A journey to ‘communities of the ideal’

22 Oct 2014 james

A while back James Marriott made a journey to two communities – each of which tries to approach an ideal. This is his reflection on the experience.

The first, La R.o.n.c.e in the Morbihan region of Brittany, is being established on an abandoned farm by six activists and artist-activists, two of whom, John Jordan and Isa Fremeaux are long-term friends of Platform. (John was at the heart of Platform until 1997, and we have worked together regularly since then.) The group, or commune, is now using the land to grow food, run a mobile activist kitchen, operate a mechanics workshop and be the base for the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination.

The second is Abdij Sint Benedictusberg, a community of Benedictine monks established in an abandoned monastery in 1951. The abbey is utterly focused on the life of prayer, expressed through eight daily services – The Hours – in which the psalms are sung, starting at 5.00 in the morning and ending at 21.00 in the evening.

It is the similarities between these two places that I find provocative, and that inspires reflection on my own life.

Staircase at abbey of St Benedictusberg, Vaals, Netherlands
Staircase at abbey of St Benedictusberg, Vaals, Netherlands

The abbey, like all Benedictine houses, strives to keep as close as it can to the Rule of St Benedict, written about 540 AD and continually observed in monasteries over the 1,500 years since. The Rule precisely describes an ideal Christian community as seen by a man living at the point of transition between the Classical World and the Medieval World. For guidance, Benedict looked to the communities of the Early Christian Church, as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles written nearly four centuries earlier. Consequently, the monks at St Benedictusberg today try to live up to a vision of community that is two thousand years old. They orientate their imaginations towards an ideal vision of Christ and those that followed soon after him.

The sense of this unchanging continuity is emphasised by the language in which the community expresses its central activity. Despite being located in the south-east Netherlands, and all the monks speaking Dutch, almost the entirety of the daily services are sung in Latin. Similarly, the reading that is given to the brothers as they eat their midday and evening meals in silence is partly in Latin. This language, in which the Medieval church expressed itself, is a foundation stone of the shelter that the monastery provides for those that live there. The monks learn Latin on joining the monastery, and through it they give order to their world.

St Benedictusberg is famed for its architecture. Most of it was built between the 1960s and 1980s, designed by the architect Hans Van der Laan – who throughout that period was a brother in the abbey itself. The simplicity of its form, with square windows and unadorned pillars, is hightened by a uniform covering of grey paint-work and a grey skim of cement on all the internal walls. Every piece of furniture – tables, chairs, pews and beds – was built from wood in the abbey workshop to Van der Laan’s designs. His style gives each object a heavy solidity, which echoes the structure of the buildings. In the most remarkable way light becomes solid ‘matter’ as it falls into the silent rooms and passageways. In a place in which there are so few objects – the church, for example, only has two small paintings in a vast space – the material quality of the world is acutely highlighted.


The consitency of the aesthetic serves to emphasise the distinctness of each type of space: the cells, the church, the refectory, the cloister. St Benedict’s Rule demands that spaces within the monastery should be precisely delineated, that the distinct activities of the day are to take place in the distinct spaces within the abbey. Consequently monasteries have long been constructed on similar ground plans. I remember drawing them in my history lessons when I was a child. Van der Laan’s designs honour these Romanseque foundations and bring to bear on them the experience of Modernism. The building feels extemely ancient and yet somewhow encompases the experience of Europe’s catastrophic 20th century.

The distinctness of spaces is emphasised by the way in which they are used at different times of day: the church for the eight services, the crypt for private prayer, the cloister for evening recreation. Again the exact rhythm of the abbey follows closely from The Rule, in which St Benedict fearsomely describes the punishments that should be meeted out to any brother who is late for a service or a meal. Life in the abbey is like living in a human clock, the ritual of singing, eating and sleeping marks out the passing of time. These rituals are repeated day after day, week after week, as the monks sing their way through all 150 Psalms every seven days. Part of the function of the community is to mark out God’s time, to mark out the years through which each of the brothers live. The sense of the passing of days is emphasised by the movement of light around the church, the bells that are rung at Laudes and at Vespers, and the graveyard just beyond the cloister.


