Abbaye de Lerins: the Island

I left the silence of the monastery and made my way along the well-kept paths of the forest.  Apart from the huddle of monastery buildings there are almost no other buildings there.  Almost, but not quite.  There is another much smaller cluster of buildings called the Monastery of St Cyprien, entirely closed off to the public.  On my walk I looked for signs leading there and saw none.  It made me think.


The monastic way of life, a writer once said, can’t be more removed from the modern temperament, the sensual-sceptical. If the Cistercians of the Abbaye maintained silence as well as having an on-going contact with the public, mostly pilgrims and retreat-seekers, what did the monks at St Cyprien do?  Was our Abbaye the public face, while that secret building, hardly visible from the forest pathway – with a rather attractive tower, I managed to make out –  the holy of holies of the monastic establishment?  Meditation, study, ritual and the tending of the vines – is that it?  For my cumulative way of seeing things it feels distinctly odd.  Is a place like St Cyprien, so cryptically hidden amongst the density and silence of Aleppo pines and thick bush, amongst the last signs of fervent belief in a post-Christian world?

On this island at either end and overlooking the small pebble beaches, there are two squat oven-like constructions made of brick that were used to launch cannonballs at approaching enemy ships.  These, the plaque tells us, were commissioned in 1795 by a young Corsican general, Napoleon by name.  The range of the cannonballs was just under 1000 metres.  And about 700 paces away from these machines of war there was a light-filled cathedral bringing joy and hope to the world.  The extremes of our hearts lie close.

Fortified Monastery

Which brings me to the fortified monastery.  As you leave the main monastery buildings, taking the first steps along the beach, you are struck by a tall fort-like edifice on a short promontory. My immediate impression of the place, about four storeys high, was that it had been built in the last 150 to 200 years. It even looked new. The almost windowless walls are without other feature. The door, about four metres above the ground, acquired stone steps only in the last century or two, as its height was a safety feature for those inside.

I went up the steps into the edifice and entering the gloom I saw the pillars of a small interior cloister.  Above on the second floor was another set of pillars.  The inner walls were very different from the outer shell of the building.  They were primitive, irregular stone piles.  A roughly-written eye-level sign read Cloistre XIII siècle.  Other chambers, with rounded gothic ceilings of stone, looked as if they might have been dormitories or meeting places.  It is said that this fort is one of the oldest, if not the oldest part of Abbaye de Lerins.  And fort is the word. For stretches of time the monks, on the first and second floors, shared their existence with soldiers living on the top storeys.  And the fort was well placed for defenders as invading ships could not get closer to the beach than 300 metres because of the shallows. From the slit windows the invaders would be easy targets.

Interior, Fortified Monastery

It would seem that the intact outer shell of La Monasterie Fortifié jealously guards the gloom of its ruinous interior.

Those extremes of the heart…

Will van der Walt ©

Mardi 29 Mai 2012

Sources of images: Photos by Will 


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