Brenda Clough has been taking us along with her on her post-Worldcon journeys. Me, I front-loaded my trip to Europe, going to a friend’s 60th birthday party in Normandy. It was a loose sort of gathering–people hung around, or walked, or ran, or wrote, or did whatever they wanted. And there were day trips. Some folk went to see Normandy beach (this is the 70th anniversary of the landing, and there were American flags everywhere). Some folk went farther afield. Me, I teamed up with a couple of friends and went to Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint Michel is a tidal island off the coast of France, known for its military importance and its holiness (apparently Saint Michael reportedly instructed the bishop of Avranches–a town nearby–to build an abbey there. When the bishop procrastinated, Michael burned a hole in his skull with a fingertip, which would certainly persuade me). Construction started on the abbey in the 11th century and continued for centuries after. And the place pretty much defines the term awesome. As in: awe-inspiring. As in: you look up from the base and wonder at the engineering of the thing. How did they get the stone up there? How did they plan it? How often was it built and rebuilt (warfare takes its toll, even on a stone edifice on top of a mountain)? The structure, and the size, of the abbey was dictated in part by how much support the church itself, poised at the top of the mountain, required. Any abbey requires cells and refectory and crypts and chapels, workrooms and kitchens, but this one also required a massive winch to pull building materials (and later food and supplies) up to the heights. It’s a stunning achievement.
Now: I was raised in a household not notable for its religious concern. The Christianity of the 11th century–and its politics and tenets–are exotic to me. But I get faith. I was unable to stand in the garden, or sit in the church, or look down over the silted landscape around the mount, without thinking of the belief that fueled its creation.
There were other factors as well, of course. Military advantage. The ambitions of kings. Wars. Commerce. But my imagination was firmly fixed on the builders and artisans who were creating, not just a structure, but a monument to belief. The beauty, and engineering, and sheer effort of the abbey were given as gifts to God.
The meaning of the place is not just in its beauty, but in the meaning it had for the people who created that. And that was awesome.