Off Piste - Often absent, ever near

For years, Valmagne in the South of France is the place Bernard Ramanantsoa has escaped to for light, freedom and a reminder of Christian morality

October 14, 2010

Whenever I get the chance, as soon as I have a few days off, I dash down to Bas Languedoc in the South of France. This has been my custom for a few decades now. Rather like Italy for many people, to me this region is synonymous with light, warmth and - since I associate it with holidays - freedom. The legendary light, the secret of which is seemingly unbreakable; warmth and freedom because I don't feel the need to say "no" as I seem to when I roam the streets of many European cities. It is in this region that I have most enjoyed the experience of otherness and, above all, of timelessness, without artifice or aggression.

Valmagne Abbey is the focal point of this sensation; it is what best crystallises these feelings and emotions. In the abbey I can see how the foundations and the basis for our civilisation were laid. First, in the purity of its lines, particularly when the sky offers that special crystalline Midi sunlight. It is not from mere pretension that contemporary architects so often invoke the Cistercian heritage: it is because they realise that these forms harbour the treasure of a rigorous beauty whose secret we have lost. Bowing to the Cistercian rule, the decoration of the church is consequently reduced to the bare minimum: lancet window cornerstones and vegetal elements on the pillar capitals. A bell-tower wall with three openings echoes the "Cistercian trinity".

This rigour does not mean rigidity: for example, the capitals and mouldings of the narthex (the vestibule set against the main facade), where catechumens were received, are decorated with bas-reliefs, thus escaping the Cistercian rule. The same goes for the architecture of the chapterhouse. This room is one of the oldest parts of the abbey. The monks came here each morning, straight after the office. With the professed monks on the stone benches, the laymen - who had no say in anything - in the gallery and the abbot on his chair on the east side, the rule was read out, as was the "roll of deaths" and other news of the order. Justice was also rendered here. You can get to the chapterhouse from the cloister through a gate flanked on either side by large double windows, the whole assembly supported by pillars and capitals of various types: acanthus leaf, stiff leaf, water leaf. The variety of these small columns contrasts with the asceticism of the three-centred arch over a single nave, without any pillars.

The area surrounding Valmagne offers its own evocation of the Cistercians, an order that promoted asceticism and liturgical rigour and raised the work ethic to the status of a cardinal value. The Cistercian monks planted vines at Valmagne as early as the 12th century, as they did at all their abbeys, providing the foundations for the great Burgundy vineyards, among others.

Ever since then, the land at Valmagne has grown vines. The site is still known as the "cathedral of vines". And the church itself was converted into a barrel cellar in the early 19th century, with Russian oak casks installed in the nave. The wines were exported as far as Mexico, and Valmagne's wine production (from 75 hectares of vines) is still widely circulated today. The casks have remained - although they are now unused - as if they were a never-ending story unto themselves.

Valmagne is a timeless place, or rather a place out of time, but above all a place with its head in the stars and its feet on the ground. Firmly on the ground: people have always worked here, even if the strict traditions of the Cistercian order have not prevented the ups and downs of history, treachery and cowardice. Above all, you feel that the place has been lived in intensely. There is a palpable sense of existence. The still-present vineyard is useful; it makes sense. The Catholic faith, which was dominant in medieval Europe, still needs wine for Mass. This is why, during the first centuries of Christianity, abbots and bishops all over Europe became winegrowers. It is worth remembering that a number of Catholic saints were associated - by myth or fact - with wine regions at the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages: St Martin and the Loire Valley, where it is said that his mule grazing on vine leaves was the originator of the short pruning method; St Germain and the vines alongside the River Seine in Paris; St Remi and the Reims wine region; St Didier and Quercy.

The monasteries that, like Valmagne, sprang up between the 9th and 13th centuries consumed a lot of wine. It was not only used for Mass, but also featured on monastery menus. Indeed, although certain highly ascetic monasteries forbade wine consumption, it was generally allowed as one of the basic daily food items in the Middle Ages. (More than 100 wine appellations of monastic origin have been listed in France.) And the legends of Valmagne are full of real or imaginary tales of drunken revelry.

This brings us to the connections I see between Valmagne and François Rabelais, the great 16th-century author. It is not only because Rabelais studied medicine in Montpellier, barely 50km from Valmagne; more subjectively (I must confess), it is because to me Valmagne is reminiscent of Rabelais' Thelema, his Abbaye de Thélème. An admirer of Erasmus and a brilliant parodist and satirist, Rabelais was a staunch defender of tolerance and peace after the "gothic darkness" of the Middle Ages. He was critical of princely abuses of power, instead lauding popular culture - bawdy, jovial, full of wine and games, and brimming over with a light Christian morality that was so different from the heavy ecclesiastic style.

