Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux (Le Barroux)

Exterior view of the Chapel

I remember once having lunch with an eminent French priest in Lourdes who explained that France is the perfect place to live because it is the land of "wine, castles, and cathedrals."  Indeed, I had to agree but I reminded him to not forget to include monasteries.  The monks built Europe.  And they saved it.  And they are helping to do the same again today.     

The two  most inspiring monasteries I have visited in France are Le Barroux and Fontgombault.  Both are traditional Benedictine Abbeys, each with their own distinct flavor.  Le Barroux is the subject of this article, nestled in the South of France with mountains on the horizon and lush vineyards growing luxuriantly under the Mediterranean sun.  The monks of Le Barroux number about 60.  

By God's grace these monks have preserved the Benedictine monastic Liturgies in the EF.  They also awaken during the night at 3:15 a.m. to chant the Night Office of Matins (Vigiliae) in their chapel.  The monks also make a vow of stability, vowing to remain permanently at their monastery. Although the monastery itself may appear old, it is a modern foundation and its buildings are modern structures designed by the great French architect of monasteries, Jean-Louis Pagès.

The monks of Le Barroux are some of the few who have maintained the custom of the "monastic crown," or "tonsure."  This words is from the Latin word tonsura (meaning "clipping" or "shearing").  It is an old monastic custom of shaving the head so as to allow the hair to grow in the form of a crown (a tradition said to have originated with the Blessed Apostle Peter who is said to have been bald).  The head is therefore shaved as a sign of the monk's desire to belong to God (in ancient times, a shaven head was the distinctive sign of a slave).     

Understanding the Monastic Vocation

Following below is an explanation of a monk's life that comes from a book on Le Barroux I saw in their giftshop (published by Editions Gaud):

"The monks built Europe, but they did not do it intentionally.  Their adventure is first of all, if not exclusively, an inner adventure, whose only motive is thirst.  Thirst for the absolute.  Thirst for another world, for truth and for beauty.  Thirst that the liturgy sharpens in order to guide the eye toward eternal things; to make the monk a man who aims with all his being towards the reality which never dies.  Before being academies of learning and centers of civilization, monasteries are principally silent signs pointing towards heaven, the obstinate uncompromising reminder that another world exists, of which this world is only the image, the indication, the foreshadowing."

Daily morning Masses of the monks

The Founder Dom Gérard Calvet, OSB

The story of Le Barroux began with Dom Gérard Calvet (1927-2008), a French monk who became the founder and first abbot of the Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux Abbey, a new Benedictine foundation located next to the idyllic village of Le Barroux.  Dom Gérard is a historical figure who helped single-handedly reignite traditional Benedictine monasticism in France during a very difficult time of turbulent change and revolutionary upheaval that came in the aftermath of Vatican Council II.  At that time the physiognomy of Benedictine life was turned upside down in a spirit of change and uncertainty.   

Compline in the main chapel

Dom Gérard took his monastic vows in 1951 at the Benedictine Abbey of Madiran (transferred to Tournay in 1952) and was subsequently ordained priest in 1956.  In 1963 he was sent to help with the foundation of a new monastery in Brazil.  The timing was on the eve of the major changes that came to every aspect of Catholic life - including monastic life - in the wake of Vatican II.  When he returned home in 1968, amidst the full storm of revolution, he found the monastery life had been completely changed in the aftermath of the Council.  The challenging times of the sixties brought a state of disorder, randomness, and uncertainty to religious life.  What was a monk to do who wished to remain integrally Benedictine? 

Sunday Mass in the Chapel

Feeling he could not live out his vocation with the spirit of rupture and new spirit of liturgical entropy, Dom Gérard asked and received permission from the Abbot to leave the Abbey for some time.  After spending time at Fontgombault Abbey and Montrieux Charterhouse, he received permission from the same Abbot to settle down as a hermit at the old 11th century abandoned foundation at Bédoin.  On August 24, 1970 he arrived there at "La Madeleine" ("The Madeleine") on a moped with his belongings in a small bag, and celebrated Holy Mass in the small chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene.  This is in the Vaucluse region in the southeast of France, where for centuries Catholics have had great devotion to St. Mary Magdalene because she is believed to have lived her final days there at the Cave of La Sainte-Baume.  The tomb of St. Mary Magdalene is revered nearby in the crypt of the mighty Basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, a fitting Gothic shrine begun in 1295.

