“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.
Secular-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.
The 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.
Despite 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.
Finally, 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.