Flavigny: Burgundy’s hidden gem
Neal Wood recommends a visit to a picturesque French village and its Benedictine community
Nestling in the rolling countryside of the Cote-d’Or in northern Burgundy stands the proud village of Flavignysur-Ozerain. Approaching the village on a winding road from the north, it comes suddenly into view and is quite a revelation: standing dramatically on its high plateau with the spire of the Eglise Saint-Genest majestically crowning it all. How can this be a ‘hidden’ gem, you ask? As Matthew 5.14 so rightly declares: ‘a city on a hilltop cannot be hidden’. Well, owing to the narrow and twisting roads in these parts, this is not a place that you would be likely to pass through on the way to anywhere else: although a good number of those notoriously meandering pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela used to make a special detour to visit, what else, but certain relics that were kept here.
If you do happen to take a detour and visit the picturesque Flavigny, you would not be disappointed. The richly decorated houses with high turrets, romantic balconies and madonnas in niches are a legacy of its sixteenth-century prosperity. Most visitors would want to see the crypt of the ancient abbey of Saint Pierre: originally founded by Widerad, a powerful Burgundian lord, and consecrated in 878 by Pope John VIII. Alongside this stands the more recent abbey buildings, dating from around 1745, which are now home to the only industry in the village: Fabrique d’Anis, who produce traditional confectionery – much of it based on aniseed – which it sells world-wide (there are free tastings and a shop on the premises).
Incidentally, I would recommend the Restaurant de l’Abbaye, directly across the road, for lunch (which includes excellent amuse-bouche to start the meal). You might also visit Flavigny because it was used as the location for the film Chocolat, based on the novel by Joanne Harris. Mme Rocher’s shop, which was so enticingly portrayed in the film, now stands empty and rather neglected just off the Place de l’Eglise.
No stranger to controversy, since 1986 Flavigny has been home to one of the six seminaries of the Society of St Pius X: this enormous building, the Maison Lacordaire, was formerly a Dominican monastery. Still not accepted into the fold by the Holy See, the fully-cassocked seminarians can sometimes be seen taking their Sunday afternoon walk along part of the western side of the village. One French guide book actually refers to the spectacle as: ‘parading priests of different denominations’! As visitors pass through the Porte du Bourg – the fifteenth-century principal fortified entrance to the village – few would realize, however, that the true hidden gem of this place stands in the rather modest ‘Grand Rue’ directly next to this gateway – yet another religious establishment: the Benedictine abbey of St Joseph de Clairval.
The large but rather plain stone-fronted façade successfully conceals the grand buildings and landscaped gardens that lie behind. This was originally the seat of Claude Coutier, the Marquis de Souhey, who began construction of his magnificent residence in 1700 and poured his entire fortune into the project. Today, it is home to a community of more than fifty monks. Originally founded by Dom Augustin Joly in 1972 in Switzerland, it moved to Flavigny in 1976 and, twelve years later, obtained canonical recognition from the bishop of Dijon.
Although the architecture is particularly fine, the ‘gem’ I refer to is not actually the buildings but the worship of the community itself. Conventual Mass is not concelebrated but a High Mass (facing east) celebrated according to the ordinary (or modern) form of the Roman rite, sung in Latin (with vernacular readings) using Gregorian chant. Priest-monks do, however, celebrate Low Mass daily (non-publicly) using the extraordinary rite. The Mass and offices are all celebrated to the highest standard and executed with both sanctity and grace. The chant here is sung beautifully and one cannot fail to be uplifted by it.
When seated in the congregation, behind the grill (though opened during Mass), you will miss nothing happening at the altar – since there are two wall-mounted screens which relay from video cameras sited high in the nave. Unlike many religious communities, all the required books are supplied and page numbers given so you can follow everything exactly. Having attended the splendid Pontifical High Mass on St Benedict’s day this year, I was kindly asked whether I should like to meet their archbishop. Naturally, I was happy to accept such an invitation. The archbishop recommended to me ‘an excellent’ restaurant in Dijon owned, surprisingly, by an English couple. ‘Do you patronize it regularly?’ I asked. ‘No’, he replied with a broad smile: ‘I cannot afford it!’