Staying last weekend in the St Omer region of the Pas-de-Calais (as part of a friendly “twinning” arrangement with Deal in Kent), I had the opportunity to attend a monastery Mass. French monasteries were abolished during the French Revolution of 1789, but permitted to re-open in 1833.

The Mass I attended was at the Benedictine Abbey of St Paul, at Wisques, just off the A26 autoroute between Calais and Paris.

Sunday Mass at the monastery was solemn and, at 90 minutes, longer than we’re used to. The monks, in long, cowled habits, entered the simple chapel two by two, while the concelebrating priests wore fresh green vestments, with the adult male altar servers in white. The Mass was sung in plainchant, and Communion was taken kneeling and by mouth only – not in the hand.

An air of quietness and holiness prevailed at the monastery Mass, rather in contrast to the usual modern experience of constant participatory activity. It’s extraordinary to think that this form of Mass and Holy Office has been performed in much the same way since St Benedict formed the order in 547.

The Mass was reasonably well attended. There was no collection, but afterwards, the monks opened up their adjoining shop so that contributions could be made that way – by shopping. And what a range of goods there were: exquisite, unusual and delicate jams and preserves made by their own hand, from the flowers of lavender, of roses, of gentians. A marmalade made from milk. Honey from their bees. Organic baked bread and cakes, unusual beers and cordials, handmade soaps, pottery and many religious books and objects.

This, too, monks have done for centuries, making available what they have wrought from their own natural sources. An idea that’s very old – and yet, with the contemporary demand for everything organic, in another way now very much in the latest fashion.

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