Sunday, September 16, 2012

The monastic oasis of France's Le Reposoir

The view from a chalet in Le Reposoir
Photo by C. McEwan
There was no sleeping in late on our recent vacation. The day following our arrival in the little village of Le Reposoir, nestled in the French Alps, we were up early to attend 8:3o a.m. Mass. It was Wednesday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and a national holiday in France. Celebrating the feast day is part of the nation’s patrimony, and we were happy to experience this aspect of life in a village where religious tradition remains important.

Ancient roots for a modern holiday
The roots of this holiday go back to 1638 when King Louis XIII consecrated his kingdom to the Virgin Mary, and decreed that churches commemorate the feast day with Mass and celebrations. In a country that is recognized for its secularity, August 15 remains an important day for many of its inhabitants.

Our French hosts told us that some years ago the government had proposed abolishing the holiday, but encountered fierce opposition from the citizens. Our hosts explained that while the nation is no longer overtly religious, the people remain attached to this holiday. It is part of the historical and cultural fabric of their country.

In Le Reposoir, a village of about 400 inhabitants, there were two Masses that morning.  The Masses were well attended, with people  from the village and the surrounding areas. After the early Mass, we sipped our coffees on the terrace of the local bar to the accompaniment of pealing church bells, and watched as family after family filed into the village church. 

The Le Reposoir monastery

The early Mass was celebrated at the ancient Carthusian monastery situated outside of the village.  The simplicity of its Gothic chapel spoke more to my religious sensibility of the presence of God than did the ornate cathedrals thronging with tourists that we visited elsewhere on our travels.

This is sacred space
The monastery of Le Reposoir is the oldest monastery in France, and dates to 1151. It sits on an expansive property, fronted with a small lake. The mountains rise up on all sides. While the grandeur of the landscape could make a person feel small and insignificant, I felt cradled in the heart of God here. This is sacred space, infused with an atmosphere of calm that contrasts sharply to the cluttered noise that characterizes most of modern day life.

A small group of Carmelite nuns, the majority of whom are cloistered, inhabit the monastery, and are committed to maintaining the quiet that is conducive to an encounter with God. In an amusing anecdote, our hosts told us that every time the mayor embarks on a development idea, the nuns redouble their prayers for the village to remain a place of repose. So far, no development project has succeeded. While the mayor may wish that the nuns prayed less fervently, and stopped thwarting his good ideas, the monastery and the contemplative life it espouses are clearly dear to the people. Here in this monastic oasis, religious tradition continues to ignite the sparks of faith.

Liturgical celebrations mediate the presence of God
Liturgical celebrations at the monastery provided the bookends for our day.  That evening,  we returned to the monastery for the annual candlelight procession, and prayer vigil. The  procession begins at the monastery and winds its way up the hill to the statue of Mary. The celebration ends with the lighting of a massive bonfire. 

Vigil bonfire

The bonfire is clearly the highlight for the children present.  As they sat before the fire, I recognized in their expressions of wonder and awe the uncomplicated faith of childhood that readily accepts the presence of God.

As the sparks flew heavenwards into the night sky, we cautiously made our way back back to our accommodations with the help of a small flashlight.  The night was black, the stars were brilliant, and the presence of God was everywhere.

Photo credits:
The Le Reposoir Monastery, Source: Le Carmel en France
Vigil Bonfire, Source:

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