During these summer months many people are fortunate to have some vacation time. Some of us will enjoy a couple of weeks at home, catching up on much needed domestic tasks. Others will spend time at a cabin by a lake or in the woods reveling in the pleasures of country living. Still others will travel around Minnesota or maybe venture into other states. And for some, this is the year to fly east or west, north or south in search of some relaxation and some rejuvenation in other countries.
I have very fond memories of our family vacations in Belgium. Most of the time we simply went to the cabin where we spent entire summers. Sometimes we ventured into neighboring countries such as The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg or France. These daytrips were never a simple matter. First, there were seven of us and there was an age difference among the children of 8 years. Second, we all had different interests ranging from shopping, to hiking, to art. Third, I was a persistent kid who insisted on entering every church we passed and including at least one museum per visit. And I (almost) always got my way to the dismay of my siblings.
One year we went on a week-long excursion to Burgundy in France. One of my father’s uncles, a Franciscan had been a pastor in a small Burgundian town and we wanted to see where he had lived and where he was buried. Thankfully his little church was still in good shape and his tomb was very well cared for. We even found a painting signed J. van Parys on the High Altar in the church.
Although this was all quite wonderful, for me, the high point of the trip was our visit to the abbey of Fontenay which happened despite some great protestations by my siblings. Founded in 1180 as a daughter house of the Cistercian abbey of Clervaux Fontenay is set in the rolling hills of the Burgundian landscape. In its 800+ years of history the abbey and its monastic community knew waves of success and downfall. At the end of the 18th century as a consequence of the French Revolution the monks were dispersed and the abbey was turned into a paper mill. In 1906 new owners began the restoration of the abbey and opened it to the public.
As soon as I walked through the doors of the majestic abbey church, stripped of all its liturgical and devotional accoutrements, I could almost hear the monks chant the office and I could very nearly smell burning candles and wafting incense. My siblings thought me in a trance. How could I not be? This building which had harbored monastic prayer for nearly a thousand years still bore witness to the sounds, the sights and smells of the prayers offered beneath its sheltering roof and under its reaching arches.
I walked away from that place with a sense of awe for the persistent presence of prayer. Even though this building had not been used as an active abbey for a couple of centuries, it still was able to tell the story of our faith and inspire the thousands of tourists wandering through it. The only thing I could say was “Thanks be to God.”
May your holidays afford you similar experiences that will allow you to say: “Thanks be to God” be it in the woods, by the lake or hopefully in a church.