Main chapel view

The story of the accidental founding of the Monastery of Sainte-Madeleine is therefore a liturgical story.  From the outset, it was the dew of heaven, the Latin Mass, and its monastic appeal with sung Gregorian Chant that was the center of the community.  The liturgical treasury of Benedictine life with sung Mass and Office, a storehouse of inestimable cultural wealth amassed by Western Christendom over centuries, had always been the lifeblood of traditional Benedictine life.  The ancient recipe captivated Dom Gérard from his youth and the aspiring monks who later followed him.  The Latin Mass is an art of prayer that seemed to them newer and fresher than more recent experimental innovations.  Indeed, the Liturgy has always been the youthful school of prayer.  In this, Benedictine monks are doubtless followers of the initial intuition of their founder, St. Benedict himself.  

The fascinating exterior architecture of the Chapel

There Dom Gérard settled down at first alone and resumed his traditional monastic life of prayer, silence, manual labor, and the recitation of the Classical Mass and Office in Latin.  "What would the future hold?" asked Dom Gérard to himself.  "That's God's business!" was his reply.  He knew he was linked to his forebears by the thirst for traditional liturgy and a desire to live out a monastic life in the context of a community whose life engenders this ancient spirituality that preserves culture and leads to eternal life.  

The refectory of the monks

Three days after his arrival the first postulant came knocking on his door.  The date was August 27, 1971.  His name was Dominique, a twenty-year old medical student who said: "Father, I want to be a monk."  Dom Gérard responded: "Here?  That is impossible.  There is no community to join."  Dominique persisted.  The response turned positive: "All right then!  Come back in November!"

November 15th Dominique returned.  It was 8:00 in the evening.  Two voices began to sing in the freezing chapel the Office of Compline (Night Prayer).  From henceforward, seven times during the day and once during the night (Matins) the chanted prayers of the Divine Office of the Benedictine Order resounded once again in Latin.  Other voices soon joined them and the community numbered 11.

Praying the Monastic Breviary in Latin

In those years young men discerning a possible call to monastic life in the traditional footprint of the Benedictine tradition had no place to turn.  Therefore young men who aspired to be traditional monks came from near and far to live under the guidance of Dom Gérard.  Under his leadership they found a home where they could test their call and discern if they had a proper monastic disposition.  In those early years when young men began to flock to him and were accepted as postulants, they still made their first vows in the hands of the Abbot of Tournay Abbey, whose authority they were under.    

Outside gardens of the monastery

In January 1971 Dom Gérard traveled to Rome with a letter in his hand from his Abbot.  He requested help from the Holy See for his very young foundation.  At the Sacred Congregation for Religious he was assured: "Do as St. Benedict did, live according to the Rule and God will bless you."  Three months later encouragement came from the great French theologian, Cardinal Journet, who visited to deliver some lectures.  The Cardinal came with encouraging words: "Carry on, you are witnesses, beacons.  And in the future it will be known what the great Catholic liturgy was."  Therefore monastic life was resolutely established and the small ruined priory was slowly rebuilt.  "God sends vocations," Dom Gérard often said with firm conviction.

The apse of the main Chapel seen from the monastery gardens

The Construction of Le Barroux Abbey

In 1978 the monks acquired 75 acres of wild and beautiful land donated to them on the northern edge of the village of Le Barroux, about a 20 minute drive from their home in Bédoin.  The new site was providentially the most perfect site imaginable for a monastery, situated among vineyards between Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail.  The monks cleared the land and foundations were dug in the rock with controlled explosions of dynamite to prepare the site.  Foundations were laid in 1979 and construction of the new Abbey began in 1980.  

