PILGRIMAGE: Lérins, France—Drinking From The River by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Lérins, France—Drinking From The River by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The monks’ white-and-blue boat is a sturdy little converted fishing craft.  Perched on a hard bench inside its bare cabin, I watch through square, spray-spattered windows as the city of Cannes rolls and pitches, fading into the morning mist.

The choppy sea tosses our boat in three directions at once.  I quickly learn from my two fellow passengers how to prop my feet and elbows to keep from being suddenly launched through a window and into the whitecaps.  Now that I’m properly braced I can take my mind off of simple survival and think about where I’m heading.  The monastery of Lérins on the island of Saint Honorat is a very special place for me as a monk.

Except for a brief period after the French Revolution, Île Saint-Honorat has been a monks’ island for almost 1,600 years.  About the year AD 400, a certain Honoratus arrived with a few companions in search of a secluded place in which to practice a new, experimental form of Christian life called monasticism.  They settled on the snake-infested wilderness islet called Lerina and turned it into one of the great centers of monastic life in Europe.  The successors of Honoratus renamed the island in his name, and tended it lovingly into a garden spot.  Here they wrote some of the early monastic “Rules” in the West (Saint Benedict wouldn’t be born for another eighty years) and trained missionaries for England and Ireland (including Saint Benedict Biscop and perhaps even Saint Patrick).  Their community provided many holy bishops for the cities of Gaul – most notably Honoratus himself and a special favorite of mine, Saint Caesarius of Arles.

Careful to hold on to the wooden bench with both hands, I twist around to look out the front window.  There it is, straight ahead, a tiny, tree-covered island lying low against the pink and tan clouds of the Mediterranean sunrise.

About the year 490, Caesarius, by now Bishop of Arles, wrote in a sermon to his brethren back on the island:

O happy isle of Lerina, which, while seeming small and flat to the eye, has nevertheless lifted countless mountain peaks toward the sky.  It is she who forms eminent monks and provides such remarkable bishops to all the provinces.

I’m very conscious of this sense of tradition as I step off the boat in the quiet cove and begin a half-mile walk to the monastery of Lérins.  The dirt road takes me past a stone hermit chapel, between hushed fields where scrubby lavender bushes rest in neat rows, then past quiet workshops and outbuildings.  I remember that it was the monks of Lérins who developed a concept new to Western monastic thinking – the importance of manual labor.  Earlier monastic founders in Europe such as Martin of Tours would not allow their monks to work at all so that they could be free to pray constantly.  But on Lérins the monks believed in the ideal of a balance between work and prayer.  As I walk past the island’s well-tended gardens, fields, and vineyards, it’s clear that the tradition is still flourishing today.  I finally reach the monastery buildings.  The whole island radiates peace and welcome, but this is especially true of the Cistercian monks themselves, who greet me warmly and make me feel at home right away.

Île Saint-Honorat is only about 800 yards long and 500 yards wide, and it takes less than forty-five minutes to follow its shoreline in a complete circle.  During one such walk the next afternoon, I notice its larger sister-island, Saint Marguerite, across a narrow channel, and remember why the early monks had chosen the present island instead of the larger one.  I heard the explanation just that morning.

The story begins back on the mainland, far up in the hills behind Cannes, where a little river starts on its way to the sea.  But after some miles, it suddenly disappears underground, flowing under the mountains, beneath the shoreline, and below the seabed itself.  It crosses under the Bay of Cannes, bypassing Saint Marguerite but flowing beneath Saint Honorat before emptying its fresh water somewhere farther out in the Mediterranean.  What had made the monks choose the little island over its larger partner, then, was its supply of fresh water.  The underground river provided “sweet water flowing amid the bitterness of the sea.”  It was this that had allowed the monks to turn their rocky islet into a fruitful garden.

The next morning I stand outside the monastery, watching the sun rise over the pink spray of the waves that splash on the rocks.  We’ve been up for a couple of hours.  The gentle daily routine begins at 3:30 a.m. with Vigils and continues through periods of quiet and community prayer, reading, meals, and work in the vineyard, the library, the kitchen, or one of the workshops.  But Saint Honorat has not always been this peaceful.

It seems that over the centuries there were constant raids, whether from pirates, Saracens, the Spanish, or the Genoese.  Near one of the ancient hermit chapels researchers recently discovered a martyrium, the burial place of several monks killed during one of the frequent raids in the early days.  And out on a rocky point nearby, past the martyrium and the seaside chapel, a strange granite box of a building stares outward across the waves.  This was a unique response to the problem of security: a windowless stone cube that served as a four-story fortified monastery.  Although the monastery-fort was abandoned quite a while ago, the bad times continued.  In more recent years, the island monks have had to put up with cannons being placed on top of their hermit chapels and having troops billeted on their sacred soil.

Throughout all of these trials, however, the underground river kept flowing.  When the gardens ran red with the blood of brothers slain by marauders, the river still ran clean.  When the abbot had to travel to Spain to ransom two of his novices from the Saracens, the river still flowed fresh.  When the ancient stone walls of a sacred hermit chapel collapsed under the weight of a clumsy cannon squatting on its roof, the hidden river kept running cool, year after year.

The life of every baptized Christian is like this islet.  Each of us has a spiritual stream of grace, a river of God’s love flowing beneath our everyday existence, constantly giving us life and making us fruitful and beautiful.

It flows below the busy surface of our daily routine and deep beneath our pains and pleasures, hopes and struggles, making all of these bear fruit.

In that same sermon, Saint Caesarius, perhaps remembering the cool water of the underground river, writes to the monks of his beloved Lerina:

See, I am preparing the reservoir of my heart to receive the divine waters which flow through you.  For I really know you well, and it is about you that we read this word of the Savior.  “He who believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from his breast.”  We joyfully believe that living waters flow from you like spiritual fountains.

This is one of those typical thought-provoking images that fill Caesarius’s writings: We need to stay in touch with that faithful stream, to keep drinking from that well of eternal life, not just for ourselves, but so that we can in turn become sources of life for those around us.

The bell for Lauds is wafting across the island, borne on the crisp January sea wind.  As I hurry to prayers, I pass an empty garden patch and notice how bare the soil looks.  I’m comforted, though, by the thought that at this very moment, deep beneath the barren fields, life is still flowing in the hidden, changeless river.


Water is a very ancient Lenten symbol, referring to the water God gave the Israelites in the desert, and especially to the waters of Baptism that the catechumens will receive at the Easter Vigil.  Jesus once said, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water,’” (John 7:37-38).  Are there times when you feel cut off from Christ, who is the water of life?

In what ways do you experience God’s river of grace constantly flowing beneath your life?  What might you do to let that steam flow more easily?  How might you be a fountain of life-giving water for someone around you today?


Sacred Scripture (John 4:7-10)

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water.  Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”


Rule of Benedict (Prologue, v. 49)

As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.

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