In Seclusio at Thines (Dennis Aubrey)


During our second visit with Dom Angelico Surchamp, he discussed how certain remote churches were originally approachable only by mountain paths but now can be reached by roads accessible to any automobile. “We lose the essential setting that was the purpose of the church in the first place,” he stated. At the time I thought immediately of Saint Martin-du-Canigou and Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, but it also seems to apply to Notre Dame de Thines in the Pays Cévenol region of the Ardèche.

This 12th century church is in the remotest area of the region, in a lieu-dit, not even a hameau, and there is nothing around except a wilderness even today. In the photograph taken from a distance, the only elements that mark it as 21st century are the rickity power poles and the monument to the Resistance on the rock wall. It is not for nothing that Thines is known locally as le village au bout du monde, “the village at the end of the world”.

Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At times like this, and in places like Thines, it is still possible to get the sense of what the medieval world was like in France. It is well-known that many monasteries were built in the “wilderness” by the communities of worship. They wished to have a site in seclusio, secluded, far from the bustle of commerce and the world, in order to preserve their life of contemplation. In this town, we get a sense of that peace and quiet. Life would have been harsh, particularly during the coldest winters, but the solitude must also have been a comfort.

Apse exterior, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse exterior, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

But it is perhaps a romantic view that insists that the Benedictines built the abbey at Thines solely as a remote site of contemplation. Was it a pilgrimage stop, like so many other monasteries? It is tempting to suppose so because Notre Dame de Thines is so close to Le-Puy-en-Velay, but there is no mention of pilgrimage until the 19th century. Père Bernard Nougier wrote, “It is especially important to remember several favorable conjunctions: in the twelfth century, this was an active valley producing wine, honey and chestnuts, surprisingly able to pay heavy taxes; the presence of a feudal castle site owned by the dominant family of Châteauneuf, the Randon, who needed to develop a religious building near the tower that flattered his power; the dependence of the Abbey of Saint-Chaffre Monastier; and monastic priory Langogne that dotted the Ardèche with beautifully constructed churches. A nearby ridge path served as an important line of communication between the Rhone valley and the Massif Central, used to bring gifts sealing friendships among such personages as the lords of Anduze and the Count of Toulouse related to Randon, and the close proximity of mines in the region between Thines and Chassezac where materials will come from to build.”

Nave capital, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave capital, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While Père Bernard may be correct in showing why there were resources to build the monastery at Thines, it is still likely that it was, in the Middle Ages, as remote and secluded as it is today. The silences and darkness would have been just as profound. The bells of matins and complines would have sounded across the valleys and have been heard for miles.

Altar, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

What was at the heart of this monastic consecration? It was a life of contemplative prayer, hard work, asceticism, and penance. The goal was to create a rich spiritual life by which the congregation might sanctify themselves so that they could help their neighbors. And above all, theirs was a life hidden in God and lived in solitude within a community of silence.

Apse, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

How disturbing it must have been when the outside world intruded on the quiet site of the abbey, particularly the violence of religious conflict. To see Huguenots troops pillage the tiny village, imprison the old curé and deface the precious sculptures of the church must have made even the most the most callous of the residents weep. What had they to do with the tumult of that other world and why were they set upon so fiercely?

Exterior sculpture, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior sculpture, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The violations of those distant years continue in our own time. Notre Dame de Thines possessed a fine 14th century Vierge à l’Enfant, but it was stolen in 1973 and has never been recovered. World War II made its appearance in these remote parts. A group of the French Resistance was in the area to receive a parachute drop of weapons on a nearby ridge. On August 4, 1943 this band of maquis was betrayed by an infiltrator from Marseilles, Jean Jalabert. During the night, several hundred German troops surrounded the village and killed six guerrillas and three residents, including a 90-year old woman and her grandson. The monument on the other side of the village (shown in the photo) commemorates this attack.

Notre Dame de Thines

Notre Dame de Thines

In our travels, PJ and I have often seen the active monastic life being practiced in our modern world. We have seen black-robed Benedictines walking in their cloisters just as their predecessors did when they rebuilt Europe a thousand years ago. But we also hear the echoes of sandaled footsteps in lonely churches long deprived of their monastic communities. And in our imaginations, we listen for the distant murmurs of prayer.

Location: 44.493163° 4.050451°

25 responses to “In Seclusio at Thines (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great post! I attended four years of school at a Benedictine monastery “off the beaten track” – not as secluded as this one, but secluded enough that the every-quarter-hour sounds of the monastery clock bells and the several-times-a-day bells calling monks to Liturgy of the Hours prayer still ring in my memory almost sixty years later.

    • Jay, had no idea from our previous correspondence that you attended school at a monastery! That explains much of what I admire in your comments. I have also loved the sound of the bells calling the canonical hours and still remember memorizing “matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline.” Whenever we visit Vézelay, we try to attend the vespers service at Sainte Madeleine.

      • We visited Vezelay in May 2013. The “vespers service” was song in a sort of fake “Byzantine rite” by a group of men and women. As far as they were communicative, they seemed to belong to some sort of self-created group (not Benedticine, so not “monastic”) not answering to any bishop, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, or Luthran. Perhaps they are supervised by the ghosts of the dead abbbots of Vez?

