The legendary sun did not make its dense habit of inducing warmth of breath that morning. There was the Normandy wasteland scenery although to call it a wasteland is blatantly false. Idyll maybe the most appropriate description of that sight worthy of a documentary. Mont Saint Michel towered like no other in the image-ridden world of fantasy unraveling itself as a living entity of pure wonder. It stood at the distance, proud and staggering in its cold and stony independence.
There were people, pilgrims and mostly tourists, in their long faces and slow movements with dark jackets and thick monochrome scarves. Was I in the middle of a particular retreat or a dreary procession? We were all heading there. The service bus called Passeurs that reminded me of a swaggering-ground-crawling airport transport brought us nearer to its landing, though not near enough as to spoil the base scenery of a fortress clinging to its medieval reverence. From the surrounding area, the sea clasped the tides. It held its foam in possessive abeyance. It was in the lows. The wild expanse of waters in the bay and the exuberance of the hill that borne the fortress inflamed us all with a high surge of amazement and mesmerized silence. Here, you leave your insomnia, your miserable consciousness nor bouts of alabaster joy and let this sight behold you.
Nobody seemed to care with the blowing cold. All their thoughts focused on the isolated island that holds a long history of defiance against nature and the forces of kingdoms and religious upheavals. It’s an enchanted piece of jewel in a landscape where powerful storms may arise at any moment. What is your language to calm the seas and the impetuous winds? Does your shining glory become more pronounced as the hurricanes become more devastating? You have a dialect of your own. Not from Brittany nor Normandy. Not from anywhere else. It is your poetry as what an unknown French poet Franketienne in Diaclecte des Cyclones howls with ferocity.
“Every day I use the dialect of lunatic hurricanes.
I speak the madness of clashing winds.
Every evening I use the patois of furious rains.
I speak the fury of waters in flood.”– Franketienne
Earlier, what ran in my mind was the vague idea of how far can my wife and I go to meet my sister, my nephew and my brother-in-law who flew in from Singapore? In this stretch of French soil, how will our sightseeing go? The early morning train from Montmartre station left with few passengers, and the graffiti-covered walls that swept the landscape were almost invisible to my sleep notarized induction. I counted the rows in the train that were empty and the possible stops before we hit the final destination, Rennes. In less than two hours we would be there in that station. True enough, we hit the accurate timing of our arrival. The bus waited, alert with its clean, polished, and upright pose to welcome the new arrivals for the next leg of an hour. Not a person less nor more. The tickets have indicated the exact number to register in its sleepy softened manifest in the hands of a middle-aged driver. The driver came wrapped in the darkest of a coat presumably served already with hot croissant and coffee from the spouse’s nagging rhythm of diurnal monotony. French countryside. Foggy and limitless in cloudiness. I had wished it was a full spring. But here I was, at the northwestern tip France in the land I have not yet fathomed on why it is called Normandy.
Suddenly I was reminded of the surreality of it all before Mont St. Michel. Is this the character of K, the main protagonist in Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “Castle” I am imitating? Approaching the village of a mere forty-four residents through the King’s Gate, I kept wondering how can I gain access to the castle before me. Will this be a narrative like Kafka’s which is of alienation, of bureaucracy and unimaginable frustrations of the systems that control and annihilate our freedoms? There was my evocative and lingering picture of a castle that I had to contend with, an absurdly standing structure in a post-dystopian reality. Are the people walking around here also discovering the enigma of it all? While the visitors are looking for a place to eat, or a place to spend the night, the villagers, would also have this question? What is the essence of the solitude of it all? People were coming and leaving that as per estimate, more than two million people visit this place every year. People are here spending just a few hours of their vacation, some having omelet at the famous La Mere Poulard or the equally renowned crepe at Creperie La Croche. They will return then to their private shell on other islands, with new meanings or mere instagrammable posts to boast. Who needs a rational establishment of human connection in this puzzle of an ebb tide?
Connection is the dialect of this place that ardently says to explore. Explore and let the reflective spaces evoke some sensations and latent insights. Connection is the vocabulary of this journey of time within this megastructure, which summons the spirit of the Roman and Gothic styles. Connection is the sacred prayer here that echoed the walls accommodating Benedictine psalms and chants. T. S. Eliot would have us pronounce in our heads his intonation of exploration when he said, “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time!”.
It was mentioned at the starting platform upon passing the security that the original church was founded in the year 966. The story goes that Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, was pressured by Archangel Michael, “chief of the celestial militia“, to build a church atop the island with the limitless view of the sea. From then on, a series of additions and renovations happened throughout the centuries because of the increasing number of Christian pilgrims, fires and disrepair and the balance of power. In the modern era, I learned, 370,000 German troops came here to visit the place during World War II to survey beauty amidst the evil and cruelty of war. Back then during the reign of King Louis XI, this was used as a prison, an unimaginable dungeon of oblivion. Once, this was also used as a center of great renown for learning. During the Reformation, this place waned in its popularity, and during the French Revolution, this was forgotten altogether. Just several years ago, it caused some drama when the statue of the Archangel Michael on the top of the spire was temporarily removed by a helicopter to restore its lightning rod device. Indeed, this UNESCO world heritage is a treasure worthy of being named as “Wonder of the Western World”.
