I did not expect to like the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, which is why I had never bothered to go up to Montmartre. The basilica was commissioned by Catholics who had survived the Paris Commune of 1870-71, when churches were destroyed and the faithful were persecuted. Even as the revolution was sputtering out, the communists murdered a number of hostages, including Msgr. Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris. Sacré Coeur, whose construction took nearly 40 years, was designed to tell the world that the Catholic Church had been restored to Her proper place in the world, but its hysterical “Romano-Byzantine” style—which represents a conscious rejection of the baroque—reminds me less of Hagia Sophia or the duomo in Pisa than of the Taj Mahal.
Reactionaries, alas, almost always ruin whatever good remains in a tradition. The Counter-Reformation had noble intentions, but, in spreading baroque church construction around the world, the Jesuits obscured a thousand years of Christian history. Rome’s churches became monuments to bad taste until Blessed Pius IX began stripping a few ancient structures of the garish plaster fondant with which they had been encrusted since the days of Pietro da Cortona. In Mexico, where the taste runs naturally—and brilliantly—to the grotesque, the baroque style found a congenial home. In Rome, however, it is a disaster that could not be mitigated even by the undoubted genius of Bernini and Maderno, and a visit to the Jesù is a more frightening prospect than the imagined terrors of the Inquisition.
So it was with a lighter heart—and an empty stomach—that I watched the suburbs of Paris flash by the Autoroute. Judge Robert Reavis, the perpetual pilgrim who suggested the trip, was behind the wheel. We head south out of Paris on the A10 toward Orléans and cut west, on slower roads, to Bourges, capital of the former province of Berry, where we spend two slow days, walking in the gentle rain and admiring its ancient cathedral, one of the most beautiful and harmonious Gothic churches in France.
Berry is lovely country. It has the good fortune to be generally unremarkable. There are no mountains or beaches, and neither François I nor Louis XIV singled it out as the location for the endless series of ever more extravagant chateaux that are the glory of the Loire Valley, a glory that is humiliated annually by caravans of tour buses. For the drive from Bourges to Fontgombault Abbey, we avoid main roads and find ourselves stuck behind gravel trucks and crews filling in the holes on the old two-lane blacktop threading its way between lush farm fields broken up by artfully scattered copses. We kill a bit of time deliberately getting lost in Le Blanc, a comfortable and unbusy town on the Creuse River. Montmartre seems very far away, already, and as we drive into the grounds of the abbey, all Paris disappears.
Fontgombault, which was established in the 11th century as a Benedictine monastery, has undergone many vicissitudes. Calvinists sacked the monastery in 1569, and, though it was restored, the Calvinists’ spiritual descendants wrecked many buildings during the French Revolution. The guest master, Dom Eric Chevreaux, is kind enough to take us on a tour of the grounds the first day of our stay. When we get to the rear of the church, he points out the distinct line in the masonry that marks the start of the rebuilding. It is something like the high-water mark that shows the height of a disastrous flood, but it is also a border between despair and hope.
In the mid-19th century, Trappists were given the right to establish a community, but only if they established a boys’ school, but in 1905 the Masonic French government renewed its persecution of the Church. The Trappists were expelled, and the monastery was sold to a manufacturer and turned into a button factory. Restored as a diocesan seminary, Fontgombault was abandoned in 1948, when the lack of vocations resulted in the closing of the seminary.
Fontgombault did not remain empty for long. It was reestablished as a Benedictine community by a group of monks from Solesmes, which had led the way in the restoration of Gregorian chant. Ironically, at Solesmes itself, the Gregorian chant is used only in the context of the Novus Ordo Mass that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Those who wish to experience the fullness of the Solesmes tradition must go to Fontgombault or to one of the daughter houses that have been established.
It will take more than a few months to appreciate the few days I spent at the abbey, and no one in these late degenerate days can hope to equal the description given by the late John Senior, whose visit to Fontgombault has inspired a generation of his students and readers. I am most impressed by the quiet, which is not merely the absence of noise, but real peace and tranquility. No one here “does” anything, in the American sense of the word do, except for Tom the retired American who moved here with his wife. Tom and a French comrade, with whom he can communicate only by gestures and a few words like dwat, gosh, and vite, cut the grass, chip and refresh the paint, rebuild the window frames—any repair, in other words, that an ancient monastery requires. And when Tom is not cutting or sawing, he is in the church for Matins or Lauds, Terce, Vespers, or Compline.