The chapel at St Benedictusberg, Vaals, Netherlands
The chapel at St Benedictusberg, Vaals, Netherlands













These same three frames of Lanuguage, Space and Time help me understand what my friends are doing at La R.o.n.c.e. For John and Isa the project shifted from a long held dream to a new level of intensity when in January 2012 they finally left London after two decades and moved to live permenantly in Brittany. As we worked on the land, hacking away at 15 years of bramble growth, John would repeatedly remark on how his sense of time had shifted since leaving the city. That the days seemed longer, that activities felt less rushed. He was taking pleasure in slowing down, though there remained a painful daily transition between working in the fields and dealing with the urban world of e-mails at his desk. It seems that what John and Isa are undertaking, along with their colleagues, is building for themselves a new pattern of time, which may become more acute as involvement in the cycles of growing crops takes hold. It is, or would be, the same for anyone who moves from working in the metropolis to farming the land.


The fields at La R.o.n.c.e, Brittany
The fields at La R.o.n.c.e, Brittany

La R.o.n.c.e is being evolved according to the theory of Permaculture. One of the key principles of this theory is that of closely observing what is already living and growing in a field or wood before deciding how to cultivate it. This desire to ‘pay close attention’, close attention to the Earth, is hightened by the fact that as the land was abandoned there is no previous owner who can explain what crops grow best in which field, or which types of trees are in a particular copse. I spent an afternoon with John plotting on a map the Ash, Chestnut, Hazel, Cherry and Oak trees that grow along a field boundary line. The names of the trees and the paces between them, where carefully recorded on the paper. In order for La R.o.n.c.e to thrive, a sense of its own space has to be delineated. This process aids the group in its understanding of the nature of the place to which they are moving, in large part by understanding how others who have lived there before occupied the land.

Drawing up land maps at La R.o.n.c.e, Brittany
Drawing up land maps at La R.o.n.c.e, Brittany

The map that we drew was based on a cadastral chart that shows land divisions that may go back to the Neolithic period – how a track follows the contour of the hill, how a line of boulders planted with Beech marks the edge of a field. Embeded in the land is the story of those who created it, the conversations that must have taken place for the line of the track to be decided upon, or for the boulders to be planted with Beech. The success of La R.o.n.c.e will be assisted by being able to hear that converstion and by understanding that story.

Later that day, John, armed with books and aided by Mathilde, studied the nature of the soil in one of the fields – its loam, at what point it becomes rocky, and how far down the roots of the grasses reach. This ‘matter’ is the substance upon which the farm depends. As he tried to make sense of the meter deep hole that had been dug, he declared that this was his new university. He and his colleagues are learning a whole new vocabulary, an ancient language which for them is a new form of speech. They are like the monks learning Latin on entry into the monastery. This language should be a foundation stone of the shelter that La R.o.n.c.e provides for those that live there.


I had made this journey to these two places in order to get a rest, to get a break from my life in the orbit of London. And it has helped me reflect on the metropolis. Of course there are thousands of different life patterns in my home city of 8 million souls, but the distance has made me more clearly understand how my life, and that of so many of my fellow citizens, is intertwinned with the dynamics of Finance Capitalism.

I am not employed in the Finance Industry, but half my work at Platform is focused on trying to understand it and address it on issues of ecological and social justice. However its rhythms impact on my daily life, and I can see this clearly if I look through the lenses of Language, Time and Space.

In order to engage with the world of finance I have had to study its particular language. I’ve acquired it by closely reading the business press for twenty years, by writing reports on the financial implications of decisions made by the oil & gas corporations, and by dozens of meetings with asset managers and analysts of pension funds, insurance companies and banks. I have slowly come to understand the foundation stones of this language, such as whether an issue is ‘material’ to investors. A company like BP makes a decision to begin a project that has huge ecological implications – for example the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands – but this will not raise serious concerns among investors unless the project stands to impact negatively on the corporation’s profitability, and thus its shareprice. Only if BP’s decision to conduct the project impacts on the share price, will the matter become ‘material’ for the investors. It intrigues me how central this term is to a world which is so distant from the ‘matter’, such as the boreal forests of Alberta, over which is has power. My experience of matter in the soil at La R.o.n.c.e or the light at St Benedictusberg only serves to emphasise how the language of Finance disguises the lack of engagement with matter. (My city refers to itself as having a Materialist culture, and yet it shows little concern for matter.)


