Orval Abbey

“Light and shadow are the speakers of this architecture of truth, calm and strength. And nothing more adds to it.” — Le Corbusier

Visited the Orval Abbey in Belgium last weekend. I’m still sorting through the photographs but will post something shortly.

Part 1: The Journey
The journey is part of the adventure and this tale will require several parts. I was introduced to the Orval Trappist Ale at the Ginger Man in South Norwalk but my attachment to the Trappists (Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance) started on a retreat to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. Both monasteries are featured in Trappist Beer Travels by Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood, and Jessica Deahl. It’s probably worth mentioning that I don’t actually like the beer from Orval or Spencer.

The trip to the Orval Abbey makes it feel like a true pilgrimage. My journey started at Gare de l’Est on a train to Luxembourg and required a car rental for the 67 km drive to Florenville, Belgium. This wasn’t an official retreat so I stayed at this quirky little boutique hotel called Le Florentin. This is one of coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed at. It has a great patio for dining (especially breakfast) and grand piano in the lounge/bar.

I arrived early and decided to drive the 9 km to Orval straight away. I know this will sound awful (at first) but Orval is a BIG commercial enterprise. It’s definitely a tourist destination (as the A l’Ange Gardien will attest). I was a little overwhelmed (certainly exacerbated by sleep deprivation). This isn’t St. Joseph’s Abbey and I was expecting the quiet of the Orval Abbey (in the Ardennes) to be a true respite from the rattle of Paris.

Part 2: The Abbey
The abbey has a visitor center which leads to the bookstore and giftshop. As you exit the visitor center you can pay €6 for access to the medieval ruins, abbey/pharmaceutical museums, and the medicinal herb-garden (currently under renovation). I explored (and photographed) each exhaustively. The abbey ruins are spectacular and one of the highlights. The other highlight is the fountain from the legend!

>> See and hear the fountain

The Basilica and Cloister are off-limits so I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find high ground to sneak a peek (and photograph). The closest you can get to the Basilica is the choir loft which is accessible from the abbey museum (but entry to the stairs is NOT well marked and required a bit of exploration).

I left Orval a little disappointed that I couldn’t get closer to the Basilica and Cloister BUT had found a few treasures in the bookstore with historical photos, etc. I also found a medallion of the trout (from the legend) but the significance of that is a story still being written.

Part 3 will focus on an extraordinary Sunday (a moment of redemption).

Part 3: Sunday Mass
I was a little discouraged (and hungry) when I left the abbey on Saturday afternoon. I drove back to the hotel though and regrouped. I went shopping in Florenville for some essentials at Carrefour (interestingly enough they sold beer from St. Joseph’s). I also ate some bad food and had some ice cream. I was really exhausted after dinner but decided to take a walk. I eventually found L’église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption and behind this church is a gorgeous view of a valley. I also made the decision to attend Mass at this church the next day.

I was up really early the next morning to take a picture of the valley at sunrise. I also made a decision to drive back to the abbey for some more pictures. The lot was empty and I walked around the perimeter searching for a good vantage of the Basilica and Cloisters. My efforts went unrewarded so I loitered around the visitor center (not sure for what reason) when suddenly the gate before the visitor center unlocked (it was probably on a timer). I sat in the quiet and stillness of this little inner sanctum and watched the doves. The flowers in this area are gorgeous but there wasn’t much else to do since the visitor center remained closed. Before leaving I read the sign next to the gate and visitor center and it said Mass was celebrated at 10:00 (not 11:00 like I originally thought). There weren’t any instructions about HOW to celebrate Mass so I made the decision to return to the hotel for breakfast and then to come back.

I was back in the visitor center around 9:30 something. The man behind the counter didn’t speak English so my questions about HOW to attend Mass were left unanswered. He eventually pushed me to the bookstore and there was someone in there who spoke enough English to send me back to the visitor center.

There was a row of chairs next to the desk in the visitor center and I figured if I just sat there the man (who was a little gruff) would figure out my intent was to celebrate Mass. As the clock neared 10:00 a steady stream of regulars started going through a secret door behind the desk. I think the man saw my look of desperation and hastily pointed toward the door (without speaking a word). I stood up and ran for the door before he changed his mind. Once beyond the door I was behind the wall (the inner sanctum) that funneled guests into the visitor center. I was now joining a procession of parishioners and pilgrims to the abbey church and walking through the arch (bathed in light) I was photographing this morning! The procession was amazing and I snapped photographs as we walked. Once inside the abbey church I took this photo (maybe one of my all time favorites).

The Mass was beautiful and the eucharistic procession and adoration were equally amazing. Is there anything more beautiful than Mass?

“We go to heaven when we go to Mass. This is not merely a symbol, not a metaphor, not a parable, not a figure of speech. It is real. We do go to heaven when we go Mass, and this is true of every Mass we attend, regardless of the music or the fervor of the preaching. The Mass — and I mean every single Mass — is heaven on earth.”

On my way back to the visitor center I took a picture of this lovely elderly couple in front of the abbey church (a nice highlight). I also snapped a couple of other photographs and then thanked the man in the visitor center profusely for allowing me to enter the secret door (a little nod to George MacDonald).

The quote is from The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn.

Orval Abbey

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