Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sharing life together

During my recent excursion to Provence, my friends Natacha and Alain took me (and my dog) to the ancient Cistercian abbey of Sénanque, which functions today as a priory whose monks earn their living by growing lavender in a magnificent site near the splendid Provençal village of Gordes. In their excellent store, I bought a book about the crusades (a subject that has always interested me), a big book about lavender (containing recipes that I intend to try out, using lavender that grows at Gamone) and a guidebook on Sénanque. I was also attracted by a small monograph with a striking red cover on the subject of Athanasius [293-373], but I'm already sufficiently informed concerning this Alexandrian figure [to whom I shall return].

The Cistercians have always been engaged in worldly affairs. In the UK, the organizational prowess of the monks of this 11th-century order can be admired in the ruins of the great Yorkshire abbeys of Rievaulx and Fountains. The so-called "white monks" are perfect examples of a style of monasticism known as cenobitic, which means literally in Greek that monks "share life" together. In other words, Cistercian monks work and dine together, as opposed to the eremitic style of Carthusian monks, for example, who spend most of their time confined to their cells.

In the Sénanque guidebook, the Cistercians trace their history to a fourth-century Egyptian desert hermit named Pachomius, who can be truly considered as the inventor of cenobitic monasticism. Initially, Pachomius was a pagan (who surely didn't look anything like the saintly personage depicted in this modern stylized Greek icon), and he had a hard job trying to persuade his initial Christian companions to behave correctly like a brotherhood of monks. One day, for example, when members of his community were working out in the fields, Pachomius loaded a donkey with food and cooking equipment, and set out to nourish his brethren. These allegedly Christian fellows, having eaten, decided to abandon their "abbot", steal his donkey and set out in search of greener pastures. Pachomius, disabused, had to carry his cooking equipment back to his home base of Faw Qibli, located in the Nag Hammadi region in Upper Egypt, 600 kilometers south of Cairo and 125 kilometers north of Luxor. This was the precise sun-drenched spot, near the frontier between Egypt's fertile Nile land and the desert, at the foot of a rocky mountain, Jabal al-Tarif, at which our great European traditions of Benedictine-inspired monasteries came into being.

That was the source of Sénanque. In later posts, I intend to return to the all-important domain of Nag Hammadi (ancient documents found in 1945), Pachomius, Athanasius and modern Christianity as proclaimed at Sénanque and elsewhere.

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