Some historic buildings, however important or unique, are dry and sterile. They have the history but not the heart. Others, although their original inhabitants may be centuries gone, are redolent with the presence of the past. Le Thoronet Abbey near Lorgues in Provence, France, still resonates with the spirituality of the Cistercian monks who built it between 1160 and 1230, part of their rebellion against what they saw as the ecclesiastical excess of the other monastic orders. What they achieved with their simplicity of form and structure is as powerful as any elaborate architectural flourishes and gilded adornments. It reflects the order’s philosophy that their time should be spent in two activities: work and prayer.
The Abbey is hidden in a hilly, densely wooded area, which is classified as an official historic site. Entry is through a large, imposing gatehouse, past the remains of the guesthouse, up steps through landscaped courtyards and finally to the actual Abbey proper. The whole complex was constructed at the same time fulfilling the Rule of St Benedict that all the areas for normal work and functions should be an autonomous city. The result is that Le Thoronet has a simple but very elegant and functional flow specifically attuned to the monks’ life. The laymen, who managed the business of the Abbey, were