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G - 14 : St Honorat - 1st Monastery in Europe

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Half an hour from glamorous Cannes where movie stars flock once a year to the annual film festival lies the small island of Saint-Honorat. In summer time, it is surrounded by leisure boats from the nearby coast. You hear the screaming of children jumping into the water. During winter time it is much calmer though - peaceful as it was for centuries. Occasionally, a little ferry from Cannes interrupts the silence. Even in winter, a few people come to visit.

The Abbey of Lérins on Saint-Honorate is Western Europe's oldest Monastery


Almost no visitor associates Saint-Honorat with the start of the monastic tradition in Europe. It was Western Europe’s first monastery. Usually Monte Casino, the Benedict Abbey in Italy, gets the credit. But Monte Casino was founded in 529 AD whilst the Abbey of Lérins dates back to 410 AD. Its founder, Honoratus, gave the deserted island his name. He later became bishop of Arles, the largest Roman town in the Rhone delta. For centuries, the Lérins Monastery was a nursery for future bishops and important ecclesiastical leaders.

The other Monasteries in Western Europe all date from the 6th Century


The establishment of the Abbey of Lérin followed a pattern we recognize from earlier monasteries in Egypt and Syria. Lérins’ founder, Honoratus, and his brother Venantius were on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when Venantius unexpectedly died in Greece. Herodotus had to abort the pilgrimage and return to Gaul. Heartbroken, he settled as hermit on the 2nd largest Lérins islands, an uninhabited rock. The vineyards, fields and orchards we admire today are the result of centuries of work by generations of monks.

A Church painting of Saint Simeon on his Pillar where he stayed for 33 full Years


Hermits are not a Christian invention. We find them in other religions as well. The Old Testament is full of hermit stories. Hermits desire to live alone to worship God without distraction. The word monastic is actually Greek and means living alone. The earliest monks also believed that suffering was essential to focus the mind. They deprived themselves of all luxuries, fasted for long periods and stayed up all night for praying. Some whipped and tortured themselves. One of the earliest monks, Saint Simeon, is said to have lived on top of a pillar for 33 years where there was no room to lie down. His food was lifted in a basket

The Abbey of Lérins is situated in a lush garden which sustains the Monastery - to the right the defensive Tower where Monks retreated during Saracen Attacks


But even hermits need to occasionally eat and drink and cannot live from praying alone. Over time, hermit clusters formed who cooperated to make a living. They engaged in agriculture or made goods they could exchange for food. A century later, these clusters morphed into permanent structures. The Carthusian order still preserves this way of living. Monks and nuns spend their day alone. They only meet to eat and for communal prayers.


Saint Honoratus to the left in the Basilica in Arles


Honoratus was soon joined by other eremites on his island and accepted some as his disciples. They came from the Western part of the Roman Empire where Christianity had just taken roots. Often, they came to learn. Apparently, Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint studied here. We do not know what library Honoratus had but it is safe to assume that he owned a copy of the bible codified a hundred years earlier under Emperor Constantine. There were only 50 copies in circulation and one of the monks' task was to produce more copies. Within less than ten years, Honoratus’ settlement became an informal monastery. When he left to become bishop of Arles in 426 AD, the monks appointed Maximus as his successor – he was the monastery’s first abbot.

The Monastery as seen from the Defensive Tower on the Beach


From the island of Saint-Honorat, the monastic idea spread all over Europe. Monasteries would eventually become Europe’s largest landowner. They were also the place where Greek and Roman culture "hibernated" during the dark hours of the middle ages. If you read Umberto Ecco’s novel “In the name of the Rose” you get the idea.

After Centuries of Cultivation, the Island is now a Paradise. These Rocks on the northern Shore give an Idea how it must have looked when Saint Honoratus settled here


The Abbey of Lérins is still an active monastery. There are currently 21 monks living here looking after the island, making food and wine, as did their predecessors for centuries. The visiting hours are limited to preserve the peace of the site. There is now a little hotel though if you wish to stay overnight. During the years of the Saracen raids, the monastery was fortified. The defensive tower where monks took refuge during attacks "decorates" the southern shore and is probably the most photographed item on Côte d'Azur. The island of Saint-Honorat is definitely worth a stop this summer.

The old defensive Tower has recently been restored

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