My sister. She came with the sincerity of a true sister. She wished my wife a felicitous holiday greeting. We kissed with our cheeks on the coldness of December. I missed her. She came glowing with a sun on her eyes. We did not see them two days before as agreed. We were supposed to meet at the Eiffel Tower at nine in the morning. They were incarcerated by the cruel joke of an airline which left the luggage of winter clothes in some nondescript airport, or it could have been left solitary in the luggage carousel in Zurich waiting for its owners realizing none, slept till it reached its final destination.
“You now talk like an older sister“, I said in response to her asking how my wife and I are doing. We were chatting along the Grand Rue near the parish church of Saint Pierre where we also lit candles before the silver statue of Saint Michel, on the way up to the Abbey.
“Of course, I am the silent but strong sister of yours”, she responded emphatically, maybe alluding to how she kept to herself the pain of growing up fatherless and focused on getting the best out of education.
She was our youngest, and I regret that my brother and I had not seen her that much during her exciting teenage years. She stayed behind in the province with our mother to finish high school while we were both in the big city to finish university. We lived with her again for a few years; already, she was a determined woman engaged in her dreams.
All of these became a footnote in the absoluteness of Mont Saint Michel as we climbed further slowly imprinting our tired covered soles on the cold stone steps. There was the pull of a satellite and the more significant body. The cobblestones seemed to tremble on the heavy feet of visitors who felt the narrow and steep ascent. Little by little, as if some hidden treasure unwrapped itself, the panoramic channel was revealed. Some Balearic shearwater birds appeared hovering in their characteristic brown backs, dark cape and wingtips, brownish undersides and whitish legs.
We ascended the monastery built in the 8th century. It was like a pilgrimage of sort into the apex. There was the Abbey and the main monastery, with the dark great halls that only allow natural light in its blissful streams. At the ground and the outside walls are the villagers, composed of fishermen, hoteliers and restaurateurs. We moved forward, relishing the freshest of greens of the cloister and the towering Gothic designs of the interiors of the chapels. At the cloister, we each looked for our hallowed space to contemplate the sanctity of the place. Structurally the spirit of feudalism marked the origins and even the development of this place stretching from the earliest centuries to the 21st century when the capitalist hunger of tourism took over with emblematic postcards, key chains, and refrigerator magnets.
Mont Saint Michel retains its existence as a monastery up to this time. A small group from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem since 2001 with their charism of “being in the heart of the world to be in the heart of God”, lives here. This fraternal group devotes their time in prayers, abbey work, and fraternal communion. Mont Saint Michel is our call of deep faith in the sea of a troubled world. There is profound silence here. Even with the procession of tourists on that day, a solemn silence continued to prevail. The guides spoke in a whisper. Some just sat on the benches in meditation and reflective countenance.
“So, what inspired you to come here?”, I asked my sister when we reached the pinnacle and had a vertiginous view of the hazy land mass, and a dozen trekkers down walking along the coast in low tide.
“It’s our son. He is looking for a castle. And now he knows more about St. Michael and his battles.” she responded upon hearing her seven-year-old son talked about the sword and shield of the archangel.
As we descended from the monastery, I heard a faint Gregorian chant from the Abbey. Or was it the wind in its calmest dialect of prayer? How is it to break from the tension of atmospheric pressure, tangled confusions and the wild echoes of a formidable fortification? Mont Saint Michel is the haven of believers not wishing to be caught on the wrong side of the divide between light and darkness.
As soon as we walked away giving it a last glance, Mont Saint Michel covered itself with the curtain of dark clouds after allowing us a brief moment to marvel its mirror reflection with flickering lights. My nephew in his juvenile existence may soon realize that this Mont Saint Michel is all about life and tides, darkness and light, beauty and the language of connections. Her mother and I share an understanding of blood kin that feeds on the same umbilicus of an ocean. My wife, who bought a simple black and white postcard in one of the shops, shares with me a language of love beyond emotions. My brother-in-law, who came out more inspired with ideas as a visual artist shares with me a bond of respect and fraternal unity. Mont Saint Michel is connected to the sprawling waters that surround it and the latter to the force that governs the earth, the moon, and the gravitational pull. All of these connections reverberate as we all share in a journey of an endless quest.
I walked on, realizing the tide had risen in the bay. Mont Saint Michel and Franketienne’s lines flooded my heart. “Fundamentally, life is tension. Towards something. Towards someone. Towards oneself. Towards the point of maturity where the old and the new, death and birth untangle.”