Sunday 20 November 2016

Le Mont Saint-Michel

Le Mont Saint-Michel at high tide

On the face of it the subject of this post doesn't have a right to be here because, technically speaking, Albion is not in France and vice versa. Indeed, the Normans are very proud that perfidious Albion never captured le Mont Saint-Michel during the 100 Years War, though it did capture the small island of Tombelaine not far away. But because the Mount with its abbey dedicated to St Michael is such an important Christian pilgrimage site, and because of the link between England and Normandy, I feel it does earn its place on this blog. We must also remember the connection of this part of France with Arthurian legend via Lancelot, and the fact that the original Bretons (le Mont Saint-Michel is right on the border between Brittany and Normandy) were exiles from what is now England, driven out of their home country by Anglo-Saxon invaders.

Le Mont Saint-Michel with Tombelaine to the right at low tide

There are other connections too. Mont Saint-Michel has a twin site in Cornwall in St Michael's Mount, another monastery on an offshore island that's sometimes accessible by foot, with which (quoting from Wikipedia) "it shares the same tidal features and the same conical shape", though St Michael's Mount is much smaller and less imposing than its big brother in France. And Tolkien enthusiasts should note that Minas Tirith, in the Lord of the Rings films, was modelled on le Mont Saint-Michel.

Now for a bit of history.

In the year 708 A.D. the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to the bishop of Avranches, a town in the south west of Normandy, and told him to build a church on a rocky island that lay in the large bay at the mouth of the river Couesnon a few miles away. The story goes that St Michael had to return three times before he was believed and, even then, could only convince the bishop of the truth of the vision by sticking his finger into the bishop's head! The poor man's skull, complete with hole, still exists for all to view in the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches. So the church was built, and in the 11th century a Romanesque abbey was constructed with Gothic style refectory and cloisters added 200 years later. Further buildings were completed in the ensuing centuries until in 1895 a statue of St Michael himself, dragon underfoot, was put at the top of the spire giving it its current appearance. Inevitably at the time of the French Revolution the island and its buildings were converted into a prison but that was closed in 1863. Monks began to return in the 20th century and now there is a small community of monks and nuns living there continuing the tradition of prayer and worship.

Le Mont Saint-Michel in the middle distance viewed from the hilltop town of Avranches

Whether by accident or design le Mont Saint-Michel is a microcosm of the medieval world or ideal Christian society. At the top there stands, representing God, the Archangel Saint Michael protecting the monastery founded in his name. Then comes the Benedictine abbey and monastery where the monks lived their lives in prayer to the Creator. Below there are the halls for noble guests (the aristocracy) and then shops, houses and, outside the walls, dwellings for those that did the more menial work required to keep the whole place running. Even today when you visit the Mount, as around three million people do every year, you have the feeling of ascending through the world towards God. You enter by a large gate with a 15th century captured English cannon to your right. There is a bustling, noisy crowd with shops selling tourist knickknacks and lots of restaurants. As you climb the winding path that leads to the top the crowd seems to thin out slightly. The climb becomes a little more difficult, the steps steeper, and eventually you leave the commercial world behind and stand in front of the abbey doors. Up you go to a large platform outside the main church from where there is a magnificent view of the bay which on a clear day is a truly glorious sight. Then you enter and immediately you are in a different world in which the mundane is left behind and the sacred is all important. It is quiet, even with a still fairly substantial number of people walking about, and the vaulted columns of the choir lift one's spirits heavenwards.

And now a speculative suggestion.

The patron saint of England is St George who was a Roman soldier of Greek origin born in Palestine, a strange choice for a national hero you might think. However Edward III adopted him for his courage in combating adversity and as an example of the triumph of good over evil, demonstrated by his killing of the dragon. Now the only other saintly dragon killer I am aware of is St Michael who crushed Satan and threw him down to earth after the great rebellion in heaven. So I am led to wonder whether St George is actually a human representative of the archangel and whether England might not, in some way, be also under the patronage of St Michael. Of course, many other places would be too but Michael was apparently the most popular saint in medieval England after St Peter, and before the Reformation many churches were dedicated to him, often on hilltops such as the one on Glastonbury Tor. This is pure speculation, I admit, but the idea that certain places have angelic protectors is well known in esoteric teachings and if that is the case then why not nations too?

St Michael fighting the dragon above le Mont Saint-Michel
Here are some of the titles that St Michael is regarded as holding. The first is a translation of his actual name

  I. Who is like unto God.
  2. Recorder of the deeds of men in the Heavenly Books.
  3. The Celestial Medium through whom the Law was given.
  4. Captain of the Heavenly Hosts.
  5. Slayer of the dragon of evil intention.
  6. Guardian of the Holy Sanctuaries.
  7. Preparer of the Way before each Messenger from God.
  8. Leader of the Church Triumphant in Heaven and Militant on Earth.

From these titles we can see that St Michael is not someone to be trifled with. He is a warrior and it seems to me that we need his assistance in fighting evil now more than ever. It is a good time to remind ourselves of his continued presence as God's strong right arm.


Bruce Charlton said...

John Michel was a proponent/ discoverer/ inventor of the St Michael Ley Line, which gives a special role to St Michael in Britain:

John Fitzgerald said...

That's a really thought-provoking and stimulating post, William. Thank you. I was wondering while I was reading if you have any thoughts concerning Shambhala? It worked powerfully on Rene Guenon's imagination and inspired some wonderful art by Nicholas Roerich - this idea of a supreme apiritual centre, in or near Tibet, that has become hidden in these times of spiritual darkness but which will reappear at the appointed hour. I mention it in the context of this post because I've heard it mooted that there exists a network of tunnels - whether physical or spiritual, I'm not sure - between Shambhala and other sacred sites around the world, Mont St Michel being a leading example.

Thanks again and best wishes,


John Fitzgerald said...

I should also add that my wife and I visited St Michael's Mount in Cirnwall in 2013 and found the chapel at the top of the hill a place of real serenity, timelessness and peace. The veil between the world's felt very thin there.

William Wildblood said...

I've heard of Shambhala, John, from Guenon and it's mentioned quite a lot in the Theosophist Alice Bailey's books too. I see it as a sort of symbolic ideal of a place where the heavenly powers preserve a hidden base on Earth, maintaining a physical presence here. I don't know any more than that. If there are tunnels they'd have to be pretty long ones!

I used to live in Avranches which is what gave me the idea for this post. There was once a Gothic cathedral there but it was completely destroyed at the Revolution. It's interesting from the Albion point of view since it was at this cathedral that Henry II did penance, barefoot and wearing just a shirt, for the murder of Thomas a Becket