Copyright 2014 by Jack A. Urquhart
October 22, 2014, Normandie, France: I can’t say for certain why I’ve longed to visit Le Mont Saint-Michel since I first saw its photo in a high school text-book decades ago. Probably it has to do with Le Mont’s architecture, its art, and the mind-boggling beauty of its location — all that and the fact that it looks like something out of a fairytale. Maybe I’ve felt driven to make this pilgrimage in order to verify that the place is real? And indeed, from this distance, Le Mont Saint-Michel, crowned by its Romanesque abbey spires, looks more like a mirage, like an impossibly elaborate wedding cake shimmering on the horizon. A feast for the eyes, it beckons to us — Raymond, Véronique, and myself — from a distance of one or two kilometers across bucolic fields of golden-brown unharvested corn.
We’ve stopped for a photo-op at Huisnes-sur-Mer, each of us excited by this first glimpse of Le Mont. And ‘though we’ve been warned to expect an extravaganza of crass commercialism once we set foot on the island (all of the business establishments, we’re told, are controlled by two or three families), from here Le Mont Saint-Michel looks pristine, ageless, uncorrupted by the modern world.
Half an hour later, crowded onto one of the modern shuttle buses that ferry visitors out to the Mont, the mirage begins to falter a bit. But not our excitement, and certainly not the wonder of this place.
A majestic granite mountain covering 247 acres, and soaring to a height of over 300 feet above sea level, Le Mont Saint-Michel has, for centuries, survived the forces of man and nature — forces that over time have eroded and erased its long ago connection to the mainland. It is perhaps ironic, then, that this sanctuary, unvanquished by time and tides — as well as conquering armies until WWII — has in just the last three-quarters of a century surrendered to a seemingly invincible force: capitalism à la française.
Everything we’ve been told about the island’s tourist-trap commercial center is true. As soon as we enter Le Mont via the Tour de Roi, we find ourselves in tchotchke land central. Want an “I Love NYC” tee-shirt? You can find it here. How about a Tour Eiffel key chain or a made-in-China tote bag bearing a representation of heaven’s head herald, the Archangel Michael, who early in the eighth century supposedly ordered a bishop to erect an oratory on the Mont. Name your souvenir and the local merchants will probably have it in stock.
And so what.
After all it’s not the shops (‘though doubtless they contribute to the maintenance of this wonder in rock and stone) that draw we three here. Hardly that (‘though I succumb to the commercial siren song long enough to purchase a red baseball cap emblazoned with a MS-M logo). Rather, it’s the abbey crowning this place that inspires us up and up and away from the clamorous tourist center at Le Mont’s lower levels. It’s the abbey that draws us ever higher via a warren of cobbled streets, that has us stumbling up countless steps made for tiny feet — apparently none of the early monks had clodhoppers like mine — until finally the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel towers immediately above us.
A fast-moving queue, and 27 € later (the entrance fee for three adults) and we are inside the Abbaye and on our self-guided way.
For the next two hours we wander through countless chambers, their emptiness exaggerated by the heavy Gothic granite architecture. Near the summit, the church — which like much of Le Mont, is undergoing restoration — features soaring vaults and stained glass and hundreds of tourists (like us). Nearby, the improbability of lush cloistered gardens atop 250 feet or so of solid rock is a surprise. But I’ll confess that the biggest eye opener of the tour for me is waiting in the Abbaye’s Romanesque bowels. There, a hundred feet or so above foundation level, we encounter an enormous tread wheel, like a giant hamster toy; only this is no vehicle of amusement. Rather, I learn that monks once trod the wheel five and six at a time like work horses set to the task of raising two-ton granite building blocks from the landing platform far below. And though the monk’s accomplishments at the great wheel are an astonishing feat, their efforts on the tread wheel lose a bit of thunder once one considers that those two-ton building blocks made it to Le Mont from across a kilometer of tidal mudflats in the absence of a causeway — brought there by brute force and stubborn, undaunted human will.
Such is the power of an Archangel’s commandment, some might say — that men can be driven, inspired to undertake and carry out such arduous tasks; such is the power of man’s faith in the infallibility of ‘God’s will,’ one often hears.
But for this agnostic, the undeniable existence of Le Mont Saint-Michel is enough to renew and revive, at least temporarily, my faith — my faith in mankind, that is; my faith in our addiction and devotion to beauty and its creation; to beauty that lasts, and that lifts and inspires the spirit. I can’t help but believe that this yearning, this drive to experience exaltation right here on earth in architecture, in art, in storytelling — this very human desire to achieve transcendence by creating magnificence in the midst of so much man-made imperfection and suffering — can be as powerful, as meaningful, and as comforting as any faith in the godliness of angelic hosts in a heaven on high.
So it seems I’ve crossed decades and continents and oceans to arrive again at this conclusion, for it certainly isn’t a new one; and to set foot at last on this tacky, touristy, beautiful, magical, contradictory island. But what else, save a juxtaposition of the crass and the sublime, should one expect to find in such a very real human-inhabited place?