Spain: A Pilgrimage to Montserrat
Legends in Montserrat, Spain
By Hunter Joslin
According to an Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail is tucked away at the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Whether the legend is true, one can only speculate. But whether Montserrat, Spain is a special place, filled with beauty and spirit, I can confirm.
Some 48km west of Barcelona, a series of jagged, brown peaks spiral upward in the air. As part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, the Mountain of Montserrat is a destination for climbers from around the world. But it’s not for scaling these crags that I’ve arrived; – my trip is for climbing the interior mountain.
I am traveling with a Catholic Bishop on pilgrimage. He is celebrating his Golden Jubilee – 50 years as a Jesuit. We have been in Rome, Florence, Loyola, Lourdes, Javier, and Barcelona.
We are now in a car en route from the sacred cave at Manresa, and approaching our final destination. There is a tram that leads to the mountain from the river basin, but we are being driven to the monastery, where we will be dropped off for the next week.
I look out the window as we switch back and forth, peering up at the mountain as a guard checks the Bishop’s credentials. He waves us through and we enter the last stretch of the mountain.
The Sacred Mountain
For thousands of years, Montserrat has been a sacred destination for locals and pilgrims. Before the time of Christ, a Roman temple to Venus was on the mountain. Then, in 888, the hermitage of Santa Maria was given the Virgin of Montserrat, known as the Black Virgin.
In 1025, Oliba, the Abbot of Ripoll and Bishop of Vic, founded a new monastery at the hermitage. Like the climbers, it clings to the cliffs to this day, and, in 2025, the abbey will celebrate its millennial anniversary.
Montserrat is an appropriate destination for the Bishop and I to end our month long pilgrimage, for the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, also came to Montserrat. It was March of 1522 when the young knight arrived to reestablish his personal vows.
In the shadow of the Black Virgin Ignatius sacrificed his sword to take up the cloths of a mendicant, forfeiting a life of conquest and chivalry. A placard can be seen marking the spot, and the actual sword is displayed in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Barcelona.
Around the Monastery
At the time of our arrival, tourists and pilgrims (they say one is half the other) are everywhere. Our bags are taken by friends to a door hidden in plain sight. After a heavy knock it swings open and the Bishop and I say goodbye to our friends and enter inside the dimly lit monastery.
A younger monk in black robes greets us and leads us to our chambers, which overlook the plaza, the mountain and church. The Bishop is staying in a finely decorated suite, and I am tucked in a neatly kept room with a small painting of the Virgin Mary above my bed.
I sit and look out at the monastery through the open window. The Bishop and I have come to live with these Benedictine monks for one week in silence inside the Santa Maria abbey.
He will complete his annual retreat, and I will finish the final week of the Spiritual Exercises, which were composed by St. Ignatius in the sacred cave at Manresa, where he lived for one year.
After tea, I return to the room and close my eyes. The tourists outside slowly make their way back to the tram and descend the mountain. Night comes fast and I see the waxing crescent moon disappear behind clouds.
In the midnight hour, I listen to a thunderstorm bombard the mountain, slamming doors open and shut down ghostly corridors. Hours later, when I think I’m about to sleep, I’m suddenly woken by the clanging of bells – an indescribable, deafening racket.
A Blanket of Fog
I peer out the window to see the monastery and mountain blanketed by fog. The throng of pilgrims is gone. The bells keep ringing as I rub my eyes. While I struggle to wake, the monks file in line for their morning prayer.
They follow the Liturgy of Hours, gathering seven times a day to sing psalms and hymns. When I finally rise, I enter the cloister, where I eye ruins from the previous monastery destroyed by Napoleonic troops during the French War.
A few friars pass in the shadows and disappear. I’m told 22 monks were executed during the Spanish Civil War but that the monastery was saved. I cringe for their loss and for the effect Franco had on the masses.
I go to the mountain after breakfast and ask a police offer how far it is too the top. He only shakes his hand – a common gesture in Spain – to warn me of the ascent. The peaks are serrated like a knife, and indeed Montserrat literally means “saw mountain.” I head straight to St. Jerome, the highest point at 4,055 ft.
It’s a steep ascent through Mediterranean oak. I spot a few climbers on the Cavall Bernat as I venture to a small hermitage, then finally to the top. On a clear day, the island of Mallorca is visible in the distance. But this moment, it's hazy and the horizon is blurred.
Unlike breakfast, lunch and dinner are kept in complete silence. A monk stands, reading in Catalan from a bible or a religious text. Men with grey hair, and young monks with the nerve to renounce in the modern age, sit at long tables in a vaulted hall.
I sit around a semi-circle, with the Bishop at the head of the assembly. Paintings fill the walls and sunlight trickles in through large windows. But, though I find the food memorable, the most remarkable feature is outside.
Hidden behind the monastery is a private garden. It is pristine and utterly empty. I run to it quickly when the Bishop and the monks go to administer Mass. Small gravel paths meander between rows of cypress behind the steeple.
Fountains murmur in enclosed courtyards. Birds chirp and butterflies cling to primrose. At the top of the garden is a company of statues standing guard. These fathers of antiquity are the sentinels of the monastery. Their stoic eyes look out over the Catalan plain, which seems to expand forever.
At the far end of the garden is an old chapel now out of use. Beyond its decaying walls is a set of steps descending to a pond laced by water lilies. A small stream flows from a statue of a child holding a vine of grapes to a bust of Eve being undressed by temptation. I take a breath and cross the bridge as a wall of trees lift their branches to reveal a pavilion reminiscent of medieval times.
Light sprinkles on the ground beyond the threshold. Slabs of stone sprout tufts of grass. Ivy drapes from yet another fountain. Inside the basin, goldfish swim with no other purpose but to delight. A light breeze graces a fresco above them, and I scan the old map painted by some diligent hand, whose master watches me now with gentleness and care. The fresco is ten feet high and thirty feet wide, and fading. But its old ships and dragons still cross and haunt the seas.
See, Smell, Taste, Hear Feel
This is an important day for my Spiritual Exercises, and I’ve been waiting for weeks for this mediation. My imagination is of the Raising of Lazarus. I am to see, smell, taste, hear, feel. I am to imagine myself rotting in a tomb, then brought back to life. My eyes close and I feel myself centering on the uncharted waters, those turbulent chasms within.
I hear the mountaineers reaching the summit as the voices of the Bishop and the monks bless the Holy Sacrament. I take in a deep breath, then exhale: I am in the secret garden of Montserrat, and the light is shining.
In this moment, I finally understand why the Mountain of Montserrat has been sacred for thousands of years. I realize the imaginations for my meditations are built upon this majestic world of ours. It’s here that the sensual becomes spiritual; where, within the recesses of my heart and within the fissures of this mountain, the Arthurian myth is real. As I open my eyes, I find I’m made new, and the next day the Bishop and I return to Barcelona and catch our flight to Madrid.