Her rosy cheeks stand out against her light blue habit. Her coif slips slightly askew as she glides out of the room with a conspiratorial grin. My french has failed me and I’ve missed what was agreed upon by my dining companions. There are five of us staying in the guest quarters of the Saint Wandrille Abbey: two nuns of different orders, a young girl who appears to be college age, an elderly lady, and me. She returns with a bowl of tangerines, presumably our dessert, and a bottle of cider made by the monks who are dining in a separate room. She pours the cider into small glasses barely larger than a thimble and passes them around the table. The other nun, who appears to be a bit older than she, tuts disapproval but smiles when she takes her glass.
As the discussion winds down, only some of which I was able to understand, the elderly woman approaches me. She noticed that I didn’t say much during the meal and inquires as to why. I respond with my signature phrase, “mon français est le pire” (my french is the worst). She asks if I have met with any of the monks yet. I explain that I don’t have the french for spiritual conversations; she grasps both my hands and implores me to speak to father Christoph, the only one in the community that speaks english. The bells begin to ring, the signal that it is time for compline – the final prayers of the day.
I pull my sweater slightly tighter around my body, wishing I had another layer to fend off the cold of the Normandy night’s chill. I traverse the short walk from the guest house to the chapel as quickly as I can without running. I draw the large wooden door open and slip inside, careful to prevent the door from slamming behind me. The large church is a bit dark. Despite its magnitude, I feel warmer inside. It is a simple room. The cathedral-height ceiling is adorned with only large wooden beams, the walls are plain; there is no stained glass; no ornate altar. There is an elderly monk who appears to be sleeping in the choir stalls.
The door behind him opens and the monks file in silently and take their seats. As they begin to chant, the cavernous room fills with sounds so sweet and comforting that the tears begin to slowly roll down my cheeks. Embarrassed at first, I self consciously look around to ensure no one has noticed. As the melodic sounds of their chanting envelope the room my embarrassment recedes and I delight in the music.
The bells call to prayer seven times a day. I try to make it to every one, even in the early morning, and find it deeply moving each time.
Father Christoph finds me in the garden. The heat of the day is lessened by the shade provided by the large tree we sit under. We talk of faith and love and pain. We talk of family and of being of service. He speaks of his love of singing. We share how we both found ourselves here. He adjusts how he is sitting in the metal garden chair and I notice he is wearing Birkenstocks. The bells ring out in the distance, our cue to wrap up our conversation and return to the chapel. He asks my permission to pray for me. I assent; charmed by the fact that he would seek permission to do so.
The lineage of this place is long – traceable to the year 649. It has survived destruction by the vikings, the Huguenots, the French Revolution, and two world wars. There are footprints of the buildings long destroyed. A restoration project is in progress. I leave here feeling more at peace and with the sweet sound of the Benedictine chants playing in my head.