        So in addition to be one of the finest monasteries Viollet-le-duc built in the 19th century, Vez also has its very own “wandering monks” or “hedge monks” just as during the late middle ages.

      • Jan, fortunately we have never seen that at Sainte Madeleine, just the normal canonical mass. We did, however, see a mass which was observed by a bus load of Dutch tourists who applauded at the end of the service!

      • Those monks at Vezelay also had no idea how to connect my laptop to the wifi network–I remember that perfectly well.

        Great post on Thines Dennis. So right you are that the residents must have been scarred by the outside world’s contact with them during periods of war. At those moments I imagine their natural surroundings took on a menacing look of emptiness as opposed to one of comfort.

      • Nathan, I thought a great deal about you in writing this post; it is one of my favorite times that we had in our visit with you. Your observation on how the emptiness might become menacing is a very good observation; how the familiar can suddenly become strange and threatening. Glad to see you got your ticket to return home. We’ll see you in early May?

  2. Once again, you bring your readers into the deepest longings: “…we also hear the echoes of sandaled footsteps in lonely churches long deprived of their monastic communities. And in our imaginations, we listen for the distant murmurs of prayer.” Thank you, Dennis. I’ll be pondering that for the rest of the day.

    • Thank you, Gordon. This remote little village perched on the spine of a narrow hill was so striking for many reasons. As we walked among the few houses to the church (there was hardly a pathway) we passed an elderly woman selling bric-a-brac on a table, to raise money for the church. But there was nobody nearby, no road, no path, and she was almost hidden behind the wall of one of the houses. It was actually kind of shocking, almost like it was a joke (which it certainly was not). It is clear why there was a great deal of maquis activity during WW2, because this was a remote area where the fighters of the Resistance could disappear in seconds. On August 4, 1943 the local maquis was betrayed by an inflitrator from Marseilles, Jean Jalabert. During the night, several hundred German troops surrounded the village and killed six guerrillas and three residents, including a 90-year old man and his grandson. The monument on the other side of the village (shown in the photo) commemorates this attack.

  3. Pingback: The Distant Murmurs of Prayer | VIEWS from the EDGE

  4. Thank you! Your blog – writings and photography are outstanding and greatly appreciated!
    Have you visited Notre Dame in Choloy-Menillot in the Lorraine of France? Aubry (Aubrey) ancestors in that specific region and location near Toul.
    Thanks for all!
    David Aubrey

    • David, thank you for your kind words and the reference to Choloy-Menillot. Our database of churches in the region (which we have not visited yet!) lists Église de l’Assomption de Ménillot and the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Choloy. Is there another church, Notre Dame, that we have missed?

      It is also quite interesting to hear of the Aubry family in Toul. We used to live in Verdun and Etain and were very familiar with that area. The last time in Toul I was very pleased to taste a delicious Côte de Toul Auxerrois at lunch. When PJ and I return to this area, we will surely look up the churches and have another bottle of the Toul!

  5. Dennis and P.J.— While I am in awe of your story and photographs, as usual, I still wrestle with the entire concept of monasticism. Why would a supreme power condone the ascetic practices of men who were granted so many wondrous abilities by that creator? Even today this practice continues, and I question why people would remove themselves from even the most basic of human gifts. I understand the concept of dedication, but when that obedience to a higher power ignores the very essence of being alive, I question that entire practice. Of course, this is not limited to Christianity, but also exist in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.

    • Vann, this is an interesting question and not one that I feel qualified to really answer. But I do think that sometimes the concept of abnegation or renunciation is part of it, a demonstration of commitment. In all of the religious practices that you mentioned, asceticism and self-denial are keystones. I don’t think that the practice comes from the idea of obedience (although chastity for clergy may have devolved to that) but from personal commitment. When I think back to those religious personages for whom I carry the greatest respect and admiration (like Angelico Surchamp, a Benedictine monk), it comes down to this – he could not have devoted his entire life’s passion to the exploration of the medieval expressions of faith if he had a family to worry about, or a job. I hope this helps in some way, Vann. It may take some additional thought and could well result in a post of its own.

      • Thank you Dennis… I was curious what your thoughts were concerning the total commitment of one’s life to an provable concept of pure faith. You and P.J. have been immersed in this culture more than anyone I know, and I appreciate that you share your feelings on such a profound subject.

      • Vann, I was just on Gordon Stewart’s site and saw a reference which makes such sense for the discussion we have been having here. He quotes the words of Jesus to Saint Faustina, “I am bringing you into seclusion so that I myself may form your heart according to My future plans.”Saint Faustina (Maria Faustyna Kowalska) 1905-1938

  6. Dear Denis,
    I’m Chantal from Rhone valley, France. I enjoy your point of view and your views of french churches. May Ii recommand to you some very little and beautiful churches, in Haute loire, in the high valley of Allier ? you can find some information here : http://music-valley.org/english/monuments.htm
    Come and see St cirgues, lavoute chilhac , blassac, St ilpize !
    Happy year 2015 with peace beetwen religions and people.
    Chantal

    • Chantal, please forgive me for not answering your kind recommendation. Many of the churches shown on your link are like old friends to us (Peyrusse springs immediately to mind, with is frescoes and vierge romane), and when we return to the Haute Loire this May, we will use this information to help guide us. Thank you so much for this!

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