This morning we arrived at Leffe Abbey in beautiful Dinant for 10:30 Mass. Mass was held in an intimate stone chapel on the grounds, because the abbey church is undergoing restoration. (see photos)
Frankly, it’s a minor miracle that there is even anything here to restore.
The abbey was founded in 1240. In 1400, the Plague swept the area, claiming the lives of the abbot and many members of the order.
Then, in 1460, the abbey was all but destroyed by a devastating flood. Just six years later, a fire set by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy all but finished the job the flood began.
Rebuilt yet again, the abbey was severely damaged by occupying troops in the early 18th century. Finally, during the French Revolution, the abbey was looted, the Norbertines were driven into exile, and the state took over the abbey.
It wasn’t until 1902 that the Norbertines were able to return.
The French Revolution had claimed more than the Norbertines’ ancient home; it also brought the destruction of Leffe’s centuries-old brewery.
In 1952, though, Abbot Nys, seeking to address the abbey’s financial difficulties, approached a local brewer about reviving the abbey’s cherished beer recipes. A partnership was forged, and today, Leffe is one of the most popular of the Belgian abbey beers. We shared a glass this afternoon with the current abbot, Bruno DeMoulin, O.Praem. – a personable and gracious host (and a very funny man).
As we later toured the grounds, we were taken past a beautiful garden in the abbey square. Even this lovely place, though, provided a grim reminder of the abbey’s difficult past: In 1914, German forces massacred 43 men here, all Leffe citizens.
I was thinking about Abbot DeMoulin’s hospitality on the way out of town today. Even in a place as poorly treated by man and nature as Leffe Abbey has been through the ages, this Norbertine virtue shines through. While I’ve been impressed with the sights we’ve seen in our first week, this fact impresses me even more.
After a long bus ride marked by a few wrong turns, we arrived at Laon, France, late today. Tomorrow’s highlight will be a tour of Prémontré Abbey … the site where St. Norbert founded his order nearly 900 years ago.
We stayed in Dinant, Belgium, a small town of roughly 10 thousand people. The photos above showcase its beauty and uniqueness.
Another wonderful day spent with the Norbertine community! We left Brussels bright and early this morning and made the hour-and-a-half drive to the village of Averbode, home to the abbey of the same name.
Like the abbeys we’ve visited previously, Averbode has ancient roots; it was founded in 1135. The oldest remaining portion is the gatehouse, built at the end of the 14th century. The original church, and a large portion of the abbey, were destroyed in a lightning strike and subsequent fire in 1499.
Of the abbey’s newer structures (if centuries-old ones can be called that!) there are two 17th-century buildings that especially impressed me. One is a charming old wash house where the abbey’s laundry is done. It is completely original and dates to 1623. (see photo)
Even more striking is the abbey’s Baroque church, completed in 1672. The graceful curves of its entrance reminded me of the buildings in Brussels’ Grand Place. Those were home to businesses and guilds, however, while this was built for entirely different purposes.
Which is not to say that the Norbertines don’t have business on their minds at least part of the time. Virtually all abbeys have undertaken various enterprises to support themselves through the centuries. Many (like the ones we visited in Tongerlo and Grimbergen) became renowned brewers; others established bakeries, or made cheese.
Averbode, beginning in the 19th century, distinguished itself as a printer. That business thrived for over 100 years, until just before the turn of this century, when modern technologies flexed their muscles and the printing business was sold.
As we toured the rest of the abbey, I was especially moved by a walk down the cloister hallways, so rich with the history of the place. Portraits of past abbots line the walls, a reminder to me of how enduring faith is. There is even history underfoot; tiled crosses inset into the floors mark the burial places of abbey Norbertines from centuries long past. You do feel part of something very ancient and sacred.
But this place is not only about the past. The Norbertine heritage is alive and well today, and all signs are that it will be tomorrow: our tour guide, Philip, is a Norbertine novice who will enter the priesthood in August.
After our trip to Averbode, we made our way to the beautiful city of Dinant, from which we will set out tomorrow for Leffe Abbey.
Brussels has been on edge this week. Police cars have been speeding up and down the streets, and helicopters have been hovering overhead.
The city is hosting the European Union (EU) summit, and leaders from 27 nations are here to participate. Those in charge of protecting the city are on high alert.
But we headed for a more tranquil setting today – Grimbergen, a quiet town of 30,000 about a 45-minute drive from the city. (Actually, today was perhaps less quiet than usual: It was the last day of classes for the town’s Catholic schools, and students and teachers were celebrating.)
Our destination was Grimbergen Abbey, situated on a hill above the town. Founded in 1128, it is the oldest working abbey founded by the Norbertines. (Slightly older than Tongerlo Abbey, which we visited yesterday, and far older than our tour guide (see photo), one of 15 Norbertines who call the abbey home.)
The highlight of our tour was the abbey’s church. A modest-looking structure from the outside, its Baroque interior is jaw-dropping. Built from 1660-1701, it features a magnificent vaulted ceiling, soaring pillars and intricately carved statues. It’s humbling to think how much skill and talent were required to create such a masterpiece in an age that lacked so many of the tools we use today.
Masterpieces of another kind are also on display in the church: Old Masters paintings grace its walls, many depicting the life of St. Norbert.
A tour of the rest of the abbey’s buildings and grounds followed, and then we were treated to a lunch hosted by Grimbergen’s abbot, Erik DeSutter, O.Praem.
Norbertine abbeys are scattered throughout the world, but they are by no means isolated from one another. In fact, every six years, delegates from all the Norbertine abbeys, priories and houses gather for a General Chapter meeting, where they converse, consider proposals and assess their common life. (This year, the General Chapter is being held at the abbey in De Pere for just the second time.)
In that light, it is unsurprising – but still delightful – to see Norbertines who have accompanied us on our trip reunite with their fellows in these far-flung places – as abbot emeritus Thomas DeWane, O.Praem., of St. Norbert Abbey was able to do today with old friend Peter Wagenaar, O.Praem., abbot emeritus of Grimbergen Abbey. (see photo)
We returned to Brussels in the afternoon. Tonight will be our last here; after a visit to Averbode Abbey tomorrow, we will embark for the city of Dinant, south of Brussels in the Walloon Region of Belgium.