Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Benedictine Jewel in Burgundy

In September 1999 my husband and I had the pleasure of visiting the Abbey of St. Joseph de Clairval in Flavigny. Reader Eric Hester recently made a retreat there and describes it better than I ever could. Thank you, Eric!

A Benedictine Jewel in Burgundy

By Eric Hester

Those who visit the
Tea at Trianon website appreciate things of beauty but know that true beauty is found, as Keats suggested, in truth and holiness. I, therefore, recommend to everyone the Benedictine Abbey of St Joseph de Clairval in Flavigny in Burgundy, France.

The abbey was founded only in 1972 originally in Switzerland but is a traditional Benedictine abbey in beautiful buildings in a setting that is equally beautiful, on a hilltop overlooking a breath-taking valley. The abbey can be best and most simply defined as a community of monks, some fifty of them, living according to the Rule of Saint Benedict in obedience to the Catholic hierarchy in the archdiocese of Dijon. The monks lead a full life as the Benedictines have done for centuries, singing the praise of God in the canonical hours and leading a life of simple but beautiful austerity. The running of retreats for laymen is an integral part of the abbey’s charism, a way the monks see of sharing the richness of the contemplative life.

The retreats themselves, perhaps unusually, are based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius kept essentially the same and modified only in that the retreats last for five days rather than the four weeks that St Ignatius originally devised. Therefore, two monks alternately give conferences after which the retreatants meditate. One is encouraged to make a good confession and, indeed, a general confession of one’s life. But “encouragement” is a key word: everything is done by gentle encouragement; there is no harshness about the retreat. A certain amount of self-denial is encouraged, but this is all done most carefully and it is up to the individual to respond. The retreat creates a climate where one wants to do more for God and to be less selfish. The week is planned so that nothing is rushed.

Of course, there is Holy Mass every day and also the Holy Rosary, since the monastery has great devotion to Our Blessed Lady and its patron, St Joseph. The Abbey's liturgy is celebrated in Latin, with the exception of readings at Mass. The Solemn Mass in choir is sung each day with Gregorian Chant, usually according to the “ordinary form of the Roman rite” (Roman Missal of 1970), “ad orientem,” facing the Lord. Occasionally, it is celebrated using the “extraordinary form” (1962 Missal). Most of the private Masses — concelebration takes place only on Holy Thursday — are celebrated using the 1962 Missal. All is done with the greatest dignity to show the worship of God. Among the many blessings that the abbey brings to the Church is to be a model of how the new Mass can be properly celebrated and also how both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Latin rite can blend in harmony.

One could consider the retreats to be like a spiritual health farm. Total silence among the retreatants is easily maintained and is, in fact, liberating. The monks are always gentle and at ease but do not insult the retreatants by expecting little of them.

Most of the retreats are French-speaking and are held at the abbey itself, but they are also held in different parts of France and Belgium. In the last three years demands from abroad have led the monks to concentrate on bringing the English-language retreats to other countries. The calendar for 2009 lists retreats in Ireland (Ards Friary, Co Donegal) from 6th to 11th July, in England (Cold Ash Retreat Centre near Newbury, Berkshire) from 26th 31st July, and in Australia (Capuchin Retreat Centre in Plumpton, NSW) from 3rd to 8th and 14th to 19th December. A modest donation is asked for but no one will be prevented from participating in a retreat for lack of finance.

As at such abbeys as Solesmes, individual reception in the guest house, with participation in the daily liturgy, (and the possibility of spiritual guidance) can be arranged at times when the abbey is not hosting the retreats. The retreats and stays in the guest house are for men only but ladies may visit parts of the abbey, attend the Masses and canonical singing in the beautiful chapel, and even ask one of the monks for spiritual guidance.

The little town of Flavigny sur Ozerain is worth visiting for its own sake as a beautiful and interesting fortified hill town, reminiscent of Italy. The film
Chocolat, not worth seeing for itself, was filmed here and the scenery and background is the best thing about it.

One way to be in touch with the abbey is to take the monthly spiritual newsletter available in several languages which usually writes about a modern saint.
The easiest way to find out more is to visit the abbey’s website.

Alternatively, one can write to Abbey of Saint Joseph de Clairval, 21150 Flavigny Sur Ozerain, France, from where one can receive the abbey’s newsletter.

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