Hannah Moseley has written for Paprika Southern, Incoming Media, Renegade Media, and SCAD Scan. She has an MFA in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she was the previous editor of Honeycomb Literary.
The Mountain in the Sea
Two and a half million tourists pass through the tidal island of Mont-Saint-Michel, on the border between Normandy and Brittany in western France, every year. Each day, they come and go, like the tides themselves that alter the surrounding landscape by the hour. At its highest, the tide covers the walkway that connects the Mont to the mainland, and the sea becomes an otherworldly mirror, reflecting the soaring architecture of the abbey that tops this strange rock. At low tide, grey mud flats dominate the surroundings and rivulets carve intricate pathways through the fertile muck. The water recedes enough to allow visitors to trek the two kilometers across the marsh, though it is dangerous to attempt the journey without an experienced guide. The tide can return at a speed of 200 feet per minute, and the flat, sandy surface of the marsh hides pools of water and quicksand.
This delicate crossing was the only way to access Mont-Saint-Michel and its abbey for the first millennium after its consecration to the Archangel Michael in 708, when the bishop of nearby Avranches built the first sanctuary atop the granite rock, after receiving a divine dream from the angel himself. The abbey became a pilgrimage site as part of a perfectly straight line of seven churches, from Ireland to Israel, where St. Michael is said to have appeared to holy men. Now, the journey is less dire and, perhaps, less spiritual, as sightseers can take a shuttle from the parking lot to the village at the foot of the sacred structure.
While two and a half million might set foot on the island of Mont-Saint-Michel each year, less than half of them make it to the abbey at its summit. This strikes me as strange. I wonder what it is that they go all the way out there to see if not the architectural, culturally significant marvel that made Mont-Saint-Michel worthy of designation by the people at UNESCO. This little pocket of Normandy is pretty, certainly—full of quaint towns and good seafood restaurants—but it is difficult to get to from France’s main event, Paris. What is it, then, that stops half of Mont-Saint-Michel’s visitors just before the finish line?
Perhaps, for many, it is enough to see the exterior. The most famous image of the Mont is taken from the mainland and looks across the marsh at the contrast of the natural setting—in grey, green, and shades of blue—with the spires of beige masonry reaching heavenward, topped by a golden, avenging Archangel Michael crushing Satan, in the form of a serpent, underfoot. (Michael is the angel who originally sent the Prince of Darkness to Hell and is depicted as more militant than your garden-variety angel.) Plenty of these pretty pictures appear on postcards in souvenir shops in the village surrounding the abbey. The island’s single street, la Grande Rue, is crowded with knickknack vendors, food carts selling stale jambon beurre (ham and butter on a baguette) for €12, and dubious history museums spinning macabre tales about the abbey’s time as a prison. Just to the left of the main gate, La Mère Poulard—the most well-known of the ten or so sit-down restaurants on the island—serves up omelets to the tune of €34 a plate. You can find the brand’s eponymous cookies in grocery stores throughout France, in packages complete with an illustration of Mont-Saint-Michel. In fact, though images of Mont-Saint-Michel can be found all along the rue—on keychains, mugs, t-shirts, and Christmas ornaments—one loses sight of the abbey in the crush of the people and shops below. During peak visiting hours, the street grows so crowded that it becomes one long line, shuffling forward, funneling off into shops and tourist traps. It’s not unlike a visit to Disney World. There’s even an office that puts on fake weddings in front of the abbey’s medieval ramparts—a photo opportunity designed, it would seem, primarily for Japanese tourists.
There is no sense of the majesty of the space at the bottom of the hill. In fact, it is difficult to remember the abbey existing as anything other than an image on a cookie tin or an oven mitt. Beyond la Grande Rue, it becomes clear that, like the narrow and difficult path to heaven described in Matthew’s gospel, the way to the abbey is daunting. The 350-step climb up the abbey’s fortifications is far less crowded and less commercial than the street below. The steps are deep, either bowed in the middle from centuries of wear or obvious replacements. In the rain, they are impossibly slick. Here, the journey begins to feel like a pilgrimage, each supplicant panting to scale a granite cliff, buffeted by strong, salty winds, with the ocean below. From this vantage, it seems miraculous that anything at all was ever constructed in such an inhospitable place. Even more miraculous that every piece of stone in this massive, storied structure—built to withstand the sieges of men and time—was ferried across an unpredictable channel on a bay with the highest tides in Europe, and then lifted almost 300 feet up from the sea by rope and pulley. How assured those builders must have been in the bishop of Avranches’ vision and in the divine purpose of their work.
Access to the abbey costs €11, but I doubt anyone who makes it up all those steps would turn back at the entrance for so slight an inconvenience. The ticket office, in the lower part of the 13th century Gothic add-on dubbed the Merveille, meaning “marvel,” is a moment of anachronistic modernity: sleek black countertops and touchscreens under a white-washed vaulted ceiling. The room is a reminder that, though two groups of monks and nuns of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem live in the abbey and perform daily services, the building belongs to the French state and is managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. It is treated, on the whole, more like a museum than a place of worship and reflection. In the church, benches are provided for visitors, who are dressed in varying degrees of sportswear, to observe the monks and nuns at mass. Groups try to time their arrival to witness the call to worship, when a monk will pull a thick rope descending through the center point in the Nave ceiling to ring the bell. Tour guides, at least, are not permitted to show people around the church during a service. In most other rooms of the abbey, except the orders’ private chambers, educational diagrams and models explain the evolution of the structure over centuries—from a center of Medieval learning and political power to a fortress during the Hundred Years’ War and a prison during the French Revolution. It’s odd to see it in pieces, miniaturized, all sense of wonder and achievement removed. A model showing the wooden structure supporting the central tower looks almost indecent, like a skeleton. As if the abbey could be understood through its framework and masonry.
The educational material sets the tone of the journey through the abbey for most visitors. They shuffle from one sign to the next, transformed into dutiful schoolchildren on a class field trip. They keep walking, climbing more steps, reading the posters, looking for some sense of meaning or, at least, a good picture to take home. They will be disappointed. Nothing will match the image they have in mind, the image looking over the marsh at the fortress rising from the sea. They check the tour off a mental to-do list and head back to the shuttle. Perhaps they pick up something in the gift shop, a more digestible facsimile of Mont-Saint-Michel. The truth of the space, of the stonework built over seven centuries in four architectural styles, of the austerity of the lives of the monks and nuns in residence, of the violent history of the dungeons and the soaring divine purpose of its spires, and of all the stairs, is too much up close. I heard a little boy ask his father, as we were walking through a gothic courtyard in the cloisters, whether “they filmed Harry Potter here.” The boy’s face lit up in a way that suggested he understood what they were doing there—understood, then, what relevance that place held for his own life. The parent managed a passable “Maybe,” relieved, after all that, to have a reason to have come.
Two and a half million tourists visit Mont-Saint-Michel every year. It is a place of sea and sky, of granite and mud, of human striving and divine provenance, of the sacred and the secular: the whole world, in other words, contained in a rough circle of 3,000 feet. The significance of such a space cannot be conveyed in historic diagrams. It seems to shake something loose in people, to unseat them, temporarily, from their assurance of their place in the world. The abbey has seen pilgrims, prisoners, priests, kings, and tourists for more than a thousand years. The tide rises and recedes. The rock stands.