Posts Tagged ‘Montserrat’


Shaped by the Benedictine Tradition

Morning and evening prayer at Saint John’s Abbey may be as regular as clockwork, but summer provides almost daily surprises.  Those surprises generally have to do with guests who, as Saint Benedict pointed out, are never wanting in a monastery.  More precisely, the surprises have to do with the number of guests who join us in choir, and their number can vary dramatically from morning to evening and day to day.

It’s safe to say that while the roster of monks in most monasteries may be shorter than fifty years ago, the number of guests who show up at monasteries to join monks for prayer is up dramatically.  Part of that has to do with Latin, which in former times may have discouraged many lay people from attending.  Whether its absence matters today is debatable.  But of greater significance is the growing number of people who recite the liturgy of the hours on their own.  Not surprisingly that draws them to join us at prayer when they are at Saint John’s.

67A0E5EE-3905-428E-B895-BE9626FA724AAs a result, we monks at Saint John’s have learned to expect the unexpected when we enter the choir for prayer during the summer.  On some days there may be only a sprinkling of visitors.  But then there are days when there are more of them than there are of us.  Of course that can impact the quality of our recitation, but I personally contend that it’s a wonderful problem to have.

It’s also important to note the summer-time presence of a particular group of young men at prayer.  Unlike the other guests, they sit with us in the stalls reserved for the monks.  Dressed in distinctive black polo shirts with “Saint John’s Abbey” stitched on them in white thread, they are the incoming and outgoing members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corp (BVC).  For the new members their presence is a chance to experience a bit of Benedictine life before heading off to monasteries around the world for a year of service.  For veteran members it’s a chance to share their experiences of the last year, and we are always eager listeners.

Normally the Volunteers are recent graduates of Saint John’s University.  A few months before graduation they apply, and in practice the program has been able to accept roughly half of those who wish to go.  This year 26 will go off to serve, suggesting that there was an applicant pool of 50+.

Those numbers may not seem like much, but with a graduating class of 400+ at Saint John’s University, it’s a big deal.  It means that 12% of our graduating seniors apply to live and work for a year in a monastery somewhere around the world, and 6% actually follow through and do it.  In a society that assumes that young people are not the least bit curious about religious life, these are pretty astounding percentages.  What college sends 6% of its recent alumni to do a post-graduate year in a monastery?

8257666A-5657-4307-AC5E-18D09BCEF2AFOur Benedictine Volunteers serve literally around the world, and it’s fascinating to hear about their experiences.  Over the years I’ve had the chance to visit Volunteers on site at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where life is very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.  Volunteers at Montserrat outside of Barcelona have taught English to the Catalan-speaking students in the choir school.  Topping the list for sheer courage was one Volunteer at Saint Anselmo in Rome.  His duties included driving the abbot primate to the airport and to appointments around the city.  Rome may be the eternal city, but the eternally insane traffic helps it to maintain the title.  And I and my confreres have listened eagerly to stories from returning Volunteers who have been in Tanzania and Chile and India.  Theirs are experiences beyond anything that they will likely have in their professional careers, and they are transformative, to say the least.

At Saint John’s we’ve been fortunate to maintain contacts with monks in communities around the world.   All the same, the Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s have added a new and lively dimension to this network.  If most of us never quite imagined this twenty-five years ago when Brother Paul Richards began the BVC, it’s happened nonetheless.

When Sant Benedict cautioned that “visitors we will always have with us,” he never foresaw anything quite like the BVC.  And as the program has developed, however, it’s brought into being a group of young men who certainly are not monks, but who are more than our average guests.  They are young men who for one year immerse themselves completely in the Benedictine tradition.  I have to believe that somehow it shapes the course of their lives from that year onward.  And while the Volunteers realize the value they bring to the places where they serve, they probably have little clue of the delight that they bring to us monks at Saint John’s.


+On June 27th I hosted two visitors at Saint John’s from the East Coast.  Both are members of the Order of Malta and devote their energies to prison ministry.  We talked about that, and lots more.

+Last week was very quiet for me, and I did not go near the airport.  In fact, the furthest I went from home was a visit to an alumnus and his wife in Lakeville, MN, a town which I had never visited before.  As always in summer, the trip back on I-94 was interesting.  Two minor car crashes managed to create miles-long back-ups in both directions.  Among the artifacts on view was a boat that had gotten away from somebody and which rested on the shoulder of the road.  But the prize from me went to the couch that sat serenely and stately in the median of the highway.  It was as if someone had set it up for the benefit of people caught in traffic jams with nothing else to do.

