MONSERRAT was the place where St Ignatius de Loyola (aka Dom Inácio who works through John of God in Brazil and is the patron of the Casa de Dom Inácio) laid down his sword before the statue of the Black Madonna, the Virgin of Montserrat, as an act of surrender from his past life as a soldier and courtesan and into his new life as a humble server of the Divine Will, an aesthetic, theologian, founder of the Jesuits and later a man with the gift of healing touch.
As I write this lying on my bed, in a former Cistercian monastery, I gaze out through my 2m x 2m window set in a 1m thick wall . I look up into the mountain where St Ignatius followed the tradition of being a hermit in a cave for a period of time. Should I switch ends I would look out on the Basilica where the Statue is housed.
Let’s go back a few steps. Montserrat is a mountain lifting out of the plains that takes on the form of huge towering pillars of stone rather like an oversized version of Castle Hill or the rock mountains of Rio, for any of you who have been to either of those places. It’s got an energy like you wouldn’t believe which most probably accounts for the fact that they have found signs of habitation and ritual here that date back 3-4000 years. This was significant power point long before it was Christianized.
Anyway, fast forward to 880AD. The story goes that the image of “the Mother of God” was found in a cave by a family following what sounds like a fireball and celestial singing. Attempts to remove it from Montserrat subsequently, on several occasions, have been unsuccessful due to what has been described as acts of Divine intervention. Even Napoleon’s troops sacked the Basilica and town in 1811-12 to get their hands on her, without success. I wonder what would have happened at the Battle of Waterloo had he succeeded, and our own history.
The 9th Century saw a number of chapels arising here and the commencement of the tradition of Christian hermits began. The first Monastery began here in 945. By the 13th Century the fame of the ongoing miracles of the Virgin spread to the point that pilgrims were arriving from all over Europe including a fair smattering of royalty wanting “a little help their friend”.
An interesting fact about this wooden depiction of the Madonna is that, although she is not made of a black wood and has never been painted, she has a black face which is darkening further over time.
Monasteries and hermits came and went. St Ignatius did his thing in 1522. He got most of his foot soldiers to also lay down their arms here. This leading presumably to José Penteado (one of the patrons of the NZ Casa de José and St Ignatius’s wartime lieutenant ) cutting off the head of St ignatius’ donkey in a fit of rage at what had transpired.
St Francis Xavier started life only a couple of weeks walk from here. He and St Francis de Assis are also represented here.
In 1493, a hermit from Montserrat joined Christopher Columbus on his voyage to America initiating the spread of Catholicism to the Americas.
In 1592 the present day church was consecrated. It continues today a long tradition of cultural refinement including an ongoing music school and boys choir that dates back to 1223. The Cistercian monastery here dates back to 1223 also.
After Napoleon’s army’s act of vandalism the monks returned in 1844 and reconstruction was commenced. The Spanish Civil War 1936-39 almost saw its destruction again. Many monks were killed and the rest banished. They again returned in 1939.
Today tourists and pilgrims continue to make the trek up the mountain now on a train to take some photos and climb the mountain. The devout from many religious persuasions - Christian, Jew, and Muslim, and the punters, line up together, sometimes for hours on end, to touch the hand of the Black Madonna, aka Mother of God, in the hope of receiving some grace or healing. At day’s end the vast majority go back to Barcelona leaving the place in a state of sublime tranquillity until tomorrow. The interesting thing is that the tourist overlay in no way detracts from the energy of the place. However to have the privilege of staying here a couple of days a whole new world opens up. A peace, silence and grace that is beyond words.
Late at night the only occasional sounds are the wild pigs competing for grubs in the surrounding undergrowth. Early morning and evening the Basilica is available to those favoured few who are staying here. The services morning and evening, sung by the choir and monks, are open to all.
On top of all this, the Abbey, the only accommodation here, has a Michelin recommended (2010) restaurant! Yum!
This morning after sunrise (my how a bit of haze and pollution enhances a sunrise) I took myself to the top of the mountain, the path of St Jerome who was another hermit. With my well designed walking shoes and water supply I could only surmise how it must have been for the hermits before bottled water and OSM bars when there weren’t any formed tracks even. And they stayed up there for years on end. Lifetimes even!
I had the track to myself. When I reached the summit of the highest rock I could only marvel at St Jerome’s sense of view 1200m above the plain below. To the north the Pyrenees. To the west, the provinces of Llieda and the Aragonese Pyrenees. Remember Henry the 8th’s wife, Catherine of Aragon? To the south Tarragon, the Mediterranean and to the east Barcelona. My, what a view but one helluva trip down to get the morning newspaper!
Anyway as I sat there savouring the silence and vastness, the Godness of the place, there was a sudden shuffling and scuffling from over the side that was a sheer rock face. For an instant I expected a visitation from the Sacred Virgin herself or at least St Jerome. Instead a very handsome French rock climber, Jean Paul, scrambled over the balustrade. I’m not sure which of us was most surprised. We laughed and shared water. I strongly suspect that he wasn’t a manifestation of the Virgin Mother or St Jerome. In fact, with looks like that, I have my suspicions that he wasn’t even a virgin at all.
PS - I sense a calling to bring a group here and to some other places of associated energies sometime in 2011 following a trip to the Casa in Brazil. Nothing is certain yet but if you might be interested in joining us, or just being kept informed, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.