Dominic Bellenger finds an overlooked pilgrimage spot tucked away near the fleshpots of Cannes
CANNES is not one of the most obvious stops for the pilgrim to Christian France. Indeed — with its chic casinos and smart "night life" — it might appear a place that any serious pilgrim should avoid. Yet, in reality, it is worth a detour; Cannes is neighbour to one of the cradles of Western Christianity.
Many people — not all of them realising their history — take the boat from Cannes to the islands of the Lerins. It is a pleasant trip; the Mediterranean appears cleaner than it is, and the beautiful setting of Cannes can best be appreciated from the sea.
The two larger islands are Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat. Sainte Marguerite, the closer of the two to the mainland, is famous as the place of confinement of 'The Man in the Iron Mask'; Saint Honorat, itself no more than two miles from Cannes, is still known to some as 'the Isle of the Saints'.
Christianity, in the so-called 'Dark Ages' survived in remote, island hide-aways like Lifts, and Christian monasicism has flourished there with only brief breaks, since the beginning of the fifth century. The history of monastic life on the island can be divided roughly into four periods.
The first is from its foundation until the end of the seventh century: Lerins"golden age'.
The second is from the abbacy of Porcarius II to the establishment of the office of absentee abbot-commendatory; this covers the Saracen invasion and a period of great worldly prosperity.
The third is the time of decay which reached its nadir with the secularisation of the island in 1788.
The fourth, the present period, has witnessed a revival of monastic life in the Cistercian abbey, and in the small religious sisterhood which now flourishes on Saint Honorat.
In its golden age, monks from Lerins travelled throughout Europe, `Lerins', a contemporary abbot wrote, 'is like a vine whose branches have overspread the world, her temples have been multiplied, and her colonies have been more numerous than those of any other monastery'.
Honoratus, founder of the monastery-isle and later bishop of Arles, Cassarius, also bishop of Arles, and Vincent of Lerins, the theologian, are among the great saints of the island, but perhaps the best known names associated with the place are John Cassian, the great monastic legislator, and Patrick, the elusive apostle of Ireland, who is said to have spent some time of pleasant sojourn at Lerins.
The island today retains various physical remnants of its golden age. There are a number of chapels— dedicated among others to St Honoratus, the Trinity and the Transfiguration — primitive constructions, difficult to date, which may be among the oldest Christian buildings in France.
They retain a quiet, religious dignity which in enhanced by the sea and the sylvan setting. The cloister of the present monastery — dark and
gloomy as it is — may also date from this period.
The most memorable building on the island is, perhaps, the fortified monastery constructed on the sea shore for the defence of the island against the Saracens during the Middle Ages. It was commenced in the eleventh century, partly on Roman foundations, and was completed in its present form by about 1400. The interior, in contrast to the stark exterior, has a beautifully light Gothic cloister on two levels which retains a great atmosphere of serenity.
The modern abbey church and monastery buildings are in a somewhat ponderous style; they were begun in the 1870's, not the most pleasing date in French ecclesiastical architecture; but they do not detract from the simplicity of the place as a whole, and are a living reminder of the island's past. At night time, in particular, the island, freed from tourists, returns to its ancient monastic calm. The island remains what it has always been, a sanctuary of peace in a troubled world.