Heading east through hilly and quite pretty terrain, we stopped in Montbard for lunch. We looked in vain for a place to get something quick to eat, so Dori got the idea of buying the makings of a simple lunch at the local Casino supermarket. Once again, I waited in the parking lot, where we had found a place under the shade of a tree, while she went shopping. She returned with white bread and sandwich meat, which are about my most disliked lunch ingredients, but we were thankful that at least we had that much.
The Abbey of Fontenay lay only a few kilometers away.
The drive into the Abbey led through a wooded valley to a parking lot bordered by a small stream and surrounded by trees, under the shade of which we parked our car. From there, it was a short walk to the entrance to the Abbey grounds, which were enclosed by a high wall.
Once inside the wall, we were immediately struck by the order, beauty, and simplicity of the Abbey. When the Benedictine order seemed to be growing more worldly, some monks broke away to found a new order marked by strict discipline and austere living.
We sensed this as soon as we entered the large Abbey church. Dating from the middle of the 12th century in Romanesque style, it almost overwhelmed us by it size, symmetry, and simplicity. Both Dori and I felt a sense of awe and reverence in the awesome silence of the building. I think that something in us instinctively knew that an entire way of life – that of our own age – was, like the 12th century, being quietly challenged by a radically different vision of what it means to flourish.
In their earliest days, the Cistercians lived and worked in total silence, broken only by readings from the Bible and religious texts by a lector during meals in the refectory and discussions of the Scriptures in the chapter house. The individual brothers owned no personal property and, in fact, had no private space.
The Cistercians grew their own food and practiced some kind of small industry or agriculture that made them self-sustaining. Today, you can see ample expanses of green lawns and formal gardens outside the windows, products of recent restoration.
Why tell you these details, which you can read in the guide books? Because we enjoyed learning about the living and working arrangements of these long-ago Christians who longed for a life of total commitment to Christ in community with others.
Do I want to become a monk? No! Do I have serious questions about the entire monastic system, which was built upon a sacred-secular distinction, undermined the foundations of marriage and family, and always ultimately grew corrupt through increasing connections with “the world”?Yes! They prospered and got rich, so they attracted people more committed to money and power than to the kingdom of God.
Even Bernard of Clairvaux, whose entry into the order with thirty of his friends spawned a massive increase in the number of monks and monasteries, combined the piety that produced “Jesus, the very thought of Thee,” and other classic hymns with preaching a Crusade and wielding immense political power. He is definitely a problematic character!
I think that Dori and I loved the initial impetus for a more disciplined discipleship and the willingness to forsake all and follow Christ that we could almost see and hear within these ancient walls. These men, and the women who formed sister chapters, longed to know and serve God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. Collectively, they held Western civilization together during countless onslaughts by barbarians and nominal “Christians” alike, through one war, plague, or famine after another.
Maybe we don’t desire to replicate their community life, but we certainly have a lot to learn from them.
We didn’t want to leave this quiet abbey, with its solid buildings, deep green lawns, lovely gardens, and precious memories with priceless lessons protected by walls meant to keep out the “world,” but we had to.
Having taken time to tour charming Montreal earlier in the day, we would need to hurry to make it to our hotel in Sens that night.