First Published in the Catholic Herald – don’t forget to subscribe!
It is hard to describe the visceral impact that Mont Saint-Michel has on the traveller as they wind their way round curving Normandy roads towards the coast. As the abbey on the island emerges from behind trees or hill or village, the landscape takes on a mythic quality, as if we had suddenly slipped into the High Middle Ages; land, sea, sky, mountain and abbey all combine with an almost alchemical force to jolt the senses into a new place of perception.
One can try to summarise what is happening in the language of mundane measurement. But it falls short. Nonetheless, we see the Church symbolised by the abbey as both island and also fortress; it is surrounded by a dark tidal force of immeasurable speed and power, pointing with a geometrical punch towards the highest heaven.
This is how Henry James opens his travel memoir Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres:
“The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot ..The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God. His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him here. For the same reason he was, while the pagan danger lasted, the patron saint of France. So the Normans, when they were converted to Christianity, put themselves under his powerful protection. So he stood for centuries on his Mount in Peril of the Sea, watching across the tremor of the immense ocean — immensi tremor oceani, —as Louis XI, inspired for once to poetry, inscribed on the collar of the Order of Saint Michael which he created. So soldiers, nobles, and monarchs went on pilgrimage to his shrine; so the common people followed, and still follow, like ourselves.”
I spend some months of the year in a little mill in Normandy where I write and try to pray in the shadow of Mont Saint-Michel. Recently, I have found myself hosting a number of visitors. They range from several significant authors and Catholic or Orthodox thinkers, to the organisers of a movement of young traditionally-minded Catholics. And for a reason. Mont Saint-Michel has become a theological and spiritual key to configuring our understanding of what it is to be Catholic in our age.
How might understand the turbulence of the twentieth century and the profound and dangerous assault on the Catholic Church that continues and escalates?
It would be consistent with the insights of our tradition at its deepest and most authentic to look steadily at the representation of the archangel in this his most inspiring monument, carved in stone, in Normandy; and then, informed by the reports of angelic encounters down the ages, to finally root all this in the narrative of angelic engagement in the pages of the Bible.
A definitive angelic encounter that provided a unique dimension of spiritual perspective was the vision that overwhelmed Pope Leo XIII in 1884.
Pope Leo was so shaken by the intimation he had of what the coming century would inflict on the Church, he composed the prayer to St Michael, as a way of harnessing all the resources the Church had at her disposal against the seductive and perverting power of evil. He ordered the prayer be recited at the end of each Lower Mass. (Pope Paul VI suppressed the rite and prayer in 1968.)
He believed the Church was to experience a tsunami of metaphysical oppression in the coming century.
In our divisions within the church, we are inclined to describe the spectrum of belief in terms of progressive vs. traditional, or Left vs. Right. Alice von Hildebrand thought this was a mistake; and a category error that hid the real issues:
“Now let us abolish the terms “conservative” or “liberal”, the terms “left” and “right” which are secularistic. I suggest that we say from now on “those who have kept the sense of the supernatural and those who have lost it”. That is the great divide, that is the essence.
Do you look at the Church and her teaching, whether dogmatic or moral, with a supernatural eye, or do you look at it with secular lenses? That is the divide. Left and right confuses the issue. Let us re-discover the greatness and the beauty of the supernatural and I claim that it is so difficult in the polluted world in which we live, that if we don’t pray for it every single day, we are going to be infected. It is the air that you breathe, the newspaper that you read, the television show that you see, time and again you will see this is a fight and attack on the supernatural.”
The last century has seen a sustained assault on the legitimacy of the supernatural. Yet the very sight of the sublime and mysterious mount off the Normandy coast is in itself an event that shifts one beyond the limitations of the rational and aesthetic. It involves an involuntary intake of breath as a response to awe.
If the Church is to continue to be true to itself, and find the means to resist ridicule, oppression, persecution, misrepresentation, inner corruption, censorship and secular dilution, it will want to regain a balanced sense of the metaphysical, a renewed confidence in both the transcendent and supernatural, and refreshed theological perspective on its state and task.
A encounter with the Mont Saint-Michel provides the beginning of all of these.