Rabelais' somewhat libertarian philosophy is perfectly summed up in the principle of Thelema: "Do what thou wilt." I think what this moral rule means is that thelemites freely impose upon themselves a profession of humanist faith and the ideals of the Renaissance.

As mentioned earlier, Valmagne also has its head in the stars. Not through any mysticism (Valmagne is no longer a consecrated church), but because to me it evokes the basis of our civilisation. Here I see the Jewish revelation of God, obviously, but also the Greek quest for being and the Latin search for a world order. Without wishing to plagiarise Chateaubriand, it could be said that the symbiosis between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome is complete in this place. It is the Cistercian architecture in all its aesthetic, ethical, political and legal dimensions that seems to be the crucible of European civilisation. What we call modernity directly originates in it. A thread links St Augustine, Michel de Montaigne, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Marcel Proust, but also Georges Bataille: the sense of interiority.

The famous "sense of history" that led to our idea of progress came from there, as did the sense of tragedy, loss, forgiveness and salvation that form the basis for our morality and our artistic culture. This impregnation continues today, more or less consciously. The authors of absence - Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras - attest to it in their own way, even though they experimented with it. Modern art also emphasises the need for transcendence: Picasso merely demystifies the illusions of agnostic humanism.

As I savour Valmagne, I also find the earliest history of our institutions. We know that our approach to democracy is inseparable from the evangelical uprising in favour of the poor, the pariahs, the outcasts. It is less well known that it was in the 12th century that the monastic orders introduced the principle of the secret ballot and that the Cistercians were the first order to strike a balance between the autonomy of abbeys and their grouping into a "community of communities" linked together by bonds of charity. These bonds were embodied in very precise structures described in the fundamental charter of the order, the Carta Caritatis, or Charter of Charity, which was to influence political organisation first in England, then most forms of parliament and democracy in Europe. A brief reminder of its basic principles shows us that it is a true model to which we still aspire.

In the order as conceived by the Cistercians, there is no personal authority higher than the local community and its abbey, but there is a collegiate authority: that of the General Chapter, which brings together abbots from all the communities in the order, each abbot exercising in communion with the others a pastoral responsibility over the order as a whole.

When a community founded another one, it passed on its spirit and its life. It became the parent entity, in that it gave life to the new community. Spiritually, this system allowed each community to develop its own personality while helping one another in many respects. This great degree of autonomy made the abbot of a monastery an influential figure in the order as a whole, without giving him any legal authority outside his daughter communities. In eras of lesser religious fervour or decadence, the autonomy that each entity enjoyed allowed great abbots to reform their own abbey and to share this wind of change with other abbeys in congregations.

In material terms, throughout the history of the Cistercian order from the 12th century to the present day, this balance between local autonomy and a shared vision has enabled the monasteries to respond in very different ways to changing situations while retaining the same orientation and, where need be, helping one another efficiently. In certain instances, for example, it was necessary to acquire extensive properties in order to feed large communities. The Cistercians thus played an important role in the reconfiguration of land ownership. But this role varies widely from country to country. The General Chapters did not intervene to determine the way each community managed to earn its living - cattle breeding or viniculture, for example - but constantly intervened to alert the communities to the dangers of shifting away from first principles to a quest for wealth while forgetting poverty, or of contracting too much debt. (In the current climate in which Europe is attempting to find its way, people should reflect on the efficiency of this Cistercian system, capable of coordinating the development of different entities while respecting the identities of all.)

Lastly, if I may permit myself a metaphysical aside, Valmagne makes you think about time. For believers, salvation occurs in our history and through our history, but is not a historical act. For believers and unbelievers alike, the human creature is truly itself when it does not let itself become engulfed by history - when it escapes from history. Man alienates himself and loses his human dignity when he plunges into the temporal world as if it were his only environment. He drowns in an ocean of time. The only way to keep afloat is to lean firmly on the successive points in time in order to continue "this sacred dance" that will transcend our existence and give it substance.

The history of the Cistercians gives us food for thought on history: the history of the world and each of our own histories and those of each of our communities or our families cannot be perceived as linear histories made up of moments that succeed each other. They are cyclical, circular "dances" whereby through successive dance steps that set us against the firm points in the time and space in which we live, we penetrate further and further into our own interior rhythms. Each of these dance steps binds us firmly to humanity - our own individual humanity but also the whole of humanity, that made up of all human beings and all places, all cultures and all times.

But let us return to the essential: Valmagne. "France is an imaginary country," wrote a contemporary author. Like France but on its own scale, Valmagne is an imaginary place. I don't mind admitting that I learned more about its geography and history from tourist guides and local children than from scholars. I wander around the place by touch and smell, with my eyes closed, as if in semi-darkness. I can no longer tell true from false, dream from reality. Everything gets mixed together in specific images and scents that cannot be confused with anything else. Please don't wake me up.

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