+On Friday June 28th our community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Jerome Coller.  Abbot John’s homily was particularly witty, noting that when Fr. Jerome returned from graduate school at Cornell he was eager to apply his compositional talents to our singing at Saint John’s.  His first major effort was a hymn which we sang at the blessing of the first Abbot John in 1971.  “That was when we learned that the community was not yet ready for an atonal Te Deum,” he noted.  That brought chuckles, as did several other comments.  But Jerome went on to compose many songs that we regularly sing today.

EE808153-B55B-443F-BDDD-31EDF6638497+On the evening of June 28th our confrere Fr. Meinrad Dindorff quietly passed away after a short illness.  Meinrad was involved in many activities at Saint John’s, but I remember him best from my days in seminary when he taught theology.

+On 29-30 June we hosted visitors for Family Weekend for the monks at Saint John’s.

+On 30 June I presided at vespers in the Abbey Church.

+It should not surprise anyone that the hours of standing in choir could tire medieval monks, and so they came up with a novel solution.  When the seat in a choir stall was folded up it revealed a small shelf underneath, and monks could perch on this while still appearing to stand.  This was called a misericord, or mercy seat, for obvious reasons.  Artists learned to take advantage of this new opportunity by carving all sorts of things underneath the choir stall, as these images from the cathedral in Toledo, Spain, illustrate.  Even today our individual stalls at Saint John’s have misercords; and while they are not decorated they provide the same service to monks who weary during long services.


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img_4503Pilgrimage to the Mountain

“Let admission to the monastery not be easy.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries, and ever since then Benedictines have tended to interpret those words in spiritual terms.  Still, there have been exceptions, and so you can’t fault the monks of Montserrat because they took them literally.  Perched half-way up a peak thirty miles west of Barcelona, Montserrat is one tough place to get to.  From the valley far below, there is nothing to indicate that there’s anything up there except craggy rocks.  But then you spy the cable cars dangling high above, and you realize they must be going somewhere.

Benedictines have lived on Montserrat since the 10th century, and in the course of time they have put the difficult terrain to good use.  As they have for centuries, the pilgrims still come.  And if the modes of travel now include train, bus, car, bicycle and cable car, the goal of the journey remains the same.  People still come to venerate the statue of the Black Madonna in the church, and outside on the terrace they gaze out for a spectacular view that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean.

img_4382Secular-minded visitors to Barcelona are startled to read the signs in the middle of the city announcing the trains to Montserrat.  Given that Barcelona is one of the most sophisticated cities anywhere, I too found it a little incongruous.  Hadn’t we left behind the age of pilgrimages in order to indulge in more commercial pursuits?  Why would anyone take a train to some remote spot to see some old statue?  Why would people care to see a spot where a group of fairly average guys are doing their best to find God?  And perhaps the biggest mystery is this:  why would you need several trains a day just to manage all this?

The answers are varied, but the bottom line is this.  For centuries people have trekked up Montserrat.  Most have venerated the Black Madonna and enjoyed the incredible views.  Many have stayed in the extensive guest facilities for a chance to take stock of their lives.  Among them the most famous was the 16th-century visitor Ignatius Loyola, who offered his sword as a token of his conversion.  Suffice it to say that people still do these sorts of things at Montserrat — except for that bit about the sword.

img_4451The ritual that brings most people to Montserrat is the chance to stand in line, patiently, for the chance to venerate the statue of the Madonna.  It sits perched in a niche high above the main altar of the church, and on our recent visit my friends and I were smart to arrive early.  Our wait was minimal, and we enjoyed the added bonus of being seated during the Sunday Mass.  Even though it was the off-season, not everyone was as fortunate.  Some stood through the entire Mass, and after Mass the line to the Virgin stretched out the door of the church and into the square in front.  Timing is everything, even when it comes to a spiritual experience.

