Sacred Sites – the Cathedral

August 10, 2012

Mont St Michel, France

At Mont St Michel, on the French coast of Normandy, stands a tall spire on a proud spar of granite, hardened against the elements so that it survives the wearing away of the softer stone around it, which has all been washed off with the tides to join the endless swathes of silt on the ocean floor of the North Sea.

At the roof of this promontory sits the cathedral and at the very top of the roof the eponymous angelic Michael (beautifully rendered in gold leaf) slays the dragon. Victory in this battle represents the great medieval symbol of god’s power over evil, of the Church’s guiding light and protective hand, of the spiritual/military wing of this almost omnipresent force in European culture for a thousand years. Michael’s defeat of Satan in the New Testament made him a poster boy for the Christian God’s supremacy over the earth and our inevitable sins. (Readers of this blog will know I am not very fond of this kind of mythopoeia, what with its extensive links to an attitude of transcendental domination over the earth of lesser shadows and hardness.)

Stained Glass – St Michel, aka the Archangel Michael, slays the dragon

The visitor is shuffled along a tight and winding path up the hillside – a gauntlet of cheap souvenir shops and expensive restaurants – until they reach the cathedral itself. Inside, the elevated ceilings, the grand halls, the vaulted pillars and high windows filled with spectacular stained glass all inspire the sense of loftiness appropriate to this symbolic construction of the way to righteousness. Naturally, we mere mortals are judged poorly by the upper echelon of transcendental heights. To the gods of the sky, like the archangels Michael (the warrior) and Gabriel (the messenger), we are as dust, poor mites scraping an existence out of the dust. Of course in historical context, this is part of a classic post-agricultural and pastoralist myth cycle – the earth is hard, why do we have to do so much work to eke a living out of it? Because we left the garden of hunting and gathering to order the land and creatures so that they would provide more. Never happy, us humans.

A beautiful dim passage deep within Mont St Michel

So we are undeserving of this God’s glorious vision, but grace is still possible, the bounteous light pouring down upon us forever, trickling into this lower sphere and refracted through all the colours of the rainbow, as a reminder of this great God’s endless patience for his chosen, the ones who get self-aware consciousness and the right to name the other beasts. That’s where we fit in this medieval narrative – in the middle, with Michael flaying evil dragons in the sky above our heads as we pray not to give in to the beast lurking in our own shadows. It’s not much of a story, but you can see how it works. There’s no shortage of material that can be made to fit, that’s for sure. It just all seems so … primitive.

Notre Dame, Paris

At Notre Dame, in Paris, the gargoyles rule the rooftops, while more angelic guides reveal the path to glory on the magisterial stained glass windows high above our heads. The smoke rises as the rites begin, the old ritual retold for the humble and devout christian folk who attend in great numbers, the tale somehow still made relevant to their modern lives.

Notre Dame, interior, mid-ritual

The symbolic shape of the building, the arches and spires, the channeling of light and whorling of organ pipes, all of the pomp and the ceremony conspiring to bend our attention towards the words, the sacred words, that one special story told so that we find ourselves in it, held up in this hope as we see ourselves pressed down by the weight of biblical history and its oppressive sanctions against curiosity, against finding the self free of dogma, against independence of spirit.

Cathedrals – great spaces, wonderful windows, beautiful possibilities … but pretty average stories.

Notre Dame, stained glass

Notre Dame, candles for the prayers of the faithful



  1. What a great blog post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Darrell! And bravo for the developments in your writing, with the Kindle versions of your novels attracting some enthusiastic responses i see.

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