The Abbey

The law of 13 February 1790 suppressed all monasteries in France, and the revolutionary state confiscated their property. Former monks and nuns were now citizens. They shed their habits, abandoned their cloisters and narrow cells, married, and marveled at a world transformed from the one they had renounced. But the slogan of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité rang hollow to some. An abstract notion could not replace their brothers and sisters in divine love.

At the Benedictine abbey of Cendres, a band of seven determined to go into exile together. Founded in the tenth century, the house was noted for its wine. A crisp white, lightly aged in oak barrels, the wine earned a reputation for its quality. It sold for a good price. The monks who tended to the vines, harvested the grapes, and made the wine also found it refreshing.

An English traveler visited the abbey a century before. Nothing changed under the ancien régime, so his description will serve:

“Situated on the bank of a small river, its vineyard gently sloped to the north to moderate the effects of killing frost and intemperate sun, a delightful spot in which grapes may thrive, the ancient Abbey of Cendres belies its name, which signifies Ashes, and may therefore be corrupted from some benign word of Latin. The cloister is a perfect square of arched walks that enclose a garden. Over it rise the church, refectory, dormitory, chapter house, and scriptorium. Erected in stone like an ideal village, the whole induces a sense of repose, as though it held all that a life of earnest study and religious zeal could want, and no superfluous bauble.”

Six monks attached themselves to their abbot, Augustin-Théodore-François Chasselieu, le Comte de la Rue, in a feudal pact. After an invocation and a list of reasons for their course of action, the final paragraph reads:

“We the undersigned pledge the strength of our bodies and the greater strength of our eternal souls to help each other in time of need under the direction of our dear abbot. Our unanimous will is to preserve the sacred worship begun eight centuries ago and continued without pause to the present day of wrath. As evidence of this irrevocable bond, in order of seniority, we are bold to write our names: 

Augustin-Théodore-François, Benoît, Charles, Laurent, Pierre, Jean-Paul, Adam.”

All but Adam had completed their studies and professed solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and stability. Poverty would come naturally in their life on the road. Chastity was the gift of prayer. Stability, meaning residence in one place, posed a problem. Expelled from their cloister, they sought an indulgence from Rome, then waited. The papal messenger arrived on horseback in the nick of time. 

Disguised as a troupe of actors and jugglers in fustian and motley, the seven traveled on foot to Switzerland. They took the bare necessities: a portable crucifix, a gold chalice and censor, embroidered vestments, and a hand-lettered Bible. They also took a packet of documents, deedsto farms and land donated over centuries. They smuggled these across the border. They sought refuge with the Carthusians at St. Bernard, but this arrangement proved uncongenial. The Swissfollowed a strict regime of fasts and cold water. The French liked to honor creation with more joie de vivre. They moved on to Bavaria.

The revolutionary wars that engulfed Europe in the 1790s drove the monks from place to place. They begged for food, shared what scraps they were thrown, slept in barns and stables, and huddled for warmth in the straw. Clothed in rags and castoff garments, their sense of style never deserted them, thanks to a way with needle and thread. They maintained a regular schedule of prayer, in a rude hut or an open field. From their meager resources, they helped the poor and the sick. Their endurance was tested, but not their faith.

*

Nine years on, foreseeing no end to their predicament, the abbot arranged for his little flock to emigrate. As the Comte de la Rue, he wrote to a relative well-placed in the government:

Monsieur le Ministre and my Dear Cousin,

“It will not astonish you to learn that I have been living in exile for some years. During our childhood, you made it a point to be surprised at nothing, while I, to your eyes a pious type too good for this world, stared in perpetual wonder. You do not forget that I entered the Church, professed monastic vows, and rose to the rank of abbot. At this moment I lead a band of six brothers. Reduced to beggary for the necessities of life, we adhere to religion and to each other. So that France may be rid of us, according to current opinion, is it possible to arrange a quiet exit to America? If by your good offices you are able to serve both state and family, you will infinitely oblige your humble cousin.”

Permission arrived in the form of a letter addressed to “Citizen Chasselieu.” It allowed him and his six “inseparable companions” to leave the country. It did not explain why they had to sneak in first. Nor did it mention the English blockade of French ports.

