Modern Pilgrims Songs of Praise


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Modern Pilgrims

Sean Fletcher visits Mont Saint-Michel in France to meet some modern-day pilgrims and discover the history of this iconic and majestic monastery.


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This week, I've travelled to the island of Mont Saint-Michel

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on the Normandy coast of France.

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Welcome to Songs of Praise.

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I'll be following in the footsteps of millions of Christian pilgrims

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who've walked these sands for over 1,000 years.

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Wow, Francois! It's just so commanding on the skyline.

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I mean, it reaches up to the sky and I guess the pilgrims would

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have really felt that after their long walk.

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Josie d'Arby will be finding out about Mont Saint-Michel's

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sister monastery in Cornwall, St Michael's Mount.

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You're treading the route that many pilgrims have trodden.

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This is the West door

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and this is the way everyone would have approached in medieval times.

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And I'll be uncovering

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the origins of Mont Saint-Michel's amazing abbey.

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Just one look at Mont Saint-Michel

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reveals why it's enchanted Christians

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since a chapel was first built here

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at the beginning of the eighth century.

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Rising high above its vast bay, this World Heritage Site is known

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as the perfect image of paradise, a place where the Earth meets Heaven.

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Mont Saint-Michel has drawn Christian pilgrims

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for over 1,000 years.

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Faith is what brings them here and it's also what drives them

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to attempt the sometimes hazardous barefoot walk across to the island.

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While I get ready to join some modern day pilgrims,

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here's the first of our inspirational hymns from churches

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and cathedrals right across Britain, starting with Pershore Abbey.

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Mont Saint-Michel is the most visited tourist attraction

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in France, outside Paris.

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Nearly three million people flock to the island every year,

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with at least a third of that number making the climb through

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the narrow streets up to the abbey itself.

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For an increasing number of visitors, the journey to

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Mont Saint-Michel starts here, near the village of Genet

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on the other side of the bay

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because walking across the sand is the way many Christians

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choose to reach the island today.

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The bay at Mont Saint-Michel has one of the biggest

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and fastest tides in Europe.

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The dangers of crossing it are a matter of historical record

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and are depicted in this scene in the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

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Francois Lamotte D'Argy is one of the guides who regularly

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leads Christian pilgrims over to the island.

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When the tide arrives, it can arrive really quick.

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As the bay is not really flat, sometimes, you can

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get caught on a kind of island.

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What about quicksand? I've heard there's quicksand around here.

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The quicksand can be a problem for people who have difficulties

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to walk or who are not used to it.

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Indeed, it's a very strange sensation

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-when you have never done it before.

-Yeah.

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We're walking, it seems like a long way away - how far is it

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and how long will it take us?

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It takes more or less three hours, 30, to hike there.

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And the distance is about six, seven kilometres.

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So four or five miles, I would say.

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-So we've got plenty of work to do.

-Yes, indeed.

-Let's go for it.

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The first church on Mont Saint-Michel was built

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by the Bishop of the nearby town of Avranches

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in the early eighth century,

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and this basilica is now home to his skull, which is a holy relic.

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So, St Aubert was the Bishop of Avranches and during three nights

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he had the same dream and, during these dreams, St Michael asked

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the Bishop to build a church on the top of this island

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just in front of Avranches.

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The dream was not exactly a dream because St Michael appeared in

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the room of the Bishop and decided to touch the head of the Bishop.

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That's why today we've got this hole on the right part of the skull.

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After these dreams,

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St Aubert decided to create a small sanctuary dedicated to St Michael.

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After the building of that first church,

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the Duke of Normandy, Richard I,

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decided to transform the church of St Aubert

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into an abbey with a monastic community.

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These monks, who arrived in the year 966,

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began to build a true church with stones, with bricks,

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and today it is the oldest part of the Mont Saint-Michel.

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Very quickly, Mont Saint-Michel became probably the best place

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for pilgrimage of the whole Europe.

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For the serving archpriest,

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the story of the divine origins of Mont Saint-Michel

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is a legacy to be cherished.

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-TRANSLATION:

-Here in the basilique,

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a lot of people come because

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Avranches and St Aubert is on Mont Saint-Michel's road

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and people come to see the relic.

