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In praise of simple faithfulness

09 May 2014

I FIRST visited Mont St Michel, in Brittany, nearly three years ago, and found it one of those mysterious "thin" places that stayed with me as part of my inner landscape. So, this year, I went back with my travelling companion for part of an Eastertide break.

We had taken the overnight ferry to St Malo, and were among the earliest arrivals. After a brisk half-hour walk over the mudflats from the car park, we found ourselves within the walls of the island fortress.

Before we began the climb to the top, we dropped in to the parish church of St Pierre, just below the abbey. There we found a diminu-tive white-haired man in a sweaterand slacks, explaining that he was about to pray for the world, as he did every day at this time, and that we were welcome to stay if we wished, or to come back an hour later.

So we sat down, while he disappeared briefly, returning in an alb and stole ready to say mass. He was joined by a man in his fifties in a fisherman's smock, who, we quickly discovered, multitasked as welcomer, deacon, acolyte, organist, and choir. There were five in the congregation, including us two Anglicans. What followed was a complete sung mass, as the priest presided, and his assistant dived in and out of the sanctuary to serve, read, pray, play, and sing.

It was all quite businesslike and unselfconscious. I got the impression that it would have been just the same whether or not there had been a congregation. French must be the most beautiful liturgical language to sing in, and French composers have the knack of writing simple chants that can be picked up in minutes, and yet express the timeless desire of the soul for God.

After mass, we joined the crowds climbing up to the abbey, with its soaring medieval walls and gothic crenulations. At the top of a needle-thin spire, a rather camp golden St Michael raises his sword in protection of the faithful. The abbey is now home to the Jerusalem Community, whose vocation is to be an oasis of prayer in the midst of ordinary life.

As we arrived, they were beginning the mid-day Office - their chant echoing round the stonework like bells from the sea. It was as utterly beautiful as I had remembered it. But, on this visit, it was the foot soldiers of St Pierre who impressed me. More is achieved by simple faithfulness than we ever know.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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