2014-10-01 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

An unexpected crush, and it’s time to leave the village

artis HENDERSON

Yesterday, I spoke with a friend back home in the states.

“And how’s France?” he asked once we’d caught me up on all the gossip.

“It’s fantastic,” I said and went through my list, ticking off all the excitement that’s happened in the village since we’d last spoken: the boar the hunters shot, Mr. Garcia’s 10-pound zucchini, the community rummage sale and all the junk on display. Finally, I reached the highlight of the week.

“And yesterday I went to Mass.”

“Oh yeah?” my friend said. “How was it?”

“Really cool.”

“Really cool? Was there a laser light show?”

“No, but there was incense and chanting and … Wait. Are you pulling my leg?”

My friend laughed. “You know you’ve been in the woods too long when Mass is ‘really cool.’”

He had a point. I’ve been living in this remote mountain village in the southwestern part of France since the beginning of July, and the truth is there’s not a lot going on. With only 50-odd residents, and most of them over 65, things have been a little slow. But the Mass really was cool.

For starters, it was in an abbey. An actual, real-live abbey, with monks and everything. It had incense and Gregorian chants and a big stained glass window with golden light pouring through. And did I mention the monks? Maybe 25 of them, ranging in age from 18 all the way up to the retirement years. Many of them wore glasses of the wire-framed variety that gave them a studious, contemplative air. They had on the same white robes, very dignified looking, and the younger ones all possessed these lean, bony frames that gave them an air of cerebral intensity.

Before the service, I took a seat in an empty pew and one of the young monks leaned down to ask if I would like him to loan me a missal.

“Perhaps,” he said, “you’re not familiar with the Catholic service?”

I shook my head shyly. “No.”

He smiled a warm, genuine smile and then returned a few minutes later with a black-bound book printed in English. With great care, he showed me the pages that would be covered during the service. Everything about him spoke of patience and gentleness, with an undercurrent of erudition, and I was surprised to find myself swooning. All through the Mass, I thought about this kind stranger.

Toward the end of the service, after we’d sung the Kyrie Eleison and passed the collection plate, when I’d gone down on my knees and stood up again so many times that my back was starting to give out, I caught myself thinking that maybe I should convert to Catholicism. In the space of that hour and a half, I liked to think I had become enamored by the beauty of it, the pageantry and the mystery, the time and space for quiet reflection.

But who was I kidding? I was enchanted by those monks.

My friend was right: I’ve been in the woods too long. I need to get out of this village and back to the world, where at least I can fall for someone who hasn’t taken a vow of chastity. ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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