In the autumn of 1799, as Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, the seven monks reentered France near Besançon. Disguised this time as a company of shepherds and farm laborers in smocks and sabots, they tramped west. They paused in Berry for a melancholy afternoon at the site of their abbey. The cloister was looted and burned. The vineyard was neglected. The cellar contained a few barrels, empty and smashed. Not a drop of wine. They searched the ruins for a souvenir. The result was a gold coin, a louis d’or that bore the image of the executed king.

They proceeded down the valley of the Loire to the port of Nantes. Although it was late in the sailing season, hardened smugglers laughed at the risk of a gale. The monks found a daring captain who went by the pseudonym of Gueule-de-Raie and a ship, the Délivrance. They were used to rough accommodations. Baggage was light. They boarded ship under the watchful eye of a Superintendent, who read the official letter with such poverty of comprehension that a small gift was thought advisable. After paying for passage for seven, it was all the money they had. The bursar Benoît threw his empty wallet over the rail as the anchor was hauled.

The Délivrance slipped through the English blockade and crossed the Atlantic in the dead of winter. The ship reached Philadelphia, then the leading port and largest city in the United States, to discharge a cargo of considerable value and seven passengers of no account, poor migrants from a country that did not want them. The weary exiles gratefully set foot on American soil and praised their Creator and constant Savior.

In Philadelphia, hundreds of émigrés lived in boarding houses. Poor as church mice, they offered lessons in the French language, dancing, fencing, and portraiture. Wives and daughters did fancy needlework. The community boasted a newspaper, a printing press, and a bookshop. In a city that was plain to the point of ennui, dress was subdued but manners remained exquisite. Quite a few of the French bore noble titles. Talleyrand posed as a flour merchant, and Louis-Philippe, the future citizen-king, bided his time.

Though sympathetic to the royalist cause, the monks took no interest in politics. Seduced by the Enlightenment, the émigrés viewed religion as a formality. The Swiss Carthusians had at least been orthodox. The monks re-embarked on a ship to Baltimore.

They arrived on the first of January, 1800. It was a new year, a new century, and a new country. Baltimoreans contributed clothing and necessities, opened their homes, and entertained the foreigners. The Epiphany season that year was brilliant, merging into a pre-Lenten round of dinners and balls. The monks did not dance, but they took a keen interest in the music, tapping their feet and swaying in their chairs. By virtue of their daily chant, they were musicians, after all. At the abbey, Jean-Paul had led the choir and played a portative organ. In his youth, Charles received lessons on the violin.

The seven made inquiries. Was there a suitable place for them to settle? The city was crowded at that time of year. A continent lay before them.

Thanks to the generosity of their hosts, the monks outfitted themselves in pioneer fashion, buckskin and broad-brimmed hats. Spring enlivened the Maryland landscape as they traveled west in a Conestoga wagon drawn by oxen. They struck the Potomac River at its confluence with the Shenandoah, at a hamlet known as Harpers Ferry. Which way should they go? The abbott tossed the precious gold coin in the air.

Que le Seigneur décide,” he said, indulging in a pun.

They boarded a shallow bateau, a kind of pole barge, and floated up the Shenandoah. A few days’ journey brought them to meadows and rolling country. The Blue Ridge shimmered on the eastern horizon, while the Alleghenies brooded to the west.

Now in Virginia, the monks saw virgin forest all around. They could not help but think of the Virgin Mary. The place reminded them of their native France, the Loire and its fertile limestone terrain. The county seat and town of Hapsburg, founded in 1750, was nearby but not too near.They contacted the owner of the land, an absentee planter. He was pleased to let them improve his tract as tenants. They negotiated a lease that would lead to purchase. Sentimental for the old and enthusiastic for the new, they named the spot Our Lady of Berry, after the Holy Mother and their beloved province.

*

The early years brought hard labor for man and ox. They felled trees and built a rude structure of logs as a communal shelter. They built a second log structure as a church. They planted their first crops and a potager, or kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables for soup. Wild grape vines festooned the woods. They experimented by grafting, pruning, and pressing. Lacking the Vitisvinifera species, they gave up the attempt to make wine. Perceiving a market for milk, butter, and a decent camembert, they acquired a few cows and started a dairy herd.

