Annegray: Columbanus’s first monastery

When Columbanus was first granted land by the Merovingian nobility, it was in a beautiful valley in the Vosges region. Though his biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, recounts that it was an uninhabited wilderness (a good place for a monastery), there is some archeological evidence that there had been a Roman settlement called Anagrates there before the time of Columbanus and his monks.

What is visible today is an outline of a stone monastic settlement, likely one that was founded by Columbanus’s successors.

One of the elements of my pilgrimage that has traveled with me thus far is the singing of the daily office: the series of what American religious sister Macrina Wiederkehr calls “seven sacred pauses” each day to stop and be in touch with God. The day starts with vigils in the small hours of the morning before dawn, continues with lauds at dawn, and continues through the day and into the evening, concluding in “the great silence” of night. For more than a millennium, Annegray was a place of perpetual prayer, of monks lifting their voices to God.

The tombs are from a much later period in the monastery’s history.

Having experienced the chanting of psalms, antiphons, and hymns at Bregenz, I understand a little better what it is like to work your way around the circuit of psalms. In our Protestant branch of the church, it was all we sang for a good many years, but it’s hard to work through 150 of them unless you do as the monks do: sing eight or ten of them a day.

Still, many of us have favorites. One that I often use in a funeral or memorial service is Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Monastics must have a familiarity with the psalms that few others do because they live them and breathe them more than the rest of us do.

When Columbanus lifted his eyes to the hills from Annegray, he saw up to a hilltop retreat and to a cave, where he would spend time alone or with a helper/servant. (Remember that he was middle aged and still managed to trek across Europe by foot…without benefit of orthotic arch supports or hiking boots wit Vibram soles.)

“Let none disparage the benefits of silence; for unless they grow lax, the secluded live better than the social.” -Columbanus

It was here that I perhaps felt the deepest connection with Columbanus so far: on a place high up on a hillside, at a place of retreat and prayer. It was easy to send God’s presence here as well as that of Columbanus. It is a site lovingly kept up by a group of volunteers: Les Amis de Saint Colomban. A chapel was constructed here in the late 19th century so that pilgrims who trekked up the hills and to this beautiful spot would have a special place of prayer. It is a distinctively non-Celtic idea…the Irish monks, of course, would typically have prayed outside in the glory of God’s creation.

After establishing the monastery at Annegray, Columbanus has next steps: gathering a monastery at Luxeuil.