A visit to Mont Saint Michel
By Brian K. McGreevy
To feel the art of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres we have got to become pilgrims again. — Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904)
We are living in a secular age, and those who measure such things tell us that religion is in decline in many places. However, one can also make the case that spiritual hunger has never been stronger, as people search for meaning and truth and beauty in a world that seems to not have much on offer in those regards, as our lives are increasingly circumscribed by work, social media and entertainment. Perhaps the greatest exemplar in many people’s minds of a modern secular state is France, where religious practice seems to have largely disappeared from the public square.
How does one then explain the mysterious allure of Mont Saint Michel, an ancient sacred site that is essentially a large medieval abbey church and its dependencies, which is one of the most visited sites in France, and where many of those visitors are French? This month I experienced firsthand the spiritual wonder of Mont Saint Michel in a way that rocked many of my presuppositions.
Mont Saint Michel is certainly one of the most spectacular sites in the world, an ecclesiastical castle high on a mount in the middle of a huge and picturesque bay opening off the Atlantic Ocean. When I joined the thousands and thousands of tourists making the arduous journey up and up through the narrow streets to the abbey on the top of the Mont, I was struck by how many of the visitors were French. I figured the architecture, and the scenic location were the big draw, and looked forward to when the day trippers would depart and leave the beautiful presqu’ile to those of us “in the know” who had booked lodging to stay on the Mont that night. I was particularly anticipating the choral vespers service sung by the monks and nuns at 6:30 that evening, a service I had experienced before with awe and wonder.
Mont Saint Michel has had a Christian community in residence off and on since the sixth century, and the present abbey dates from the 1000s, with a gorgeous Gothic choir built in the 1400s. Set at the very top of the Mont, the abbey church is magnificent, not only with its huge windows letting light pour in, but also with its stunning acoustics, particularly for chant, which lingers and lingers bouncing around the stone arches.
As I climbed back up the Mont around six that evening, I was very surprised to see a large crowd of several hundred, mostly French, waiting for the nun to lead us up the many, many steps into the abbey for choral vespers. I cynically thought that these were people who had been too cheap to pay the steep admission price earlier and were using the service as a way to get into the abbey for free.
As we trudged up the steps behind the nun, I noticed that there were not only many older people, but also families with children. Perhaps most surprisingly, there were groups of teenagers on their own, many of whom wore matching badges. I thought that having this large number of people was going to ruin the worship experience for me, as I figured they would be noisy and not paying attention, and that the silent parts of the service would be filled with a cacophony of crowd sounds instead.
Lord, forgive me for my judgmental attitude. As we entered the back of the abbey and saw the monks and nuns kneeling on the bare stone near the candle-covered altar in silence waiting for the bell to toll that would signal the time for the service, a deep and reverent hush fell over the whole crowd. The groups of teenagers moved to the front and knelt on the bare stone. As the service started, virtually the entire crowd joined in with the responses, many singing beautifully in harmony with the nuns and monks. It was a deeply moving time of worship, often moving me to tears, all the more so because of the evident faith and devotion of the French worshipers. I later learned that the teenagers were on pilgrimage and had walked a great distance to be able to worship at Mont Saint Michel.
Sacred beauty has an ineffable and ageless appeal to the human soul that hungers for God, that longs to be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. We would do well in our anxious age to remember the ancient and timeless beauty of liturgical worship and its power to draw us into the presence of God.
Part of the mystery of Mont Saint Michel is that it is one of a number of ancient and medieval monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael, all aligned to catch the setting sun on the summer solstice and in a geographic straight line with one another. Theologians often refer to this band of sacred sites as the Sword of Michael. As one Anglican cleric put it, “[the Sword of Michael] is a reminder to us in our hi-tech age that our ancestors had perhaps more technologies than our iPhones have dreamt of. They had a mystical understanding of the interactions of heaven and earth that we have lost. The ruins of their monasteries, the relics of their saints are the remains of a world crowded by wonders and thronged by angels.” What a gift to experience a taste of that world.
The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy, J.D., serves as assistant to the rector of St. Philip’s Church, where he oversees hospitality ministry, teaches regularly on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings and serves in the preaching rotation. An alumnus of Porter-Gaud School, he is also a graduate of Emory University School of Law and served as managing director and general counsel of an international financial services trade association prior to pursuing ordained ministry. He is married to the former Jane Hollis Whitney and they have four children and three grandchildren. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.