The French Monastery

On Wednesday Jacob and I left our house in the south of France and took the train west towards Toulouse. Some three hours later we were met by my Uncle Olivier, who is a Benedictine monk living in a nearby monastery.

Since then we have been staying at the monastery guesthouse, enjoying the unique experience of a first-hand look into the life of a monastery.

First to lay down some facts and dispel some common misassumptions:

-      - Benedictine monks follow the order of St. Benedict, a sort of denomination of Catholicism.

-       -Yes, my Uncle Olivier has left the monastery since becoming a monk – in fact; he travels quite frequently on representational business for the monastery.

-       -No, Benedictine monks do not regard women as evil, alien, or substandard to men.

-      - Benedictine monks are not ascetic, which means they eat regularly, speak regularly, are sociable, and do not practice self-flagellation.   

I am sorry if many of these things are blatantly obvious… but it’s worth clearing up if there is any confusion. Moving on.

We have enjoyed the rhythm of life at the monastery, which for guests at least, is mostly dictated by masses and meals. Several liturgical ceremonies are held daily, from Morning Prayer and Mass to evening Vespers. They are beautiful, prayerful, and meditative times, even if I barely understand what they are saying.

Meals are a lot of fun, although they take some adjusting. Meals are held in silence, while we listen to music or one of the monks reading out loud. When we asked Olivier why the meals were held in silence, we were surprised by his answer. He responded very simply, “We eat all of our meals together every day for years…it would be difficult to make conversation all of the time.” Very true.

There are fun dynamics to eating a family-style meal in silence with a table full of strangers (the majority of whom are also people staying in the monastery guesthouse). The potential awkwardness and challenges of communication tends to put people in a jolly mood. Yesterday at lunch, a very happy nun taught Jacob (in silence), the proper way to eat a kiwi.  (Cut it in half, and then use a spoon to scoop out the fruit).

On Thursday my uncle took the day off to show Jacob and I around the city of Albi. It was incredible. As much time as I have spent in France, I have not traveled it much as an adult. There are so many incredible regions to explore, and the region the monastery is located in is breathtaking.

Albi is (yet again), an old medieval city, famous for an incredible painted cathedral and a museum to the French painter and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The cathedral at Albi is amazing for it’s huge size and austere Gothic façade. From the outside, the church looks more like a fortress than a place of worship.

And then you go inside, and are suddenly surrounded by lavish paintings and carvings that utterly contradict the solemnity of the outside.

Next to the Cathedral is the museum of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which is contained in the old Bishop’s palace. That place is pretty amazing too. The views of Albi from the garden are gorgeous.

The old town surrounding these buildings is beautifully medieval, in a style that looks almost Germanic (or English). Until now, I had never seen buildings like this in the south of France.

After leaving Albi, we made a stop by a picturesque little village named Lautrec (yes, like the painter Toulouse-Lautrec). This place was unreal. It was just too…perfect. It looks like the movie set of Chocolat. I decided when I am old; I want to live in a little village just like this.

 The next day, Uncle Olivier took Jacob and I on a hike near the monastery. We hiked up a mountain to a little chapel over looking the valleys. When I say we hiked up a mountain – I mean we ascended straight up, with no switchbacks, for 520 meters. My uncle barely broke a sweat (unlike me).  The view was worth it.

On Monday morning we leave for Istanbul, Turkey!