The cornerstone reads in Latin: "Haec Est Prima Pietra Pax in Lumine [the motto of the Abbey] Anno MCMLXXX."  By December of 1981 the monks left their home at Bédoin two days before Christmas to move into their new monastery, still under construction.  At that time there was still no heating and no electricity.  The monks stayed in the first building that was completed, what is today the guest house for men.  Already some months before, in early 1981, the crypt of the chapel was completed, and so there the monks met for their daily prayers.       

The exterior chapel in the morning sun

In April 1982 the first clothing ceremonies and professions took place at the new monastery, in the lower chapel.  As the building work progressed, there were now 40 monks.  In 1982 the porter's office (porteria) and parlors to greet guests outside of the cloister were completed, attached to the guesthouse.  In 1983 the cloister for the guest house in front of the chapel was completed.  The refectory was completed in 1984.  The chapter room for meetings was completed in 1985.  In January of 1986 the first wall of the new chapel emerged.  It took more than three years to build and was completed in 1989.  The interior chapel walls are made of 3 different stones of different colors, coming from neighboring countries on the Mediterranean basin.  The stained glass windows were made in France.  

Exterior front façade of the Chapel

The colorful hand-carved wooden sanctuary crucifix was suspended in the sanctuary,  monochrome in design, with a gold-leaf nimbus and cross.  Christ wears a golden crown with the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Holy Trinity.  A frescoed ceiling of angels decorates the ceiling of the apse.  Ropes attached to the bells in the tower descend into the sanctuary space.  There is also off to the side a genuine Medieval statue of Our Lady crowned with the Child Jesus, venerable in age, dating from the 14th century.  The Christ Child holds a bird, symbolic of the soul.  The monks end their day with their prayers at the foot of this statue after the Office of Compline, singing the Salve Regina.     

Sunday Mass in the Chapel

Raised to the Status of Abbey

In June of 1989, after almost 15 years of difficulties with ecclesiastical authorities (since 1974 when the Abbot of Tournay decided to break ties with the new community), the longed-for canonical status was granted by the Holy See with the monastery recognized as a Benedictine Abbey.  The Abbot Primate of the Benedictines came to Le Barroux for a visit to promulgate the decree raising the monastery to the rank of Abbey.  He read it to the community gathered in the new Chapter Room:

"From the first centuries of the Church, France was for monks a land of predilection which, with time, came to shelter a crown, as it were, of countless monasteries.  To this crown is added today this monastery where for several years a 'school of the service of the Lord' has been established [...] This monastery now having welcomed numerous vocations, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, in accordance with the rights which have been granted by the Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II raises it to a monastery sui juris, with the titles, rights and privileges of an Abbey..." 

Several days later Cardinal Augustine Mayer, OSB, Prefect of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, came for a visit to confer the abbatial blessing upon Dom Gérard, the founder and new Abbot.  The German Cardinal said in his sermon: "Already you were the father, the master, the shepherd of your monks, one could also even say: their spiritual doctor.  From now on, you will be the representative of Christ to a greater degree, as Abbot, blessed by the Church..."

Holy Communion in the upstairs main Chapel

Finally on October 2, 1989 came that long awaited day, the most festive liturgical event in the history of the Abbey.  On the feast of the Guardian Angels, His Eminence Cardinal Gagnon, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, accompanied by the Archbishop of Avignon and 14 other prelates, consecrated the monastery chapel in a 5 hour ceremony.  After, a delegation of several of the monks along with their Abbot traveled to Rome to thank the Sovereign Pontiff.  They were received in private audience by Pope John Paul II on another unforgettable day: September 28, 1990.  At that time there were nearly 50 monks.

