After a visit to Mount Saint-Michel, in France, my daughter Clara and I were impressed by the beauty and the fantastic tales we had heard there.
Perhaps the most fantastic of all is the legend of Saint Aubert, an 8th-century bishop in the nearby village of Avranches, a man so pious and religious that he was believed to perform miracles.
Legend tells that Aubert saw Archangel Michael in his dream, and that the angel asked him to build a church in his name in nearby Mont Tombe. The problem was, Mount Tombe was a hill so steep that only sheep grazed there, and Aubert decided to ignore the dream.
But a second dream happened, and a third. By then the angel was so angry at Aubert, that he pushed the bishop’s forehead with his finger, burning a hole on it. A hole that was visible when the priest woke up and until the day he died.
Aubert ended up building an oratory on Mont Tombe. It later became known as Mount Saint-Michel, one of Europe’s main pilgrimage centers in the Middle Ages, and now one of France’s most visited landmarks – three million people visit it annually, it’s part of the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO.
In France, legends and history are woven together, and the tale of bishop Aubert – later Saint Aubert – is no exception. What was peculiar about it was that the legend apparently had a physical evidence: the priest’s skull, which I learned was displayed in a church called Saint-Gervais d’Avraches. As the town of Avranches was not far from Mount Saint-Michel, I was curious to check it out.
History tells that bishop Aubert died in the year 720 AD, after performing and witnessing many miracles in Mount Saint-Michel. He was canonized by the Catholic church, and his remains were treated with great honors, before the funeral in the church on top of the mount. His body remained buried there until the French Revolution of 1789, when the shrine was looted – after more than 1000 years of expansion and development by the Benedictine priests. In 1792 a doctor saved the skull of Saint Aubert, which pilgrims had venerated for 8 centuries. Finally, in 1856, the skull – the only remaining relic of the saint – was transferred to Saint-Gervaise church, in Avranches.
We arrived in Avranches less than 20 minutes after leaving Mount Saint-Michel. A small French town of no particular distinction, finding Saint-Gervaise church was easy. We parked right in front of it, and read the sign at the entrance saying that the Relic – as Saint Aubert’s skull is called – is only on display certain days of the week. We were there on the wrong day.
Disappointed but not deterred, we entered the church. It was dark, just faintly illuminated by candles lit here and there, in front of images of saints. The silence was heavy, we could hear the sound of our steps. Walking towards an illuminated room in the back, we saw a man staring at a crystal glass enclosure. To our surprise, contradicting the information on the sign outside, the Relic room was open, and we were right in it!
The man was the only other person in the whole church. He was so absorbed looking at the glass enclosure that he didn’t notice us. I looked towards the direction of what he was staring at, and saw – to my astonishment – a skull with a hole right on its forehead! The famous skull the legend talks about was right there, in front of us. Could this be real? I was confused.
We stayed there few minutes, looking at the Relic from all sides. I circled the Relic few times, to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and took a picture. Walking out of the room, we saw the man again, on his way out. He told us he was English and had come to Avranches only to see the Relic. I asked if he thought it was real. “Who knows”, he replied. “It looked real to me”, he added. “What do you think”? he asked me. I could not answer, I didn’t know what to say. I was sure I had just seen a human skull with a hole on the forehead, but was it Saint Aubert’s? I will never know for sure; no one can. But after two days hearing fantastic tales, I was inclined to believe it.
Clara and I left the church in a quiet mood. Leaving Avranches behind, driving on the well-maintained French highway, back to our vacation home in Roscoff, I could not help thinking of a famous Shakespeare’s quote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Maybe that was the answer to the Englishman question – and to my doubts.