In our first six months in the Vendee, we lived near a beautiful abbey called the Prieurie de Grammont. Sitting like a romantic cube in a vast stretch of farmland, the abbey is built of stacked golden sandstone and oozes an air of mystery in the off-season. There are few windows and the sun-bleached doors are firmly shut for most of the year.
Several times a week we took our dogs to run around in the garden, and to walk the dirt roads slicing through surrounding fields for some thorough exercise. We loved it, savoring the wind in our faces and snoots, and relishing the changing colors of farm life. The fields went from brown, to green, and sprung bright yellow with colza flowers. We greeted sheep and cows, making note that the fences moved to other pastures with the livestock, so there was always wide open space to take in.
At the start of tourist season, we smiled to arrive in the parking lot, and find the door wide open. Finally, the treasure box revealed its lid. We were met by a pair of friendly attendants standing beneath a beamed ceiling that reached to the wood planks on which curls the terracotta shingle rooftop. We discovered the monastic layout features rooms open to a hushed inner square. There are murals, and vaulted ceilings supported by willowy stone pillars, in quarters lined with benches hewed from stone. It is one of the best preserved monasteries of its time.
I thought the visit would satisfy my curiosity. It didn’t. Not really. I longed to evoke the past in this place, perhaps more than I’ve felt in any chateau or medieval stronghold. Perhaps it was the light. Without many windows, or very narrow ones, the sunshine filtering in from the courtyard lent the monk’s quarters a further sense of peace, and a single-mindedness I couldn’t define.
Perhaps nothing would conjure history more than tracing bullet holes with the tip of my finger, the result of pulled triggers in a war that pitted religion against religion. How very loud the sound of muskets inflicting these wounds upon the abbey must have sounded, cleaving spirituality itself.
But I was wrong. We returned to the priory one a balmy night recently to attend a nocturnal event of Gregorian Chants. We arrived to fires burning in cast iron braziers and the abbey itself absolutely bathed in candle light. Twilight had only just touched the sky, and the prospect of the scene after dark, quite took our breath away. There was a pyre waiting to be set alight and a table laden with cider and flaky apple pie, a decidedly medieval refreshment. Every room, and the courtyard were all equally lit by candles, hundreds of them. Music score stands awaited the choir.
Examining the outside walls with the dogs darting about in the garden, my husband noticed a little gold medallion, someone’s silent prayer. We touched it. It wasn’t terribly old, certainly not centuries old, but it was quite moving to think someone had had a need to touch the church wall, and slip the medallion between the cracks of the stones, a sacrifice, an offering in return for something important. We put it back. Whatever the thought or whomever the person the prayer was bestowed upon, however long ago, we hoped it had helped.
Sometime after finding the pendant, I’d lost my passport. We turned the house upside-down, looked everywhere. Our last resort was the Prieurie, a daunting task to comb the gardens, the fields, everywhere I might have played with the dogs. And there it was. For three days it had been lying in the grass. It was covered in dew and dead ants but otherwise unharmed. I can’t begin to describe the relief. Truly, I’m nothing without my passport.
That night, following the Gregorian chanters from room to smoke-filled room, and then to the pyre, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. The abbey suffered its share of battle wounds. Yet through thirteen long centuries it quietly managed to retain its heart; its position to offer hope. It stands strong in purpose.
Certainly, the abbey, its golden walls aglow in mysticism, managed to light in me the acceptance that in life, with all of its challenges, moments of peacefulness and spirituality are stepping stones I need to trust that somewhere in the echoes of history and my imagination, lies the future.
Many greetings from the Vendée!
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