Sunday, 12 May 2013

Les Septs Saints Dormant - Vieux Marché

I admit to feeling rather reflective today...

Twenty five years ago today I left my career as a mainframe systems programmer to await the arrival of my first child.

Fifteen years ago today I was drawn back into the world of I.T. and so ended my ten years as a full-time mother, a role that I adored.

Seven years ago today I quit and prepared to swap the corporate cage for a new adventure in France.

Five years ago today my home computer was infected with a malicious piece of code that wiped out the operating system, and that led me to research internet security.

I always expect something life-changing to happen on May 12th each year....

So, while I wait, and wonder, and finally realise that change comes from within, here's an account of the first ever place that I explored alone in Brittany. Incidentally, I first wrote about this on a blog that I began in 2008, when I was considering running a B&B in France, and that I'd totally forgotten until today, so I am stepping back in time seven years while re-writing this post.       

Les Septs Saints Dormant - Vieux Marché

Near the small Breton town of Vieux Marché is a chapel dedicated to The Seven Sleeping Saints.

To reach the chapel I set off west towards the coastline where, in the fifth century, Irish monks - les moines navigateurs - arrived in flimsy crafts, set foot on rocky shores and gave thanks for their safe delivery.

Towards the coast but not quite that far

You drive through a spectacular September countryside, through dark and brooding forests where occasional shafts of sunlight cast golden rays across damp earthy paths and red squirrels scamper in front of you, down steep single-track roads with dangerous drops into crystal-clear streams, emerge from the darkness to discover small stone villages of flower-clad houses clustered around a church... fields of maize whose drying leaves and ripe cobs rattle in the breeze and sound like aboriginal musical instruments, small gardens filled to bursting with tomato plants, cabbages and beans, trees heavy with apples, chestnuts and acorns... and then plunge once more into the depths of a verdant green undergrowth.

So much beauty, and peace and tranquility... timeless and solid and enduring

The Sept Saints Dormant are not sleeping in Vieux Marché itself, you have to go through the village and pick up the signs and then follow a trail that twists and turns and sends you round in seemingly ever-decreasing circles as if to test your resolve, before permitting you to arrive, finally, at your destination which is the small and plain chapel.

You can park right outside, parking is never an issue in France., and wander in through one of two open doors or, as I did, walk around the outside to get a feel for the land and to read the sign on the gate that describes how Louis Massignon, the celebrated French orientalist made a connection between the Breton Sept Saints Dormants and Sura Eighteen of The Koran, the one that tells the story of the seven early Christian martyrs in Ephesus, Turkey.

The Muslim story relates how, in the third century, seven brothers, Maximilian, Mark, Martin, Dennis, John, Seraphin and Constantine, early followers of Christianity, were ordered by the Emperor Decius to make sacrifices to his pagan gods. When they refused Decius ordered them to be cast into a cave and entombed alive. One hundred and seventy years later the cave was discovered and opened and the seven martyrs were found to be just as they had been left, not dead but sleeping. They awoke briefly, died, and were then transported straight to heaven.

A Breton folk song, The Gwerz recounts the same story, attributes miracles to the seven brothers and links it to the chapel near Vieux Marché.

"In the Bishopric of Treguier, in the Parish of Plouaret, The Holy Spirit raised up a chapel without the use of lime or clay, without a mason, or roofer or carpenter. Whoever visits can see the truth. The chapel is made up of but six stones, four rocks that serve as walls and two others as the roof.Who can doubt that Almighty God built it?"

The first 'chapel' was a indeed built without lime or clay. It is a dolmen, dating back to the early Neolithic period (4000 - 3000 BCE), a single-chamber tomb comprising four upright stones (megaliths) topped by two flat capstones. The dolmen now forms part of the south transept and it is this sacred place, rather than the chapel that was built on 1703 on the feast day of Saint Mary Magdelene, that the Gwerz celebrates and associates with resurrection and eternal life.

When the Celts arrived they found the landscape dotted with dolmens and menhirs and other enduring stone symbols that they, too, revered and venerated because the Celts also believed that sleep, death and resurrection were intricately linked and that a person could pass between such states as easily as slipping through a forest clearing.

Think back to the fairy stories that your mother told you when you were a child...

"il était une fois ..." Once upon a time...

of Sleeping Beauty who slept in the castle for a hundred years before Prince Charming appeared to rouse her, still glowing with youthful beauty, with a kiss on her lips...

of Snow White who ate the beautiful rosy-red apple that the Wicked Stepmother had laced with poison, died and was placed in a glass coffin by the seven dwarves where she remained in a state between sleep and death until the handsome hunter came upon her and revived her with a kiss.

The poet Rumi wrote "During the night our souls are reunited with God

"Sleep and death, physical states between which a body and soul can pass back and forth...

"Not dead, but sleeping"

"Fell asleep on..."

