Recently we visited the beautiful Aiguebelle Abbey. It’s a serene and peaceful place to stroll around during the afternoon. The abbey also offers religious/spiritual retreats, for those who desire to immerse themselves in the way of life for more than an afternoon.
As a Trappist monastery, there are signs posted on the stone walls asking for silence. Trappist monks follow the rule of St. Benedict under “Strict Observance”. They take three vows: stability, fidelity and obedience. They also remain silent for the majority of the time, only speaking when necessary. St Benedict insisted on silence and it is therefore important to their way of life. He believed that idle talk was dangerous and can lead to evil amusement. He also believed that speech prevented deep reflection and contemplation, leading to exercising one’s own will and not that of God. Listening and reading are preferred or meditative thought processes. For St. Benedict, even laughing could be maleficent. The level of obedience sounds a bit much for me.
Whilst I was there, I observed the monk’s daily timetable on the wall. They wake up at 3.45 am and finish their working day at 8pm. Their day is divided between religious activities and work. At the Aiguebelle Abbey there is a large shop selling the monk’s produce. Wondering around the shop I was surprised to see books on other religions being sold. Flicking through a French book on Tibetan Buddhism whilst in a Roman Catholic monastery seemed a rather absurd moment. Aiguebelle has become a name synonymous with great produce, including syrups, cheeses and much more.
The Aiguebelle Abbey has also become known for a murder which occurred there in 1891. The notorious crime happened in the evening of the 28th October, when Father Ildefonse was found murdered and robbed by the monk Brother Eugène, who had robbed many valuable items from other monasteries. He was executed by guillotine, on 5th July 1892. This story has a rather Agatha Christie feel to it, I thought.
Walking around the grounds I was deep in thought. The area was lovely to walk around. I saw statues between brightly coloured flowers, that in turn, stood out against the light rocks. They were clearly tended to by the careful monks. We began talking quietly, crunching the light gravel underfoot, as we walked up the small incline to look over the abbey buildings. There’s plenty of space to picnic up at the top. We didn’t stay up there long and took a shortcut back down a steep muddy path, under trees. We past a small waterfall and running stream towards a chapel built into a cave and it felt like we’d stumbled upon a secret, apart from the fact that others were there too.
Being around so much positive, spiritual energy and being around good people, was a great feeling. I read the plaques on the wall of the cave giving thanks. There were people lighting candles for those they had lost. The care, the devotion and the love shown was uplifting. One sign I saw resonated with me more than the others. It said something along the lines of: “Thank you for our son Nicholas, who sadly died in a car accident”. Instead of being bitter, they thanked a higher spiritual realm for having him in the first place. Seeing life through a prism of positivity and gratitude, I felt inspired by the other people and their beliefs.
Sitting on a park bench with some friends of friends, we discussed whether the feeling we had in the chapel was an exterior or interior sentiment. Was it because we had a notion and knowledge of God that we felt tranquility and respect within the impressive Medieval walls, or did we feel this way because the architecture was impressive. We briefly explored the notion of the abject or sublime and questioned whether the feelings were similar to that of standing on a cliff’s edge, watching lightening or a beautiful sunset. Was it simply because this place was consecrated and divine to those who could believe it, that the buildings had a spiritual strength to them? Our conclusion was that answering religious questions, is like defining art. It’s a level of communication beyond our physical comprehension.
I just wish I hadn’t drank red wine with lunch beforehand, I felt heavy, drowsy and aware of the faint smell of alcohol – I avoided getting too close to anybody. A man with a sport’s car, sat watching passersby, admiring those admiring his car. We sat with him for a while, as I tried to suppress hiccups. He was a friend of a friend. I undersold my level of comprehension so that I could sit quietly and people-watch. I saw some nuns sat on a picnic bench and lots of people ignoring the signs, chatting away, heading to the shop to buy some produce.
They exchanged stories about people they knew who had taken up the religious retreat programme here. A woman who had suffered miscarriages, another whose marriage had broken down and I could understand why coming here could help to fix the soul. Being around positivity, in all religions, would heighten your own.
Driving down the winding hill, the expanse of fields below in varying shades of green and yellow, were picturesque. We drove home reflectively. It was a nice way to spend a sunny afternoon, for the believers and non-believers amongst us. The little dog even got to drink some fresh water from a natural source, and chase after some butterflies, before it exhausted itself and had to be carried. Next time I head there I’m going to come home with a bounty of goods, for if their lavender cordial is anything to go by, their hard work pays off!