By Louise McEwan
The monastic quiet of Le Reposoir, France
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 8:30 a.m. mass. It was Aug. 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.
Our French hosts told us that some years ago the government
had proposed abolishing the holiday, but encountered fierce opposition
from the citizens. The opposition seemed like a no brainer to us — who would willingly
give up a holiday? However, the citizens’ objection to losing the
holiday went deeper. 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.
As we discovered later, traditional French practices are not limited
to religion. Many activities, such as wine making, the production of
olive oil, and the renovation of buildings are strictly regulated to
protect their cultural heritage.
In Le Reposoir, a village of about 400 inhabitants, there were two masses
that morning. The masses were well attended, with people coming from
the village and the surrounding areas. As we sipped our coffees on the
terrace of the local bar, we watched as family after family filed into
the village church to the accompaniment of the pealing church bells.
As I mentioned, we attended the early mass. It was celebrated at the
ancient Carthusian monastery situated outside of the village. We had
visited the monastery the previous day. 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
The monastery of Le Reposoir is the oldest monastery in France, dating
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, such as an expansion of the
local ski hill, the nuns redouble their prayers for the village to remain
a place of repose. So far, no development project has succeeded. Whether
this is due to the power of prayer, or to the impracticality of a project
depends upon the individual’s point of view.
(Photo by Louise McEwan)
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 at the monastery provided the bookends for our
day. That evening, around dusk, we returned to the monastery for the
traditional candlelight procession that winds its way from the monastery
to the statue of Mary on the hill. We participated in the prayer vigil
that concluded with the lighting of a massive bonfire.
The bonfire was clearly the highlight of the celebration for the children,
who sat down on the grass in a semicircle to watch its progress. The
light of the fire illuminated their expressions of wonder and awe. In
their demeanour I recognized the simple and uncomplicated faith of childhood
that readily accepts the divine presence of God dwelling among us and
As the sparks flew heavenward into the night sky, we cautiously made our way back down to the monastery and walked 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.
McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at email@example.com