The monks carried out their religious duties with scrupulous regard to tradition and the Roman Missal. Seven times a day the rustic temple rang with Gregorian chant. Initially viewed by their Protestant neighbors as Papists, sunk in devil-worship and the depraved rite of Rome, they overcame suspicion. They acquired a reputation for fair dealing with a dash of savoir faire. The Comte de la Rue set the tone, helped by the fame of the Marquis de Lafayette and French aid in the American War of Independence.

During all the years of wandering and wilderness-clearing, none of the seven succumbed to starvation or disease. On the other hand, isolated as they were by geography and culture, they attracted no new blood. Few outsiders found their way to the remote church of Our Lady of Berry. Those who did were reared in the stern Scottish kirk, a flaccid English deism, or some heretical German sect. The languages the visitors heard were French and Latin, which made no sense. A Spanish Jesuit wandered in, fantastic and barefoot, a saint in search of holiness. He too felt out of place.

The monks remained cut off from home until 1815, when Napoleon met his final defeat. Another moment of decision loomed. Should they return to France or pursue their destiny in Virginia? The abbot was seventy years of age and conscious of his mortality. After a bout of bronchitis, on top of kidney stones, a bad back, and what physicians of the time called “flux of the liver,” he addressed the monthly chapter:

“Brothers in exile, consider your future. The abbey stands on a sure foundation. The log cabins of our early days are replaced by more conventional buildings. A simple limestone church to the glory of the Virgin is our chief delight. A barn of hewn timber houses a herdof dairy cattle, the envy of the county. Your own living quarters are Spartan, and that is your desire. We live in harmony, and we bless the Lord, who showers us with blessings. As my strength declines, I urge you to elect a replacement. Whether you go or stay, he will lead you forward.”

Amid tears and prayers that dragged on for days, they chose to stay. The youngest would be their guide, Adam, a sturdy berrichon. Even he was over forty. Nurtured by six brothers, he was now ordained and steeped in Benedictine tradition.

In the fullness of years, Augustin-Théodore-François ascended to heaven. The religious community treated the event as a celebration, though each monk secretly grieved as for his own father. They dug a grave for the abbot beside the church, the first in what would be a row, and marked it with a stone cross, hard and white in the lush green grass.

By 1830, the gallant band was dwindling. The more agile brothers tended the potager, while tenants who spoke not a word of French worked the farm. Contacts with the world were few. The abbey’s isolation made it easy to forget. Those who thought of the monks at all considered them eccentrics prone to mystical trances.

At this low point, an Irish wanderer found his way to Our Lady of Berry. Unwashed, uncouth, and illiterate, this man struck the monks as a blessing in disguise. He had a good singing voice. They fed him, clothed him, and taught him the alphabet, in the hope of eventually schooling him in Latin. After so many years of preserving the past, they considered the future. They practiced speaking English. Patrick, who knew a good thing when he saw it, applied to be a novice.

Adam explained to Patrick that acceptance was conditional. The two departed the abbey for a tour of eastern cities, where Catholic immigrants arrived in growing numbers. Their mission was to visit Catholic parishes, meet priests and bishops, and drum up recruits. From a rare thing in the New World landscape, the abbey became one of many. It transformed from an outpost of France to a blend of nations—Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Bohemia. All were brothers and Americans.

*

In 1848, a poet heard about the abbey. Edgar Allan Poe was a college friend of Richard Yeardley, a schoolteacher in Hapsburg. Yeardley also edited and published a newspaper, theCorrespondent, which appeared on alternate Mondays. He invited Poe to visit and give a public lecture at the Lyceum. The lecture was brief, and Poe recited his spell-binding poems. The audience cheered, students waved their caps, and one brought a stuffed raven to the lectern.

Buoyed by this success and the charm of the place, Poe left off drinking, which had become heavy and led to erratic behavior. Prudently, the Yeardleys had removed all bottles and decanters from the house. They told their guest the town lacked a tavern, and he swallowed the white lie.