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It's like a first step in their pilgrimage.

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We're making good progress here

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and so far we've avoided the quicksand.

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Time for a very appropriate hymn.

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We've just passed our halfway mark across the bay,

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a good time for me to find out

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how some of my fellow pilgrims are feeling about the experience.

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James, you've brought your family on this walk.

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Why have you come on a pilgrimage?

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Well, the essence of any pilgrimage is for us to understand

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probably why we're here

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so this, for me, is probably something I've not done before

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so it's a good thing to do.

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It's going to contain very great spiritual significance.

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I think it's a great experience

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because I knew that Jesus walked on the water, you know,

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and as I was walking, I thought,

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"Wow, yeah, Jesus walked on the water, I'm walking with Jesus."

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You know, I was like reflecting and, you know, meditating.

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I was praying even as I was walking

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because it's all about praying, sacrifice, you know.

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So I'm so excited and very happy.

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After a Benedictine order moved into Mont Saint-Michel in 966,

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the abbey began to attract pilgrims.

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But when an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther,

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initiated the Reformation in 1517, his aversion to pilgrimages

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meant they began to be frowned upon by many Protestants.

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Today, however, many Christians from different denominations are

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returning to the idea of pilgrimage as a way of exploring their faith.

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Francois, what does this walk mean to you?

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I'm a happy man, actually,

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because I live in an environment that I literally adore.

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-It's lovely.

-I'm someone who is really sensitive to the things

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of nature and I'm also a Christian,

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so leading all these people is much more than only a physical move -

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it's a permanent conversion, actually.

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I feel like this is sort of reminiscent of a biblical scene.

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Yes, indeed. You can do a clear analogy between this portion

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of the ancient Testament where Moses crosses the sea,

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and this place, where you also have biblical elements, like the rock,

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the sand that characterises the multitude,

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the winds, the holy spirit.

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Just enjoying the creation - that makes you close to God, I think.

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We just need that sea to part now, don't we?

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-Yeah. That's not in my power!

-LAUGHTER

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Across the English Channel, just off the coast of Cornwall,

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lies another rocky outcrop with a stunning building on it.

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It looks remarkably like Mont Saint-Michel

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and is also surrounded by the sea at high tide.

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Josie d'Arby has been finding out more.

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The priory is the focal point of St Michael's Mount,

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which is some 30 miles east of Land's End in Cornwall.

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And until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s,

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it was home to a Benedictine order.

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Historically, this is the way

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that the monks would have had to travel - by boat - and I have to say

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it's quite a way to take in

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that spectacular view and the fresh Cornish sea air.

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It's now a castle and belongs to Lord James St Levan and his family.

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-James, how lovely to meet you.

-And you, Josie.

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Beautiful home you've got, I must say.

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-Well, it is absolutely lovely. Come and have a look.

-I'd love to.

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James, why are these known as The Pilgrims' Steps?

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Well, they were rediscovered in the 1950s.

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At the time, my grandfather called them The Pilgrims' Steps partly

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because they were almost certainly used by the pilgrims

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who came in Medieval times.

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But it's also where our visitors come now,

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and also pilgrimages, which we still have today.

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In the Middle Ages,

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the main highway through Cornwall ran close to St Michael's Mount

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and pilgrims would come in the hope their prayers would be answered.

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In the 12th century, ownership was given by Britain's Norman rulers

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to the then Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel, Bernard du Bec,

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who used it as a training ground for young monks.

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So is it true that Saint-Michel used to send monks to St Michael's

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as some way of testing their mettle, a bit of a boot camp for them

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because life here was so much more difficult?

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Well, it certainly would have been a rugged place to live

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in Medieval times and, yeah, I believe they did send

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the young monks to see if they could survive five years in Cornwall.

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And it's very busy. Is it always this busy year-round?

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-Why do people come here?

-People have come here all its history.

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I mean, I think even back in the Bronze Age we've got evidence

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there was a marketplace here that people would sail to.

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So which bit of the castle is this bit that we're looking at now

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that we're heading toward?

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You're treading the route that many pilgrims have trodden.

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This is the West door

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and this is the way everyone would have approached in Medieval times.

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Is there anything left of the original priory?

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Well, the church is still very much the heart of the place.

