The desire to leave everything so as to enter monastic life is a mystery. Why such a choice, or rather for whom? The call to such a life, of which Christ himself gave the example by his hidden life, his stay in the desert, his solitary prayers, and especially his cross, is not something new.
By their baptism, all Christians are called to foster the love of God within themselves. This perfection can be achieved by living in the world, but there is also another way, more direct and steeper, which was at first that of martyrdom. Then, when the persecutions ceased, some particularly fervent Christians, who still had the desire to give their lives for Christ, went into the desert to lead a very radical life of asceticism and prayer. Some of them gathered themselves in small communities, and thus monastic life was born. In the sixth century, St. Benedict, who had first led a similar life in solitude, gathered around himself disciples and wrote for them a rule of life, prescribing them to live as a family of brothers, gathered under the loving authority of a father to seek God, to devote themselves to singing His praise in the choir and to manual work, taking care never to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
This Rule spread throughout the Christian West in the following centuries. Through the wisdom of its provisions, it has deeply influenced the construction of the Christian social order that we have inherited. But beyond being a treasure of human wisdom that continues to astonish and inspire our contemporaries today, it is above all a path towards God, in the spirit of the Gospel, for all those who "hasten their march towards the heavenly homeland".
He who commits himself by vows to observe the evangelical counsels, in a total offering of his life, finds the true freedom of the heart by becoming available for God alone (cf. Mt 19:21: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.")
In his Rule, St. Benedict asks his monk to pronounce a threefold promise: to live in stability, conversion of life, and obedience.
Among the different forms of religious life, monastic life presents a very particular framework, the most obvious element of which is the enclosure. By promising stability, a monk commits himself to remain during the rest of his life in the same community, usually the one where he took his vows. Stability of the body is a means to help the soul withdraw from the bustle of the world. The vow of stability is secondary to that of obedience, so that a monk may be sent to a new foundation, or to give help in another monastery.
One of the consequences of the vow of stability is concern for the beauty of the place where the monks live, in order to contribute to the inner fulfilment of the soul. Acknowledging this influence of the exterior over the interior, monastic tradition has always chosen with care the sites where abbeys were established.
If he has to leave the monastery enclosure for some affair, a monk is required to ask permission and blessing from his superior. Indeed, St. Benedict specifies that it is within the monastery, which is compared to a workshop, that a monk should make use of the "tools of good works" described in Chapter 4 of the Rule, if he wants to achieve his desired goal.
In a world where mobility is carried to extremes and instability is permanent, monastic enclosure is a reminder of the values of rootedness. By his renunciation to external change, a monk is able to recapture the joy of living in time with the rhythm of the seasons, weaving over the years that connivance with nature that peasants faithful to their land know so well. The enclosure then is no longer a prison, but provides the means of rediscovering the original goal of creation, which is to sing the glory of God.
Cut off from men, a monk finds them back more deeply in God, he receives in himself their secret distress and calls upon them divine mercy.
The vow of conversion of life is the second one that St. Benedict requires a monk to make. By this expression, one means the fact of turning away concretely and day after day from sin, superfluous goods and self-indulgence, so as to adopt a monastic way of life, notably chastity and poverty, which are not explicitly mentioned in the formula of vows, but are contained here.
Through poverty, a monk renounces all that passes, in order to be rich of God himself. Monastic poverty means that a monk is not allowed to possess anything of his own; the articles he uses day by day are merely for his use, and belong to the monastery. He entrusts himself to the judgment of the Abbot, asking with simplicity for what he needs. In this way he keeps his soul free to devote himself to God only. All that is necessary for the life of the community and its activities (vast buildings, land, workshops, numerous tools...) has no other owner nor other end than God himself.
Monastic chastity does not only mean renunciation to a family and living in sexual abstinence; it is a firm purpose to do one's best not to surrender one's heart and affections to anyone or anything other than God himself, namely, to love everything in God and for God's sake. Chastity is an enlargement of man's capacity for love. “The chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Co 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as her only spouse.” (Second Vatican Council, Decree Perfectae Caritatis, §12)
Through obedience, a monk entrusts his will to God, thus renouncing to supervise his own life, and accepting to let himself be guided by those whom God has put on his path to speak to him in His name: "He who listens to you listens to Me" (Lk 10:16). In the vow of obedience, a monk renounces what is most intimate to him: his own individual will. This renunciation is often the vow that most scandalizes our contemporaries: is not freedom the first and foremost good for man, which he cannot alienate without demeaning himself? As a matter of fact, obedience does not consist in renouncing one's freedom, but rather in renouncing everything that hinders the full use of this freedom, that is to say, everything that prevents one from always choosing with all one's soul the most desirable good, the only one that will never pass away, namely, the will of God.
Obedience is based on faith: it is in faith that a monk recognizes the will of God in the order given by his superiors and that he enters into the great movement of obedience which draws the whole creation towards the Father. Obedience is also and above all a matter of love: it is out of love for God, out of a desire to imitate Christ, obedient to the death of the Cross, that a monk accepts to renounce his own will. St. Benedict even recommends that monks should obey one another, so great is the benefit they derive from it.
