Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 31 March 2016

An encounter with holiness in an old stone monastery

While I was in Provence, my hostess and I went out one day for a walk in the hills. We walked for three hours and didn’t encounter another soul, and apart from a couple of blue-tits, nor did we see any wildlife. At one point we came to an old stone monastery chapel perched on a ledge with aerial views of forested hills and mountains stretching away to the horizon and not a sign of the 21st century visible. Architecturally, the chapel exterior was simplicity itself, suggesting a holy order of utmost austerity. My hostess had been here before, she said. In fact she makes a point of coming up here and visiting the chapel if ever she feels low or troubled. She wasn’t particularly religious, she said, but she invariably senses something in the atmosphere of the chapel’s interior that never fails to move her, sometimes to tears, and she always leaves with a changed mind. The heavy wooden door was not locked. I lifted the latch and we passed inside.

Closing the door behind us snuffed out the light. For a second or two I thought we were in pitch darkness and hesitated to move forward. But as my eyes made the adjustment, I took in pews and railings separating them from an inner sanctum. On the far side of the railings was a solid, plain wooden table. A large wooden cross was suspended above the table on black wires. The bare walls were windowless. A small, concealed window somewhere high up and off to the left allowed in just enough weakened daylight to see by. Candlesticks on the table supported thick candles with tall, unwavering flames. The chapel interior covered the same area as a tennis court, roughly. We groped our way into a right-hand front-row pew.

She sat.

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