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-We have a chaplain for the island.

-Mm-hmm.

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And we hold services every Sunday

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from the end of May until the end of September

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and at Christmas and Easter and, of course, on St Michael's Day.

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Normally I read the lesson and I take the collection.

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It's a beautiful church. How much of this building is original?

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Well, there's a room underneath the pews there which is part of

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the original and possibly the tower is still the original Norman tower,

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but most of the rest of the church was rebuilt towards

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the end of the 14th century.

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Even though it's not used as a monastery any more,

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it still has a very spiritual sense about it.

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It does and it draws people of all different creeds

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and it has a very broad appeal.

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Does it hold that significance for you?

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I don't think you could live on this island without feeling it was

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a special, spiritual place.

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And there are moments

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when I have a sense of St Michael watching over us.

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-Well, we finally made it. How did you find that?

-Oh, it was great.

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Best way to arrive here, walk like the pilgrims used to.

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It's really uplifting. It was lovely.

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Well, it was lovely to meet you. I'll let you finish.

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-I'm off to the abbey.

-Thank you.

-Thank you.

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Well, I've finally arrived at the famous abbey at Mont Saint-Michel

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and I'm getting a real sense of what it's been like

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for pilgrims over the past 13 centuries.

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After the long journey, you arrive at this vast building.

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It's breathtaking and it's humbling.

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To tell me more about the history of this special place, I've arranged

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to meet Valerie Coupel, who's been a tour guide here for over 16 years.

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-Ah, so that's Saint Michael and Saint Aubert.

-Exactly, yes.

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This sculpture represents the revelation,

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the apparition of Michael to Aubert in 709.

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And what's happened to Saint Michael's face?

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His face was chopped off at the French Revolution.

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Whoa, brutal. Gosh.

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At the French Revolution, the monks had to go away,

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and for 200 years, almost 200 years,

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there was no order here, no religion.

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So only in 1966 did the Benedictine come back.

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And pilgrims came here because it was a seat of learning.

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Yes. Mont Saint-Michel has been one of the most important intellectual

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and theological centres in Europe for centuries,

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and here we are standing in the main room of this intellectual centre.

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This is the scriptorium.

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Literally, it means the room where you write.

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So the monks of Mont Saint-Michel were very good copyists.

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They copied manuscripts, mainly Bibles, songs, the evangels,

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and they did a lot of exchanges with other abbeys

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and other theological centres in Europe.

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Well, you've worked here many years in...

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well, this place of God, this place of worship.

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Has that affected your faith and the way you see God?

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I would say yes. Yes.

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And in some way, I was born and raised as a Christian

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and for that reason, I think,

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I chose this job because it is a job

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where I can be inspired by all these churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

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They inspired me, they inspire my faith.

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And now a hymn which captures the long, spiritual history

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of this extraordinary place, Angel Voices Ever Singing.

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# Swing low, sweet chariot... #

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Now, I've got some great news for all you gospel fans out there.

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We're looking for the finest amateur choirs in the UK to take part

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in the 2017 Gospel Choir of the Year competition.

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# Swing low, sweet chariot... #

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For the finalists, this will be an opportunity of a lifetime.

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To find out how to enter, go to the Songs Of Praise website,

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where you'll find details and the all-important terms and conditions.

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The closing date is Friday the 18th August.

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We look forward to receiving your entries.

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And to get you inspired, here's a great gospel song.

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# When Jesus washed

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# He washed my sins away

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# Watch and pray Watch and pray, my Lord

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# And he taught me how to live... #

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Well, I hope you've enjoyed our visits to France and to Cornwall.

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Next week, rock star Mike Peters from The Alarm talks to Aled Jones

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about his faith and performs his song Walk Forever By My Side...

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..and the Reverend Kate Bottley meets a hospital chaplain who has

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a wonderful way of communicating with patients who have dementia.

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HE SINGS

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We'll leave you with a hymn that reflects our pilgrimage here

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to Mont Saint-Michel -

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Thy Hand, O God, Has Guided.

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Sean Fletcher visits Mont Saint-Michel in France to meet some modern-day pilgrims and discover the religious history of this iconic and majestic monastery. Josie D'Arby reveals its link to St Michael's Mount in Cornwall.