Sable-Sur-Sarthe, France -- I have never been terribly spiritual, but when one of the students at the French language school I am attending suggests a weekend trip to listen to some authentic Gregorian chanting by monks, I'm the first to sign up.
On the appointed weekend, four of us take a train to the northwestern town of Sable-sur-Sarthe, 250 kilometres west of Paris and then a peaceful 3-kilometre walk to the village of Solesmes (pronounced sew lem ), past grassy meadows and grazing cows.
The village is no more than one street occupied by a small épicerie (grocery store), a patisserie and a boulangerie. The woman who suggested the outing arranged for us to stay in a small house run by the local nuns for female "pilgrims." It's free or you can give as you like. The monks at Solesmes apparently run a similar service for men.
We decide to visit the austere but impressive abbey beside the river Sarthe. It will be our introduction to the history of the chant and, besides, what are we to do on a Saturday afternoon in the village?
Founded in the 11th century, the abbey has been rebuilt and renovated a number of times. Visitors are only allowed into the small church and museum, not the abbey itself.
The church's interior carved stonework gives me the feeling of an eerie dream world of laughing faces and mischievous creatures. A one-room museum displays ancient manuscripts, including the first-ever piece of written music square notes dancing on a four-line grid with Latin verse underneath.
I discover that the Gregorian chant is a melodic ritual song, possibly influenced by the music of the Jewish synagogue. During the sixth century, Pope Gregory instituted a standard melody that was followed until the Middle Ages, when it lost its form.
Around the 19th century, the monks at Solesmes began collecting and transcribing Gregorian chants and restoring their original melody. In 1903, Pope Pius X entrusted these monks with preparing the official Vatican version of the chant.
In the early 1990s, the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain reawoke interest in Gregorian chant through a CD that sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. If it weren't for the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, the Spanish monks might have hummed a different tune.
Armed with new knowledge, I am keen for Sunday morning's service.
After a quick breakfast of croissants and hot chocolate, we enter the cold, grey church where, as in a scene from a movie, shafts of morning light pierce the gloom.
The monks file in quickly and quietly, their brown hoods over their heads. More than 50 assemble, facing each other in rows of three. They lower their hoods and you can see how different they all look: fat, skinny, short, tall and all nationalities.
They begin chanting.
The profane gathering of churchgoers and sightseers is separated from the sacred ground of the monks by a low wooden railing. I close my eyes as the low, rhythmic hum fills the church's gothic crevices. The soothing sound and repetition lull me into a serene state. The chanting lasts almost an hour.
Their mantra murmurings are transformative. I feel humbled by the sight of these monks and their stripped-down spirituality answering God's call with their voices.
Sitting down to a picnic afterwards, we exchange our feelings about the performance and munch on bread and butter. It is utterly the best bread I have ever tasted; no bread has ever tasted as good since then. It is at Solesmes that I realize what a perfect day is.