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
on the Normandy coast of France.
Welcome to Songs of Praise.
I'll be following in the footsteps of millions of Christian pilgrims
who've walked these sands for over 1,000 years.
Wow, Francois! It's just so commanding on the skyline.
I mean, it reaches up to the sky and I guess the pilgrims would
have really felt that after their long walk.
Josie d'Arby will be finding out about Mont Saint-Michel's
sister monastery in Cornwall, St Michael's Mount.
You're treading the route that many pilgrims have trodden.
This is the West door
and this is the way everyone would have approached in medieval times.
And I'll be uncovering
the origins of Mont Saint-Michel's amazing abbey.
Just one look at Mont Saint-Michel
reveals why it's enchanted Christians
since a chapel was first built here
at the beginning of the eighth century.
Rising high above its vast bay, this World Heritage Site is known
as the perfect image of paradise, a place where the Earth meets Heaven.
Mont Saint-Michel has drawn Christian pilgrims
for over 1,000 years.
Faith is what brings them here and it's also what drives them
to attempt the sometimes hazardous barefoot walk across to the island.
While I get ready to join some modern day pilgrims,
here's the first of our inspirational hymns from churches
and cathedrals right across Britain, starting with Pershore Abbey.
Mont Saint-Michel is the most visited tourist attraction
in France, outside Paris.
Nearly three million people flock to the island every year,
with at least a third of that number making the climb through
the narrow streets up to the abbey itself.
For an increasing number of visitors, the journey to
Mont Saint-Michel starts here, near the village of Genet
on the other side of the bay
because walking across the sand is the way many Christians
choose to reach the island today.
The bay at Mont Saint-Michel has one of the biggest
and fastest tides in Europe.
The dangers of crossing it are a matter of historical record
and are depicted in this scene in the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
Francois Lamotte D'Argy is one of the guides who regularly
leads Christian pilgrims over to the island.
When the tide arrives, it can arrive really quick.
As the bay is not really flat, sometimes, you can
get caught on a kind of island.
What about quicksand? I've heard there's quicksand around here.
The quicksand can be a problem for people who have difficulties
to walk or who are not used to it.
Indeed, it's a very strange sensation
-when you have never done it before.
We're walking, it seems like a long way away - how far is it
and how long will it take us?
It takes more or less three hours, 30, to hike there.
And the distance is about six, seven kilometres.
So four or five miles, I would say.
-So we've got plenty of work to do.
-Let's go for it.
The first church on Mont Saint-Michel was built
by the Bishop of the nearby town of Avranches
in the early eighth century,
and this basilica is now home to his skull, which is a holy relic.
So, St Aubert was the Bishop of Avranches and during three nights
he had the same dream and, during these dreams, St Michael asked
the Bishop to build a church on the top of this island
just in front of Avranches.
The dream was not exactly a dream because St Michael appeared in
the room of the Bishop and decided to touch the head of the Bishop.
That's why today we've got this hole on the right part of the skull.
After these dreams,
St Aubert decided to create a small sanctuary dedicated to St Michael.
After the building of that first church,
the Duke of Normandy, Richard I,
decided to transform the church of St Aubert
into an abbey with a monastic community.
These monks, who arrived in the year 966,
began to build a true church with stones, with bricks,
and today it is the oldest part of the Mont Saint-Michel.
Very quickly, Mont Saint-Michel became probably the best place
for pilgrimage of the whole Europe.
For the serving archpriest,
the story of the divine origins of Mont Saint-Michel
is a legacy to be cherished.
-Here in the basilique,
a lot of people come because
Avranches and St Aubert is on Mont Saint-Michel's road
and people come to see the relic.
It's like a first step in their pilgrimage.
We're making good progress here
and so far we've avoided the quicksand.
Time for a very appropriate hymn.
We've just passed our halfway mark across the bay,
a good time for me to find out
how some of my fellow pilgrims are feeling about the experience.
James, you've brought your family on this walk.
Why have you come on a pilgrimage?
Well, the essence of any pilgrimage is for us to understand
probably why we're here
so this, for me, is probably something I've not done before
so it's a good thing to do.
It's going to contain very great spiritual significance.
I think it's a great experience
because I knew that Jesus walked on the water, you know,
and as I was walking, I thought,
"Wow, yeah, Jesus walked on the water, I'm walking with Jesus."
You know, I was like reflecting and, you know, meditating.
I was praying even as I was walking
because it's all about praying, sacrifice, you know.
So I'm so excited and very happy.
After a Benedictine order moved into Mont Saint-Michel in 966,
the abbey began to attract pilgrims.
But when an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther,
initiated the Reformation in 1517, his aversion to pilgrimages
meant they began to be frowned upon by many Protestants.
Today, however, many Christians from different denominations are
returning to the idea of pilgrimage as a way of exploring their faith.
Francois, what does this walk mean to you?
I'm a happy man, actually,
because I live in an environment that I literally adore.
-I'm someone who is really sensitive to the things
of nature and I'm also a Christian,
so leading all these people is much more than only a physical move -
it's a permanent conversion, actually.
I feel like this is sort of reminiscent of a biblical scene.
Yes, indeed. You can do a clear analogy between this portion
of the ancient Testament where Moses crosses the sea,
and this place, where you also have biblical elements, like the rock,
the sand that characterises the multitude,
the winds, the holy spirit.
Just enjoying the creation - that makes you close to God, I think.
We just need that sea to part now, don't we?
-Yeah. That's not in my power!
Across the English Channel, just off the coast of Cornwall,
lies another rocky outcrop with a stunning building on it.
It looks remarkably like Mont Saint-Michel
and is also surrounded by the sea at high tide.
