Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Abbey in the Ocean

The creation of Mont St Michel

In 708 the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, and commanded him to build a chapel on the top of Mont Tombe, a rocky island in the middle of an immense bay. Overawed by this apparition, Aubert obeyed and built a sanctuary to the glory of God and Archangel Michael.

I had seen pictures of Mont St Michel but nothing prepared me for the actual sight.  As we drove from Ducey towards the historic Abbey, we could see the imposing fortress rising from the haze and mist, guiding us like a beacon as we traveled west.  It seemed to move and shimmer among the clouds, its tall spires reaching heavenward, pointing to the sky and declaring it as a holy place.  As we traveled comfortably and quickly in our little French rental car I thought of the pilgrims that had journeyed to this site throughout the last 1200 years, crossing the barren land on foot, horseback and perhaps even in a rough cart, anxious to pray with the monks and touch these holy rocks.  Their journey may have taken weeks and perhaps months and often at a great toll of personal health and loss.  

The Abbey was built on a rock island in the ocean and the rising tides created a natural wall of defense for the fortress.  People could cross the soft wet sand of the ocean bottom during low tide but when the tide came in at the end of each day, those who did not belong on the island had to be off and gone or the rising saltwater would obstruct their path back to the main land.  Today there is a modern raised road that allows tourists to drive to the base of the rock island and park but one must still be aware of the tide and at times, even this raised road has been known to flood causing cars to be swept away.

As we drove towards the monument we passed through flat pastoral lands, rich with grazing sheep.  Jim navigated us deftly through this countryside at dusk and as we rounded a final corner on our journey, he was forced to put on the brakes and pull over.  There, in front of us, a shepherd was driving his sheep back from their day in the pasture and across the road that we were traveling to gather safely into their barn for the night.  We all leaned forward and lowered our windows, craning our necks to see what was happening.  The sights and sounds that we witnessed during this unplanned stop was utterly amazing.  We heard the soft bleating of the sheep and barking of the herd dogs, nipping at their heels to keep them moving.  Bells tied around the sheep's throats tinkled softly in the twilight air and the shepherd was calling to his dogs and encouraging the sheep forward.  He raised his hand in a silent wave of acknowledgement to us as we parked off the side of the road to watch his evening ritual and as though in a trance, we raised our hands in return, symbolically thanking him for allowing us this unique experience.

 All of this was a spectacular sight, but the backdrop was what made this vision truly surreal - for rising above the field and framing the shepherd and his sheep was the fortress of Mont St Michel.  Tom and Jan quickly reached for their cameras and began snapping pictures but I could only stare, burning the image deep into my mind and marveling that I was truly sitting here, beside the road, watching the sheep cross in front of me with the abbey behind them, on their way home from their day of peaceful grazing.

When the sheep had safely crossed we looked at each other in amazement.  Tom said, "I feel as though I am seeing a mirage - there is nothing out here except for this amazing abbey rising from the ocean and a few grazing sheep.  It's truly amazing."  We all agreed with Tom's observation and when I looked back towards Mont St Michel I could see tiny flickers of light beginning to burn, illuminating the impressive rock the as the sun set in the clouds behind it.

We toured Mont St Michel in the lamplight, picturing how life must have been so many years ago.  The abbey had been built by Monks transferring large granite stones from the mainland to this island, carefully crafting this amazing structure.  It took several hundred years to construct and the small village at its base housed the supporting community, comprised of tradesmen and crafters who sold their wares to the sequestered monks and supplied the traveling pilgrims as they made their journey to the sacred site.   As we drove away that evening we were in awe of the men that built this monument.  Their fortitude, vision and dedication to the construction of this holy site is beyond anything I could comprehend happening today, and I was truly honored to have walked these sacred rocks.

Travel Tip:  Always take time to learn the history of sights on your itinerary.  It will bring the reality of the place home to you when you visit, allowing you to consider how the sight contributed to the formation of the people and the area.

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