By Carrie Gress
Mont Saint Michel is an 8th century fortress on the coast of Normandy that has long been associated with a mystical presence of Christ and the Archangel for whom it is named. After centuries of spiritual neglect, a spiritual renaissance is taking place on the tidal island again.
In the year 708, Bishop Aubert of Auvranches had an apparition of Saint Michael requesting that he build a monastery on the site. After brushing off the Archangel twice, Saint Michel decided to make a deeper impression. During the third apparition requesting the monastery, Saint Michel put his burning finger to the future saint's head. After this apparition, Aubert went directly to the other monks to tell them that they would be building a monastery. The other monks froze as they saw a deep hole in the bishop's head left by the Archangel's motivating touch. Bishop Auvranches built and consecrated a small church on Oct. 16, 709.
In 966, a community of Benedictines settled on the rock. The pre-Romanesque church was built before the year 1000.
In the 11th century, the Romanesque abbey church was founded over a set of crypts where the rock comes to an apex, and the first monastery buildings were built up against its north wall. Then, in the 12th century, the Romanesque monastery buildings were extended to the west and south.
Along with Rome and Santiago de Compostela, Mont-Saint-Michel was a great spiritual and intellectual center for the medieval world. For nearly 1,000 years, men, women and children made a pilgrimage there by roads called “paths to paradise,” hoping for the assurance of eternity given by the archangel of judgment.
During the French Revolution and following, the abbey was turned into a prison and all the monks were expelled from the island.
Visiting Mont-Saint-Michel’s old stone fortress and abbey church today is like going back in time. Three million visitors come annually from every walk of life, including those who want go deeper into its history, architecture, and faith. Many also come because it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the 2003 film “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” The causeway that connects the island to the coast has made it significantly easier to make a visit since the tides are no longer determine when or how people can visit.
With the celebration of 1,000 years of monasticism at the abbey, in 1966, a religious community returned to the abbey for one year, bringing back prayer and welcoming pilgrims once again. At year’s end, they were asked by the French government to remain. In 2001, the Fraternity of Jerusalem replaced the Benedictines, moving two communities into the abbey, one for men and another for women.
The Fraternity of Jerusalem, founded in 1975 by Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux (+2013) in the heart of Paris at Saint-Gervais, now has monastic communities in Burgundy, Strasbourg, Florence, Brussels, Rome and Montreal. The community strives to live in the monastic desert of the city since those are the true spiritual deserts of our age.
I spoke with Father Francois De Froberville about what it was like to live on Mont-Saint-Michel as a religious, while trying to reach the souls of the pilgrims and tourists who are visiting this holy site. “Our mission is contemplative, looking for God in the desert of the city, finding solitude in the city,” he told me. And here at Mont-Saint-Michel, though not a bustling city, “people are reminded they are Christian when they visit the abbey.”
The young community of men and women holds Eucharistic adoration every afternoon in the abbey church and one day a week at the small Church of St. Peter in the village below the abbey.
Tourists are welcome to attend morning and evening prayer, while the abbey has a small retreat house available for pilgrims who want to pray for extended periods.
To live at the abbey, despite the natural and architectural beauty, is a difficult life, Father De Froberville explained. “The abbey is not well-lit, as there are few windows. A person must be very mature to live the contemplative life here.”
The community believes beautiful liturgy is the best way to evangelize. Tourists’ children are asked to participate and are gathered together to carry candles to the altar when the gifts are offered during Mass. Father De Froberville said, “When we ask the children if Mass was too long, they smile and say ‘no,’ while the parents look on with surprise. It is the richness of our liturgy that keeps them interested.”
As for the tourists who visit, Father De Froberville explained that “the age of anti-clericalism seems to be over. The young people are curious about us as compared to the older generations who still remember the anti-clerical attitude prevalent in France from the 1960s. But those younger than 60 are open to Christianity in a way not seen for a long time. They think it’s cool.”
Excerpts of this article first published at Zenit.