Many priests go on retreat at the Abbey

Construction continued through those years.  In 1991 the grand cloister was completed, a masterpiece of monastic architecture with sturdy square columns around, partially carved with delicate ornamentation.  It is an oasis of peace and beauty encompassing a gallery with every architectural line designed with such inflexible regularity as to draw the eye towards the garden in the middle, where a limpid fountain splashes.  The inside of the courtyard has grass, trees, and flowers around this small fountain in the middle, all under the towering shadow of the mighty chapel.  The novitiate wing was also completed also in 1991.        

Moring private Masses in the upstairs main Chapel

The Architect Jean-Louis Pagès

Not only is Dom Gérard the hero of Le Barroux, but also Jean-Louis Pagès, the senior Catholic architect who for 22 years designed the buildings of Le Barroux Abbey.  In addition, he also designed its sister Abbey nearby for nuns, founded in 1979.  Further, most recently Jean-Louis designed the new St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California, his last and final project.  His incredible style stands on the authority of the past.  Jean-Louis has a massive portfolio that spans decades.  His incredible accomplishments in the area of monastic architecture set him apart, a lasting legacy that will inspire the imaginations of other architects for generations.  He will long be remembered for his incredible contribution at Le Barroux, a triumph of classical architecture - a monastery that looks old while being new construction. 

Architectural layout plan of the monastery

Jean-Louis's interest in monastic architecture goes back to his youth when he visited his uncle at the Abbey of Hautecombe, a stunning monastery overlooking a large lake in eastern France.  This made a definite impression upon him.  In his younger years he journeyed through the Mediterranean and became interested in the early Church rock chapels of Cappadocia that are still standing today.  Jean-Louis later traveled to Mt. Athos as a pilgrim where he spent several days with a sketch book and watercolors, studying the monastic architecture and observing first-hand the monastic origins from the East.  

Jean-Louis helped the monks of Le Barroux build from nothing a magnificent and meaningful Romanesque monastery at a time when such classical architecture was forbidden by the establishment.  Built to resemble a classic style monastery of a bygone era, the monastery buildings include all the modern technical appurtenances necessary to suit the life of the monks.  For the brilliant exterior walls he chose exposed buttered stones, a local calcareous rock native to the region that handles well the heat and ages well.  

As an architect Jean-Louis clearly understood his monastic audience.  The contemplative life responds to the deepest and most eternal aspirations of the human soul.  It is easy to understand therefore his choice of architectural style, principally inspired by the great Cistercian abbeys of old.  He identified three principal characteristics of the style of monastic architecture: solidity, purity, and fullness.  To these he added a respect for mystery.  The perfect setting to celebrate in sung Latin the Classical Rite with Gregorian Chant.  

Further, he understood the landscape of the locale, of the Provence countryside.  For centuries monks have built their monasteries in a spirit of harmony with the beauty of creation, a response to a hidden instinct which encourages them to harmonize the environment of their earthly sojourn with the deepest aspirations of the interior life, as life on earth for a monk is like a parable of the kingdom of heaven to come.  

The clear and pure lines of the fields, vineyards, wild roses, and gravel roads call for sober structures in local stone, avoiding any suggestion of grandiose modernism.  He therefore identified a style suited to modern monasticism in an ancient footprint, clearly rooted in both tradition and innovation.  After all, beauty is not merely an amalgam of decorative elements, but it is something through which we glimpse God and live our lives.  

Indeed as an architect he captured the aspirations of monks, in flight from the world to a life orientated towards the vision of God.  The modern monks of Le Barroux are linked to their forebears by the same thirst, an intense desire to look towards the invisible, a desire lived out by monks in a community whose life engenders those virtues which lead to personal sanctity in a hidden life.     

Monastery common room

The Le Barroux Monastery Today

Dom Gérard passed away in 2008 at age 80.  When he died the Conventual Chapter of the professed monks met and elected a new Abbot.  That same year the Abbey was admitted to membership as part of the international Benedictine Confederation.  They Abbey has continued to grow.  The monks make wine to support themselves.

