We arrived at Crillon-le-Brave, about two hours north of Sainte-Baume, near Carpentras and Avignon as the temperatures rose here in southern France, hitting ninety degrees on Saturday. Crillon-le-Brave is a small hilltop village at the base of Petrarch’s Mount Ventoux, and the lovely hotel here, began and owned by two gracious Canadians, has been a favorite over the years. The hotel spreads over a rocky crag, looking out to the valley and the mountain beyond, and we descend spiraling stairs to breakfast on a terrace, as birds fly overhead in glorious abandon. I set a chapter or two here in my second novel, Offerings, and with its publication, I am happy to return to this ethereal aery of stone.
Today, Sunday, we were able to go to church. We drove through the Provencal forest of pine and alders on winding narrow lanes, the hills rolling softly beneath the mountain called Ventoux, windy, to visit a Benedictine monastery for Sunday Messe, the Abbey of Saint Mary Magdalen.
The lavender was in bloom, and we followed a gravel footpath alongside the swathe of purple reaching nearly to the porch of the ocher stone abbey. Cypresses rose alongside a graceful bell tower and as I pressed the minute button on my camera the bells began their song, chiming through the countryside, Come to Mass.
We entered through the arched portico, where a lovely statue of Marie Madeleine greeted us, and where Girl Scouts were preparing a bake sale on tables. Inside, the sanctuary was dim, a few faithful having arrived for the 10:00 Office, ensuring they found a seat for the 10:30 Mass. The small nave filled up quickly, folks climbing winding stairs to a loft above. We found seats in the second pew, Epistle side, and watched as a black-robed Benedictine entered, turned on the lights, and lit the candles.
I recalled that in 1970 a few monks gathered in the Chapel of Mary Magdalen in the nearby village of Bedoin. Following the rule of Saint Benedict of the sixth century, they prayed the daily offices and worked the land. As they grew in numbers, they built a new monastery with their own hands in neighboring Le Barroux. They remain a faithful witness, I thought, as I gazed at the oak choir, sixty stalls running perpendicular to the altar and apse in the traditional monastic form. Theycontinue to sing the seven daily offices from Matins to Compline and celebrate Mass each day as well, weekdays in the grotto chapel, Sundays in this graceful sanctuary of light.
As I wrote in my chapter set here in my second novel Offerings,
Columns of cream and brown stone under vaulted arches lined the side aisles, and a high ceiling ran from the western loft to the eastern apse. A Madonna stood on a pedestal to the left of the altar, holding the Christ Child on her hip in the country manner, a figure of greens and golds. The sculpted image reminded Madeleine of the Madonna in Saint Thomas’ back home, but the lofty symmetry of the sanctuary echoed Saint Antimo’s in Tuscany. All was balance and harmony, calling the soul to peace.
The abbey retains that sense of ethereal wonder, peaceful harmony, perfect discipline, but there have been changes since I wrote those words. Sadly, their beloved abbot has passed on, but another has taken his place, and there appeared to be many young men who had taken their vows here, a sign of increasing health for the order. They offer programs for children over the summer and parish care for the local families.
I gazed at the crucifix over the altar. Suspended by long black cords from the tower above, the corpus is Christ the King, fully clothed in blue and red, crowned in gold. The image of the sacrifice as a royal one, with the arms outraised in welcome as well as suffering, has always touched me with its profound truth. For this is a victorious Christ, one who, in this image, reminds us that he has conquered death, even the death of the Cross for the world. We also recall in this colorful figure the public nature of his death, that his was an action of the heavens upon the earth, as the heavenly became the earthly in order to raise earth to heaven.
We watched as forty monks processed in to the sanctuary from the southern aisle and took their places in the choir. They stepped quickly, with assurance, in pairs, their eyes full of a thoughtful certainty and grace. They were tall and gaunt and ascetic. Following the river of black robes, so marked against the pale tawny stone, came three others, side by side, robed in Trinity green. The center monk, a priest, would celebrate the Mass. Those on either side raised with care the edges of his chasuble, so that the effect was one of honoring the Eucharistic sacrifice, honoring the man who would perform the sacred rite, bringing Christ into our midst in a very unique and Scriptural way.
The High Mass progressed as the monks chanted in Latin, the lessons and sermon spoken in French, and as we entered the Canon of the Mass, I was grateful that the celebrant faced the altar in the traditional fashion, offering us to God. Later, when the bread became the Host holding the presence of Christ, he would turn to us, offering God to us.
Six thick candles flamed on the stone altar lighting the colorful Christ and the apsidal stained glass windows. With time and with watching, one sees more, and eventually the figures frescoed on the apsidal sphere took shape, Rublev’s Trinity (the Angels of the Lord visiting Abraham and Sarah, the Lamb of God in the center, prefiguring the sacrifice of Christ) above the twelve apostles in white.
In a way we were spectators of the great liturgical dance, and perhaps this is appropriate in this abbey church. The men here work and pray continuously, and we joined them in a very small part of this offering. We were grateful for their witness, their ora and labora, the Benedictine way, to God.
After, we left quietly through the portico, past the Magdalen, out to the field of lavender and the stalwart bell tower. We found the crowded gift shop run by the monks and bought some bread, honey, tapenade, and two replicas of the stunning red-and-blue Christ the King, the Abbatiale crucifix.
And I left a copy of Offerings for the Abbot, as a small thank you for their glorious witness to truth at this Abbey of Saint Mary Magdalen. Having come from La Sainte-Baume and venerated the Magdalen’s relics at St. Maximin, having traced the origins of the Cassianite hermitages in the plain beneath the cave and Marseilles, this visit of the more modern expression of Mary Magdalen’s devotion and evangelization was pure grace this Fourth Sunday after Trinity.
It was also, as I recalled, the octave of the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.