First you hear muffled footsteps. Then a discreet cough. Moments later, the black-robed monks begin intoning the service that they are broadcasting to the world. In Latin. Forget the Singing Nun. The Benedictine monks of Le Barroux Abbey in the Vaucluse region of south-eastern France don't have a hit record but they do know about podcasts and streaming.
They have taken the unusual step of distributing their religious offices on the internet. The idea came from worshippers from outside the monastery, known as oblates, who wanted to feel connected to the abbey's spiritual life, says Abbot Dom Louis-Marie. "So we looked into broadcasting via the internet. We decided to do it because it didn't involve any extra work for us."
The monks began by podcasting the Prime, the second office of the day, then over the past year or so added others so that the list of services is almost complete. "We've not yet done a Mass, but that may come," said Dom Louis-Marie. "People began writing emails to thank us," he said. "They are so happy they can pray with us. They feel that they are at the abbey." How many of the faithful are downloading the offices? "We don't know exactly. Probably between 150 and 200. Obviously the fact that it's in Latin reduces the number," he said.
Benedictine monasteries in France were destroyed during the French revolution, and the abbey at Le Barroux was founded as recently as 1980. In 1970, a monk called Dom Gérard stopped his moped at the chapel of St Mary Magdalen to fulfil his vows. The next day, a young man showed up and asked to become a monk, but was turned away by Dom Gérard, who said there was no community to join. Eventually their little circle expanded until, with help from the Vatican, the monks purchased the land for the abbey in the hills near the Mont Ventoux. Now, 56 monks live at the abbey, in a building originally built for 40.
As they outgrew the original building, the community launched a new "foundation" or monastery, which now houses 11 monks. Its chapel, completed in 2006, is a former sheepfold. The new monastery, Sainte Marie de la Garde, "now needs to mature," says the abbot. "It's worse than giving birth." The order raised money from donations and by selling goods such as leather sandals and olive oil.
The abbey also welcomes people for spiritual retreats, during which they can attend the liturgical offices. In 2010, the monks invited film cameras inside for a documentary, Veilleurs dans la nuit (Night watchmen) which chronicles a typical day. The first of the religious offices that punctuate their days takes place at 3.30am.
The monks come from a diverse background. In the film, one young man describes himself as "a son of the May '68 revolution" and a former hippy, while another says that the monastery is like "a different planet" compared to his "youthful intoxication". They are shown working in the vineyards, baking bread and singing Gregorian chants in the church.
"Often people say to us, you serve no purpose. Why do you spend your time singing to God for five or six hours?" says a monk over images of hooded Benedictines. "But that's the best compliment anyone could pay us. It's true that there's no point … but we serve somebody, we serve God."