Low Tide at Mont Saint-Michel

There was a time when you needed to watch the rising sea water if you found yourself on the Mount of St. Michael.  The abbey and village were situated on the tidal flats of the second largest bay in the world, off the coast of Brittany.  You would cross to the abbey during low tide, but when the twice daily water level change took place, you were stuck.  I know.  I remember the days when all this was true.  As a teenager, sitting in the library of my high school, I ran across a travel photo of this most beautiful place.  I read about the tides and I thought what a really interesting experience that was…being isolated by the sea on a cone-shaped island.  I knew I had to see this place for myself.  This I did, several decades ago.  And, now, here I stood once again…but the ‘forced exile’ of the tides had been tamed. They had constructed a causeway and now were putting the finishing touches on a new bridge to the Mont.  No longer was the pull of the moon to be a factor in your staying there.  You can leave whenever you’d like.

Oddly, this new construction made me sad.  I liked the idea of being dependent on the forces of nature to determine some of my life.  I don’t want the world made totally ‘person-proofed’.

You don’t have to watch the sea anymore.  You just have to hope a parking spot is available.

You enter the ancient gate of the village.  After crossing over a drawbridge, you find that you are standing at the foot of a long narrow ‘street’ that winds its way to the Abbey.  This is not strictly a street as there are no cars allowed here.  You must walk the winding path, lined with shops, bistros, restaurants, tourist traps and climb the seemingly endless steps.

There is evidence that the Mount was occupied in 708 AD.  During the Hundred Years War, the Abbey was begun by the Benedictines and used as a stronghold.  The fortress has withheld numerous attacks by the English and has become a symbol of the French who held it for so many years.

Today, only twenty people live on the Mont year round.  If you like what the little street of commerce has and you want to open a small hotel, B & B, or shop, you are out of luck.  One must marry into the family of someone who already has the establishment.  The Abbey itself is still in use and houses twelve priests.

But, the shop-lined street merely supports the Abbey which dominates the small mountain.  The tower, the steeple, the statue of St. Michael seem to make up half of the mass of this place.  And, it’s inside the Abbey that I could wander endlessly…from one chapel to another…from one room of columns to the next.  Some of these great rooms are (or were) heated by fireplaces the size of two full-sized cars stacked on their sides.  The entire kitchen of our old Manhattan apartment would easily fit inside the fireplace alcove.  In these rooms, while the massive fires blazed and the Brittany winters, icy winds and bone-chilling rains slammed against the outer walls, monks would sit and copy Bibles…by hand.  Each Bible taking three years to complete. [The Irish monks were doing the same in Dublin, creating the Book of Kells.]

My wife and I had booked this tour (a four-hour drive from Paris) months ago.  Somehow, I thought that we would have adequate free time to wander, think about and photograph the experience.  But, I couldn’t think fast enough to break away from the tour group.  I kept the earphone plugs stuck into my ears while I attempted to keep up with the guide and her commentary.  Finally, I’d had enough.  I took the phones out and let myself fall behind.


Only the shuffle of many feet and the low murmurs of other tour groups were audible.  I wanted to explore the nooks and corners of the Abbey on my own.  I wanted to slip into a wool cassock and become one of the monks.  I tried to resurrect (in my head) a man of the cloth, dead for centuries, to walk with me through the dark chambers and up and down the winding stone stairways.  I leaned against a column in the hope that some long-forgotten energy that dwelt within the stone, would flow into me and show me the corners that no other tourist could see.

I saw small flat areas, lit by the sunlight, where I would sit and read Aquinas, Thomas a’Kempis or St. Theresa.  I would think.  I would pray.  I would feel the mystic power of God…for He had to dwell here.  He had to.  Like a “Field of Dreams”, a group of monks, a thousand years ago looked at the rocky crag and said: “If we build it, He will come”.

But, I was not allowed to follow saints, I was following a tour guide and she made it clear the bus was going to be leaving at a chosen hour.  I had to be there.  I had to catch up.  I had to leave my quiet spaces and my ghost-monks behind.

There was no tide to watch for today.  Just the wrath of a tour guide who didn’t want to have the group wait for the grey-haired Yank tourist who kept falling behind.

Fifteen hours after we boarded the coaches in Paris, we were finally back to the plaza near the pyramid of the Louvre.

These photos are those I took while trying to get lost among the holy stones of the Abbey of Mont St. Michel:


The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michele.



The tidal flats and new causeway.


Abbey Interior


Abbey Interior


Abbey Interior


Abbey Interior

Passports 3: Passing Through the Fields of Death

We left Paris on a crisp bright May morning.  This was the only day-long excursion we booked in advance.  We were going to visit Mont St. Michele in Brittany.  The trip would take us four hours one way, in a northwest direction to this 850 year old Abbey mountain.

Our route took us through the hills of Normandy, north and west of Paris.  This was the precious ground, the holy ground that over a million Allied troops were to fight for in the weeks after D-Day.  It all looks so gentle and peaceful since those times, 70 years ago, when the troops headed to liberate Paris.  It took them two months to reach this city.  It took us just hours to pass through.  We wanted to visit the beaches, Omaha, Juno and others on another excursion but found the cost too prohibitive.  So, we simply passed through to make a more affordable trip to this beautiful Abbey.

The photos that are inserted below were shot from the bus window.  They are not the best quality…how could they be when you’re moving so fast along a motorway?  But these fields, hedgerows, stone farm houses and small villages were not picturesque in 1944 like they are today in 2014.  No, each hedge, each small field experienced death and conflict.  The Germans were defending the French soil.  The Allies were intent on freeing France from the tyranny of Nazism.

The very soil that now grows the famous Normandy apples trees, feeds the cows that provide the succulent cheese…were all fertilized by the blood of an occupying army and the blood of an army of liberation.

I look out the coach window and try to put myself in the head of a GI who was lucky enough to make it past the deadly sands of the landing beaches.  I tried to visualize myself crawling, walking and slogging my way south to Paris.  I tried to tap into the collective memory of any one of the thousands of soldiers who saw the same sun that I was seeing…the same clouds that I was watching…the same stone buildings that were still standing.  I tried to go back in time to be that lonely, frightened, homesick young man.  Then the thought came to me that, perhaps, if by some twist in time, I became that soldier…would I make it across the next patch of green pasture? Or, would I feel a sudden pinch in my temple or chest…fall to the ground, and watch the blue sky bleed away into the whiteness, leaving a child, widow, mother and father to grieve for me back in America…and honor me when the flags come out?  Yes, when the flags are put on the vet’s graves, by tradition on May 30,  the day before my birthday.

The coach lurched and I found myself balancing my iPad mini on my knee.  I turned away from the fields of death, now so very beautiful, said a heartfelt prayer for those who made it to Paris and eventually home, and for those who did not.  They are still here, under one of the countless white crosses in the American Cemeteries around Caen.

I went back to my solitaire game.  I was in the present moment again.

But, was I? Really?