Josie d'Arby has been finding out more.
The priory is the focal point of St Michael's Mount,
which is some 30 miles east of Land's End in Cornwall.
And until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s,
it was home to a Benedictine order.
Historically, this is the way
that the monks would have had to travel - by boat - and I have to say
it's quite a way to take in
that spectacular view and the fresh Cornish sea air.
It's now a castle and belongs to Lord James St Levan and his family.
-James, how lovely to meet you.
-And you, Josie.
Beautiful home you've got, I must say.
-Well, it is absolutely lovely. Come and have a look.
-I'd love to.
James, why are these known as The Pilgrims' Steps?
Well, they were rediscovered in the 1950s.
At the time, my grandfather called them The Pilgrims' Steps partly
because they were almost certainly used by the pilgrims
who came in Medieval times.
But it's also where our visitors come now,
and also pilgrimages, which we still have today.
In the Middle Ages,
the main highway through Cornwall ran close to St Michael's Mount
and pilgrims would come in the hope their prayers would be answered.
In the 12th century, ownership was given by Britain's Norman rulers
to the then Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel, Bernard du Bec,
who used it as a training ground for young monks.
So is it true that Saint-Michel used to send monks to St Michael's
as some way of testing their mettle, a bit of a boot camp for them
because life here was so much more difficult?
Well, it certainly would have been a rugged place to live
in Medieval times and, yeah, I believe they did send
the young monks to see if they could survive five years in Cornwall.
And it's very busy. Is it always this busy year-round?
-Why do people come here?
-People have come here all its history.
I mean, I think even back in the Bronze Age we've got evidence
there was a marketplace here that people would sail to.
So which bit of the castle is this bit that we're looking at now
that we're heading toward?
You're treading the route that many pilgrims have trodden.
This is the West door
and this is the way everyone would have approached in Medieval times.
Is there anything left of the original priory?
Well, the church is still very much the heart of the place.
-We have a chaplain for the island.
And we hold services every Sunday
from the end of May until the end of September
and at Christmas and Easter and, of course, on St Michael's Day.
Normally I read the lesson and I take the collection.
It's a beautiful church. How much of this building is original?
Well, there's a room underneath the pews there which is part of
the original and possibly the tower is still the original Norman tower,
but most of the rest of the church was rebuilt towards
the end of the 14th century.
Even though it's not used as a monastery any more,
it still has a very spiritual sense about it.
It does and it draws people of all different creeds
and it has a very broad appeal.
Does it hold that significance for you?
I don't think you could live on this island without feeling it was
a special, spiritual place.
And there are moments
when I have a sense of St Michael watching over us.
-Well, we finally made it. How did you find that?
-Oh, it was great.
Best way to arrive here, walk like the pilgrims used to.
It's really uplifting. It was lovely.
Well, it was lovely to meet you. I'll let you finish.
-I'm off to the abbey.
Well, I've finally arrived at the famous abbey at Mont Saint-Michel
and I'm getting a real sense of what it's been like
for pilgrims over the past 13 centuries.
After the long journey, you arrive at this vast building.
It's breathtaking and it's humbling.
To tell me more about the history of this special place, I've arranged
to meet Valerie Coupel, who's been a tour guide here for over 16 years.
-Ah, so that's Saint Michael and Saint Aubert.
This sculpture represents the revelation,
the apparition of Michael to Aubert in 709.
And what's happened to Saint Michael's face?
His face was chopped off at the French Revolution.
Whoa, brutal. Gosh.
At the French Revolution, the monks had to go away,
and for 200 years, almost 200 years,
there was no order here, no religion.
So only in 1966 did the Benedictine come back.
And pilgrims came here because it was a seat of learning.
Yes. Mont Saint-Michel has been one of the most important intellectual
and theological centres in Europe for centuries,
and here we are standing in the main room of this intellectual centre.
This is the scriptorium.
Literally, it means the room where you write.
So the monks of Mont Saint-Michel were very good copyists.
They copied manuscripts, mainly Bibles, songs, the evangels,
and they did a lot of exchanges with other abbeys
and other theological centres in Europe.
Well, you've worked here many years in...
well, this place of God, this place of worship.
Has that affected your faith and the way you see God?
I would say yes. Yes.
And in some way, I was born and raised as a Christian
and for that reason, I think,
I chose this job because it is a job
where I can be inspired by all these churches, abbeys and cathedrals.
They inspired me, they inspire my faith.
And now a hymn which captures the long, spiritual history
of this extraordinary place, Angel Voices Ever Singing.
# Swing low, sweet chariot... #
Now, I've got some great news for all you gospel fans out there.
We're looking for the finest amateur choirs in the UK to take part
in the 2017 Gospel Choir of the Year competition.
# Swing low, sweet chariot... #
For the finalists, this will be an opportunity of a lifetime.
To find out how to enter, go to the Songs Of Praise website,
where you'll find details and the all-important terms and conditions.
The closing date is Friday the 18th August.
We look forward to receiving your entries.
And to get you inspired, here's a great gospel song.
# When Jesus washed
# He washed my sins away
# Watch and pray Watch and pray, my Lord
# And he taught me how to live... #
Well, I hope you've enjoyed our visits to France and to Cornwall.
Next week, rock star Mike Peters from The Alarm talks to Aled Jones
about his faith and performs his song Walk Forever By My Side...
..and the Reverend Kate Bottley meets a hospital chaplain who has
a wonderful way of communicating with patients who have dementia.
We'll leave you with a hymn that reflects our pilgrimage here
to Mont Saint-Michel -
Thy Hand, O God, Has Guided.
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.