Private Mass in the basement crypt chapel

Further, as the Le Barroux community has grown, they have established other houses.  Already in 1999 there were 60 monks and the monks knew they would have to create other foundation houses.  In 2002 the foundation of Sainte-Marie de la Garde was established in southwestern France.  This is another beautiful monastery hidden in the enchanting French countryside.  Their current chapel was blessed in 2006; it is an old stone sheepfold from the days when the monastery was a family farm.   In 2010 the first stone was blessed for the new construction.  The monks who live here make beautiful sandals in their cobbler shop to support themselves.      

As was mentioned previously, Le Barroux has a sister Abbey for nuns that is located within walking distance, 2 kilometers to the east on the other side of the valley.  This is called Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation.  The nuns lead practically the same life as the monks.  Their humble beginning traces back to 1979 when women seeking traditional monasticism were led to their foundress, Mother Elizabeth.  In 1983 the sisters bought their land near the monks and construction began under the auspices of the monks' own architect, Jean-Louis.  In 1987  the nuns moved into their new home.  In 1989 they received from the Holy See the temporary status of priory while they awaited the completion of the building work, including the enclosure that would enable it to be set up as an Abbey.  In 1992 the female monastery was raised to the status of an Abbey, with Mother Elizabeth receiving the abbatial blessing also from the hands of Cardinal Mayer, OSB.  

Why Visit Here?

I have been privileged to visit here twice and I cannot recommend it enough - it is a glimpse into the otherworldly.  Like Fontgombault, this is one of the few monasteries where visitors can witness the full paradox of monastic life in the Latin Church, to watch tonsured monks in choir chant exclusively the sung Mass and Office in Latin.  Plainchant is so rare today that most Catholics have never heard it in person, let alone in a monastic setting.  

There is a guest wing for male visitors that is attached to the cloister by a door that is open during the day for easy access to the chapel.  Some of the monks, from Quebec, Canada, speak English.  Male visitors have the option to awaken in the night and join the monks in the chapel as they pray the Office Matins at 3:25 a.m. (it usually lasts between and hour and hour and a half).  They also have the option to each lunch with the monks in their main refectory, an incredible and once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Le Barroux is a place of conversion.  The male guest house is always full of interesting persons on silent retreat.  The bedrooms for priests on retreat are upstairs.  In the basement is also a large room with beds for groups of men to stay.  

Visitors are overwhelmed by the ethereal experience of the morning Masses imbued with silence in the upstairs chapel at 6:30 a.m.   This is where individual private Masses are celebrated by the monks who are priests and assisted by the brothers who serve the Masses.  The Conventual Mass is chanted by the community every weekday at 9:30 a.m. (Sundays at 10:00 a.m.) and is especially beautiful on a Sunday when neighboring French families visit.  Also don't miss out on the fascinating gift shop.  At 5:30 p.m. Vespers is sung, when Vesper star appears in the early nigh sky.  Visitors should not be too surprised by various liturgical prerogatives or changes seen with the monastic liturgy, always slightly different and in some ways similar to the Anglican tradition (such as prayers said from the sedilia). 

Lavender garden in the monastic enclosure
Nota Bene: How to Get There

The easiest way to arrive at the monastery is with a rental car.  Be sure to pay extra for GPS.  The nearest airport is Marseille (Marignane Airport).  By train the nearest train station is Avignon.  Buses to Le Barroux are available, but I recommend you take a taxi door to door.  A bus is too difficult with baggage.  In addition, at the bus stop it will be too difficult to hail a taxi.  The village of Le Barroux is 3 km from the monastery.  Taxi drivers do not generally speak English.  Men are allowed to stay at the guesthouse on retreat, but must make reservations ahead of time.  While the Abbey church is open all day for visitors, the monastery itself is private (a limited number of male guests with permission are allowed in for lunch).  The Sunday Mass in the chapel is at 10 am and the gift shop is open before and after for visitors to purchase food for lunch if they wish picnic.  Le Barroux is well worth a visit.  While men can stay in the guesthouse (reservations required), women can arrange through the neighboring convent (reservations also required) to stay in a guesthouse for female pilgrims, located on the road to the convent, within walking distance from the monastery of men.     

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