What I love most in Provence are the abbeys and monasteries spread across the Luberon and the Alpes de Haut-Provence. Many were built in the 12th and 13th centuries when religious orders settled down in Provence to lead a monastic life. Cistercian abbeys are, for me, the most atmospheric spaces in the world.
The Abbey of Senanque
The Abbey at Senanque – with its blooming lavender fields – is located outside Gordes, one of the most tourist-infested towns. It has been spared the tourist invasion because it’s not easy to reach, and you can only enter the abbey by joining a one-hour guided tour in French. Visiting hours are somewhat irregular, and visitors are required to maintain silence. Nevertheless, it is a must-see if you are in the area. Click here to read more about the abbey and see its Romanesque interior.
The ribbed vaulted ceilings seem to draw in light and serenity. The sparseness of the architecture and interior decor (no statues of saints or painted murals), what we call today “minimalism”, derives from the belief of the Cistercian monks and Saint Bernard (the founder) in particular, that one cannot pray and meditate if there is distraction. Simplicity, silence, prayer and hard work (o maintain an independent community that feeds itself) are the necessary elements of monastic life. It’s not surprising that the monasteries were established in remote areas which had enough water to support a community of monks, fertile soil and wood (for heating).
Every space in the abbey seems filled with peace especially the medieval garden where the monks grew medicinal herbs. The minimalist details that one finds in the cloister is filled with symbolism. The light that the ribbed vaulted ceilings seem to reflect represents God. In the main chapel, the floor right beneath the domed cupola is square, representing the four seasons and the four directions (North, South, East and West) — these together represent the Earth. As you look up (towards Heaven) you see the octagonal base of the cupola. The Octagon – the number 8 – represents the five senses of man as well as the five appendages (head, hands and legs) plus the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit). Finally, at the top is the cupola itself with light (symbol of God and Heaven) streaming into the chapel.
One of the most important places in the abbey we visited during the tour is the meeting room where the monks can speak and discuss differences. Remember that these people have to live together harmoniously so they had to find ways to work out their differences. It’s here that the head of the abbey meets with the monks to resolve conflict. The election of the head of the abbey by the monks is one of the most critical events of monastic life – they have to choose someone who is wise and compassionate.
Monastery of Ganagobie
Even more remote is the monastery of Ganagobie, which is located not in the Luberon but in the region of Alpes de Haut-Provence, which lies next to the Luberon. The monastery is laid out at the top of a plateau on a rocky hill that overlooks the Durance valley. According to the Provence website:
The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the Archbishop of Sisteron, who donated it in 965 to the Cluny abbey. The monks built the current monastery in the 12th century and between 12 and 15 monks worked on the land and in the forest until the 14th century. Later abandoned and then restored, the church today boasts a finely worked doorway and superb 12th-century mosaics on the inside. The land of the Priory was given to the Sainte-Madeleine community of Marseille at the end of last century to re-establish the Benedictine monastic order. The eastern part of the plateau and the living areas are reserved for the monks and closed to the public, but the section to the west is open to outsiders throughout the year from 15 h to 17 h, except Mondays.
I went to hear Gregorian chants at Ganagobie on the day they commemorated Mary Magdalene. It’s impossible to describe how mysterious and magical it was to listen to the chanting that filled this simple, dignified space and to observe how the light at the end of the day fell upon the walls that seemed to capture and hold it there.
You can stay for two to eight days at the Ganagobie monastery on an individual retreat. Click here for more information.