Monday, December 22, 2008

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Two

Wednesday, 7 December, 1988
Caen to Mont-St.-Michel to Chartres

ON THE TRAIN-- Unbelievable, but I actually made it onto the 6:48 AM train to Pontorson (final destination, Rennes). No line at the guichet at this hour so it didn’t take any time at all to get my
EurailPass validated. The guidebooks all tell you to write on a piece of paper what you think the correct usage limitation dates are, but I couldn’t find anything to tell me exactly how long a one-month pass is to go, thirty or thirty-one days. So I went for broke and put down the 7th of January as the end date, and ticket agent accepted it and wrote it in. Hope to gracious that’s acceptable. Some of the literature said something about a special stamp . . . but maybe that’s just the validation seal.

7:05 AM-- M. le Conducteur was just in. He didn’t even look that closely at the thing.

There was an older couple in the car when I got on. I'd looked around and discovered the only place to put my luggage was on the overhead rack. When it came the turn of the heavy blue suitcase, I grabbed hold and tried hoisting it over my head. Impossible. I simply could not manage it. But the gentleman saw my plight and came to the rescue. As he deposited my bag on the rack, he and his wife gave me greeting, in French.

Um, I know what they just said-- the polite response is, um, um . . .

And the gentleman said, "Mademoiselle ne pas française."

"Oui, Monsieur."

"Vous êtes l'anglaise?"



"Non, Monsieur. Je suis une Americaine."

Funny! But I guess I have a lot of both English and Dutch in me, with the Zickefooses and the Lewises and the Hendrickses and so on . . .

MONT-ST.-MICHEL, 1:40 PM-- O mon âme, pour toi que reste-t’il á faire, mais brise ton orgeuil, devant si grande mystere?

Comment á dire? The coach travels the winding road from Pontorson, passes through another little village or suburb, winds through nondescript wintry fields and hedgerows, and all of a sudden, out from behind a stand of trees or a screening cottage, there it is. You think it’s a mirage but no-- "Domine! non confundar in aeternum!" You sit back stunned and say to yourself, "So, it does exist!"

You look again, and drawing ever closer and ever more distinct it rises against the horizon like a vision of the
New Jerusalem come down from God-- Mont-St.-Michel, the Mount of the Holy Archangel. And you weep. C’est tout.

The bus driver drove over the causeway and pulled up on the beach, under the walls and next to the portal. Having confirmed the hour of departure-- tout en française-- I got down, one of only four passengers on this trip.

The calm and silence spread like a benediction. I looked up through the portail de la ville and saw how the sunlight, radiant in a clear blue sky, glistened on the buttresses and spires high above, striking a high resounding note off the gilded effigy of St. Michael on the peak of the fleché of the crossing of the church at the island’s summit. It was so beautiful I was overcome again.

But practical matters came to the rescue: I was out of film in the Minolta and by the time I’d put a new roll in I’d recovered my equilibrium.


It would be impossible to describe all the little winding streets with their stairs and bypaths leading up, down, around, but predominently up, up, magnetically drawing you to the Abbey itself. But every step brought new vistas, new compositions in stone and sky, new marvels of unself-conscious beauty, all with that blessed sunlight illuminating and highlighting the textures, the details, and the warm yellow-orange of the stone. The only sound was the slapping of the waves in the canal estuary and, as I climbed higher, the cooing and flutter of pigeons in the tower above.

I seldom saw another soul and I did have to wonder if anyone lives here at all or if the whole town has been made into a museum. I did see one young man cleaning the windows of a restaurant just inside the inner gate, but not much of anyone else. Perhaps the village missed a little of the medieval clamour and bustle but it was blessed peace for me.

I wish I had a better voice: l’ambiance, le lumiere du soliel, le jour, le Mont lui-même-- all demanded Berlioz’s "Te Decet Hymnus," and sung better than I could in my breathless way.

Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi, exaudi orationem meam:
Ad te caro omnis veniet!

The whole atmosphere of the place led me to worship, to a desire to kneel down and pray, right there on the pavement stones of the little ascending street. That impulse I would save for the church. But first I explored and photographed (and photographed! and photographed!) all the little lanes and ramifications, with their continually-surprising compositions of walls and steps. I would let the greatest thing come towards the end.

