A few days in the Eastern Townships, ambling along verdant roads with soft fields, glimpses of water, little secret vales around corners, ancient farmhouses on stone foundations. We stayed in a B&B in Austin (the splendid Auberge les Pinyon Verts) and when we said how much we enjoyed the cheese in the morning omelette, our hosts suggested we visit the nearby Abbaye Saint Benoît Du Lac, the Benedictine monastery where the monks make cheese and cidre. We could take a tour, they said, or simply go to the shop. Or better yet, take a tour and stay for the Eucharist mass at 11, celebrated with Gregorian chant. I wanted to understand the Latin but the voices and the acoustics were not in harmony. Ora et Labora – pray and work.
I was interested to read about the labour involved with the creation of the Abbey. A French Benedictine architect designed the buildings and the structures are solid and beautiful. Stone and brick of harmonious colours. Tiles and elegant woodwork. The proportions are perfect. I thought of Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man as I looked at replicas of the architectural plans. The Vetruvian Man demonstrates the essential symmetry of the human body and by extension, the universe. I suspect God is the guiding symbol of the Abbaye Saint Benoit Du Lac and we have to imagine his body in the airy spaces of this ediface.
The abbey is one of those tranquil places where time stands still. Too still maybe — the population has dropped significantly in recent years and I can’t imagine a young man engaged with the issues of the world wanting to enter an order so self-contained and well, insular. Maybe I’m wrong. But sitting in a pew, listening to the voices—thin and reedy, most of them; not the robust voices of young strong men—and seeing the monks stand and sit in response to the spiritual directives, it didn’t seem to me to be a community that would grow and change with the times. I hope I’m wrong.
But it was a lovely place, the structures echoing the beauty of the lakes and small mountains, the trees, the architecture of the sky. There was so much there, the apple trees pruned and productive, the wheels of cheese in the shop, the jars of confiture. There was silence in the long halls, the tiles perfectly laid and polished. I understand wanting to find that silence and within it, to find God. At least I think I understand that silence is a place as beautiful and holy as any. But the world is not so quiet, not these days, and some of the noise comes from those needing us to hear them, to take action, to open our hearts to those requiring something other than prayer and silence. Is that why some of the literature about the order tells us the population is 50 or 40 or 30? Numbers that are perhaps optimistic and hopeful but in decline?
We left with a bottle of the sparkling cider and some cheese. A special confiture of pears and ginger. And for me, an unresolved feeling about the utility of faith, or the contemplative kind at least, in times that ask us to be of use to the planet and each of its lively inhabitants.