During the years when my son, Joshua, was at the Abbey of Our Lady of Mepkin, outside of Charleston, South Carolina, Michele and I would visit him frequently – which also meant that we joined the monks of the community for the monastic hours of prayer.
And often, for the beginning of Lauds or Vespers, the Mepkin community would sing some amazing settings of the Invitatory, their call to prayer: strophic, beautifully set, easily sung and harmonized to, able to be accompanied by either the guitar or organ.
"Where," I asked my son and his abbot, "did you stumble upon that?"
"Tamie," they said, "our monastery in France."
And, thanks to the encouragement of Josh's former abbot, Fr. Stanislaus, that is now where we are. I think Stan could see the light in my eye when I heard their music – it had kindled his own prayer life as well.
Michele and I traveled some of the most amazing (and at the same time frightening) landscapes to get here. By car through the Alps to Lake Geneva, we encountered narrow tunnels that spilled out onto bridges and hairpin turns, places where, beyond the guardrails, there was nothing but atmosphere (and treetops) for hundreds upon hundreds of feet. Bicyclists were everywhere, making the roads all the more unpredictable. And I swear there was a Comicon convention going on somewhere nearby: as God is my witness, ahead of us was a car pimped out to look like the Batmobile (complete with a caped crusader in the front seat); and through one of the passes, we came across a violently painted yellow and green car that carried four guys dressed up like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But by the time we entered back into France, all that lunacy was behind us. We could see Mont Blanc far in the distance, and after a while, the quiet valley that provided shelter for Tamié Abbey opened up to us. Mountains – huge mountains – were omnipresent (remember, we are in the neighborhood of Albertville and Chamonix, hosts to winter Olympics), but they just weren't as ominous or impenetrable as their Swiss neighbors.
If you ever watched the movie, Of Gods and Men, then you have witnessed a little bit of the legacy of Tamié Abbey, for Tamié is where the men of Algiers came from. Frère Christophe, one of the members of the community to Notre Dame de L'Atlas-Tibherine, was a monk and played guitar here at Tamié, before leading his small band to the African continent, and, ultimately, to their martyrdom.
All of this was in my mind as we turned away from Albertville and up into the mountains again.
We arrived just in time for Saturday Evening Vespers, found the guest master, and in broken French explained that we were retreatants. To which he smiled and said, "Je parle tres peu l'Anglais!" So we understood each other perfectly.
But then, we sat down in the ancient chapel (this community was formed in 1132 – yes, that is correct). And we heard those voices.
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Location:Tamié Abbey, Plancherine, France