“From this day forward,” he announced, “I shall drink nothing but pure water, as that which flows from the springs of the valley is a liquor finer than the wines of France.” In this ebullient mood, he insisted on driving out to see the abbey, surely a quaint and romantic spot.

The party included Yeardley, his wife, and a young lady of education and refinement. She had read everything she could find written by Poe. Her identity is uncertain, owing to a prejudice against revealing the name of a woman of good family in print. The weather was as agreeable as the company, and Poe talked the whole way.

In their retirement from the world of fashion, progress, and newspapers, the monks knew nothing of this middle-aged man dressed in black, so somber and excitable. From their own experience, they recognized a soul in the grip of ecstasy. Lest they pollute the sanctity of the cloister, the ladies were obliged to stay in the parlor. The gentlemen were shown the church, a cell, the library, and the treasures brought from France. The visit coincided with midday worship and the main meal of the day in the refectory. The visitors for the most part observed a respectful silence. Poe exclaimed approval.

“The aesthetic simplicity of your way of life compels devotion. How I long to don the robe of chaste reflection, and forsake the vanity of earthly wishes!”

The monks smiled. They had heard this sort of thing before. Poe’s companions were alarmed. They hustled him into the carriage. A delicate hand thrust a purse out the window, and the driver whipped the horses.

Soon after this visit, a poem found its way into the Correspondent. Though unsigned, the style suggests Poe. The subject was bound to appeal to him. He may have dashed it off, given the manuscript to Yeardley, and neglected to keep a copy. Yeardley may have written it himself as an imitation, a sincere tribute to a friend he admired. Or the young lady may be the anonymous author. She published other verses, though nothing like this.

The Abbey

At the ghostly midnight hour,
From a rustic fieldstone tower,
As the mournful tolling of the abbey bell
Steals into the fitful slumber
Of the faithful, twelve in number,
Lying each within a solitary cell,
As it summons monk and brother
To give thanks and praise together
In the darkness they endeavor to dispel,

They arise to this vocation
With a glad renunciation
Of the pleasures of the flesh and vain desire,
Don the robe and knotted cord
That binds them closer to the Lord,
And assemble in the shadows of the choir,
Where they sing the holy psalm
In manly tenor, pure and calm,
And throw incense on the sacrificial fire.

With their eyes cast on the ground
Or to heaven, a profound
Silence fills the livelong day of prayer and work,
For no silly word or sorry,
Laborare est orare
Is the motto none who enter here may shirk,
As commended by the strict
And saintly rule of Benedict,
For the ancient foe in idleness will lurk.

A retreat into this shady
Noble Abbey of Our Lady,
To immure the restless soul within her walls,
Steeped in sin, to dare imagine
Ease and comfort in religion
From a vicious downward spiral that appalls,
Is this vision a mirage,
Desperate, a plan to dodge
Stern engagement to advance where duty calls?

Alas, my soul, we may not linger:
Fate extends her bony finger,
Indicates the mazy twists and turns that loom,
With regret we turn and flee,
Virgin Mother of Berry,
Cursed to wander through the city like a tomb,
And the plain Gregorian chant
Veni Creator will haunt
Our sad footsteps to the very brink of doom.

*

As the Comte de la Rue had relinquished leadership in old age, so Adam prepared to give the reins to Patrick, the most senior of the new generation. By this time, one other of the original seven still lived. Laurent always took the role of a disputant or devil’s advocate in the monthly chapter. He was adept at argument, but at bottom he distrusted change. Now he found that wheredogma was once rooted in solid ground, questions sprang up like wildflowers. And who were all these strangers? 

The Shenandoah Valley abounds in caves. Laurent found a habitable one. He appealed to Adam.

“For sixty tears we are brothers, you and I, the last who came here from France. As a final act of office, grant me the privilege of living as a hermit. The early church produced many hermits, anchorites, and solitaries. Monasteries came later, perhaps inspired by Pythagorean groups in southern Italy, and early Christians in the book of Acts.”

“What about St. Anthony of Egypt?”

“An organizer, not an innovator.”

“I agree to your request on one condition. You will attend divine service each Sunday and on feast days of the calendar, as required of all the faithful.”

Laurent retired to his stony hermitage. Adam died soon after. They buried him beside the others, a row of five identical white crosses.