In years past, I supposed that monks, day after day, did nothing, at least nothing that could possibly interest me. It is true that, from the beginning of Western monasticism, the injunction was orare et laborare, but what sort of labor? Exhausting drudgery, whether in the fields or in the scriptorium. For any good American, this seems like a perverse evasion of our highest human duty, to accomplish some important work and to improve the art or skills or business we have inherited from earlier generations. Progress is a grim business of “creative destruction” that requires us to sacrifice whatever joy we might have had in preserving and using what our fathers bequeathed to us in the hope that our grandchildren will similarly turn up their noses at us and all our works.
Yes, the monks do nothing or very nearly nothing, except to obey the Two Great Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Monks of every order fulfill the latter commandment, not only in their great charitable works of preaching and teaching, healing and tending, but in their relations with one another, which are governed in principle by the rule of Christian love.
The first commandment, though, is their supreme duty, or, to give it the Latin word, their officium or office, the endlessly recurring services of prayers and readings that fill up most of their days and much of their nights. How they survive on such little sleep amazes me. Though the lack of sleep may contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere of a monastery, the tranquility has a deeper source than self-induced insomnia. It is the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding.”
My skeptical ex-Catholic father would have asked, “So what is all the good of such flummery and mumbo-jumbo? To induce a condition of mental numbness? And what is their greatest accomplishment if not the mindless repetition of things that have been done over and over for two thousand years?”
Excepting the “mindless” bit, I should say, “Yes, it is a great (if not the greatest) accomplishment to have gone through the same motions so many times for so many centuries. We do not always know what or why we are doing. Indeed, most of what we think we know we take on trust from a higher authority, like the television weatherman or an ill-educated high-school teacher who once told us something about Galileo. Jefferson, in a letter to a young nephew, described politeness as artificial good humor (a word that meant something like temperament or character): ‘it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue.’” That observation, elevated to the spiritual level, suggests that if we go through the same motions and repeat the same words our distant ancestors did, we may some day possess something of their Christian virtues.
The habitual and unreflective repetition of ancient customs has little in common with ideological movements that aim at restoring some lost Golden Age. As well-intentioned as such movements are—and you, my readers, know some of their names and acronyms, both secular and religious—they more often displace than restore the ancient traditions they profess. The Counter-Reformation may have been a necessity, but it imposed a militant hierarchy on top of the ruins of the medieval Church, and the Counter-Reformation’s latter-day disciples campaign for issues—overturning laws protecting abortion and homosexuality, defending democratic capitalism—while remaining, in some cases, indifferent to the liturgical exercises that connect all faithful Christians of every generation in a prayer that is carried to Heaven itself.
Religious traditions are like the piece of rope you take on a camping trip, never knowing (as Sam Gamgee understood) when you might need it. In the bookshop at Fontgombault I find an amazing work: Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, by the medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim. What Gouguenheim proves beyond any doubt is that Europe did not depend on the Muslims for its knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy and science but that, in fact, the monks at Mont Saint-Michel had maintained a tradition of translating the Greek into Latin. From quotations and echoes in later writers, their translations can be shown to have exerted a profound influence on medieval thought. Neither the copyists nor even the translators necessarily understood Aristotle’s significance, but to have played any part in the preservation of rational thought is a magnificent accomplishment.
American conservatives like to compare the later Roman Empire with the United States and wonder when our civilization will collapse. I always tell them the same thing: It collapsed before I was born. Whatever had survived the 19th century was destroyed in World War I. None of us has ever lived in anything but the Dark Age in which contempt for tradition and virtue is matched by contempt for truth. In this Darker Age, it is once again monks who are preserving the last spark of the light of the West. And not just in France. Fontgombault has established a daughter house at Clear Creek in the improbable state of Oklahoma. The monks of Clear Creek are men of great courage and faith, and we ordinary men and women who visit them are as refreshed as we would be by taking a dip in the cool waters of Clear Creek on a summer’s day.
Few of us are cut out to be monks or nuns or priests, but all of us, if we decide to live well rather than earn much, have jobs to do worth doing, Tom the fix-it man as much as Father Abbot, and the Benedictine motto will serve a layman as well as it has served the monks of the past 1,500 years: Work and Pray.