After I returned from Mont St Michele I lay in my tent listening to the rain, and soon fell asleep, groggy with a stupefying sense of wonder. The desire to put a plug in my ear long gone. The next day I woke early, keen to see the Abbey (which unlike the city itself is only open during daylight hours), before catching a pre booked train south, from whence I’d heard rumours of sunshine.
This time I left the bike behind in one of the cycle parks that sit inside a touriserie of holiday lets, hotels and dull shopping experiences that have been carefully placed in a hollow so as not to detract from the experience of approaching the Mont, so long as you keep looking forward. Think, Lot’s wife and Sodom. Which now that I write it, sounds like one of Ian McMillan’s Barnsley minimalists describing a care free spending spree at an auction with the Mrs.
Next to this holding pen for the better heeled visitor, just before the boardwalk that takes you to the Mont, an architecturally impressive barrage doubles up as a viewing platform. I sat there and watched the sun come up, eating a baguette stuffed full of banana. A tramps breakfast. Wading birds waded. Tourists waddled.
Each arrival to Mont St Michel I imagine is unique. Even I suspect if you are the driver of a tourist delivery vehicle. The estuary is an orchestra with a new overture each day. A bright tenancy of light, a glum heavy fog, a hesitant mist. Sea levels rise and fall with the tides, winds whip, push, curl or play dead. The wading birds are busy, or slow. Some days Otters breach, some days not. And if the characteristics of the day are by chance exactly the same as the last, the chances are the characteristics of you will be different.
Let the day find you, is some sort of truth to drag out in a place like this.
The day found me damp and resilient, a martyr to discovery, my mind filled with the the simple questions, why, who and how?
The Abbey opened its doors at 9.30am so I waddled off towards the Mont at 9, shorn of any urgency. Arriving slowly in daylight, without fear, gave me my naivety back. I instantly forgot the previous night’s rain soaked donkey tussle and enjoyed the approach as if I had never been before, overwhelmed once more, this time with the daylight splendour of it all – appreciating texture, colour and form as I had not been able to before. With the sun also rising the whole scene was tres jolie.
Twenty minutes of flat boardwalk and hundreds of upward steps later I was passing through the strangely rigorous Abbey security check with its airport luggage scanners and heading up another steep incline to some cold misty views of the estuary. I could hardly see France. Chilled and moody I found myself goose gaggled inside with a group of Japanese tourists.
In front of us, in a series of four small squat glass boxes, sat four delicately constructed relief models showing how time brought humanity, religion and war to this bare scruff of rock. The Mont as we experience it today was not built in a rush. It is a work of art we can enjoy only because it was created by thousands of people over 13 centuries. Slow architecture, crowd sourced development, an organic city, call it what you will.
Avranches sounds like Barnsley minimalism for someone who has acquired many American farmsteads but it is in fact the name of a nearby town from whence Bishop Aubert came in 708 to plant the architectural and spiritual seed from which the whole Mont grew. Avranches is also the home of a farm campsite called Power Salads, but I never got the chance to stay there so I can’t tell you if the salads help with the cycling.
Bishop Aubert built a shrine to the Archangel Saint Michael (described rather worryingly in the tourist guide as the ‘head of the heavenly militia’ (chef de la milice celeste) and the mythology of the place was set. For Saint Michael is a powerful and violent figure, appearing in The Book of Revelations to slay the devil, who is masquerading as a dragon.
To medieval people living in fear of the afterlife he was also the one who led away the dead and put their souls in the balance on judgement day. Because of this, Bishop Aubert’s place of sanctuary quickly became a site of pilgrimage, and within three centuries a Benedictine Abbey. Then, with fortifications and ramparts added, a military stronghold.
During the so called Hundred Years War Mont St Michel resisted all attacks by the English, and became a symbol of French national pride. Devotion to the war like Saint Michael deepened during the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Only the warlike angel could fight against the Protestant heresy. Then the French revolutionaries did what the English kings and Protestant reformers could not, dissolved the monastery, turning it into a prison.
In 1874 it finally found its current purpose, as a historic monument. Thanks to decades of restoration you can now experience the Mont, as the guide suggests, “as a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth, an image of Paradise”. Or just marvel, as I did, at how they got the bloody thing up their in the first place. I tried to feel closer to God but I only felt closer to sky. It reminds me of a Billy Bragg lyric, “I found out the meaning of unrequited, at a party to which I was never invited”.
That is not to say I didn’t feel a spiritual tingle, who could not when faced with such an exquisite representation of belief, but for example I found myself more intrigued by the giant wooden turning wheel that hauled everything up than the prayer room next to it. I wondered why the prayer room was so close to the wheel but found out later the Abbey is built on the twin Benedictine principles of work and piety, so after sweating bread, rocks and bibles up the precipitous walls of the monastery saying a few prayers makes sense.
Being there reminded me of a conversation I had with my fiend Hele before I left, which essentially revolved around my lack of interest, indeed almost distaste for, anything that contains ritual. The ritual in life is important to her so naturally she found it hard to comprehend my animosity towards rituals. But to me rituals can mean control, exclusion, the concentration of power, the deliberate isolation of those who do or can not take part.
The Catholic Church created its rituals and decried those who did not stand by them. The more complicated they became the more powerful the church and its ministries were. Connection to God, safety in the afterlife, a better living in this life, could only be achieved through ritual. Even the bible had be read not in common languages by common people, but in Latin by paid interpreters.
Those that tried to translate the bible were thrown out of the Church and Society and at worst straight into the afterlife, where they would burn in hell for all eternity. Of course I know there are helpful rituals as well, that create a deeper understanding of life and a better sense of self and have nothing to do with power structures. These are the ones many of my friends enjoy.
All the same, as I stood cold and slightly at odds with my self any my own feelings, it was hard not to be glad that I lived in this century where, pauper as I was, I did not have to be a slave to someone else’s ritual, my own happiness dependent on a mythology that someone else created.
But then again I thought isn’t that exactly what Brexit is? Am I not slave to the ritual of a certain kind of Britishness that thinks everything will be better when we don’t have to involve ourselves with the lives of others? That prefers competitive isolation over cooperative federalism? That doesn’t think we should be compassionate to refugees? That would prefer to live without a nose just to spite the face? That would give up the freedom of its grandchildren for the self satisfaction of the grandparents? Argh, nothing has changed! Where is my free will? Am I not controlled by the high priests of the political class. Has my neighbour not just taken away my freedom. Merde!
Thankfully, before my despondency grew, I remembered I had a train to catch and a camping check out to facilitate. I ran down the steps from the Abbey, caught a Push me, Pull me back to my bike, cycled 5 miles to my tent, packed up my tent, cycled another 5 miles to the nearest station, stopped at Lidl’s (which are apparently everywhere), and got on a train headed towards La Rochelle and 20 degree temperatures. Leaving religion, ritual and thoughts of Brexit behind me, at least for the time being.