France, while unpopular today, is the home of numerous Catholic monuments of faith, the most famous being the monastery of Mont St. Michel, on the border of Brittany and Normandy, and the cathedral at Chartres, outside Paris. They exemplify the life of grace in a real way. Mont St Michel, an imposing structure built atop an outcropping of granite in the middle of the ocean, was begun in 708 and completed nearly three centuries later. It is a solid building, of heavy, massive stone arches and squat, thick pillars, crowned by a slightly more graceful church of a later century. Exposed to violent storms and the ceaseless battering of the waves, it provided a haven for monks dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Henry Adams, the American philosopher, wrote about this monastery in 1912: "The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church. . . [he] stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God. His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him here. For the same reason he was, while the pagan danger lasted, the patron saint of France.
So the Normans, when they were converted to Christianity, put themselves under his powerful protection. So he stood for centuries on his Mount in Peril of the Sea, watching across the tremor of the immense ocean. . ." It was here that the Church finally converted the pagan forces, and St. Michael was given the credit. The strong, "manly" Archangel spiritually conquered for Christ the strongest and most fearful of all men of the age, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. But what did the Church do with these manly brutes once baptized? Were they to remain simply baptized brutes, living the same violent lives, only now with a new god? Not at all.
St. Augustine's Treatise on the Trinity tells us that the image of God can be found in our minds; that we all have a memory of God from the moment He created us, and we spend our lives trying to bring that divine memory and image to the forefront of our daily lives. Last week, I mentioned the new movie, City of God, in which a small boy insists upon his manhood, offering as proof that he had killed someone and robbed others. That may be the manhood of the gangs, and of our American culture, and even of the Vikings conquered by the Archangel, but not of God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. Dante spent his pain--filled life trying to find what it meant to be a man everywhere except in God: in human intelligence and philosophy, in politics, and even in human love. And it was only through his love for Beatrice, his childhood sweetheart who died at the age of 25, that he realized that being truly human means to manifest the divine in daily life. Beatrice, in the Divine Comedy, employs this human love and her embodiment of the virtues to lead Dante to the source of happiness-the True Son of Man, Christ the Lord. It is through human love that Beatrice leads Dante to the true Beloved, and urges him to love Him in action: daily virtue, especially charity.
Mont St. Michel is not the end of the Christian journey: we move to the Cathedral of Chartres, outside Paris. Originally built in the eleventh century, it is dedicated to the Blessed Mother, and it is the architectural antithesis of Mont St. Michel. Chartres is light, immensely tall, composed of thin, graceful arches, rose windows, beautiful stained glass-and the Mother of God. It is she who takes the baptized brute from the Archangel and, like Beatrice, teaches him how to be truly human: by being more divine, through the embodiment of virtue. Man has always wanted to be God. But brute strength and will don't do it. It is the God who showed mercy so "feminine" a virtue, as supposed in popular culture-yet so difficult to exercise in real life.
Charity is not weakness, but the ultimate exercise of strength: the sacrifice of self-interest for the betterment of the other, for the love of Christ. It is only in charity, mercy, forgiveness, that the image of God appears in man. "The image of God is man fully alive," St. Irenaeus of Lyons taught. "And man fully alive is him who does the will of God." It is the Blessed Virgin who channels the strength of the Archangel and of brute men to turn their strength, not to destruction, but to salvation in Christ. If everything we do is motivated by charity, mercy and forgiveness, then we have attained the deepest longing of man, for we truly become like God.
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