Ecology, craftsmanship, shared housing... Monasteries in tune with the times

Ecology, craftsmanship, shared housing… Monasteries in tune with the times

Faced with declining numbers, certain communities are breaking new ground: ecology, openness to lay people and non-believers, etc. Monastic life vibrates with a new spirit on the eve of Pentecost.

The door opens and a pungent smell hits our throats. Thousands of cheeses being matured are stacked on pallets of different sizes and colors. “Chestnuts are those prepared with walnut wine” explains Antoine Dumont, 38, proud to exhibit the work of an entire community.

Our guide, initially a consultant and startuper in Paris, came to settle in Périgord to manage the company Le Cellier des Monasteries. At the Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Espérance abbey in Échourgnac (Dordogne), some 130 tonnes of cow and sheep cheese are refined each year. Since 2020, the Cistercian sisters have called on Antoine and his wife Quitterie to professionalize the process.

For several months, the company has also been managing the production of cheeses from the monks of Timadeuc (Morbihan), while continuing the activity of the jam and fruit paste workshop. Fourteen employees, supported by the sisters, ensure production, sales, accounting… Monastic life creates jobs!

However, voluntary help remains appreciated. Yannick, a retiree from Angers, is working on repainting a window in the main building of the abbey. With his wife Marylène, he comes two to three times a year for around ten days to help. She in the hotel business or the garden, he in DIY. “It’s so refreshing to be here! We have another relationship with God, with nature. When we talk about it around us, it interests more than just our Catholic friends,” says Yannick.

Head to the vegetable garden to meet Sister Élise-Mariette. Here it is, at the bottom of the garden, solid and sparkling. A ray of light pierces the threatening sky. Eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes but also pumpkins and potatoes grow here in abundance, even if the good harvest season has not yet come. Further on, apple, pear and fig trees stand side by side in an orchard which she is also in charge of. The garden is cultivated in permaculture and the community obtained the “Green Church” label two years ago.

“All this approach, attentive to protecting the environment, as requested by the encyclical Laudato si', is very close to our hearts, says Sister Élise-Mariette. At first, only the youngest were sensitive to it. But little by little, other generations realized that it was not just a fad linked to our age. Lots of things have changed. For example, we practice alternating mowing, which has caused flowers to reappear in the lawn, but also butterflies. And the insects are coming back in droves. »

A different host profile

Less numerous, monks and nuns continue to attract people of all profiles in search of meaning, believers or not. Despite a questionable choice of communities*, the success of the reality TV show Welcome to the monastery, broadcast in January and February 2024 on C8, demonstrates a continuing curiosity with regard to monastic life. “The profile of our guests differs from that of thirty years ago,” notes Sister Thérèse, prioress of the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Marie de Maumont in Juignac (Charente): fewer practitioners but more people in search of essentials . People long to find themselves again. Often with a great need to speak. » Father abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Landévennec (Finistère), Brother Jean-Michel Grimaud notes that “some do not possess basic religious culture. It’s even more exciting, because we have to find the words that will reach them where they are.”

That day, in Échourgnac, around ten faithful followed the vespers sung by the sisters. ” I like ! » exclaims Valentine, 35, as she leaves the church. She came from Périgueux with Élisabeth, a regular at the place. “We arrived with books, herbal teas, chocolate and walking shoes. We seek silence, prayer… but above all rest. » The community of Échourgnac holds to this monastic tradition of unconditional welcome. It hosts sessions of all kinds: marriage preparation, fasting, icon painting, link between Christianity and oriental spiritualities…

The abbey also offers “wwoofing” stays for 18-35 year olds during the summer. (agricultural work for accommodation, Editor’s note). “Having lay people, employees or volunteers, work, anchoring oneself in an ecological approach, all of this makes monastic life more understandable for the general public,” explains Isabelle Jonveaux, sociologist and specialist in monastic life. It may not arouse vocations, but it arouses interest. We must recognize it: speaking only of a contemplative life, withdrawn from the world, in chastity, today seems totally lunar! »

Other communities prefer to highlight the care taken in the liturgy. Like the Cistercians of Boulaur (Gers), whose “recruitments” are so numerous that they have spread by opening, in December 2022, a new foundation in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Ardèche), formerly occupied by Trappist monks . “The communities that walk,” explains the prioress of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Mother Anne, “are those that have kept a close link with tradition. As far as we are concerned, people have difficulty classifying us, because we break the codes: our services are held in Gregorian but we have the mass in French and not in the Tridentine rite. »

Known for its relaxed attitude and sense of humor displayed on social networks, the community has defined a guideline in three key words: “beauty, joy and authenticity”. “It’s a bit like our baseline” (commercial slogan, Editor’s note) , summarizes the prioress, long responsible for communications for the community of Boulaur. Proud to manage a community which, in less than a year and a half, has grown from eight to twelve sisters with an average age of 41 years, she also explains that she does not hesitate to entrust important responsibilities to young sisters. The novice mistress here is only 30 years old. A rarity in the monastic world.

