example of a philosopher translating wisdom to a wider audience, and therefore thought I should carefully consider his opinion.

I find the church the perfect place to remember the ebb and flow of life and going to church for me is an existential touch point which I prefer to experience as part of a community in my own culture. As my parents didn’t have me baptised when I was a child, to become a true part of this community I have to negotiate my faith being an adult. And while many adult Christians may confront doubts time and again, they are already part of this community, whereas I have to consciously agree with all the teachings of the church to be baptised. So, for example, I find it hard to believe God is merciful. I perceive of God as a force field randomly distributing good and evil. Equanimity and faith are the key to maintain happiness in face of a world where many cruel things happen. Some of them turn to good, and others never do.

There is another very emotive strain of faith which I find even harder to negotiate. This is to have a dialogue with God when I pray. It’s not that I don’t have this dialogue, it is just that I’ve always mistrusted it. I remember when I was about 12 years old I decided that it was better to talk to Freya than to God because of some viking book I had been reading. When I was 16 and a hippie, I decided to address fairies instead. Philosopher A.C. Grayling made some great points about fairies in his book Against All Gods: “Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.” He explains that people up to the 19th century believed in fairies and thought that they were much more present in their lives than God was because things that would go missing, such as shoelaces or a teaspoon, were believed to have been stolen by them.

In short, I find it very hard to acknowledge that this is anything more than an overactive imagination. Yet when I pray answers appear out of nowhere. Many Christians believe this is one’s personal dialogue with God. I’m still trying to figure out how to make sense of these questions, and reconcile a rational point of view with a spiritual one. It’s quite an adventure.

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A retreat into the new year


This year I took a different approach to New Year’s. I spent three days in the 12th century Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Sénanque in the Provence, one of the few still functioning Cistercian abbeys in Western Europe. From 29th December 2010 to 1st January 2011, my days were marked by eight moments of prayer: vigiles at 4.30, laudes at 7.45, tierce at 10.00, sexte at 11.45, messe at noon, none at 14.30, vêpres at 18.00 and finally complies at 20.15, after which the lights went out. I took long solitary walks in the surrounding hills between the three meals, taken in silence with the other retraitants listening to stories of the lives of saints and the bishop’s views on globalisation. Frère Jean, who was in charge of the hôtellerie monastique, had invented a tradition to mark the new year – move the morning’s vigiles to midnight, and have a celebratory breakfast for the Mary the Blessed Virgin at two in the morning with chocolate, honey, and croissants.

From short whispered conversations in the abbey’s corridors, I gleaned some of the other retraitants’ motivations to celebrate the new year in silence – mostly a mixture of spiritual contemplation, refuge from a stressful worldly life, and consolation from bereavement. There was a Spanish priest who had founded la Famille Missionaire Dialogue de Dieu to teach people in Avignon to pray after he contracted malaria on his African post. A communications consultant could not help but flirt and talk about wine, passing frère Jean a note for me with his address and wine recommendations. An old lady had recently lost her husband and had come to Sénanque because her husband and she had always said that they should visit. A bourgeois Parisian dame maintained perfect make-up and colour coordination yet her face was marked by grief. A young priest skipped most services to roam the grounds of the monastery seemingly in search of God. A young woman with intense eyes prostrated herself on the floor of the chapel, palms turned upwards to beg for mercy. A concert pianist was allowed to play Liszt in the closed part of the convent. And a tattooed man was on his way from Rome to Santiago de Compostela.

The monks’ community on the other hand is steadfast, focused, and very busy. There are only six of them to manage the estate and spend over six hours a day in prayer and church. The remainder of their 17-hour day they energetically occupy themselves of the hôtellerie, olive trees, lavender fields, beehives and the many tourists visiting every day. Many admiring faithful come to consult them in their search for God. So when frère Jean wants to offer me spiritual guidance, he can only offer me a window between 17.00 and 17.30 because he’s so busy these days with the olive harvest and then there are these priests who have come from Italy to speak to him urgently. Besides farmer, hotel manager and spiritual counsellor, he is a very accomplished singer and he reads widely, mostly spiritual literature – even the popular spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle is part of his book collection.

In a constant rhythm of prayer and labour, time must take on another dimension for these monks. The continuous pace must create a unity of hours across the days, seasons and years. I imagine that this age old pattern of life and the absence of choice yield a vast capacity for contemplation and dedication to God. Although the monks’ lives may seem sheltered, it’s easy enough to see that like their brothers in Thibhirine they too would follow Christ to the end, murdered as hostages of Algerian mujahedin.

And although enchanted with the friendly atmosphere and quietness of heart, I found it hard to enter into the rigid Catholic symbolism of some of the monks’ rites. If we could get to a more abstract expression of faith, could we make this religion more contemporary and accessible for younger generations? If the psalms were put to better music and words, the violent symbolism of Christ nailed to the cross replaced, the choreography of consuming the body and blood of Christ reviewed, perhaps it would be easier to find spirituality in our own culture instead of going into a Buddhist retreat. Yet while walking to night mass across the Romanesque courtyard lit by moonlight, the bells tolling and the monks chanting halleluiah, I was happy to start 2011 in a different way.