For St. Benedict, humility is a fundamental attitude of the soul, which is also manifested in obedience.
It heals the deepest wound created in us by sin, that tendency to exaltation and self-righteousness, to an egoistical self-assertion.
The path to finding our true place before God and mankind is marked out by St. Benedict with twelve degrees of humility, with their interior components and their repercussions in the exterior attitude (Rule, ch. 7).
Silence is another great characteristic of the monks' particular way of life. Each monk is called to free himself from useless chatter in order to let the Word of God grow in the depths his soul.
St. Benedict is therefore very strict on this aspect of his Rule: even experienced disciples are not to be granted too readily license to speak. A special place is reserved for silence during the night, from the end of Compline until the office of Prime the next morning: in union with Nature, monks are invited to respect an absolute silence. During daytime, it is possible to speak for reasons of work or charity, but with moderation and discretion.
A time of relaxation is set aside each day, usually after lunch, during which monks may chat freely with each other. These recreation times offer an opportunity to catch up on the humble events taking place in the community, as well as news concerning the life of the Church or the world at large. Once a week, a walk of about three hours gives bodies and souls the opportunity to relax and monks to recreate one another in joy and fraternal charity.
Prayer is the fabric with which a monk's entire day is woven, throughout his whole life. That is why St. Benedict asks first of all, when a candidate for the monastic life arrives, to verify "whether he is truly seeking God" (Rule, ch. 58), because the search for God, which is, as it were, the definition of monastic life, is realized mainly through prayer.
Prayer means staying with God, loving him in a glance that no longer requires words, and is a pure expectation of the definitive encounter. This very sweet inner prayer can be compatible throughout the day with many activities, but a monk should also devote exclusive moments to this encounter with God, time devoted to Him alone.
A monk is first and foremost the man of the liturgy, the official prayer of the Church which is ceaselessly offered to God in the name of all mankind. St. Benedict invites a monk to prefer nothing to this primordial work. Gregorian chant, the proper chant of the Latin Church, of which the beauty and spiritual evocative power transcend all times, invites souls to immerse themselves gently into mystery. The solemnity that surrounds the Conventual Mass makes one keenly aware that the Eucharist is truly, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, "the centre and summit of the life of the Church and of every Christian."
In Fontgombault, with the permission of the Holy See, we celebrate the traditional liturgy, whose centuries-old rites are the delicate offspring of the virtue of religion, and have a marvellous way of helping the soul become absorbed in an aura of adoration of the Divine Majesty. At the end of Lauds, each ordained monk celebrates individually his Mass in deep recollection; concelebration is reserved for certain feast days.
From the focal point which is the daily Eucharistic sacrifice, radiate out the different Hours of the choral office, thus sanctifying the various moments of the human day, offering up to God on behalf of all men, in the name of Mother Church, a tribute of praise and adoration, a prayer of petition and reparation, through the words of the psalms, where all the expectations and feelings of the human soul are expressed in an inspired poetic language. By returning to the choir seven times during the day, and once during the night, monks show that time belongs to God and is dedicated to him. The one hundred and fifty psalms are distributed throughout the week according to the disposition proposed by St. Benedict in his Rule.
The service of praise begins between 4:40 and 5:15 a.m., depending on the solemnity of the office, with Matins, which always include twelve psalms. Matins are followed by the office of Lauds, thus called because its last three psalms are always the last three psalms of the Psalter, devoted to praise.
The remaining hours correspond to the ancient division of the day: Prime, Terce, Sext and None, which are respectively the first, third, sixth and ninth hour of the day. Since the ninth century, after the office described in the Rule, Prime includes a small office in the chapter room, with a reading from the Martyrology of the list of all the saints and blessed celebrated on the following day, as well as prayers for the deceased (monks, friends and benefactors, persons recommended to us), and the reading of a chapter of the Holy Rule.
The office of Terce is celebrated at 10:00 a.m., followed by sung Mass. Sext and None take place respectively before and after the meal and recreation; the more solemn office of Vespers takes place after the afternoon's work, and Compline, preceded by a reading in the chapter house, completes the monks' day.
In addition to liturgical prayer, which takes up at least four hours of his day, a monk is invited to seek God in a heart-to-heart communion of silent prayer, a moment of intimacy with Him whom we know loves us. Each monk also prays the Rosary daily, in whole or in part, as the faithful homage due to the Virgin Mary, Mother of all monks and Queen of this place.
Sacred reading or lectio divina is still another form of monastic prayer, nourished primarily by Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and spiritual writers. This meditative reading blossoms spontaneously into a prayer of the soul.
Monastic life takes place within a community that St. Benedict has provided with a Father, which is what the word "Abbot" means. It is to him first and foremost that the obedience required of all is directed; it is to him also that should be given a very delicate filial love, which comes from the fact that faith designates him in the eyes of the monks as holding the place of Christ.
He is elected for life by the monks, which allows his influence to have a lasting impact on the community and ensures the stability needed by souls to seek God.