Isabelle Jonveaux takes note of a sort of divide. On the one hand, “communities like Le Barroux (Vaucluse) or the canons of Lagrasse (Aude), who often recruit from conservative families with a vision of the monastery as a fortress, a refuge. A form of triumphal monasticism, almost medieval. On the other, more traditional communities where vocations are becoming increasingly rare and where the question of survival arises. »

“Let’s make no mistake: the number does not count as a priority,” warns Sister Marie-Christine, a Cistercian at Sainte-Marie du Rivet Abbey (Gironde). The main thing is to strive to lead a simple and true fraternal life. » “Monastic life is not based on a project, whether it covers a social, agricultural or even liturgical aspect. For it to persist and keep its specificity, it is important that the monks be above all “prayers among other prayers”, as our brothers from Tibhirine in Algeria defined themselves. This rock of faith and prayer allows us to give substance to a fraternity,” adds Trappist Father Jean-Marc Chéné, abbot of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine (Maine-et-Loire).

Not an easy cohabitation

In Échourgnac, Antoine Dumont displays his enthusiasm for the “missionary spirit” of his company: “Our wholesalers and customers often start asking us questions about cheese, then comes a question about the abbey, then about the sisters and the meaning of a life given to God. People confide in us very intimate aspects of their lives. Until, sometimes, their desire to receive baptism. »

The fact remains that cooperation between monks or nuns on the one hand and lay people on the other is not obvious. “I think of this lay person who wanted to give advice to a community selling hosts. Lessons learned in business school are not always applicable to a monastic community. The sister ended up telling her: “You know, we don’t sell toothpaste…” relates Isabelle Jonveaux.

A virtuous challenge

While minimizing the question of the “small number”, the mother abbess of Échourgnac, Sister Bénédicte, said she was troubled by certain questions. “It is becoming difficult to hold such a large place for twenty sisters… Who knows? Could we have to live elsewhere in a few years? » Also looming is the absence of priests to celebrate masses. The Carmelite brother who was seconded for a year ends his service in July… and the priest of the nearest parish, which has around twenty bell towers, has too busy a schedule to come and celebrate in Échourgnac.

But Sister Bénédicte keeps a cool head. “This wonderful time leads us to question ourselves. It's certainly not easy but exciting! » She says she is less worried about monastic life than about certain female apostolic congregations which emerged in the 19th century in response to needs in health and education, and whose raison d'être is perhaps less strong. Today. “In monastic life, we have thick skin. We have crossed the centuries, sometimes transforming ourselves. It is important that everyone feels in their place and lives their mission with intensity. »

A look of hope shared by the Abbot of Bellefontaine. This development will not take place in isolation, but in connection with all the Christian communities living near the monasteries, he emphasizes: “I can say with certainty that these links will evolve, because the parish model seeks to new paths and that we, monks, are also moving towards a new way of inhabiting places. The essential thing, insists Brother Jean-Michel, Abbot of Landévennec, “is to see the Spirit at work within our walls and in this world. And it is, as long as charity is experienced with authenticity. »

* The show's “spiritual coaches” were brothers from St. John and sisters from Bethlehem, two communities affected by serious cases of abuse.

Monastery, abbey… short glossary

  • Monastery (Greek monos , alone): a secluded place chosen to live an experience of the “desert” following Christ, in prayer and fraternal support. The space is demarcated by a “fence”, accessible only to monks or nuns, and bringing together church, buildings and gardens.
  • Priory: for a small monastic community, we rather speak of a priory, whose head is a prior or prioress.
  • Abbey: large monastery with an abbey church headed by a father abbot or a mother abbess, assisted by a prior.
  • Convent: word born at the end of the Middle Ages designating the houses of religious mendicant and itinerant orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.). Today it is mainly used to speak of communities of apostolic religious sisters engaged in charitable works.

The most numerous nuns

  1. Benedictines
  2. Carmelites
  3. Poor Clares
  4. Cistercians
  5. Sisters of Bethlehem

2023 figures

Orthodox, the other monastic life

There are less than thirty of them officially listed: skytes (hermitages), small “laurs” or communities. The Orthodox monasteries in France are mainly attached to the Romanian patriarchate, the others linked to the Russian (Moscow), Greek (Constantinople), or Serbian (Belgrade) patriarchates. And even to that of Antioch.

On the ground, the human realities of these more or less recent communities are very varied, with specificities to be identified. The monastery of Solan (Gard) thus constitutes a leading figure in an ecological way of life in the Orthodox way. In Sainte-Croix (Dordogne), a spiritual center offers sessions and conferences. Please note: some places are developing in rupture with the official Orthodox authorities.

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