Three Days of Benedictine Beneficence

To say the liturgy is integral to the lives of the monks of Fontgombault (pronounced Fun gum boe) would be like saying a football is important to the playing of the Super Bowl.

Every action of their daily routine, from 5:15 morning prayer until the grand silence after dinner, points unmistakably to the prayer of the Church.

Here the rule of St. Benedict has melded with the formulations of the Second Vatican Council to produce a living, breathing, walking declaration: “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church.”

Located in the western part of central France, this Benedictine community is thriving. Spending time here recently, I found it easy to understand why this abbey was chosen to host a liturgical conference in July of 2001 — one in which the future Pope Benedict XVI participated.

The fourth abbot the community has known since they moved in during the 1940s presides over a group of more than 60 men. Supported by generous benefactors, the abbey is largely self-sufficient.

It was with some trepidation that I initially entered into this world so different from my own, unsure of what I would find. Yet, during the course of my three-day visit, I noted that the community’s culture is alert and welcoming. I got to witness firsthand how our days can be ordered by formal prayer at regular intervals, signaled by the call of simple bells.

Humble and Noble

Toward the beginning of my stay, I caught myself keeping a watchful eye for signs of disharmony — suspecting that, even in a community thoroughly dedicated to harmonious worship of God, the chaotic pressures of the “real world” would somehow find their way inside the walls of the abbey.

I suppose I took this posture, in part, to avoid fully immersing myself in the Benedictines’ deep dedication to prayer and silence. But, rather than suffer from the loss of all my usual distractions, I found myself not just enduring but enjoying the peace that descended at meals or after the singing of night prayer.

Here was a safe haven to surrender to St. Benedict’s way, in which we “run along the way of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Our accommodations during the week-long stay were plain yet comfortable. The rooms were private and the decor was an extension of that which ran uninterrupted through the rest of the abbey: noble simplicity.

After my stay, I felt certain that I had encountered a model of the monastic ideal that inspired the fathers of the Second Vatican Council to write, in their 1965 decree Perfectae Caritatis (On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life):

“The monastic life, that venerable institution which in the course of a long history has won for itself notable renown in the Church and in human society, should be preserved with care and its authentic spirit permitted to shine forth ever more splendidly both in the East and the West. The principal duty of monks is to offer a service to the divine majesty at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery, whether they dedicate themselves entirely to divine worship in the contemplative life or have legitimately undertaken some apostolate or work of Christian charity.”

It’s edifying and enlightening to see such a teaching come alive in the dark interior of an 11th-century Gothic chapel. Lightened by bright stone and stained glass, the sanctuary invites contemplation in a way most modern churches can only hint at.

Guests are free to roam the grounds outside the cloister and, indeed, may come and go as they please. The small village immediately surrounding the property does not offer many diversions, but the native countryside is a prime example of serene French beauty. You have to travel miles to the neighboring city of Leblanc if you feel the need to satisfy a chocolate craving or simply enjoy the ordinary pleasures of commerce.

The guests have their own dining room and are expected to maintain silence during all meals, but on rare occasions we were guided into the main refectory to eat with the community. Waiting at the door was Father Abbot himself, ready to wash our hands in a visible sign continuing the Benedictine tradition that guests are treated as Christ himself.

The home-grown and home-cooked meals were fresh and delicious but not rich enough to weigh down our alertness for the afternoon. They were also short; probably nothing else we saw testified more powerfully to the monks’ work and prayer ethic than the efficiency with which the meals were prepared and consumed.

While a selection of spiritual readings was chanted over the main refectory, smiling servers took delicate care to see that guests’ plates were oriented in the same direction. They also replaced them quickly after each dish was finished. This was just one more expression of the ever-present striving for human perfection that characterizes life at Fontgombault. But, of course, it is in the chapel that we discovered the true center around which the monastic life revolves.

Living the Liturgy

The greatest gift of all to the visiting pilgrim at Fontgombault is the living encounter with the liturgy. While the prayer-based life of the monks at Fontgombault would continue steadily without consideration for the presence of any guests, I have rarely felt so welcomed. We were invited and encouraged to join the liturgies in congregation and supplied with translations of the Latin chant, printed by the abbey’s daughter-house in Clear Creek, Okla.

During the Christmas Eve liturgy, a family with small children was ushered by the guest-master to the front rows nearest the choir stalls for the most accessible view. We saw how, at the beginning of each hour of prayer, the monks file in quickly, bowing reverently before the altar before taking their place in choir. Then the praying of the hours begins.

If you have the time and opportunity, you can experience the evangelizing effects of Gregorian Chant at Fontgombault. The combination of silence, simplicity and routine prepare you for a Mass in which chant becomes a vessel. It has the power to deliver the word of God peacefully, yet powerfully, through your senses and right into your spirit.

The entire weight of Catholic sacred Tradition seems to stand behind the gentle rise and fall of bass, baritone and tenor voices while line after line of sacred Scripture seeps into your intellect. It feels, as does so much else of the Fontgombault experience, like coming home.

Christopher Menzhuber writes from West St. Paul, Minnesota.

Planning Your Visit

The Abbey Notre Dame de Fontgombault welcomes pilgrims for prayers and retreats. For information, visit the website of the abbey’s American foundation, Clear Creek Monastery in Hulbert, Okla.: Or call the Oklahoma monks at (918) 772-2454. The website also has information on the community’s history, life and charitable opportunities.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.