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Angels in the architecture

© By Mike Keenan

  Whenever an angel, particularly one of high rank makes a dramatic entrance to suggest that one perform a certain act, one should listen. Apparently, in 708, the archangel Michael requested that St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, build a church on the rocky islet of Mont St. Michel, a tidal inlet on the eastern fringe of Normandy, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. Aubert ignored the angel's instruction, so Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger. That did the trick as Aubert jumped into action before assuming the shape of Swiss cheese.
     Mont Saint-Michel enjoys a mystical quality as a tidal island half the time and then mysteriously attached again to land depending on the tides. In 1979, a land bridge was fortified into a true causeway, preventing the rising water from depositing silt around the mount. The tides change so quickly, they have been described by famed French novelist, Victor Hugo, as "à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop" or "as swiftly as a galloping horse," actually racing in at one metre per second.
     Viewing the imposing structure of Mont St. Michel from far below on the mud flats at low tide is an awesome sight. It appears insurmountable, a natural fortress, and it was depicted so in the Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating the 1066 Norman conquest of England. (Bayeux is slightly northwest) During the Hundred Years' War, the English repeatedly assaulted the island, but were unsuccessful.
     In 1979, Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.
     Mont St. Michel is easily navigable if you don't mind climbing and descending narrow walkways. It's only one kilometer in diameter and about 80 meters to the top. At low tide, it is separated from the mainland by approximately one kilometer of sand. Medieval pilgrims made their way across the flats as we did; however, unlike them, we didn't have to worry about perishing in quicksand or drowning in the nasty tide shifts. Assuming that the archangel Michael welcomed their visits, along with that of Rome and Spain's Saint Jacques de Compostelle, this spiritual centre was regarded as one of the most important journeys for pilgrimage. For one thousand years, supplicants travelled here by roads called "paths to paradise." Unfortunately, the abbey was turned into a prison during the French Revolution, and it needed restoration before the end of the 19th century.
     Friars and sisters from "Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem" have represented a spiritual presence in the abbey since 2001, and a commercial village exists below. Four million people visit yearly. After passing through the Boulevard Gate and then the King's Gate, fortified with its portcullis, we encounter the Grande Rue or main street with its museums, shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. The parish church consecrated to St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen is a small edifice from the 15th and 16th centuries.
     At the Grande Degre or Grande Staircase, we climb to the abbey and walk around the cloisters up top. After admiring the abbey church, we enjoy the beautiful panoramic view over the bay when descending the ramparts path. We would have loved to stay for the evening to absorb the atmosphere of a candle-lit site, but had to press on to other locales.
     Mass is celebrated daily here except Monday at 12.15. There is no entrance fee.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
This Destination
as seen on
Abbey website: http://www.abbaye-montsaintmichel.com/
Evening program: http://archeoscope-montsaintmichel.fr/en/mont_st_michel.htm
Tourism Office: http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/accueil_gb.htm
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Saint-Michel

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