Mont Saint Michel rises out of the sea like a dream. It’s almost wrong how it stands out against the horizon, like running into a sequoia tree in the desert. It makes my heart stutter. We walk across the mudflats at low tide, battered by the winds and covered in sand. Fish bones and lost mittens and footprints are scattered across the landscape like bobby pins left on the sink by an ex-girlfriend, only here the bobby pins are memories of a force of nature that might kill us if we don’t get to the island soon. Definitely an ex-girlfriend.
By the time we reach the front gates at the base of the island, the mist has my hair curling at the nape of my neck. We hike up a narrow street bordered by medieval houses and through an honest-to-god portcullis. Elementary school groups and selfie-stick wielding tourists join us on the trek up stone stairs to- you guessed it- more stairs. It was already a mile and a half across the flats and my feet are starting to ache, but we have to get to the top. We pause on the battlements to stick our heads over and peer down hundreds of feet to the rising tide, and the wind rushes up the walls to blow our eyes shut.
The abbey is the highest and oldest point of the island. The main cathedral feels like an extension of the landscape, walls pale green with weathered copper, green stained glass washing out the entire rectory with a cold light. I sit down on one of the hard pews and listen to the wind blasting through the belfry above.
I’m not religious in the slightest, even after twelve years in children’s choirs. Most classical Western choral music is Christian, so I know the words without knowing the tune, so to speak. It’s a bit like the monks who live here, actually- they walk in circles around the grassy cloister, talking to God, round and round, wearing grooves in the stones. The act of walking becomes secondary to the act of prayer, the inverse of all those hymns becoming technicality in the act of singing. Religion was the path I memorized and wore down into polished stones underfoot, any divine meaning smoothed away. It mattered more to stand next to my friends and hear us breathing as one, sure of our place in the dissonance and resolution. We didn’t sing to God, we sang to each other.
It takes time to wind through Mont Saint Michel’s silent rooms: a chapel of nothing but pillars, a wide ambulatory, a mess hall with soaring ceilings, all in the eerie gray-green stone of the cathedral. In each I wonder what it would be like if it were filled with sound. I still get the urge to sing in Latin in churches, or anywhere that’s more abandoned than not, in parks and parking garages. Religion and song are both just trying to fill the empty spaces.
I pass a door propped open; steps spiral down, blocked off by a rope and a sign that says (a bit ominously): “Crypt.” Wafting up the stairs is a faint baritone, climbing above a small mixed choir. I can’t get down the steps, and the Latin is too soft to be understood, but the words don’t matter, I think, as long as you sing often, and sing for someone you love.