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”.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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°