In that moment, I was a strange mix between Indiana Jones and Neo from The Matrix. Standing up to my knees in cold, oozing quicksand, I bent backwards at the waist with a practically perpendicular grace that would have put the bullet-dodger himself to shame. Satisfied with my impressive acrobatics, I turned my attention to freeing myself before I sank too far. Minutes ticked by but eventually, out came one leg and then the other. Exhausted from the effort, I nonetheless righted myself and stood lightly on my feet while savoring the sandy expanse that spread before me. Unlike Indy and his misadventures, I chose to encounter the quicksand voluntarily. My destination was Mont Saint-Michel, an island in Normandy, France accessible only by foot when the tide is low.
The perils of the journey are well worth the sight of the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel rising from the rocky island. A tall green spire tops the castle-like structure which looms over the small village buildings, their faces protected from the sea by the island’s tower-filled stone walls. Legend has it the Archangel Michael requested the building of the island’s first abbey and has protected the island ever since. Despite numerous attempts to infiltrate the island during various religious wars, it remained impregnable. Though it served as a prison during the French Revolution, the abbey is once again a place of religious worship. Sloped stone steps lead tourists up the winding, narrow streets towards the heavenly structure.
Small though the island city may be, its streets are filled with voices from around the world; tour guides wave German, Russian, Chinese, and English flags as they attempt to herd curious travellers from the cute, souvenir-filled shops lining the Grand Rue. Iron-wrought lanterns and intricate, old-fashioned signs dangled above as I climbed up further still, the tantalizing aroma of French patisseries and crepes wafting towards my nostrils. The contrast of the city astounded me; its brightly colored, wooden stores melt effortlessly into drawbridge gates with weatherworn stone facades. The warm, summer sun beat down on me as the cobblestone stairs took me up above the city, each additional step reminding me that perhaps I ought not have eaten so many delicious pain au chocolats this trip. When the staircase finally came to a winding halt and I stepped into the welcome shade of the abbey, the magnificence of it made me forget the exhausting ascent.
Sunlight filtered in gently through the abbey’s many stained glass windows, which are shaped into soaring arches that converge at the pinnacle of the high ceiling. Large windows like doorways line the top of the abbey walls, allowing visitors a constant view of the stunning blue skies and beyond – maybe to heaven itself. I wandered over towards the main gold-painted altar, where statues of Saint Anne and Mary stand with crystal-lined chandeliers hanging above them. All around are statues of religious figures such as Joan of Arc or Saint Michael. Needing a bit of air, I stepped outside to walk along the pathway of arches that surrounded The Cloisters, a beautiful garden filled with wildflowers and other lush greenery. At the end of the pathway, the arches open up to low-rising walls, a key position from which I could look down and see the rest of the city. The breeze carried the sound of laughter up from the streets along with a myriad of jumbled conversations in a symphony of world languages.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the religion that the abbey was built to practice; as an atheist, I didn’t come to ask St. Michael to judge me kindly when the time came. I travelled to marvel at a city that rose to life from the rocks of an island. Though I may not believe in the power of those immortalized as statues in the abbey, I can appreciate the beauty of the architecture and respect the faith of those who came – and still come – to worship. If recent tragedies in Paris have taught us anything, it’s that the world could learn a few lessons from Mont Saint-Michel about how humans can exist with one another despite differing views, languages, and religions. Our differences are not as important as our similarities, and in the end life is too precious to be wasted on hatred and intolerance. Rather, we should all take a seat, turn our faces to the sun, and enjoy the wonders that exist.