Jouques Convent in France Deserves Praise

Cultivated Lavender fields leading toward the monastery
(All photos by OC-Travel)
One popular more traditional convent in France that deserves more recognition is the Benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame-de-la-Fidelite, also known as Jouques Abbey.  Recently I had the pleasure to visit here while leading a group of pilgrims from the US, Canada and Australia.  It was a genuine treat to see and experience first-hand this hidden gem, a testimony to the glory of the Church and a success story of yet another more "traditional" community.

This French-speaking congregation was founded in 1967 at a time of tremendous cultural upheaval in the Church and world, when many communities found themselves doing away with traditional forms of monastic life and worship, which included the elimination of sung Mass and Office in Latin, setting aside traditional hymns and chants, etc. This was in large part the result of a dangerous ideology that infected many convents at the time, confusing simplicity with impoverishment and poverty with destitution, coinciding with the rising fury of 1960s revolution.

The sisters chanting the Divine Office behind the cloister grill in the main chapel
Meanwhile, the nuns of Jouques sought to establish a new monastery that would maintain a traditional observance of religious life, including the traditional habit and singing of the Divine Office and Conventual Mass in Latin. Maintaining these traditions came at great cost and has helped to attract many young vocations.  Needless to say, the convent is flourishing. The sisters take great care to preserve Gregorian Chant which they describe as having the purity, joy and lightness necessary for the flight of the monastic soul to truth.

Framed image on the wall of the monastery
Jouques Abbey was set up as an autonomous structure, monasterium monialium extra instituta, meaning it is not part any congregation, but directly under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. In 1981 it received the juridic title of abbey. The convent houses about 45 joy-filled nuns that range in age from about 22 to over 90.  Sung Mass each day is celebrated in Latin according to the Novus Ordo Missae although the sisters are familiar with the Classical Rite and have had the Extraordinary Form in the past, going a bit between the two.  We shall see what the future holds.

Statue in the monastery gardens
The convent buildings are newer in construction, built to look rustic and old in the style of the South of France, classical and elegant. The convent chapel, open to the public certain hours of the day for the public hours of prayer, was completed in 1984. Visitors approaching the chapel hear the nuns singing like angels, their song carrying over the convent’s fragrant jasmine covered walls and lavender fields. The side entrance of the chapel opens to a small nave where the laity are seated, separated from the sanctuary by an iron altar rail.  The nuns can be seen on the other side of the sanctuary, behind a protected iron grill that separates their cloistered existence from the world. In the chapel can also be heard the rare sound of the psaltery, a harp-like stringed instrument that is popular in many convents in France, used to accompany the singing of the Divine Office. Beautiful bells ring from the tower to announce the hours of prayer, resonating across the mountain top.

Mass for pilgrims in the crypt chapel of the monastery
This region of France is known as the land of St. Mary Magdalene and the sisters have a special devotion to her, stemming from a legend that the saint lived and ministered in the region after she was exiled from the Holy Land. Jouques has been blessed with so many vocations in its short history that it has since gone on to establish two new foundations of female monasteries, including one in Africa.

Two of the sisters of the Abbey are American graduates of the University of Kansas Integrated Humanities Program, a four-semester course that helped them discern their monastic call.

The philosophy of education taught in this course of study was a scholarly tour de force of “poetic knowledge” under the direction of Dr. John Senior (1923-1999), a convert to the Catholic Faith who was one of the most insightful Catholic educators of his day. The program of study was based upon an immersion in the classics of Western thought, art, and literature, with a focus on the cultivation of imagination, formed by beauty in order to be open to living the fullness of truth and goodness.

Dr. Senior taught his students, “The greatest need in the Church today is the contemplative life of monks and nuns. The arguments and public martyrdoms are vain without the sacrifice of hearts.”

The subject of imagination taught by Dr. Senior came from the position of St. John Henry Newman, who taught that conceptual truth is extracted by the intellect from the ground of the imagination.

Newman argued, “The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.”

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