The Abbot's task is to give spiritual doctrine to the souls, to encourage and guide each one along the path towards perfection, by his exhortations, but also if necessary by reprimands and corrections. St. Benedict has not hidden from him the difficulty of his task: "The Abbot should always remember what he is and what he is called, and should know that more will be demanded of him to whom more has been entrusted. Let him realise also how difficult and arduous a task he has undertaken, of ruling souls and adapting himself to many dispositions" (Rule, ch. 2). St. Benedict insistently reminds the abbot that he is accountable to God for his government, that he must seek "rather to profit his brethren than to preside over them", and "rather to be loved than feared". He should "set mercy above judgement", but always remaining gently firm, so that he may "hate ill-doing but love the brethren" (Rule, ch. 64).
For young monks coming from a society marked by the absence of the father figure, it sometimes takes a real re-education of the heart to enter into the joy of filial trust in the Abbot, whose paternity then appears as the sacrament of divine paternity.
Sons of a same father, monks are invited to develop a fraternal charity among themselves. This charity doesn't exist if each one doesn't take care to reduce concretely the demands of his selfishness and to place himself at the service of all.
A truly fraternal life in community requires that each one should endeavour to renounce himself, his own interests or what would put him in the limelight, in order to cultivate a family spirit, to share joys and sorrows, to develop fraternal mutual aid, and concern for the unity of hearts and minds.
In Fontgombault, the unique monastic vocation is realised in a distinction between choir monks and lay brothers. This distinction, of a very ancient origin in monastic history, was confirmed at the Second Vatican Council (Decree Perfectae Caritatis, §15). Called to a same ideal of monastic life and holiness in harmony with the Rule of St. Benedict, but without confusion of vocations, both groups take the same vows and wear the same habit.
The vocation of lay brother is addressed to young men, either already engaged in professional life or not, who feel called to seek holiness by offering to God the work of their hands. The Brothers' life is characterized by service. The schedule of their days gives more space to manual work. Thanks to the many indispensable tasks they are able to perform, they allow the choir monks to devote themselves at length to the Divine Office, while leading themselves a humble and hidden life, the model of which is the figure of St. Joseph in Nazareth.
In the monastic family, the novitiate forms a separate group. The novices share in the prayer and work of the whole community, which surrounds them with discreet affection, but their training is the sole responsibility of the Master of Novices, under the authority of the Abbot.
Someone who thinks he is called by God to become a monk is first invited to stay in the guest-house for a while. If he perseveres in his intention to enter the monastery and if the Abbot accepts him, he may enter the novitiate. The first commitment is issued for three years, and cannot take place before at least two years spent among the novices. After his first vows, a young monk remains in the novitiate group for two more years to complete his initial training.
There is no absolute rule concerning the age at which one can enter the novitiate, but the training given here is adapted to young men aged between roughly 20 and 35.
Work is an essential ingredient of human life, assumed from the beginning by monks as a collaboration with the Creator's action (Gn 2:15: "The Lord took the man he had formed and placed him in the garden to work and keep it") as well as in a spirit of penance, within the theological context of the Redemption (Gn 3:19: "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread," says God to man after sin). Through manual work, a monk consecrates his physical strength to the service of God, while maintaining a spirit of prayer. "Religious should consider themselves in their own assignments to be bound by the common law of labour, and while they procure what is required for their sustenance and works, they should banish all undue solicitude and trust themselves to the provident care of their Father in heaven (Mt 6:25)" (Perfectae Caritatis, §13).
All work to ensure the subsistence of the community. First of all, some tasks are to be carried out on a daily basis: cooking, laundry, house-keeping and gardening. It is also necessary to grow vegetables and fruits, ...
... as well as dairy products, eggs and meat, the surplus of which is sold outside.
A small vineyard is sufficient for the community's table, as well as for the celebration of daily Masses.
Some workshops have an artistic production for sale, such as the pottery, the icon workshop or the enamel workshop inspired by the spirit of the 12th century workshops in the Limoges region.
Several other workshops are dedicated to necessary maintenance tasks in the monastery: plumbing, electricity, building maintenance, painting and glazing, carpentry...
It is from this carpenter's workshop that the great organ of the abbey church was built, designed according to the principles established by a 18
A typographic workshop produces leaflets, booklets and books for the use of the community and guests, as well as some publications for sale.
The old mill on the Creuse River has been equipped since 1980 for the production of hydroelectricity. The installation was completely renovated in 2020 and equipped with new technology.
In keeping with the precept of St. Benedict, the community strives to welcome all comers as Christ.
The porter's lodge is a small building where all those arriving come and knock: guests, visitors, deliverymen, simple tourists, families of the monks. It also serves as a religious bookshop and offers various objects of piety.
The guest-house, inside the monastic buildings for men, and outside of the monastery for women and families, receives the monks' families, as well as all the persons and groups who ask to spend a few days of spiritual renewal.
Finally, some monks spend part of their time teaching novices and young monks who are studying philosophy and theology.