Of course much of this language many Londoners acquire just by living in the storm of the metropolitan media. Terms such as ‘credit crunch’, ‘credit rating agency’ or ‘triple A’ float into our consciousness. They signify things which we sense are hugely powerful and yet we only barely understand. These scraps of language are signs of an entire world-view that feels distant from most of us – like the Latin Psalms sung by the monks.

If the evolution of La R.o.n.c.e will be aided by an understanding of the deep past of the land, and the patterns of life in the abbey are delineated by a 1st century ideal, then by contrast the time structure of Finance Capitalism is constantly focused on the future. As John Berger writes: ‘The historic role of Capitalism itself is to destroy history, to sever any link with the past and to orientate all effort and imagination to what is about to occur’. This structure impacts on the patterns of my daily life.

It is a truism to say, as I and most of my colleagues do, that there are not enough hours in the day to complete the tasks that our work demands. These activities are always pushing to extend the working day – requests that insist to be answered urgently, even if they come in the evening. The time I put into my work is constantly being extended in order to deal with the tasks. Of course a sense of being busy is common to all walks of life – even the abbot at St Benedictusberg told me that the previous months had been hectic – but the long hours required of people in the Finance Sector are legendary. Whereas life in the abbey one day, one week, one year will be more or less as it is next day, next week, next year, my life in the city seems to become constantly more hectic. The future is always expanding, and with it the workload. Meanwhile, the defintion of what is ‘work time’ and what is ‘non-work time’ is constantly being altered by technology, and workers are required to be ‘flexible’, or rather available for work at a variety of times of the day and week. The distinctness of Time is being eroded.

In a similar way, Space – or patterns whereby distinct activities take place in distinct spaces – is being eroded. The Net allows for ‘office work’ to be conducted at home, the i-Phone for it to take place on the train or in the street. These are new developments even in the Finance Sector. My father worked as a stockbroker from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, but I never remember him bringing work home and only once did work interupt a holiday. I don’t sense that this was exceptional.

Work underway at La R.o.n.c.e., Brittany
Work underway at La R.o.n.c.e., Brittany



Patrick Leigh Fermor, following his first visit to an abbey, wrote:

‘Only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp the staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead. The two ways of life do not share a single attribute, and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way seem its exact reverse.’

The distance afforded by this journey makes me appreciate how this description could equally be applied to the world in which I live in the metropolis – the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood. Which then is the ‘ordinary life’ – that at the abbey, that at La R.o.n.c.e or that lived within the storm of The City?

It is easy, at times, for me to consider the metropolitan life – my daily routine strongly effected by Finance Capitalism – to be the world, the totality of the world. In this narrative, to live on the land at La R.o.n.c.e is a ‘retreat from the world’, or an abbey such as St Benedictusberg is ‘Medieval…not in the Modern World’. But I travelled through these three different places in a matter of days. They are all co-existing within a few hundred miles of each other in North Western Europe. They are all part of ‘the Modern World’. (At 5.00 am I attended Laudes in St Benedictusberg, in the same moment the birds at La R.o.n.c.e. had started singing, and the Shanghai Stock Exchange had been open for three hours.) However they are fundamentally different in one respect: La R.o.n.c.e and St Benedictusberg are, in essence, non-Industrial and non-Capitalist. They stand in counterpoint to the world of the metropolis, driven by its voracious appetite to acquire resources, to consume, and to grow.

This is not to say, to myself or others, that I should move to La R.o.n.c.e or enter the monastery at St Benedictusberg. These communities attempt to approach their own concept of the ideal, but in several important respects what they represent is not my ideal. The monastery is built on a faith which I do not share. Futhermore it is a community of only men. I do not agree with its segregation and stratification of the world by gender and belief. But I can learn from it and La R.o.n.c.e.

Whilst continuing to live in the whirl of London and tidal Thames valley, I and my colleagues try to diminish the realm of Finance Capitalism and try to find a place that lies beyond the Neoliberal. Perhaps my recent journey will remind me to consider how Language, Time and Space are useful tools in this task?

 Thanks to John Jordan & Isa Fremeux, the brothers at St Benedictusberg & Farzana Khan.

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