In this land of myths and legends it's not so difficult to believe in the Sept Saints Dormant

It was pure good fortune that brought the Orintalist Louis Massignon to this place. One hot July day, the third Sunday in the month, he was taking part in a pardon (a religious festival to mark the local saint's day) when he was struck by the similarities between the story recounted by The Gwerz and that of the Koran. His research led him to discover that in days gone by the Celts of Brittany developed commercial links with the Muslims of the Orient and that the area around Vieux Marché was a stopping-off point on the route of traders carrying raw materials for the manufacture of iron and with it , it seems, also their tales and beliefs from distant lands.

The people of Brittany adopted the miracle of the Seven Sleeping Saints and, in 1954, Louis Massignon added an Islamic Christian pilgrimage for Peace to the Breton Pardon of The Seven Saints of Ephesus at Vieux Marché that remains, to this day, an important link between the two faiths....

There is a small door on the right-hand side of the chapel that leads down stone steps into a vault. Behind an old dark brown oak screen there are seven small figures and one larger one that represents Mary and Jesus. It's too dark for photographs but somehow it feels as if exposing these peaceful doll-like effigies to a flash bulb would seem irreverent... so simply hold onto the bars of the wooden screen, peer through and look upon the figures instead.

(Pic from Wikipedia)

Inside the chapel that is built in the shape of a cross and, as is the way with Christian worship, faces east towards the rising sun (son), above the altar, the Seven Saints and Mary and Jesus raise their eyes towards heaven and eternal peace.

If you sit on the pew at the front, light a one euro candle and place it carefully on the stand, and focus your mind and your prayers on the flickering candle light you might be lucky enough to see the whole altar lit up by rays of sunlight entering through the stained glass panel to the right...and if you do you will notice that the faces of the Seven Saints seem to come to life just as the seven sleeping brothers awoke all those centuries ago.

And as you sit there, the floor dancing with diamonds of green and gold cast by the sunlight through the windows and with the golden flame of your solitary candle flickering, and you open your heart, whether it be Christian, of Moslem, Jewish or of any other faith, and look to the altar and seek forgiveness for your failings and the strength to be a better person, then you may find that your ears fill with sound of blood rushing through your veins and of your distant heartbeat and you may swoon slightly and need to hold on firmly to the wooden pew...

Time will stand still. Silence will engulf you and you will feel Peace.

Do not be afraid to slip off your shoes and climb, barefoot, up the stone steps that lead from your right. There you will see statues of St Michel and The Archangel Gabriel, Jesus and angels... and there you will find that your feet are upon the top of the dolmen that is, of course, warm and soft to the touch.

Before you leave please, buy a few postcards to spread the word of Peace and Brotherhood between faiths and write a prayer in the open book nearby... make it a good one, from your heart, for your prayer will surely rise to heaven and be heard by the Sept Saints...

and then, as you leave, dip your finger into one of the stone bowls of Holy Water and make the sign of a cross on your forehead, out of respect and because it feels like a kiss from an angel, and we could all use the kiss of an angel from time to time....


  1. A wonderful first chapter in your book about your French B&B Julia. I love it......and would love to read more, and to explore by myself.

    1. Thank you Britt Arnhild
      I thought about you as I was writing this post, I think you would be as moved as I was by chapel of Les Sept Saints

  2. Julia, I'm so pleased that you are reposting some of the wonderful stories from your previous blog! I enjoy rereading them, sometimes they seem new for I've forgotten many things.

    Here it is nearing the end of the day, Mother's Day, here in Canada. It is also a life-changing date of the birthday of our youngest daughter, now 28, so we have had a special celebration together.

    Happy spring days to you!

    1. They're almost new to me also Marja-Leena, after 5 years back in the corporate cage.
      A belated happy mother's day to you
      And a happy birthday to your daughter :)
      And yes Spring, although it's cold and wet again here

  3. And as I said......a very good start for a book :-)
    I am waiting ;-)

    1. I shall give this some thought dear Britt-Arnhild :)

  4. Oh please come back here! To find someone else who likes and knows about this kind of thing! I've read about this place and knew about the pilgrimage, but never sought it out. Did you know the dog of the Seven Sleepers is one of the only animals allowed into the Moslem heaven? (I think maybe the others were Balaam's ass and somebody or other's camel...)

    Our local seven saints are healing ones; I wrote about them about the same time perhaps. There's also a thing I did about the place at qarrtsiluni: (sorry, don't know how to do html links in comments).

    We could do guided tours, couldn't we? Except I can't remember things very well, and all these little places are miles from anywhere else...

  5. Dear Lucy, I'd thought that I alone in my devotion to such places and themes, it's lovely to find a kindred spirit. I do plan to return, when I can disentangle myself from the job and current ties, and yes, giving guided tours and talks together would be wonderful, wouldn't it? They are miles from anywhere, that's what makes them unexpected and special, little gems that visitors often miss...
    I think I have heard of the seven saints, there's a fountain dedicated to them at Bulat Pestivien? I shall dig out an old post about a walk there, and read your article


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