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The 1,000th anniversary of Mont Saint-Michel: A shrine to the Last Things

Mont Saint-Michel

Fluke Cha | Shutterstock

Patrice de Plunkett - published on 05/13/23

A thousand years after the laying of the first stone of the abbey church, what do pilgrims to Mont Saint-Michel come to find?

Mont Saint-Michel is celebrating another 1,000-year landmark. In 1966 it celebrated its “monastic millennium,” to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of monks at the Mount. These monks were Benedictines, but also Normans, placed there by Duke Richard to remove the Mount from the Breton influence.

In 2023, there’s a new official celebration: the millennium of the laying of the first stone of the abbey church.

The abbey was built under the patronage of four dukes of Normandy, including William the Conqueror, who inaugurated it in 1080. For him, the sacred place existed to serve the prestige of the duchy. Afterwards, the Mount underwent the influence of the kings of England and the kings of France. Political forces were determined to subject the spiritual presence; the spiritual had to fight to maintain its identity.

The ordeal of the Great Passage

If medieval politicians were interested in the Mount, it was because it had been exerting a magnetism on the masses since the 8th century. But this phenomenon was not political. The archangel from the Bible existed before emperors, dukes, and kings. The medieval crowds went on pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel exclusively for the spiritual!

Processions of thousands of children from all over Europe set out on the roads to the Mount. They were looked upon with suspicion by the lords, and with perplexity by the bishops.

Entering the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel is a prefiguration of the Stairway to Heaven.

What is it about Mont Saint-Michel that attracts these crowds? The key to the phenomenon is given by a story composed at the Mount around 860, the Revelatio. This key is supernatural: It is that “the blessed archangel Michael is in charge of introducing souls into the abode of peace.” That is to say, St. Michael is in charge of leading the dying to Heaven. Invoking the archangel now is a precaution for our future last hour!

Thus, for the people of the medieval era, a pilgrimage to the Mount has a premonitory, initiatory meaning. In the Middle Ages, dying was called “passing over” or “crossing.”

3 Steps

Walking barefoot across the great barren marine flat of the bay of the Mount – that no-man’s-land between land and sea – means training for the ordeal of the true Great Passage.

Climbing the vast rock to the abbey church at the top means preparing oneself to climb to Heaven.

Entering the abbey church is a prefiguration of the stairway to Heaven: From the nave to the transept and the altar, there’s a 16-foot difference in level! The faith-filled architects of the 11th century wanted to show that our final end will be an ascent.

A troop of French scouts on pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel in 2023

The shrine of the last things

But in 2023, a thousand years later, our era hides from the meaning of death; it would like to conceal death itself. Without prejudging what the official festivities of this millennium will be, one may wonder if they will all echo the raison d’être of Mont Saint-Michel, the shrine of the “last things” (death, judgment, heaven, and hell).

Especially since this raison d’être persists in the 21st century, discreetly, among the worldwide crowds that flock to this massive rock.

When I was writing my investigation on the living history of the Mont, I found in the nave of the abbey church, on a small lectern, a school notebook and a pen. Visitors wrote whatever they wanted. What can you read there? Messages similar to the prayers of 15th-century pilgrims. From Jessica and Johann (France): “Saint Michael, with your great strength watch over Katy who has suffered.” From Kevin (Quebec): “Rest in peace, Renée Jolibois, you are with your love.” From Heather (Scotland): “May my grandparents rest in peace.” From Edson (Brazil): “I’m thinking about the final passage.” From Alissa (Italy): “In this unique place I come to pray for all my acquaintances who have left this world. I hope they will find eternal peace.” 

I stayed for an hour on a bench near the lectern, to watch. The visitors were walking through the nave, camera or smartphone in hand. Passing by the lectern, they hesitated for a moment, approached, and glanced around. They leafed through the pages. Many took the pen and wrote something. Very often a prayer for the repose of their dead. Where did this inspiration come from?

The way to the depths

The more materialistic the age, the deeper the search for the spiritual goes – and in all directions! Who knows where internet users will go at night on their screens? They may come across a thread of 60 comments about the possibility of the resurrection of the dead. But they will also find dissertations on “waves” and “energies,” a hodgepodge of New Age nonsense that has been circulating for 40 years and which is a parasite on spiritual research. Mont-Saint-Michel is not spared from this cultural trend; the guides have to answer nebulous questions based on energy flowing along “ley lines” that “boost self-awareness” and similar things.

Let us hope that the millennium of the abbey church will be an opportunity for the general public to (re)discover what it really exists for.

Watch the video below to learn about the three victories of the Archangel Michael:

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