There are some places in the world which are special, places which seem untouched by time. Such places have been called ‘thin places’, where heaven and earth seem to touch, where the human and holy meet. I recently read a description of Iona, the island off the north coast of Scotland, where St Columba and his companions landed 1500 years ago, and founded a monastery there. For those early Christians, looking at where sky and earth met, it must have seemed that they were on the edge of the world, where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.
I believe that the Abbaye, in northern Brittany, is such a place. It sits at the end of the little village of St Jacut-de-la-mer, on a narrow peninsula.
It was some forty years ago that I last visited the Abbaye, which had been my childhood home, the place where I spent my formative years, from the age of three to seven. It was with some trepidation and a certain amount of foreboding that I came here again in my ninetieth year. Would I find it the same, would it have changed?
I need not have worried. As soon as our taxi passed through the iron gates into the old familiar courtyard, happiness fell upon me like a gentle balm. Like a familiar presence, the Abbaye embraced me in its loving arms.
Myself at four with my friend John in the courtyard
It has had a long and turbulent history. Founded in the fifth century by St Jacut, who is reputed to have sailed across the sea from Wales, landing on the small Isle des Ebihans just off the coast, he set up a hermitage with his brother Guetenoc. Here they led a life of prayer and penitence and are said to have followed the rule of St Columba. It became a substantial monastery, with many ups and downs, till finally during the French Revolution in 1790, the building was rased to the ground, all its property and wealth stolen and pillaged. All the monks fled, it was said, to the nearby Isle des Ebihans.
When I arrived there in 1931 with my mother at the age of three, it had been restored and rebuilt by the Sisters of St Méen, of the Order of the Immaculate Conception. They had bought the property back in 1875 and it had become once more a place of devotion and sanctity. No longer supported by the government, the nuns had to make a living, and so they began to welcome visitors and the Abbaye became a ‘pension de famille.’
How to describe my feelings when I revisited the Abbaye all those years later. Whatever unhappiness or darkness might have existed when I was separated from my mother at the age of four, and which I have described in an earlier blog, none of that remained.
I was transported right back into my childhood, everything was familiar to me; the old stone walls covered with wisteria, hundred of years old, reaching right up to the upper windows, with roots thick as a tree; the holy well in the centre of the courtyard; the tree shaded walk leading right down to the sea, called the Monks’ Walk; and the vegetable gardens where, as a small child, with my tiny rosary, I had walked with the nuns in their long black robes, as they paced and told their beads.
Going down the Monks’ Walk I came to the Promenade which surrounded the Abbaye grounds, and the old stone wall protecting it from the sea. I looked across to the Isle des Ebihans, about a mile away, where we used to walk, taking a picnic with us and our shrimping nets. Now I could see people still walking over the sands and there were still figures digging in the mud searching for shrimps, mussels and whelks. I felt as though nothing had changed. Looking out to the far horizon, where earth and sea seemed to merge, there was a sense of timelessness.
The fact that the Abbaye is situated on a spit of land surrounded by sea, in French it is called a ‘presqu’ile’, (almost an island), accounts for the fact, I think, that it has remained relatively unspoilt and untouched. And it still seems to be unpolluted, which is rare in this day and age.
All around us was the sea, great expanses of sea and sky, changing colour all the time, sailing boats with their white sails on the horizon, across the bay from us clusters of houses, and rocks rising up out of the water like sentinels. I wrote in my diary:
“Today the sea is turquoise blue, the sailing boats are out, the sky is cerulean blue with streaks of white, little wavelets are lapping against the wall with a soft shusshing sound. It is all so beautiful, so peaceful, a haven, a place to come and be, a place of happiness, of simple pleasures. It is a hidden treasure.”
The interior of the Abbaye had, of course, been modernised. The dark hallway which I remembered had been replaced by a light spacious entrance and the reception area was open to all. The old stairway had gone and there was now a lift.
The big dining room which I remembered was still there. It was big enough to hold one hundred to a hundred and fifty people, with tables for six to eight people. I remembered when I was a child, at Christmas, families used to come, even from England, and we played games in the dining room, the tables would be pulled back and we would play trains and musical chairs, with the chairs piled into the centre of the room. I have a vivid memory of the fun we had.
The bedrooms too had been modernised, very functional but comfortable, and with excellent showers. France in the past was never known for its good plumbing!
There were still lovely flower borders in the spacious gardens, though the pond with the statue of St Christopher in the centre had gone. There was now a large Zen garden in its place!
I had come with my art group to paint. There were five of us, and we soon settled down into a routine. I was glad that they all loved the place, especially Michael, my art teacher. We had a small, light and airy room where we could work, and we were soon visited by the curious French, or they peered in at us through the large windows as they passed by.
Two twin sisters were very friendly. One of them had been a painter, but since having had a stroke she could no longer use her right arm. We suggested she try using her left hand, and she said she felt inspired by us to do just that!
Michael felt very much at home, as the French have a proper appreciation of the place of art in life. He was delighted too, at the way the French people greeted each other in the mornings, everyone kissing each other on the cheeks.
There was something about the atmosphere of the place which seemed to infect us too. We enjoyed the mealtimes, we had our own table, and were surrounded by family groups of lively French people. The meals followed exactly the same pattern that I remembered, coffee in bowls for breakfast, I adopted this practice again, and brioche. At lunchtime, which was served at 12h15, there were five courses, entrée, meat or fish, salad, cheese and dessert, and in the evening, soup. Didier, one of our group, always prepared the salad, it became a ritual, he called it ‘attacking’ the salad. And there was, of course, a bottle of wine on the table and a large baguette. The novelty of it all seemed to loosen our tongues, we laughed uproariously and had most interesting conversations. We were nearly always the last to leave the dinning room.
We decided to have a picnic at lunchtime so as not to interrupt our painting. We each received a large bag containing bread, butter, a savoury filling, small salad, a fruit or fruit compote. The staff were always obliging if we wanted to change, nothing seemed too much trouble for them. There were tables and chairs dotted around the lawn and we found a shady tree under which to sit and eat. Being in France, we supplemented our meal with a good bottle of wine. This became another pleasant ritual, which usually ended with our needing a siesta to sleep off our lunch.
I was interested to see how the Abbaye had changed. There were now only five nuns living there, no longer dressed in black, but wearing cream coloured mid calf dresses, and no veils. As I was crossing the courtyard one morning, I saw an old nun walking to the front door. She looked rather severe, I thought, and at that she turned and gave me a radiant smile.
No longer run purely by the nuns, it has become a very successful centre managed by a religious and a secular group working side by side, offering hospitality and space for conferences and retreats and creative pursuits, such as our own art group. There was a chapel and an oratory, and a pattern of prayer throughout the day for those who wanted it. Whilst we were there, there was a large group of people doing Gestalt therapy, much to our curiosity and amusement. (Gestalt s a form of experiential psychotherapy) In fact, by the end of our holiday we decided we had been doing some Gestalt ourselves. Many people, we discovered, came there just to enjoy the peace and quiet and the beauty of the place.
The Abbaye has become a place of freedom and liberation, a place where you can come to learn and reflect, or a place just to ‘BE”.
Coming back to the Abbaye now at the end of my life has made me realise that it is indeed a place of higher consciousness, a place where it is easy to believe in a better world. I remembered my mother telling me that when I was a child, I used to have long conversations with someone whom I called ‘a beautiful Being” and how I used to tell her all about it. No longer a child, I still had a strong sense of that all pervading benign presence.
I felt that I had been able to recapture my childhood self, a sense of wonder and delight, a sense of happiness; I reconnected with the energy of the French people and their spirit, an innate lightness and joy. I had come home.