PILGRIMAGE: Saint Malo, France—Giving Thanks by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Saint Malo, France—Giving Thanks by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

Père Michel, the local parish priest, is giving me an evening tour of the narrow streets of his native Saint Malo.  This small port town is a peninsula wrapped in 1,900 meters of stone ramparts and fifteen centuries of sea lore.  Her sturdy houses of tan granite, with their steeply pitched slate roofs and dormer windows, tower above the tops of the battlements as if watching the fishing boats in the bay.  Due west, over the horizon, is Great Britain.

Saint Malo is a seafarers’ city whose intrepid explorers and merchants sailed their three-masted Cap-horniers to every part of the globe.  They brought back goods and tall tales from Africa and Antarctica, New Orleans and New Zealand, China, and Argentina.  This is the home port of Jacque Cartier, who set off from here on his first voyage of exploration to Canada in 1534.

Inside the town walls this evening, the smell of the sea and the romance of the sailing days still reach into every corner.  My priest-guide, who is practicing his English on me, keeps up an interesting monologue about the history of his town.  In the late 1600s, he tells me, corsairs from Saint Malo put to sea in their light, swift ships to wreak havoc on English shipping in the name of the king of France.  In their heyday, they once captured 3,800 commercial vessels in the space of ten years.  It’s no wonder the English called Saint Malo a “hornet’s” nest.”

We’re now strolling through a corner of the town where the buildings date back to those days.  You can still see five-story houses of wood and stone, with bizarre angles at their corners.  Crooked chimneys, topped with quaint red chimney pots, sprout up randomly in a rolling sea of slate roofs.  Up and down the eight-foot-wide streets, the old houses lean into one another in charming disorder, as if jostling and kidding together.

Space was already at a premium even back when these houses were built, so they were made high and narrow, with stingy spiral staircases inside and narrow air shafts for ventilation and sunlight.  Residents of these wooden buildings slept with their fingers crossed, knowing that the shops and warehouses next door on either side were bulging with tallow, tar, and gunpowder for the tall ships.  I’m now under the spell of Père Michel’s stories.  My fellow tourists start to look like rough sailors, leathery old sea captains, and swaggering corsairs.  They’re shouting to one another about the latest exploits of Duguay-Trouin, the first great corsair captain, who has just captured a dozen more English ships this week.  I smell pots of molten tar and the smoke from wood chip fires used to treat the bottoms of the ships.  Busy merchant establishments, ship chandlers, and taverns are all crowded together along stinking, muddy streets.

The priest stops at a small wooden door, takes out a key, and lets us through.  We begin to wind our way along dark, silent hallways and upward through a warren of little rooms in the Roman Catholic high school where he teaches and lives.  He shows me some arches and stone walls dating back over 800 years.  These, he explains, once belonged to a Benedictine monastery.

I feel at home now.

As we climb a fourth flight of dark, squeaky stairs, he tells me, “Actually, we’re climbing up here just to watch the sun set.  Saint Malo is famous for her sunsets, you know!”  He leads me to a small closed window high above the western ramparts.

In the foreground beneath us the battlements, towers, and turrets loom in the lengthening shadows.

This would have been the hour when lanterns were hoisted high by ropes on pulleys to light the narrow streets.  In medieval days the curfew bell, la noguette, was rung at 10:00 p.m., and the town gates were shut tight.  From the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth, the streets were patrolled after dark by a unique police force: about fifty vicious mastiffs.  These huge dogs that had been starved during the day were let out to roam the city streets after curfew and were recalled in early morning by the sound of a copper trumpet.  In 1770, a poor sailor was coming home late and was caught by these canine “police.”  The grisly evidence was found scattered around the town next morning.  Many an unlucky thief must have met swift justice this way over the centuries.

I’m pulled back into the present by the squawking of seagulls that wheel in graceful circles just outside our window.  Beyond the dark ramparts, I can make out a ribbon of deserted sand and the gray line of gentle soundless surf.  Near the shore three rocky islets lurk in the shallow waves like beached sea monsters.  Farther out in the bay, fiery flickers of setting sun dance on the silken wrinkles of the gulf of Saint Malo.  We watch in silence as the orange sun slips reverently below the horizon.  Neither of us is willing to break the spell cast by the breathtaking beauty of this everyday event.  I mutter a quiet, heartfelt prayer of thanks for the splendor of the spectacle I’m watching.

In the monastery we cultivate a sense of awareness of God by starting and ending everything with a prayer: community meetings, for example, and table reading, and the lessons at the Liturgy of the Hours in church.

The custom of praying grace before and after meals gets you in the habit of being thankful to God not just for food but for everything you have.  You can thank God for a cool evening breeze, the rough texture of a sweater, the sparkle in a baby’s eyes, or the bright face of a sophomore in the second row.

Why not say grace before receiving these other gifts from God?  Grace before listening to Mozart?  Grace before jumping into the pool on a hot day?  Grace before opening the door to my cousin and her little children who’ve come to visit?  Grace at my desk before starting my daily job (thankful, perhaps, that I have a job to do)?

If I thank God after a meal because I recognize it as a gift, then why not a sincere grace after seeing the face of a particularly pretty girl?  Or grace after a difficult but fruitful meeting?  Grace after helping a slow student master a tricky French verb?

If everything is a grace and a gift, then why not say grace even on unpleasant occasions, in times of suffering, knowing that hidden inside of the pain is a mysterious gift from a loving God?  Grace during an illness?  Grace after a disagreement?

It’s dark now, and Père Michel and I are still standing at our window.  The last few gulls have gone home for the night.  The sea is a rippling veil of black satin.  The Bidouane tower broods over the ghostly ramparts below.  Its pointed slate roof starts to tingle with the first flecks of silver as the moon comes up behind us.  A silent prayer forms in my heart: grace before moonrise.


Many people used to make pilgrimages as a way of showing gratitude to God for some favor received.  Make a list of things and people you are thankful for.  Try to think of a few for which you have never explicitly thanked God before.  As you go down your list, try to think of an appropriate way to show your gratitude to the Lord for each gift.


Sacred Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 57, “The Artisans of the Monastery,” v. 9)

…so that in all things God may be glorified.

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