Discover the wonders of Catholic France on the Vine & Cloister pilgrimage

Jared Staudt

Tucked away in the province of Burgundy, wine, Romanesque architecture, and the monastic life all reached their highpoint in the Middle Ages. In his book, Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire (BlueBridge, 2006), Edwin Mullins describes how the monastery of Cluny, in particular, arose from a hunting lodge donated to it in the year 910 to the largest church in Christendom, soon boasting a network of at least 1,500 dependent monasteries throughout Europe. But, as the title of his book implies, this empire was lost, crumbling under the pressure of stagnation, religious wars, and the French Revolution. Cluny’s enormous church has been mostly destroyed, sold piecemeal for building material, and the nearby Clairvaux, St. Bernard’s great Cistercian abbey, was transformed by revolutionaries into a maximum-security prison.

And, yet, there is still much left to see, bearing witness to the greatness of this lost realm of monks. The most splendid Romanesque churches, the former Clunianc abbey of Vézelay and the cathedral of Autun, continue to reflect the glory of medieval Christendom. Even if St. Bernard’s abbey has been turned to secular use, his foundation at Fontenay continues to point beautifully, though starkly, to the Cistercian vision of prayer, with its pristine condition giving rise to its distinction as a UNESCO heritage site. The labora (work) that accompanied the ora (prayer) of these Cistercian monks can still be found at the Clos du Vougeot vineyard that preserves the monks’ original cellars, representing the largest grand cru vineyard in testimony to great care the monks took to perfect winemaking.

I will be setting off, like Mullins, in search of Cluny and the great legacy of Catholic culture in central and southern France for The Vine & the Cloister pilgrimage that I am leading this September 18-28 (rtijourneys.com/the-vine-and-the-cloister). I’ve been teaching Catholic history and culture for over 10 years and have found that there is nothing that compares to a direct experience of this history and culture. On pilgrimage, we do not simply visit as tourists and take pictures (even if we do snap a few); we enter into the vision and spirit of the communities and events that built these incredible sights. We follow the trail of the saints and join them in prayer, seeking to imitate not only their footsteps on their original soil, but in pointing us to our true homeland.

From Burgundy, that great capital of vines and cloisters, we will move south to Provence, to sip the popes’ wine at Avignon, not far from their remarkable 14th century palace; will honor St. Anne, Our Lady’s mother, at her miracle-working shrine in Apt; and will climb to St. Mary Magdalene’s cave at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume, where we’ll stay at a medieval monastery turned hotel. From there, we’ll set sail to the ancient monastic island of Lérins, once home to St. Patrick, where the Trappist monks continue to make wine within the Riviera. Continuing back along the coast, we’ll stop at the Roman ruins of Nîmes on the way to Carcassonne, the best-preserved medieval city. Our last stop will be Toulouse, with its beautiful churches, including the oldest of the Dominican Order, the church of the Jacobins, where we’ll venerate the relics of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Overall, the trip aims to provide an integrated experience of the treasures of Catholic culture that will lead us into spiritual transformation. To offer a taste of the trip, I will be leading two information sessions that will include a wine tasting (of a Chablis, red Burgundy, and a rosé from Provence) along with cheese pairings, accompanied by a talk on the churches, art, and culture that will experience on the trip. The events will be at the Archdiocese of Denver on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. at Bonfils Hall (1305 S. Monroe St.) and on March 12 at 6:30 p.m. in room 125 of the John Paul II Center (1300 S. Steele St.). Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic culture of France is welcome to attend. There is no fee to attend the talk, but the cost for the wine and cheese is $10. Please RSVP to jared.staudt@archden.org.

Like the remains of Cluny, the legacy of Catholic culture points to a lost time that can arise again. “What Cluny bequeathed to European civilization,” Mullins contends, “stands before us in the form of some of the greatest church architecture and carving we have, from Vézelay and Autun to Chartres and Canterbury, and that what it achieved in its heyday is well worthy of the description awarded it by Pope Urban II in the 11th century: ‘Cluny shines as another sun over the earth’” (235). We’ll bask in what remains of this sun and bring it with us back to Colorado.

COMING UP: St. Benedict’s wisdom for our times 

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“Let us get up then, at last, for the Scriptures rouse us,” the Rule of St. Benedict urges us. “Let us open our eyes to the light … and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out. … ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts’” (Ps 95:8). On July 11 the Church observes the memorial of St. Benedict, and his words from 1,500 years ago seem perfectly fitting for our challenging and changing times.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written some time around 530, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and Christianity’s existence in Europe was threatened. Given our current cultural situation and its parallels with his time, I believe we can find fruit in St. Benedict’s teachings.

Saint Benedict grew up surrounded by a culture that was morally corrupt but with the grace of God lived a virtuous life. After spending some time in Rome for studies, he fled its moral decadence to pursue a more solitary life. St. Benedict lived the life of a hermit for several years before he eventually founded several monasteries, which became centers of prayer, manual labor and learning.

St. Benedict begins his rule by urging the monks to “Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Rule, Prologue 1). For us, this means establishing a daily time to listen to the Lord, both in reading the Scriptures and in conversational prayer and meditation.

Our sure foundation during these trying times should be God’s will for each of us, not the constantly changing messages that bombard us in the news or on social media. For some, every online trend has become a form of gospel that must be adhered to with religious conviction. But the faith handed down to us from the Apostles is the only true Gospel, and only it can save souls. Although the times and technology were different, St. Benedict understood the importance of listening to “the master’s instructions.”

In his book, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, the preacher of the Papal Household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, addresses the need for priests to arm themselves for battle “with the world rulers of this present darkness” (cf. Jn 10:12). At the heart of his reflection is the insight that “Jesus freed himself from Satan by an act of total obedience to the Father’s will, once and for all handing over his free will to him, so that he could truly say, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me’” (Jn 4:34, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, p. 36).

The question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I put the Father’s will first in my life in every decision I make and in all that I say and do?” If we place the Father’s will at the center of our lives and truly listen to him with “the ears of our hearts” as St. Benedict taught, we will be prepared for whatever happens and always give witness to the love of God and others. We live in a world that has removed God from culture. History, both salvation history and world history, shows clearly what happens when this occurs. When God is removed, something else becomes “god.” Societies decline and eventually fall and disappear unless they return to the true God and become cultures that promote a life of holiness and virtue.

There is at least one additional lesson from St. Benedict’s rule that is applicable in these times of societal disunity and division. The monks and sisters of the Benedictine spiritual family are known for their hospitality. The Rule teaches this virtue in this way: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims” (Rule, #53).

Let us make it our prayer to be able to see others as Christ himself coming to us, even if they are clothed in what St. Mother Teresa called, “the distressing disguise of the poor.” If we continually seek the will of the Father and ask in prayer for our hearts and will to be conformed to his, then we will be able to weather any challenge.