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The mysterious church on the edge of the world

The art, the sacraments, the doctrine, and the saints of the church are meant to lure us to the edge of the ordinary and to allow us at least a glimpse of that open sea of God’s eternity.

(Wikipedia Commons/Mathias Neveling)

Even though I lived in France for three years while doing my doctoral studies, I never managed a visit to Mont Saint-Michel, the mysterious, mystical, and hauntingly photogenic abbey situated on a promontory just off the Normandy coast between Caen and St. Malo. But last week, in connection with the filming for my Pivotal Players series, my team and I made the pilgrimage. I first spied the mount from the backseat of the van, when we were still many miles away. It looked like a great ship, moored on the line of the horizon. As we got closer, the place became increasingly impressive, sometimes looming like a fortress, other times seeming to float on the sea. When we entered the gates this morning to commence our work, we stepped out of our world and into the Middle Ages. Our climb to the top—arduous and steep—mimicked that of thousands of pilgrims and monks and spiritual seekers over the centuries.

To grasp the religious significance of the Mount, we have to remember that it was built on the edge. Like the Irish monks who constructed their simple dwellings off the harsh western coast of their homeland, the religious who gave rise to Mont Saint-Michel felt that they were doing their work, quite literally, at the ends of the earth. Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the Gospel everywhere and not to stop until they had gone all the way. Cardinal Francis George loved to relate the story of his brothers in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who, taking Jesus at his word, declared the resurrection to every village and hamlet in the Yukon, until they came finally to the people who said, “There’s no one beyond us.” Mont Saint-Michel was intended to be a monument to the thoroughness of the Christian missionary effort. Hence it was, to me, a vivid reminder that we need to pick up our game today and to go to what Pope Francis has famously termed the periferia, a border country more existential than geographical.

I have discovered now through direct experience, though I had certainly sensed it through photographs, that it is practically impossible to gaze at Mont Saint-Michel without falling into mystical reverie. I would challenge anyone to come here and walk the causeway leading up to the mount and not find himself beguiled into thinking of things higher and more eternal. The mountain itself, and then the architecture piled so exquisitely on top of it, draw the viewer’s eyes up and up, beyond this world. And when you climb to the top, you look out on the trackless and seemingly endless sea. From Plato, through Dante, to James Joyce, the trope of the open sea has been used to evoke the transcendent goal of the searching heart. The art, the sacraments, the doctrine, and the saints of the church are meant to lure us to the edge of the ordinary and to allow us at least a glimpse of that open sea of God’s eternity. They are, accordingly, the enemies of Charles Taylor’s “buffered self,” the modern person so thoroughly shaped by secularist ideology that she no longer hears the rumors of angels. It has always struck me as curious that a religious person is seen as somehow conventional and non-threatening, a little fussy Ned Flanders. Authentic Christians are in fact edgy folks, more than a bit dangerous. Mont Saint-Michel, standing on the border between heaven and earth, is just the kind of place those dangerous types like to go.

Finally, to understand this sacred place, we should remember its name and the figure who stands on the pinnacle of the spire, namely, Michael the Archangel. Michael is invariably depicted in the armor of a warrior, for he is the general of the angelic army that stood athwart the legions of Lucifer, who had dared to arrogate to himself the prerogatives of God. He fought, not with sword and spear, but with the unanswerable challenge of his own name: Micha-el (Who is like God?). Now we should recall that the Mount is situated precisely on the western border of Europe, looking out toward the setting sun. In the medieval imagination, the land of the setting sun was associated with the powers of darkness, which helps to explain why the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were, almost without exception, oriented, situated toward the east. They symbolized the Church turned toward the light of the risen Christ and away from sin and death. So the stronghold, named for and topped by the fighter angel, and erected on the western edge of the world, represents the power of Christ’s Church turned against the forces of darkness, both visible and invisible.

As we were filming at Mont Saint-Michel, armies of tourists were making their way through the myriad nooks and crannies of the place. As they passed by altars, sanctuaries, and monastic cells used by monks long ago, many of them, I would venture to say, probably saw the ensemble as redolent more of Harry Potter than of St. Anselm. Come here if you can, or at least find a good photo of the Mount on the Internet, but don’t look at it in the manner of a tourist. Rather, see it as its builders would have seen it: as a beautiful and holy monument on the edge of the world.

(us.fotolia.com/neirfy)
About Bishop Robert Barron 115 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

4 Comments

  1. Bishop Barron at his best on Church history. Beautiful and uplifting. The humorous quip of busy photographing tourists seeing more of Harry Potter then St Anselm is likely true. Sadly. The preservation of St Michel is itself a marvel. A needed statement to the world of Catholic contemplative spirituality.

  2. I am grateful to Bishop Barron for his commitment to the beauty of Catholic faith.

    And I agree with him that most Catholic schools and colleges, including “the top Catholic HS” where he noted his niece attended, while often using the best texts and curricula for all other academic subjects, teach “coloring-book” Catholic-ism.

  3. Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. A philosopher seeking truth within existential phenomenology along with Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger at Gottingen U Germany. Born a Jew who embraced atheism. Not finding reference to the spiritual in Jewish rites for the dead. There is a powerful, mysterious dynamic between unexpected conversions and the contemplative prayer life. St Michel is one of those centers within Catholicism. Stein was introduced to Catholicism by Max Scheler, himself an agnostic Jew who found truth in Christ. Not in predominant German Lutheranism. Rather in the minority Roman Catholic faith. Why? Husserl also born a Jew turned to Lutheranism. Heidegger an agnostic Lutheran wrote the magnificent Time and Being 1927 theorizing from an existential phenomenological perspective that Being, resistant to conceptualization find its clearest manifestation in Man’ “Concern”. Stein converted. Wrote the Problem of Empathy in which she postulates a perception sui generis establishing the existence of others thru empathy. Scheler was sanctioned by German Hierarchy for placing emphasis on the greater good. Karol Wojtyla wrote a doctorate on Scheler and the affinity of his thought with Aquinas. Later in that vein published the Acting Person in Analecta Husserliana. Edith Stein refused a chair because of her gender turned to lecturing in Catholic schools until the Nazi Aryan Laws. She then became a Discalced Carmelite focusing on the meaning of the Cross. Martyred circa 1942 Auschwitz. This remarkable series of events, conversions, contributions to the search for truth is the work of the goodness of God’ Love, the Holy Spirit. The is the quiet legacy of the mysterious life of intercessory prayer of monks and nuns hidden away in places like Saint Michel.

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