Montserrat Abbey, Behind Closed Doors

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 is a special place, filled with beauty and spirit, I can confirm.

Some 48km west of Barcelona, a series of jagged, brown and green peaks spiral upward from the Llobregat River. As part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, the Mountain of Montserrat is a destination for adventurers and climbers from around the world. But it was not for scaling these crags that I visited this arid place. My trip was for climbing the interior mountain.

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For thousands of years, Montserrat has been a sacred destination. Before the time of Christ, a Roman temple to Venus was situated at the mountain. In 888, the hermitage of Santa Maria was given the Virgin Mary 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.

It is midsummer when I arrive to the hermitage 600 years later. I am accompanying Bishop Gordon Bennett, SJ, who is celebrating his Golden Jubilee – 50 years as a Jesuit. It is an appropriate destination to end our pilgrimage. The founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, came to Montserrat in March of 1522. Outside the church, a placard marks where he sacrificed his sword to take up the cloths of a mendicant, forfeiting a life of conquest and romantic chivalry. The actual sword is displayed in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Barcelona. I recommend going into the crypt, which has been converted into an interfaith prayer space.

Following his conversion at Montserrat, St. Ignatius retreated to Manresa, where he lived in a cave for one year, writing the Spiritual Exercises, a road-map of prayers and meditations. And these are the course of our week at Montserrat. We have come to live with Benedictine monks for one week in silence inside the Santa Maria abbey to pray. The Bishop will complete his annual retreat while I receive the fourth and final week of the Spiritual Exercises, which began three weeks prior in Rome.

A monk greets us outside, wearing a black robe and white rope. We are brought through a large wooden door, hidden in plain sight. Pilgrims, who were just blessed by the Bishop, watch us disappear inside. The hallways are dimly lit and sitting rooms are swallowed by Renaissance art. Our chambers are on the upper floor, tucked beneath the Mesozoic rock. I rest on my bed under the watchful eyes of Mother Mary and look out the window at a solitary cypress. That night, a lightning storm rages in Montserrat, flashing brilliantly, slamming doors open and shut. The journey has begun.

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Each day opens with the clanging of bells above the Virgin Mary of Montserrat. I peer out the window and see the monastery and mountain blanketed by fog. The usual throng of pilgrims is gone, as is the storm on the first day. While I struggle to wake, the monks are filing in line for their morning prayer. It is their vow to pray the Liturgy of Hours, gathering together seven times a day to sing psalms and hymns.

After the first hour has passed, I make my way to the cloister for breakfast. I eye ruins from the monastery that was destroyed by Napoleonic troops during the French War in 1811. 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 the loss of their lives, and regret deeply the Catholic Church’s affiliation with Franco and the result it had on the masses.

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After breakfast, I climb into the mountain in search of the Holy Grail. The peaks are serrated like a knife, and indeed Montserrat literally means “saw mountain.” I ascend towards St. Jerome, the highest point at 1,236 m, or 4,055 ft. It’s a steep ascent in and out of Mediterranean oak. I spot a few climbers on the Cavall Bernat, red and blue dots clinging to fissures, harnessed and roped. I venture higher to a small hermitage, then finally to the top. There is little time before lunch, but I take a moment to reflect. I try to pray but I can't manage to find my words. On a clear day, the island of Mallorca is visible in the distance. But this moment, it's hazy and the horizon is blurred. Neither Mallorca nor the Holy Grail can be found.

After descending from Saint Jerome, I am famished. Unlike breakfast, lunch and dinner are kept in complete silence. A monk stands, reading in Catalan from the bible or from some other religious text. I sit around a semi-circle, with the Bishop at the head of the assembly. Men with grey hair, and young monks with the nerve to renounce in the modern age, sit at long tables in a vaulted hall. Visiting nuns observe quietly, whispering occasionally. Paintings fill the walls and sunlight trickles in through large windows. But, although the food and wine are noteworthy, the most remarkable feature of the abbey is outside.

Hidden behind the monastery is a lush, secret garden. When everyone goes to Mass, I escape to it immediately, once more in search of the Holy Grail. It is pristine, and now utterly empty. Small gravel paths meander between rows of cypress. Fountains murmur in courtyards with a commanding view of the valley. Birds chirp and butterflies cling to primrose. At the top of the garden stands a company of statues. These fathers of antiquity are the sentinels of the monastery. Their stoic eyes look out over the Catalan plain, which seems to expand forever.

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It is beneath their watch that I enter into prayer. At the far end of the garden is an old chapel now out of use. Beyond its decaying walls is a set of steps that descend to a pond bordered by water lilies. Every-so-often it comes to life, and a small stream flows from a statue of a young boy holding a vine of grapes to a nude bust of Eve being undressed by temptation. I take a breath and cross a small, stone bridge, and a web of trees lift their branches to reveal a pavilion reminiscent of medieval times. I cross the threshold.

Light sprinkles on the ground. Slabs of stone sprout tufts of grass. Ivy drapes from yet another fountain, though this one is different. It houses four goldfish that seem to have been chosen for no other purpose but to delight. A light breeze graces a fresco, and I scan the old map painted by some diligent hand, whose master watches me now with gentleness and care, as I, too, try to master my craft. The fresco is some ten feet high and thirty feet wide, and fading. Old ships and dragons cross and haunt the seas.

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In this moment, I feel myself centering on the uncharted waters, those turbulent chasms within. My spiritual exercise is on the Raising of Lazarus. I am to imagine myself dead for days, rotting in a tomb, and brought back to life. My eyes close and I hear the mountaineers reaching the summit, and the voices of the monks blessing the Holy Sacrament. There is so much to be found in this place. The whole world seems to stop. I am in the secret garden of Montserrat, and the light is shining.

In this moment, I see 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. It is here that the sensual becomes spiritual, where, in the recesses of my heart and within the fissures of this mountain, the Arthurian myth is real. I open my eyes and leave the secret garden. The climbers belay to the ground and the monks return to their chambers. Bishop Bennett finds me somewhere in the middle, and the next day we fly to Madrid.