Establishing an Oasis of Beauty and Joy (by Dom Alcuin Reid, OSB)

Early in the Summer of 2018 one of our bishop’s assistants telephoned: would we consider looking at some ancient monastic buildings beside a small chapel as a possible permanent location for our monastic community? In the South-East of France there are many such. But here in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon we have the happy but real problem that those which are in the Church’s hands are all in use by religious communities and organisations.

It was with enthusiasm, then, that we met with the local authorities, explored the possibilities of the site with the help of an architect, and sang a Mass in the chapel. But the civil restrictions on the possible development of the historic building, the lack of a garden and other land, and finally the liturgical arrangements of the chapel led us to conclude, sadly, that this was not an appropriate site for our monastic family to grow.

But our appetite had been whetted. Further discussion with our architect led to the suggestion of purchasing a farm and developing that. “Surely there must be some available,” he insisted. But in France old monastic buildings are also sometines available—the Church having been despoiled regularly enough in recent centuries.

Sure enough, it proved fairly straightforward to find a medieval Commandery of the Knights Templar (later transferred to the Knights of Malta) with an 11th century Romanesque chapel dedicated to St Christopher (containing a part of the medieval altar), the apse of which is older still and which is regarded as one of the finest examples a Romanesque apse in Provence, and its attendant conventual buildings, very large garden and 33 hectares of forest bordered by a river, for public sale locally. It was confiscated at the French Revolution and has been in private hands since. (See: History of the Commandery.) The current proprietor purchased it in ruins some 40 years ago and has passionately pursued the restoration of its chapel, refectory and other buildings since. Now, as an older man, he seeks to pass the site on to suitable custodians who will continue its restoration and bring it to life.

Months of investigation and consultation ensued: with our Bishop, with engineers and real estate professionals, local authorities and those responsible for historic buildings in this region. In the light of these we decided to proceed.

The chapel is fully restored (it had previously been sectioned off into floors for dormitories for farm workers) as is the refectory. The structural restoration (roofs, walls and floors) of dormitories and the other main buildings is largely complete, leaving the internal decoration and arrangement to complete. The construction of some staircases is necessary to increase accessibility, and some extra plumbing is required. But as they stand the buildings are habitable and our men are keen to get on with the work of bringing these buildings back to the liturgical and conventual life for which they were constructed.

Other buildings on the site are in need of restoration. This gives us the opportunity in due course to construct a guest house and an education centre with appropriate facilities for our work of hospitality and liturgical formation. One of the frustrations of our present accommodation – a large presbytery next to a parish church in the centre of a beautiful mountain village which fills with tourists in season – is our lack of ability to accommodate the numbers of guests who wish to visit and share in our life, particularly for the great liturgical feasts. So too, we need to find a more secluded location: St Benedict would wish us to have all things in the enclosure, and not be in the middle of a village with only a tiny garden in which to work.

And so, with our Bishop’s blessing, in Lent we launched an appeal to raise the funds to purchase the property. Our many friends have been very generous, and the appeal advances steadily (at the time of writing the total is approaching €120,000). But there is a long way yet to go and time is now of the essence.

It is ironic that, in an age where many monasteries have to close due to lack of monks, our nascent monastic community lacks a monastery, or indeed the funds to obtain one. And yet, monasteries such as ours who celebrate the usus antiquior (the more ancient form) of the Roman and monastic rites, who sing all eight hours of the monastic Office, who are faithful to Lectio Divina, to manual and intellectual work and to hospitality, experience no shortage of vocational enquiries or requests for retreats. As an international, Anglophone community in Provence, France, there is certainly no shortage of people passing through!

In September our community will have the privilege and joy of welcoming a friend, His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, for a weekend visit. Cardinal Sarah is passionate about the importance of monasticism in the modern world. Monasteries are “like oases in the middle of a desert.” “It is from these oases of faith, liturgy, beauty, and silence that the West will be reborn,” he insists.

Indeed, preaching at the end of the Chartres Pilgrimage last year he challenged the thousands before him:
“Return to the Source! Return to the monasteries! Yes, all of you, dare to spend a few days in a monastery! In this world of tumult, ugliness and sadness, monasteries are oases of beauty and joy. You will experience that it is possible to put concretely God in the centre of his whole life. You will experience the only joy that will not pass.”
We seek to establish just such an oasis of beauty and joy for all who wish to draw from it, and we believe that we have found the ideal place in which to do so. To be sure we need more generous-hearted young men to come and join us in this great work for God. So too we need the material help of those who are able to give it. Please help us if you can.

Any assistance whatsoever, no matter how modest, is a blessing and all benefactors are recorded on a list to be placed inside the new altar when it is consecrated.

We are in the hands of God’s Providence—indeed, we are in your hands—in realising this goal. God bless and reward you for anything that you can do to help.

Dom Alcuin Reid, OSB

The founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and a liturgical scholar of international renown. His principle work, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2005) carries a preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

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