Understanding the Mysterious Sword of St. Michael

I’ve read a couple of articles on the mysterious Sword of St. Michael — a straight line across Europe of churches and shrines dedicated to the archangel. I first heard about the sword from Gelsomino Del Guercio’s piece from May of last year, “7 Sanctuaries linked by a straight line: The legendary Sword of St. Michael.” Not only are the shrines, centered around monasteries, in a straight line, three of them are evenly spaced from one another. Del Guercio lists the shrines as follows, most of them in high places and many of them on islands:

  1. Skellig Michael, an island of the coast of Ireland, settled by Celtic monks.
  2. Saint Michael’s Mount, an island off the coast of Cornwall, England.
  3. Mont Saint Michel, an island off the coast of Normandy, France.
  4. Sacra di San Michele, an abbey built on top of Mount Pirchiriano, Italy.
  5. Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano, on top of another mountain in Italy.
  6. Monastery of the Taxiarchis, Symi Island, Greece.
  7. Stella Maris Monastery, Mount Carmel, Israel.

Del Guercio gives on key clue that may help explain the direct line: “The Sacred Line also is perfectly aligned with the sunset on the day of the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice.”  Del Guercio thinks this makes the coincidence more remarkable, but I think this may be the key fact that helps us to unpack the significance of the sword — rightly named as a sword to signal Christendom’s spiritual combat against paganism.

What is the significance of the summer solstice? Many pagan shrines, most famously Stonehenge, were built to highlight the movement of the sun and moon, and were designed to harness the sun on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Were the shrines along the sword of St. Michael, then, originally pagan sites of worship? In fact, the answer is yes. The island in Cornwall was dedicated to Celtic god Lugh (who was also a fighter) and Mont. St. Michel was dedicated to Mithras (a cult of Roman soldiers) and named Tomb Mount. The Greek monastery was built over the site of a temple to Apollo, who was connected to the sun and therefore to the solstice. It seems he also had sanctuaries along the sword of St. Michael. Pagans would have sought out distinctive “high places” that followed the track of the sun on its peak day.

How did each monastery become dedicated to St. Michael? Some of the sites claim an apparition from Michael. He appeared at Monte San Angelo in 490 and 663 and at Mont St. Michel to the Bishop Aubert in 708, instructing him to the build the shrine. Sacra di San Michele is half way between Mon St. Michel and Monte San Angelo and was also built at the request of the Archangel in 983, appearing to the hermit, St. Giovanni Vincenzo. Philip Kosloski relates how St. Patrick saw St. Michael over the island of Skellig Michael as he was exorcizing Ireland. Taxiarchis is home to a miraculous icon of Michael, which is said to have protected the monastery from Muslim invasion (with the archangel even appearing before the enemy).

 

Other sites may have gained an association to the fighting archangel in the Christian imagination to guard against the influence of the pagan worship previously associated with the sites. The seventh site is the only one that does not connect to Michael (to my knowledge), but Mt. Carmel likewise was a place of spiritual battle where Elijah slew the prophets of Baal. There may be some connection between Elijah and St. Michael as I found a Ukrainian folk legend claiming that St. Michael had given Elijah the thunder he took away from Satan.

There is also a connection between the summer solstice and St. John the Baptist. In the ancient world the solstices were June 24th and December 25th, John’s and Jesus’ birthdays of course. The Church Fathers connected these dates to John’s words that Jesus must increase while he decreases, as these are the days that mark the increasing and decreasing sunlight. And indeed, John the Baptist, like Michael, was associated with combating paganism in the early Church. We see one example of this at Monte Cassino.

In St. Gregory the Great’s biography of St. Benedict, he describes how the abbot set up a shrine to John the Baptist to replace one dedicated to Apollo, which had been set in a high place (and probably also connected to the sun):

In this place there was an ancient chapel in which the foolish and simple country people, according to the custom of the old gentiles, worshipped the god Apollo. Round about it likewise on all sides, there were woods for the service of the devils, in which even to that very time, the mad multitude of infidels offered most wicked sacrifice. The man of God coming there, beat the idol into pieces, overthrew the altar, set fire to the woods, and in the temple of Apollo, he built the oratory of St. Martin, and where the altar of the same Apollo was, he made an oratory of St. John.  By his continual preaching, he brought the people dwelling in those parts to embrace the faith of Christ. (Dialogues, Bk 2, ch. 8).

Explaining the sword of St. Michael in conjunction with the line of the summer solstice does not explain away the sword’s significance. Rather, it shows its significance as part of the way in which the Church reclaimed important sites and dedicated them to the worship of the one true God. The sun and stars proclaim the glory of God and should not lead to idolatrous worship and human sacrifice (a custom of the solstice).

St. Michael clearly had a role in reclaiming the solstice for the glory of God and removing its connection to the enemy as he himself appeared at many of these sites. In our own fight to reclaim our own country, we should turn to St. Michael (and recite his prayer often) and to St. John the Baptist to guard and protect and to help us in the battle for souls.

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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