To reach the abbey one enters a kind of porch with leaded glass windows and more staircases leading upwards. There sits une jeune femme behind a guichet and she sells you a ticket for 23F. Then you go up the steps and through an archway out into the sunlight again. The echo of the pigeons in the tower is omnipresent, like a great whirring machine. As you proceed up the way, you can see low arched doors set into the wall to your left. These were, or are, the cells of the monks. To the right, en haut, is the crossing tower and the pinnacles of the Gothic choir. The southern portal to the church was ravished in sunlight, the beauty of the whole an aweful thing to behold. Oh my God and Father!

Tibi omnes angeli,
Tibi coeli et potestates,
Tibi cherubim et seraphim
Incessabili voce proclamant:
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,
Deus Sabaoth!
Pleni sunt coeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae!

Mon cher Hector has been in a similar state, and I have the advantage of him-- I am a Christian. But at last I began to understand what he meant by "Les grands transports."

The south door is the Mass entry only. To visit the church one goes through the little bookstore and out into the wide court before the western face. There are abbots buried under its pavement, but of course that used to be inside the nave-- I think-- until three bays of it collapsed in the 18th Century. And you can see mason’s marks-- or are they positioning codes? on the pavers.

From here you can see far out to the west, south, and to the north, where then, at 11:00 am, the signature shadow of the Mont spread across the tidal flats.

The west front is handsome in an honest, homely way; they must’ve done it to match the old Romanesque one after the disaster. I learned later that the spire that now surmounts it all is a 19th Century contribution. In that case, it’s an instance of when the Neo-Gothic improvers actually accomplished their goal. There was sort of an anti-climactic onion dome before. The new spire gathers all the energy from the rocks and buildings below and sends it straight up to God in a transformation from material to spiritual that is more than metaphor. And suspended between heaven and earth sanctus Michael signifer acts as God’s agent for the final defeat of Satan, our accuser, and oh, Lord, may that actually happen soon.

One of my fellow-passengers from the bus came out of the church just as I was about to go in. And so I had it all to myself.

The light, filtered by the cames of the glass, was playing in softly-formed arches on the stonework of the choir ambulatory and reflecting gently off the plastered groin vault of the side aisle. Mon Dieu! qu’est-ce tu as fait!

The Romanesque nave has a wooden barrel-vault shaped ceiling but the choir is loftier and has a ribbed vault with bosses. There is an oculus, about four feet wide, in the center of the crossing. It has a trap door, through a hole in which passes the bell rope, to the tower above.

I could describe all the architectural features; heaven knows I’m used to writing such essays by now. But I will, God willing, let the slides speak for me on that.

Before I took more than one or two pictures I did sit and pray-- there were no kneelers in the nave-- I can’t say I told God this in so many words but I was most grateful for the opportunity to be private in that place. I prayed for my vocation, that God would show me what He wants me to do in Architecture once I return to America, or if He still wants me to be an Architect at all, and if not, Lord, what do You want me to do? I sang the old 15th Century [Johannes Ciconia] Gloria, and though it was done softly the acoustics are sensitive enough that it still set up echoes. I know it sounds overweening to say so, but somehow, when I went over by one of the crossing piers and aimed my camera up at the north nave elevation, something told me the Gloria was in order. I kept raising my camera as I sang it, thinking Oh, I could shoot and sing both, but each time I knew it wasn’t right. There is a marked difference between an act of worship, however inadequate, and merely testing the acoustics.

I’m afraid I tripped over the French language at one point, and it was on a word I should know. No, I do know it; I was just reading in meanings. I do the same in English . . . At the boundary of the choir and of the choir ambulatory there were signs in French notifying visitors that the consecrated Host was in the sanctuary, so kindly do not enter the choir, except for-- and there was a word I thought meant "priest." But I’ve known for ages that "priere" means "prayer"! But I saw what I expected to see and that was that. And so I did not enter at all.

Visits to the church are supposed to be limited to one hour so I pulled myself away and walked out into the cloister and into the refectory. I was soon joined by a couple as I was making a circuit of the cloister garden. One of the Mont wardens came in and told us-- en française, á bien sûr!-- that the church was closing for the morning. But he showed the three of us through the Salle des Hôtes [Guest House] and the Chapter House/Scriptorium, into the crypt with its great pillars, past the treadwheel, and through various other chambers, though far from all there are, until we were ushered through another long room, at one end of which was another bookstore, and thence into the foyer with the ticket booth.

