Benedictines & Dominicans

The sun had not risen yet over the Auvergne. But some birds were already chirping. I stepped through the open church door and went slowly to the front. Only the choir stalls were lit up. The rest of the simple, medieval church could only be guessed at. I heard footsteps from afar. Suddenly the monks emerged from the darkness of the cloister.

In rows of two, the Benedictines passed by me in their black robes, bent their knees in the middle and went to their seats in the choir. They opened their breviary. They were obviously used to this. The strong voice of the cantor rose and got lost in the heights of the old church: “Dómine, lábia mea apéries …”. It was 4.30 a.m. Matins.

A star in the darkness of night

When the Roman Empire was in decline and the Migration Period began, Europe was in chaos for several centuries. In the midst of confusion and ruins, between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the basis for Christendom was laid with monasticism. One of the most important monks of this time was St. Benedict of Nursia. Pope Pius XII called him “a star in the darkness of night” in his encyclical “Fulgens Radiatur”. From the sixth century on the monasteries spread rapidly across Europe.

They were places of prayer, liturgy, the creation of music, art and poetry, crafts and agriculture, scientific research, philosophical and theological disputations. Their religious, cultural, and social significance is tremendous but unfortunately underestimated. Therefore we can be sure that the monasteries will help overcome today’s cultural crises. Even though there are far fewer monasteries today than 1500 years ago. After a visit to some traditional monasteries, one will be convinced. That’s what I did.

The diversity of tradition

Last summer, I visited three monasteries and a small religious community in France: the benedictine Abbaye Notre-Dame de Bellaigue in Virlet, the capuchin Couvent Saint-François in Morgon, the dominican Couvent de la Haye-aux-Bonshommes in Avrillé and Maison Saint-Joseph of the Fraternity of the Transfiguration in Mérigny. These four places are just a few examples of traditional catholic monasteries and religious houses in France. There are Benedictines, Poor Clares, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and numerous smaller communities. Some with their own spirituality and special tasks.

In France, it is still possible to get a feeling for the diversity and variety of congregations and communities of the Church in earlier days. It is fascinating to see their differences, for example in liturgy or apostolate. The Dominicans focus on teaching and preaching. The Capuchins on poverty and charity. The Benedictines on liturgy and labor. Let’s hope that there will be a renaissance of these old congregations, which are so rich in tradition, history, and identity. For now there is at least the possibility of a visit.

Seeking the truth

I had just finished my lunch and was sipping an espresso when Père Innocent-Marie quickly walked towards the “Parloir”. I sat in one of these small consulting rooms next to the church. The classes in the elementary school he taught had just ended. He told me that we would be talking in a few minutes. Shortly afterward the Dominican returned. Brother Nicolas, who kindly agreed to translate, was with him. My knowledge of French was not good enough yet for theological discussions.

The following conversation was exemplary for the work of the preaching order. Père Innocent-Marie talked enthusiastically and vividly. He shared various ideas with me on how to bring back the Catholic faith to our secular society. He told me about the “Cité catholique”, study groups, demonstrations, tactics of the Communists, and important books. In the end he provided me with documents worth reading. Then he went to the church. Time for the None.