Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mont St. Michel

“Somewhere in the center of a huge sky-sea with only a single road leading out is a circular city. A church like a castle rises above the rest and dwarfs all the cars and houses, and something which looks like a stream flows to the right of a yellow-brick wall. This wall surrounds the small city and seems to force it upward, keeping it from sinking into itself like batter in a cake pan. If a person could suddenly transport himself to the winding dirt road ending at the castle it would be a hot day and he would feel very small looking up toward the spires and high walls of the building. He would be kicking dusty pebbles and trying not to get dirt on his socks and shoes. The loose rocks would crunch under his steps and he would be tempted to seek shade but somehow never would, thinking he was almost there. The city would seem large enough if he were there, and not like a small island in the middle of a cloud, not really big enough for anything but a picture on a calendar.”

I was 22 years old when I wrote that. It was 1967 and I had begun my second real job, as a newspaper reporter, after finding that teaching a bunch of hooligans did not agree with me. One day as I sat in our dingy newsroom listening to the clack of the AP wire, I looked up at a wall calendar and saw the image that would tease and fascinate me for the next 50 years. What was it? I could only imagine what went on in such a magical setting.

Mont St. Michel (when in France, “Le Mont” if you don’t want to sound like a tourist) is a tidal island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. It was built on a dream. According to legend, St. Michael came to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, three times in dreams ordering him to build a shrine off the foggy coast of France. That was centuries ago. Now millions of visitors each year cross a causeway at low tide to visit Le Mont, since 1979 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In April 2017 I was one of those visitors.

At 22 I knew nothing of the archbishop’s story or the shops, cafes, and even two hotels that now line the cobblestone streets within the walls of Le Mont. Today crowds wind upward toward the abbey, whose spire rises toward Heaven topped by a gold-plated statue of St. Michael. A person can walk along the top of the sea wall and look out over the mud flats to the bay—sand, sea, and sky. Sheep graze in a distant pasture. Tides dictate the traffic flow. I crossed the causeway to enter Mont St. Michel on a perfect spring day under a bright blue sky. Was it the most gorgeous place I’d ever seen?

In 2008 a work trip took me to India, where I was fortunate to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra early in the day and watch its marble colors change as morning fog gave way to sunshine. Until I saw Le Mont in person, the Taj Mahal was the most beautiful structure I’d seen. Now I don’t know.

In India I couldn’t bear to leave the Taj Mahal, turning again and again to look before it was out of sight. I took my last photo of Mont St. Michel from our coach after miles of looking back at the coast of Normandy to see it one more time.

Some dreams are so big they seem impossible. Think of the archbishop, who ignored the first two dreams tasking him with building an abbey on a pile of rocks in a tidal basin. The stories say St. Michael finally poked him in the head during the third dream, and that did the trick.

My dream took a while to percolate, too. When I got home from France a few weeks ago, I got out the metal box that held my musings from my year as a reporter, including the piece on Mont St. Michel. It was fun to compare my first impression with reality. 

Those newsroom musings were written on a manual typewriter in spare moments. The newsprint is curled and yellowed, the edges fragile. Why did I save them? Ask any writer.