Until last week I had been to Valladolid in Spain only once. What brought me there the first time was research on my doctoral dissertation; and the arrival is the one thing about the visit that stands out in my memory. As the plane prepared to land, the pilot calmly announced a delay, but it wasn’t due to air traffic, however. It seems that a flock of sheep had wandered onto the runway, and we circled twice until the guy in the control tower finally located a shepherd who could shoo them off.
Times have changed, and last Friday I arrived on the bullet train which speeds from Madrid at 250+ kpm. That’s not the only thing that’s changed in the interim, because now English pops up all over the place in Valladolid. Through the years it has become a vibrant place, but this time I was there to visit something out of its distant past — the Benedictine abbey of San Benito de Valladolid.
The Napoleonic Wars scattered the monks from San Benito in the early 1800s, but two hundred years later much of the abbey’s heritage survives. The church now serves a parish congregation, while the monastery itself is a civic building of some sort. Meanwhile, the magnificently-carved choir stalls and the altar panels, built in the 1520s, reside in the nearby Museo Nacional de Escultura. They are absolutely stunning pieces of Renaissance design, and they took five years to carve, paint and assemble. Luckily they never became kindling for war-time bonfires, which was the fate of so much other art in the barbaric times that followed.
I certainly regret the demise of a monastic community that had such a major impact on the life of the Church, but it’s still possible to appreciate the artistic and cultural legacy that it has left behind. But that is even more so with the spirit of the monks, which still touches me deeply.
So what is their legacy, besides some choir stalls and altar panels? It’s their spiritual tradition that lingers, despite the fact that most people don’t realize its endurance. For quite some time San Benito presided over a congregation of monasteries that included the abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona. Together they had adapted the devotio moderna into the monastic regimen, and this took practical form in silent meditation on the scriptures and a regular examination of conscience with an eye to a daily amendment of life. The roots of the devotio moderna were in the Low Countries, and what the monks had borrowed, they freely shared. So it was that the abbot of Montserrat lent his book, The Spiritual Exercises, to Ignatius Loyola when he came as a guest. It made a big impression on Ignatius, and he ran with the idea and developed a spirituality that thrives to this day.
It has to be poignant for any monk to look at monastic ruins, but I’m long past the day when I wish that all the monasteries had survived. For one thing, there were too many abbeys, even in the Middle Ages. Then, when orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans came along, there was need for even fewer of the traditional monasteries.
The Reformation was not at all kind to the Benedictine monasteries either, but it was their near extinction in the early 19th century that I regret most. Their temporary disappearance diminished the spiritual vitality of the Church. Even if we didn’t need all of those monasteries, we still needed some.
On my second visit to San Benito I brought yet another perspective that I lacked the first time around. I now realize that God makes pacts with people through their baptism, and does so as well with the Church and its sacramental life. But everything else enjoys a life cycle, just as humans have a life cycle. So it is that religious communities grow and flourish, but they can also wither away for all sorts of reasons. And they wither especially when they no longer stimulate the spiritual vitality of the monks and nuns who live within them. Of course it’s sad to see a community die, but in time another sprouts to take its place.
Besides serving their members, monasteries also witness to the world. Ideally they should offer a vision that is capable of stopping the world in its tracks. They should remind people of another dimension to their lives — a dimension that so many can scarcely imagine without some outside stimulus.
Viewing what remains of San Benito made that clear to me once again. The choir stalls in particular stand witness in our own day. They proclaim that regular prayer and a calling out to God are not some antiquated and useless activity of the 16th century, even if they are uneconomic. They also cry out that modern society has yet to come up with an alternative and satisfying explanation for the meaning of our lives. In short, those choir stalls still chant eloquently to the power of God and of the search for God that engaged those monks. And they invite us to think outside the box.
Those monks have long since passed into a new life with God, but you can still see the visible echo of their witness. They gathered in those stalls every day, and for several times a day. For their inspiration I give thanks, and I hope I can make my own paltry contribution to the enduring monastic chorus.
+On January 13th I arrived in Madrid to attend a meeting. I’ve spent two long stretches in that city — once for a semester on sabbatical and later as the director of our student program in Spain. Undoubtedly the highlight of this recent trip was the visit to Valladolid, where I was warmly welcomed by Ed Rojo, a ’97 graduate of Saint John’s University. Ed was born in Brazil, came to Saint John’s for college, and then moved to Spain after graduation. There he began a wine export business, which he started up with his college roommate. I would be telling a big fib if I said that this is a story typical of most of our alumni. Ed may very well be the only person in all of Valladolid that sports a Saint John’s University sticker on the back window of his car.
+January 17th must have been Dog Day in the neighborhood in Madrid where I stayed. People and their dogs lined up for two blocks on either side of a church, where the priest individually blessed every dog that was dragged or carried in front of him. This went on for upwards of four hours. For the most part the behavior in line was pretty good. The dogs seemed to enjoy the chance to meet one another, and the whole thing drew crowds of gawkers. I was in that number.
+In case you missed the New Year’s issue of The Economist, it carried an extensive and impressive article on the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s. The author had interviewed the director, Fr. Columba, and praised HMML for its tremendous work in digitizing the threatened libraries of Timbuktu.
+The pictures in today’s post include a view of the church and monastery and choir stalls of San Benito de Valladolid, as well as two photos of Dog Day in Madrid. In the case of the latter pup, I think he was praying for a miracle to cure him of his wrinkles.