As we grow older, we realize with increasing clarity that we never “own” anything. We are just caretakers of things and ideas, tangible or abstract, and it is our duty to take over from those who came before us, doing (respectfully) the best we can with the work that has been given to us and hopefully leaving behind a legacy that the next generation will continue to nurture and develop. The creation of Mont Saint Michel in France is a perfect example of a vision that began 13 centuries ago and is still pursued by countless people, today. The physical manifestation of this vision is a combination of an oddity of nature and the creativity and hard work of generations of monks, architects and craftsmen.
It began with Bishop Aubert in the year 708 A.D. The good bishop had three dreams in which the Archangel Michael appeared to him, demanding that Aubert build a sanctuary for him. It took three dreams because Aubert was skeptical. Was this really the Archangel Michael, the slayer of dragons, the link between the world below and the kingdom of God, who was speaking to him? Did he really mean it? Perhaps it was just my imagination, Aubert thought. Finally, an impatient Michael had enough. In a third dream he made his wishes known loud and clear: “Get this into your head: I need my own sanctuary!”
For the location of the sanctuary, the reluctant Bishop Aubert chose a tiny rocky island just off the coast of France, and so from a humble grotto, Saint Michael’s sanctuary grew into a marvel of human achievement that rivals the pyramids of Gizah. Protected from enemy attacks by the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, a monastery developed around the top of the 80 m high granite rock island complete with a magnificent abbey and accommodation for monks and pilgrims. Below, a village was built for soldiers, trades people, innkeepers and fishermen.
Accessible only twice a day at low tide, bringing supplies and building materials to the island must have been treacherous and difficult. Quick sand and rushing tidal waters made trips to the village and monastery a dangerous undertaking. Many pilgrims and residents lost their lives when the tides moved in quickly, catching people, who were crossing in either direction, by surprise.
It is a fair assumption to make that 13 centuries of construction, collapses, catastrophes, storms, fires (twelve), plundering and questionable interventions (such as the use of the monastery as a prison) would have resulted in a jumble of additions and chaos. This is clearly not the case. What visitors to Mont Saint Michel find is a harmony of design in the maze of buildings and multiple layers of construction. It is to the credit of successive generations of architects and visionaries, who have passed on their lives’ achievements to those who followed, that this little island with its magnificent structures has no equal in the world.
One cannot help but turn philosophical in the presence of exceptional human achievements. Perhaps it is the ocean’s fault that the architects and restorers of Mont Saint Michel, through the centuries, have not lost sight of the grand design and always remembered their role to play in this big undertaking. As Stendhal once said: “Nearness to the sea destroys pettiness.” Good to remember when you choose a place to live.