All this can suggest that life at Montserrat has always been peaches and cream.  Who knows what adversity the monks may have faced in the Middle Ages, but modern times have provided the greatest tests.  In the early 19th century Napoleon’s armies twice assaulted the monastery, and the place was closed for a few years.  Then it sprang to life, only to contend with a new wave of social unrest during the Spanish civil war.  In that horrible conflict twenty-two monks were executed for their faith.  Even after the war the monks did not enjoy complete tranquility, because despite Vatican II the Franco regime ordered that everyone in Catalonia — monks included — pray in Spanish.  Only in that context can you appreciate the gesture King Juan Carlos made at the death of Franco.  Shortly after his accession to power he came to Catalonia, and his first stop was at Montserrat.  There he spoke in the forbidden Catalan and soon thereafter permitted the use of Catalán in the liturgy.

img_4443Despite being a great symbol of Catalan culture, the monks of Montserrat pursue their lives with neither fanfare nor a sense of self-importance.  They’re tending to the thousands of pilgrims and people on retreat.  They’re busy with the Escalonia — possibly the oldest choir school in Europe.   They’re preoccupied with the need to keep the place in good repair so that it doesn’t slide down the side of the mountain.  And they are also seeing to the daily round of prayer that binds the whole place together.

I left Montserrat with one important lesson.  Monks today contend with the stereotype that we waste our lives in withdrawal from society in silence and isolation.  We console ourselves with the thought that this stereotype — popular outside of the monastery — has never really held sway inside the monastery.  Even Saint Benedict acknowledged this point when he wrote in the 6th century that “guests are never wanting” at a monastery.  The meaning of that?  Guests you will always have with you, and in the face of the guest you have the chance to catch a glimpse of God.

For that reason the monastic life is not meant to be self-serving.  We monks may do our best to see God in our brothers, but we also know how graced we are to see Christ in pilgrims, in our students, in people who come on retreat, and even in those who come merely to gawk.

All that is the Lord’s work, and it’s why society will never outgrow the need for a place set apart, at the edge of society.  It’s why we do what we do at Saint John’s, and it’s why nobody will be canceling the trains to Montserrat any time soon.  The market for that service is there, even in the off-season.


+On January 20th my tour to Barcelona came to an end, and the next morning we packed up our memories and headed home.  Chief among the experiences that I savor was our visit to the abbey of Montserrat, where we toured and had the chance to visit with the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s who are living there this year.

I have to count two site visits as nice discoveries for me.  The first is evidence of the self-imposed blinders that I wear when it comes to things monastic.  I tend to be oblivious to some of the other religious orders, so I was completely unaware of the Poor Clare abbey of Pedralbes, at the edge of Barcelona.  I had not planned to visit there, but the guide said “Do it!”   So I did it.  Queen Elisenda founded it in the late 1320’s, in anticipation of widowhood, and it is pretty much intact today.  Complete with three-level cloister, dormitory, refectory, chapter house and church, it is an amazing survivor of the centuries.  I will share photos of that in a future post.

Also on my list of little surprises is Sant Pau, a 9th-century Benedictine house.  Its romanesque cloister and church are tucked away in an immigrant neighborhood near the center of Barcelona.  It was designed to house only four or five monks, and it’s a real gem.

img_4400Finally, I spent the better part of a day in the Museum of Catalan Art.  It’s famous for its large collection of romanesque frescos rescued from dilapidated churches in the Pyrenees, and I took enough photos to clog my camera.

+I always know when it’s time to come home.  The first signal is that moment when I’d like to take most of my clothes out to be burned.  Helping things along this time was the decline in the weather.  It turned cold, and it rained on the last day.  As a result, the only thing I had to declare at customs was the bad cold I had acquired.

The flight home confirmed that the good times were over.  I was fortunate to sit behind a toddler whose two settings were “screaming at an ear-splitting pitch” and “not screaming.”  Her parents must have known to expect this, and the sound-canceling ear phones made their reading a serene experience.  I would say they were the envy of everyone within ear-shot, but that might be a fib bordering on mortal sin.

+Needless to say, the photos in today’s post give some inkling of what  you would see on a visit to Montserrat.


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IMG_0002_2Exodus: An Exercise in Looking Back

During the last few days at evening prayer we’ve been reading lengthy passages from the Book of Exodus.  Of course all of us have heard this story many times by now; but even so, the repetition is neither boring nor repetitive.  For every rereading of a text, there’s always something new to glean for reflection.

So it was the other evening when Brother Simon-Hoa read from Exodus 13 and 14.  Perhaps it was the inflection of his voice or the emphasis he gave to certain phrases.  But whatever the reason, it struck me what a handful the people of Israel were.  More to the point, in the dialog it’s clear that God seemed to be painfully aware that he was dealing with a bunch of adult children.

