In the Echoes of History

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.

And in the distance, sat the mysterious abbey that drew us to her again and again. It had nothing to do with religion. The fact that it was there, was a gift of tranquility in the chaos of starting life over.

I was enamored with the idea of being inside. The abbey sent my writer’s imagination in two very different places. One, a sleepy warm afternoon in which the abbey is bathed in sunlight, with the enormous walls lending their shadow to the courtyard; and with birds of prey circling beyond, audible in their call for a meal. High atop the red shingle roof are pigeons, cooing over a few monks walking, or sitting, a murmured prayer on their lips.

Another image is conjured by the hundreds of musket ball holes that pockmark the outside walls, many aimed at the church specifically. A reminder that the 100 Years’ War raged in this area.

The abbey was built in the 13th century. Later Richard the Lion Heart, who was ardent to the Vendee, established the monastery order of Grandmontain and the priory became the home of monks who lived a strictly isolated, sober life devoted to contemplation and service of the poor. Partially destroyed in the Religious Wars, it was abandoned in the 17th century.

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.

What followed was extraordinary. Dressed in black, the Gregorian quartet had the air of monks, and when their angelic voices filled the courtyard with dramatic, spiritual chants, a hush came over the crowd. I had but to close my eyes to feel the stone walls breathing warmth from the flames, and in the evening’s gentle breeze, the abbey came to life again.

But it wasn’t just the image of the ancient past that filled my heart. I thought back to the last few months and the peace we’d found here, walking, talking, playing.

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.


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