Arts Listings

Mont St.-Michel By Esther Stone

Tuesday December 27, 2005

It is said that Mont St.-Michel—“le Merveilleuse”—is the second greatest tourist attraction in France, so it was with some trepidation that my friend Mark and I headed for it during our three-day driving jaunt in Normandy, fearing that it would be overrun with visitors. But that proved not to be the case. 

The day was windy and drizzly as we made our way down the winding country roads. And then, quite suddenly, at a bend in the road, we saw its unmistakable silhouette in splendid isolation—high on a hill, ringed by the sea, with its tall steeple soaring heavenward. Simultaneously we both gasped at the sight. 

A few minutes later, after driving down the long causeway leading to the entrance, we pulled into a spot in the parking lot next to a car festooned with pink crepe paper, indicating that the occupants were a honeymoon couple. We smiled, until we noticed the young couple standing nearby, and that they were having a heated argument.  

We remarked at the contrast between that couple, who were just starting their life together so unfortuitously, and ourselves: well advanced in years, each a veteran of a broken marriage, old friends from college days who had recently been reunited and had quite unexpectedly fallen in love. We smiled at our own good fortune, and wondered what the future would hold for them. 

Hand in hand we weaved and climbed our way through the narrow, twisty streets huddled at the base of the Abbey—streets lined with tourist gift shops and restaurants, and we were soon overrun with groups of English schoolchildren on holiday.  

When we arrived at the Abbey we were struck by the unique beauty of its combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with its cloisters, parapets, ramparts, buttresses, battlements and fortifications, and all surmounted by a tall steeple.  

Mark flashed his press pass at the entry booth, and we proceeded onto the grounds. I looked at my watch. It was twenty minutes till noon, plenty of time to explore the area before the twelve o’clock mass would begin.  

We wandered through the gardens and the terraces, and climbed up into the refectory, and down into the monks’ reception hall. I glanced at my watch again. Noon was approaching. We decided it was time to get back to the church entrance. We tried to retrace our steps, and scampered up one set of stairs and down another, but at every turning we encountered a locked gate. We felt like rats in a maze! We were laughing uncontrollably at this turn of events. What an adventure! 

But we soon became frustrated. We really wanted to experience the Mass. We kept trying to find a way out, and eventually found ourselves in a courtyard next to the church. We could hear the chanting of the service. The Mass had begun. 

There was a large wooden door leading into the church. It was locked, of course, and I thought, “If I bang on the door, they’ll have to let us in!” I also thought, “The Ugly American strikes again!” I didn’t care. The situation was desperate! 

In moments a young, white-robed monk (I later realized that she was a girl—I dubbed her “the monkess”) appeared at the door, having unlocked it with a huge key from a giant ring at her waist. She glared at us as she let us in. We mumbled our apologies and sat quietly in back. 

The service was very beautiful and very moving. As I sat there in the gloom of the church, I looked up, and could see the blending of the ancient Romanesque nave with the flamboyant Gothic choir, and I was immersed in a sense of awe and timelessness.  

Random thoughts passed through my head: 1) the setting seemed to me to be a symbol of a kind of faith which hardly ever occurs in the “real” world; 2) I was overcome by a sense of the agelessness of the ritual, and of all the generations of people of faith who had come here for spiritual sustenance, and of being a part of a moment in Eternity; 3) I felt a sense of “Consecration” of our union, Mark’s and mine; and 4) I recalled that the last time we had been together, all those years before, was at a Christmas Mass in Greenwich Village in 1952!! 

After the mass ended, Mark went up to the officiating priest and spoke to him in French to apologize for our rude entrance. The priest, hurrying out, angrily replied, again in French, “What do think this is, a stable?”  

I am not a religious person, but, as inappropriate as my actions may have been, I have never regretted my intrusion into the Abbey at Mt. St.-Michel, which allowed me to experience some of the most profound moments of my life.