Exodus is a prime example of how selective our memories can be.  While the text tells us that the Israelites hated every minute of life in Egypt, all that became a beautiful memory once they encountered the first sniff of difficulty in the desert.  What follows is an endless stream of sarcasm that must have irritated Moses to no end.  They complained about the food, the lack of water, and all the other inconveniences.  But the most telling complaint came when they heard that pharaoh was on the way to fetch them and return them to paradise and their old jobs as slaves.  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  So much for any semblance of gratitude.  There must have been days when Moses wanted to shout back over the dunes to pharaoh.  “Hey, they’re over here.  You can have them all back.”

IMG_0001_2The text indicates that God too knew what he had on his hands.  These were people who would whine at the first hint of inconvenience, and so God had to factor that into the care and feeding of the Israelites.  Chapter 13 verse 17, for example, suggests that God could see trouble ahead when they’d someday meet the Philistines in the promised land.  The Philistines were scary people who meant business, and God knew from experience that at the prospect of war the Israelites would turn tail and run back to Egypt via the most direct route possible.  So God took them to the promised land via the long route — the one that took forty years.  God likely banked on the thought that after thirty-nine years the Israelites would forget the way back to Egypt and give up.  By then there would be no alternative, other than to face the music.

Exodus provides a not very flattering portrait of a people in transition.  Clearly God didn’t have much to work with, and it took forty years of purification in the desert to shape them up into something even remotely respectable.  That’s the theme that makes Exodus so interesting, and amusing.

IMG_0005_2But of course Exodus is our story as well, and most of us would not have tested out of their challenges any better than they did.  The fact of the matter is, we too like to blame others for our shortcomings;  we too prefer the easy fix;  and most of us are more than willing to give up at the slightest inconvenience.  Like the Israelites, we too can experience a lot and complain about it, but complaining can seem like a better option than actually doing something to remedy the situation.

Time helps us deal with the difficulties of life, particularly when it comes to the need to change ourselves.  That’s why God used the long route through the desert to transplant the people of Israel to the promised land.  After all, forty years in a desert will eventually bring people round to the idea that perhaps change is not as bad as they had once thought.  Experience has taught God to do the same with us.

If Lent lasted only a day or a week, we might get enthused for the short term, but we’d likely have little to show for our short-term effort.  We’d make our resolutions one day and just as easily forget them the next.  The reason for this is simple.  Authentic change takes time, and real growth can sometimes require forty days or even longer.  That’s why God doesn’t front-load all the challenges into the first few years of our lives.  Rather, challenge pops up over a lifetime, because building character can take forty years in a desert, or even longer.  In fact, authentic growth can take all the years that God puts at our disposal.  What a shame it would be to join the Israelites in looking back to Egypt for the entirety of life!


+On March 3rd I taught a class in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+On March 4th through the 6th I gave a Lenten retreat to guests in the Abbey guesthouse.  Twenty were in attendance, and I concentrated my conferences on the liturgy of Holy Week.  On Saturday evening we watched Babette’s Feast, which remains one of my all-time favorite movies.  It takes place in Denmark in the second half of the 19th century, and it has a strong Eucharistic theme.  It is the perfect movie to prepare for Holy Thursday.

+On several occasions I have written about the work of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s Abbey.  Corps members are recent graduates of Saint John’s University who do a year of volunteer work at various Benedictine abbeys around the world.  Among those abbeys is Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  Last week, in a reversal of fortune, a Benedictine volunteer from Montserrat has come to spend six months at Saint John’s.  Fransesc is a graduate of the Montserrat choir school and has been a university student in Barcelona.  He is a welcome addition to the abbey schola, in addition to all of the other activities in which he will be engaged.

IMG_0013_2+The photos in today’s post are of frescos and the interior of Saint Alban’s Abbey, which is located north of London.  At the time of the suppression of the monasteries in England the medieval frescos were plastered over, only to come to light centuries later.

+A few readers report that on occasion they have not received my blog come Monday morning.  I’m happy to say that I’ve not missed a blog post since the first week, and so there must be technical difficulties with WordPress every now and again.  In case you don’t receive a post, you can visit the web site of my blog.  In fact, for just such an occasion it is nice to bookmark the web address.

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IMG_0455The Monastic Witness

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.

IMG_0377The 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.

IMG_0379It 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.

IMG_0388Besides 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.

image+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.

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