Thursday, September 25, 2008
...this meddlesome priest
It's a time of uncertainty, economic crisis, of war, and unrest in the middle east. One figure stood at the crossroads between east and west, one had the moral authority to summon kings and advise the troubles of the day. No...not Bono, and its not our current earthly woes....its the 12th century in the far reaches of Burgundy and a monk named Bernard (the Abbot of Clairvaux) was to rise and leave his mark on the world while leaving behind the Abbey of Fontenay, a truly worthy world historical site that remains intact from the glory days of the unlikely Cisterian domination of the religious agenda of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.
The Abbey of Fontenay leaves you breathless when you walk into it from the parking lot. Tucked away at the end of a valley, it is an imposing sight in its archetectural perfection, and more astonishing as a private home, whose owners restored it to its former glory and live in a lovely 18th century family redoubt at the center of the property.
The Cisterians were ascetic....eschewing comforts, vowing poverty, collectively living a life of silence and meditation, building great orders across Europe by insisting on the rigid and humble interpretation of monastic life exemplified and preached by St. Benedict. The future St. Bernard could not help, as he rose in fame and influence within the order, but become involved in the earthly political disputes of his day, advising Henry II in the ramifications of his relationship with Eleanor of Aquitane at a time when the principalities of Burgandy, or Aquitane, or Normandy were more powerful than the "King" of France, who barely ruled Paris, and were frequently at odds with each other in shifting alliances. Into this millieu St Bernard became the natural concilliator and unbiased mediator of opinion, except in the biases of the Lord of course, and was frequently consulted by the powers of his day.
The Abbey he left behind grew fat and rich, pompous and redundant, fell into dissipation, was seized by the French Revolution, and ultimately sold over 100 years ago into private ownership to a family who became voluntary stewards of what they recognized as an important national heritage. To wander into the great cathedral is to step back 800 years. The dormitary, a large arched stone expanse like a horse arena, was in its day filled with monks who slept on beds of straw and little else, in summer and winter. Sparten, yes... but influential and a terrific organizer of skills and talent, agriculturally or in textiles and production. The wealth of the Abbey is clear in its elaborate construction, but its importance as a crossroad in history is revealed in the impact of its messenger, what the buildings convey to us today. The arches in the commons quadrangle is a masterpiece of stonework. The grounds transcribe a majesty and a sensibility as is seldem found at sites like these. The family that lives there still couldn't be nicer. St Bernard would be very pleased.