We did a fun thing yesterday. We went to Normandie and visited the medieval abbey of Lucerne. This artfully stacked pile of stones is only about an hour’s drive northwest of Fougères. Although it was perhaps a bit warm for Cherie’s taste, the weather was otherwise perfect. Most of the drive is easy, but the last few kilometers takes you though pretty country lanes which wind their way through verdant, hedgerow-enclosed pastures and timeless farmsteads that appear to have stood in place since the last ice age. These narrow country roads, we noted, were very well kept indeed. The verges were mown with immaculate precision. And all of the power and communications lines were neatly strung on regular rows of slim steel posts flanking the way. From what we’ve seen, the vast majority of infrastructure in France is well-maintained and well-presented. But the roads in this area were above and beyond the call. Impressive. And endearing. It was a fine way to approach a medieval abbey.
Having made our way through the very rural, very farm-y swells of low hills and valleys, lushly festooned with the bounty of the summer season, we abruptly hove into view of the abbey. A nice little parking lot awaits visitors directly across the road from the site’s entrance. But it’s the magnificent gate lodge that immediately caught our attention. It’s rare to see one so largely intact. Big. Stone. Looming. This gate entrance to the monastery says, “All ye who enter here, be thou humble.” And we were humbled. Not only by its age, but also by its gravity and the relative purity of the medieval architecture. Walking though the portal brings you to the welcome/ticket/gift shop packed with a good selection of interesting books, pantry items, toys, and historic reproductions. In fact, we left the abbey with a bagful of jams, honey, a medieval glass and some assorted gifts. The profits from the shop go to the ongoing restoration of the abbey, so it’s all for a good cause. We really love these places: the history, the heritage, the beauty of human endeavor. If only we as a species would turn more toward creating beauty instead of miring ourselves in ugly words and deeds.
I should pause here and impart a little history. L’Abbaye de la Lucerne de Outremer was founded in the 12th century as a Praemonstratensian abbey of canons regular. If you already know about canons regular, you are either: 1. One of them (in which case, your supreme level of self discipline simultaneously shames AND annoys me), or 2. Already a past Jeopardy champion (also shamed and annoyed), or 3. A super nerd like me (and you have my condolences). The Praemonstratensian order of monastic canons began in Prémontré, France just a few years prior to the founding of the abbey at Lucerne. Unlike monks, canons regular are ordained priests. But, in the same way as monks, they choose to live together in a community guided by a monastic rule – in this case, the Rule of St. Augustine. To all intents and purposes, the canons lived lives quite similar to monks – and continue to do so in our own times.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution was a pretty rough time for the Church. Many churches and monasteries were seized, ransacked, and their inhabitants thrown out. Often relegated to use as warehouses, prisons, barns, stables, grain stores, cider houses, smithies, or simply no use at all, countless numbers of these beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in France were left to decay or be stripped of their materials through the 19th century. Such a shame. L’Abbaye de la Lucerne was no exception. It was closed in 1790 and sold off to a local landowner. By the 1840’s the religious buildings of the abbey complex had already suffered extensive damage. As the 20th century rolled on, many of the structures were only visible as piles of stones. It was not until 1959 when a benevolent foundation was formed for the purpose of restoring the church and other monastic buildings, as well as reestablishing the community of canons. Since then, this foundation has completed a remarkable amount of work. Large sections of buildings have been entirely rebuilt, using as much of the remaining materials as possible. I am very much a stickler for the use of proper restoration techniques and and materials. So I was quite pleased to see that the restoration work at Lucerne appears to have been conducted with great care.
This abbey is very much alive. Not only is the abbey church still active with regular masses, but the entire complex serves as host to concerts, lectures, demonstrations, classes and other events. No, you’re not likely to catch the Rolling Stones’ “Yes, Actually, We’re Still Alive” world tour at Lucerne, but you can hear some lovely classical and cultural music. While exploring the abbey church, we happily came upon a small group of musicians rehearsing medieval and later Armenian songs. Beautiful.
As an example of Norman romanesque religious architecture, l’Abbaye Sainte-Trinité de Lucerne d’Outremer is not to be missed. But even if that holds no interest for you, the simple beauty, the serenity, and the deep sense of history of this place should be more than enough reward for a visit. We thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of the abbey and its grounds – from the long meandering aqueduct which fed the monastery’s many needs for fresh water, the remnants of cider presses in the old orchards, the thatch-roofed Swan House, and the tranquil complex of fish ponds, to the towering stone dovecote (with accommodation for up to 3,000 birds), there is so much to feast your eyes upon. If you should ever have a chance to see it yourself, your heart will surely thank you.