Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans — famous for his decadent novel A Rebours (1884) — became engaged in a process of religious conversion. This process was described in a series of novels, beginning with La-Bas (1891), and continuing in the trilogy En Route (1895), La Cathédrale (1898) and finally L’Oblat (1903), in which his alter ego Durtal, like Huysmans before him, considers entering the Benedictine order at Solesmes.
The monks at Solesmes were forced to make a journey of their own at this time also; under the Law of Associations passed in France in 1901 all religious orders not deemed ‘productive’ were banned, and by September of that year the monks took up exile on the Isle of Wight, firstly at Appuldurcombe House, before moving into their new monastery, designed by one of the order, Dom Paul Bellot, at Quarr. Although the French monks returned to Solesmes in 1922, the ordination of Englishmen has allowed the continuation of the order to this day.
Bookbinding is a practice long been associated with monastic life, and is central to this project: a first edition of L’Oblat is bound in leather and the whole process is documented in a film. The monks at Quarr Abbey have remarked that their work ‘will always be carried out in an atmosphere marked by prayer and dedication’, and while our respective practices work towards quite different ends, they might both be considered contemplative, and based upon quiet reflection and observation. The camera might become absorbed in Fr. Nicholas’s activities, in his absorption, yet at times it also drifts, its attention alighting elsewhere, marking both the duration of the process, and the strict ordering of the Benedictine day, from dawn until dusk.
Our collaboration, then, is not simply between ourselves — indeed, we seem rather incidental figures within it — but between a whole gathering of historical circumstances, some of which we might draw from our own traditions, some of which are quite distant from them. It is perhaps appropriate that from within this small, dedicated community we are asked to consider what this might mean about our respective practices, or indeed those of anyone who devotes themselves to something other than themselves, and what it means to live and work with one another.
Fr. Nicholas Spencer, O.S.B.
21 August 2013
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