But I had already made up my mind to go to Mass, even if I haven’t been for several years, and when I was halfway down the stairs I remembered that the south door to the church was the other way. So I climbed back up and remet the warden chap, who was talking with the priest. The latter told me, in English, Yes, go back on up, but keep in mind there’s no leaving in mid-service.

I wouldn’t dream of it, especially not today.

There were seven laypeople in the congregation for Mass, along with the priest, two co-celebrants and three deacons. Their deacons are deaconnesses, nuns, probably, making me wonder how the little community here is set up. (I saw some of them coming out of the little cells in the wall about the time I turned around to go back up to the church.)

I was able to understand the French well enough to recall where we were in the service. I could tell the priest’s homily was on an Advent text from Isaiah. But it would have been much better had I been able to participate in the chanted responses more confidently. The overtones made our little group sound like a picked choir. It was glorious.

And it was good to sit there in the choir pew and think of all the saints who have gone before and those who are now yet struggling, to pray for the Coverdale* silent retreat that starts today and the college’s ordinands’ vocations and to thank God for Nigel* and how he models the grace and light of Christ for me.

When it came time to stand, I found I was shaking on my feet. But it was from tiredness or nervous excitement. Not from cold, not at all from cold-- even though I’d laid my car coat aside and was wearing only my blue velvet jacket over my sweater and shirt, even though I could see everyone’s breath. Amazingly, my perpetually-cold hands and the rest of me felt warm!

I think there could be something to physical self-denial, if it were offset by a high level of spiritual excitement. Maybe that’s always the way it’s been. You’re so caught up in God you forget yourself and mundane things like what would be nice to have for lunch.

I did receive Communion, RC or no. You know my feelings on that. It was right.

Afterwards, I wended my way out and around where I hadn’t been before, along the tops of the outer towers. The sky was starting to sport some clouds but it was still quite warm out for this time of year.

Pretty soon, I passed on to one of the restaurants, La Terrasse Poulard (everything is "Poulard" something here) and decided I’d go in and have one of the famous Mont-St.-Michel omelets. So I did, with cuttlefish in sauce. And that is where 1:40 found me.

I wish I could say my exalted mood survived lunch. There’s nothing like surfeit to knock the poetry out of one. The omelet was huge and, true to French custom, left warm but undone inside so the whipped egg made a kind of sauce. Then I had almost two large bottles of mineral water and a piece of tart aux pommes. (The second bottle of water was on the house, because after drinking two-thirds of the first one I poured out the last glassful and discovered a small spider had committed suicide in it. One does not think of the implications . . . )

Oddly, after I left the restaurant the streets I visited were ones that were being repaired. Or that led to houses or areas of the abbey that were under reconstruction. Or those from which I could see TV antennas on a hotel or two, or the plastic bubble skylights somebody had stuck on the roof of one of the houses . . . More tourists were arriving by now, mostly French but still bringing an atmosphere contrary to the sensations of the morning. I was rapidly falling prey to prose.

But I had thought about this in the church, during Mass! No matter what sort of spiritual experience we may have, the realities of daily life will intrude and must be dealt with. Roofs need to be repaired and other people, including ourselves, can be difficult. But let us, let me, take the strength and the awe and the sense of God’s presence gained in worship and in that deal with the world, instead of working on the world’s terms. You let yourself get tied up in a worldly point of view, and all is lost.

[Here ends the entry for the day. But at 4:00 PM I caught the return bus to the mainland and the station at Pontorson. I collected my checked luggage and took the train on to Chartres, where I checked in at the Youth Hostel, aka L'Auberge de Jeunesse.]


Sandy said...

It sounds so beautiful. I felt like I was actually there.

St. Blogwen said...

Here's the ironically funny part: In September '94 I went back with a group of fellow-students from my Oxford theological college. As we drove towards the Mont and it came into view, one of the young English women exclaimed, "It looks just like Disneyland!"

And they say we Americans think commercially . . .