The abbey flourished, and Laurent made regular visits. The younger monks regarded him as odd but perhaps a fair specimen of days gone by. Years passed. No one, including the new abbot, knew where the hermitage was, what Laurent did for food and necessities, or his age. He evaded notice by slinking through shadows and hiding amid crowds. Monastic habit—the full, loose, hooded robe of wool—made everyone look alike. Monastic silence helped. During visits, Laurent spoke as little as possible. In church he droned instead of chanting on pitch. Musical quality, it must be said, was not what it had been.

The abbey grew and paused and grew again. Each war America fought raised a crop of earnest young men who shrank from combat, or who doubted whether it was Christian to kill, or who had recently done so from patriotic duty but felt remorse. Laurent slipped from view. A raw young novice had a brush with him at night and was spooked. He said an ancient monk who muttered in Latin and spoke English with a French accent got him in a corner and asked hard questions. A century passed.

In America the years after World War II saw a spike in church attendance and monastic vows. Swamped with new recruits, Berry Abbey expanded and rebuilt. Hapsburg and its vicinity also boomed. Manufacturing then declined, the town stagnated, and the abbey dealt with the modern world. The ideal of self-sufficiency faded. Its dairy products could not compete with lower prices of milk, cheese, and butter shipped from the Midwest. American monasteries diversified into whole grain bread, jams and jellies, liturgical vestments, wooden coffins, and data entry. Berry Abbey made fruitcake soaked in brandy. By the end of the century, demand slid.

The kitchen garden produced more than the monks could eat. They sold the surplus at the Hapsburg farmer’s market, earned a little cash, and reminded people they were still around. A shift in taste toward fine wine, as well as the growth of farm wineries in Virginia, prompted the abbey to plant a vineyard. Fortune smiled in light soil, the right amount of rain, and a northern slope to counter unseasonal frost and fierce summer sun. 

Vines take years to mature and require close attention. Monks are patient workers. An expert from the Virginia Cooperative Extension showed them how to prune, graft, manage insects, and train the vines on horizontal wires. Proper ventilation keeps leaf mold at bay. The soil requires regular weeding and replenishment. Grape harvest is an anxious time, as the fruit is picked by hand and carried in baskets, all in the span of one or two days. Then comes the crushing and straining of the juice. A crisp white, lightly aged in oak barrels, the wine has earned a reputation for quality. It sells for a good price.

The abbey faces a doubtful future . . . again. The age of Catholic monks and nuns rises as their numbers fall. Novices are few. At Berry Abbey, many cells are unoccupied, a few retired monks live in the infirmary, and one novice is in formation. That leaves seven able-bodied men, the abbot and six brothers.

The cloister reproduces the ideal village of centuries before. Living spaces are private, but the church is open to all. The monks are not fussy about dress and rules. To receive holy communion a person must be Catholic and in compliance with Rome, but how can they tell? They still sing authentic Gregorian chant. They also play guitar and offer a folk mass. Some dabble in eastern spirituality. A Jewish convert has studied the Kabbalah. The abbey welcomed a party of Tibetan Buddhist monks on tour, and a string of little colored flags hangs outside the refectory. Next door is a gift shop for religious books, sacred music, and devotional aids. The website posts upcoming events, church services, details of monastic life, sunny photos, an acoustic clip of Gregorian chant, and a blog called “Grace Notes.” What was once a parlor for the reception of secular visitors and women is now a tasting room for the abbey wine.

The farm operation is organic, ecologically sound, and free of harmful chemicals. Genetically modified organisms are banned. At a recent vintage celebration, a cocktail party and fund-raiser for the abbey, well-heeled members of the public mingled with monks in their woolen robes. A hooded figure lurked in shadow, drawn to witness but unable to participate. The abbot spotted Laurent as he stood and made this toast: 

“Mortal flesh withers. Our way of life may pass with us. Yet the example set for us by the seven founders, and by Him who lived two thousand years ago, will always shine. Some will find their way by its light. God willing, we will be here to receive them. Let us drink to that light, as it shines in the glasses we raise.”

 


Story by Robert Boucheron

Art by Fabrice Poussin