One of the reasons I love to travel so much, I think, is because I love staying in new places. Guest bedrooms or cruise ships or the carpeted floors of dorm rooms - I love setting up a new home, even if it’s only for a few days. I’m all about a good home base. When I find that base, whether it be a tiny shelf or a spacious room, I feel like I’m home, and I feel like I can do anything. I can run and explore and soak in the culture, and I know that I have my little space to come back to once it’s time to hit the hay.
For the past four days I’ve had a rather unusual home base – a room in the Abbaye Saint-Martin De Mondaye, an Abbaye in the countryside of Normandy, some 20 odd miles from civilization. I loved every minute of monastic life, especially going from the hustle and bustle of Paris to the cows and pastures of Bayeux. In case you didn’t know, in 4th grade I wanted to be a nun (think Maria from The Sound of Music), so this stuff is near and dear to my heart. Some basic fun facts about monastic life:
The Abbaye has been a place of worship for over 8 centuries. 23 monks live here, ranging in age from 22 to 83. If we’re being technical here, the brothers are called cannons, not monks. Monks spend their days in total seclusion; these men live in the abbaye and during the day, work out in the surrounding towns as seminary teachers, prison chaplains, or priests. They take monastic vows of celibacy, eat each meal in silence, and only talk in the recreation room. They have given their lives to Christ, and in Christ they are free. They worship together and with the community several times a day and wear white vestment robes and brown leather sandals.
During the day, instead of hanging out with the brothers, we ventured off to Mont St. Michael one day and the Normandy beaches another.
Mont St. Michael was beautiful, a tiny piece of land with some of the most intense tides in the world, causing it to become an island during high tide. The best part of our day at Mont St. Michael? Deciding to forget about our per diem and go café hopping through the cute, tiny main street. A panini to go and people watching crowds of tourists. Specialty crepes at a cozy little bar upstairs from a gift shop. Reading poetry and drinking hot chocolate on an outside terrace.
Normandy: On the 6th of June 1944, over 10,000 young soldiers paid for our freedom on the beaches of Normandy. We’d watched Saving Private Ryan the night before, and from the inside of the command center on Pointe Du Hoc, I could see the scene playing out in my head. The day was sobering, full of reflection and perspective. When we got off the bus at Omaha Beach, it was a resort perfect afternoon. I walked the beach, willing myself to face the realities of what happened, yet yearning to glaze over the painful truths. My feet hit the sand and the water, the same sand and the same water that too many young men lost their lives on.
We were at Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial when it started to rain. At first it sprinkled, then it poured, buckets and buckets of cathartic rain, tears pouring down from the sky. Our umbrellas stayed on the bus where we’d left them, and we stayed in the cemetery, paying homage to the men and women who keep our country free. Olive trees and sculpted foliage surrounded the manicured grass and rows upon rows of white crosses. What gets me every time I visit a war memorial or cemetery is the older generation of men and women. I begin to imagine them my age. I imagine them at war, and I imagine all of their friends that left for war and never returned, never got the privilege to grow old.
Our Abbaye is just ten short kilometers away from the Normandy beaches. It took 4 days for the Americans to gain those ten kilometers and reach the Abbeye, but they did, and on June 10, 1944 Abbeye Saint-Martin de Mondaye became the first liberated Abbeye in France. To stay in a remote place with such rich, rich history is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I took my three nights of monastic life very seriously, which included attending a few of the abbeye’s vespers services. Our group of 40 has gotten very close the past five weeks, and combined with our boisterous enthusiasm for life, we’re quite a noisy bunch. But stick us in an abnormal situation – i.e. living in a monastery in France and attending vespers with monks – and it’s amazing how quiet we can be. We’ve learned to be adaptable these past few weeks, and we embraced the opportunity to smell incense and sing the psalms in French with our new monk friends. We stole glances at them, timid with awe, wanting and willing to understand their unique lifestyle, and they looked at us, 40 American students who invaded their normally small vespers, with similar expressions.
We were able to take a tour of the abbaye one night and had the monks ventured from their rooms around 10 pm, they would’ve been surprised to find 44 people in their hallway, soaking in details of monastic life from one of the Fathers. My favorite room? The library. Picture Beauty and the Beast on a smaller scale and there you have it. The monks know what’s up when it comes to libraries.
I loved every minute at the abbaye. Three nights of monastic life, sans make up and sans internet, was exactly what I needed. The weather was cold and windy and rainy, fitting for the lush countryside and secluded nature of our stay. Our rooms were simple and bare and we ate bread and hot chocolate for breakfast. Dinner was monk made, warm, hearty, and served with their special brew of alcoholic cider. The brother’s cooking was a much-needed break from three months of eating out. We took turns doing dishes and huddled onto beds to play cards at night. We wandered the country lanes to get our bearings, picking blackberries and looking out at the acres and acres of land.
Bayeux is beautiful, and I am blown away by the monks and their faith in God. We, so often, live our lives and then our faith follows. These men live their faith, and then their lives follow. I have trouble trusting God with the little details of my life, and they willingly give their entire lives to God, many joining the community in their twenties. They work hard and live simply in meditation, seclusion, and prayer.
I will never forget what one of the Fathers said when we asked him about religious life in France. Despite the fact that faith and church attendance are diminishing, he brought up the Great Commission at the end of Matthew. No matter how small the faith community is, the gospel of Matthew promises that Christ is with us to the end…and that is sufficient. Why would you ever despair when Christ is with you now and will be with you until the end of time?
Simple words. Perfect words.
I have so much to learn. From life, from the world, from the brothers here at Abbaye Saint-Martin de Mondaye. My soul needed to hear those words.
Christ is with us until the end, and that is sufficient.
We are just a small, small piece of the puzzle. I will never forget it, hearing the Christian calling articulated in such a concise, precise way. Christ is with you ‘til the end, and that is sufficient.
It is amazing, and truly a testament of God’s grace, that I, a 20-year-old girl from a nondenominational contemporary church in California, could spend time in a remote abbaye in Bayeux, France, and worship and learn from Catholic monks.
I soon realize that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. –Lillian Smith
Goodnight from Brugge, Belgium. We’ll be here enjoying waffles and cobblestone streets until Saturday, when we head up to the Netherlands.
Rest assured, friends, Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.