It is late October in Barcelona. The sky is overcast and gloomy. Anu is anxious, because we have booked a trip today to Montserrat. Montserrat is a monastery on a 1200 metre hill-top, 45 Km outside Barcelona. Please God, clear the skies? As we board the bus, the weather seems hopeless. We drive through a scenic mountain path, but I am unable to take photos, because the atmosphere is dark and foggy. Perhaps our prayers are not sincere?
Our Tourist Guide, however, is an optimistic person. She cheers us with legends of Montserrat. To Spanish Catholics, she says, Montserrat is second only to Santiago de Compostella :that is where St. James, one of the 12 apostles, is believed to be buried. I tell her the only other non-Italian city where an apostle is buried is my home-town, Chennai. Her Italian eyes brighten up, “Are you a Christian?” I reply in the negative. “So why are you here? Just curiosity?” I tell her, “Yes, that too. But I also believe that you can see the Divine in all religions”. She likes my explanation.
What the Legends say
What is special about Montserrat? According to legend, the local shepherd boys heard angelic music whenever they came here. The Bishop of Manresa (a village at the foot-hills) was informed: and his search revealed a rare black idol of Virgin Mary (the Black Madonna) in a cave. He tried to transport it to Manresa, but it simply wouldn’t budge! He interpreted it as a Divine message to let things be. So a shrine was built around it and pilgrims thronged ever after.
However, in Catholic tradition, St. Luke himself carved the Black Madonna. (St. Luke’s artistic talents are not surprising: after all, we Chennai-ites believe that the painting of Madonna in St.Thomas Mount was his work!). It was believed to be hidden here away from the Moors until it was rediscovered.
Candles of devotion at the cave
So why is the statue black, an unusual colour for the Virgin? Some said that, years of lighting candles at the altar caused soot deposits on the idol. Experts have disproved this theory: the stone is naturally black! So back to the original question: why choose black?
Apparently the original race that inhabited these mountains were Iberians who were anthropologically Indo-European and therefore dark-complexioned. They created this Mother Goddess statue in their own colour, naturally! When Catholicism spread, this Mother Goddess was integrated into Christian folklore.There is also some reason to believe that in the Pre-Christian era, the Romans had a Temple for Venus here.
The History of Montserrat
A little girl prays to Abbot Oliba at the entrance to the Monastery
Whether you believe in Roman Gods, Iberian Goddesses or Catholic tradition, one thing is clear: this IS a divine place. Abbot-Bishop Oliba must have sensed this when he established the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria here around 1085. The Basilica of Black Madonna was later consecrated in 1592.
The Basilica – enclosed in a Quadrangle
The Floor is covered with beautiful motifs at the Quadrangle
Christopher Columbus visited this shrine and took a Benedictine Monk—Bernal Boil—with him to the Americas; he even named a Caribbean island after Montserrat. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, laid down his weapons here, when he converted from a military career to spirituality. (This part of history made a personal connection to me—because I studied in Loyola College!)
I pay my respects to St. Ignatius Loyola
In 1811, the Napoleonic army destroyed the monastery, but it was reconstructed by the devotees. Generalissimo Franco persecuted the monks of Montserrat during his dictatorship, yet it survived: Faith overcomes severe odds. The Faithful believe that if you touch the orb in the Virgin’s hand and wish for something, it will be fulfilled! Thus, it has been an important pilgrimage shrine for centuries.
There are 2 Patron Saints here: one is Our Lady of Montserrat herself; the other is St. Jordi (who is the same as St. George, the patron saint of England). At the entrance, there is a statue of St. George by modern sculptor Joseph Maria Subirach (the same artist completed the crucifixion panel in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia). It is unlike anything else in the Monastery, but adds stark beauty to the monastery. St. Jordi’s piercing eyes seem to follow you wherever you go.
St. Jordi by Subirach
The Pilgrim’s Dilemma
Perhaps the Benedictine Monks wanted to be ‘away from it all’ when they established this monastery. But today, it is an exciting place. In fact, there were too many things to do in half a day! So we prioritised.
Crowds waiting to see the Madonna
First, we stand in queue to see the Black Madonna. It is sinuously long and they admit people only in small batches. After what seems an eternity, we enter the mezzanine altar of Our Lady. As I am about to touch the magic orb of the Madonna, my mind blanks out — I don’t know what wish I want to ask of Her! So I just pay my respect without any request. Perhaps it is better to leave everything to God, instead of demanding anything?
Santa Maria de Montserrat: Black Madonna
It is nearly 1 o’clock and we rush into the Basilica: we don’t want to miss the famous Boys Choir singing. As we enter, the head-priest has started his sermon. He is saying something softly in Spanish. We don’t understand a word of it, but the acoustics of the church make his pronouncements very soothing. Then the monks sing hymns with great devotion. This combination of devotion and acoustics can move even an atheist.
Service at the Basilica
The ornate Altar
Brilliant stained glass windows
At precisely 1:00 pm, the church bells ring wildly, and in walks a bunch of innocent lads— the Montserrat Boys Choir. They sing 2 traditional hymns so beautifully that my eyes turn moist.
Devotional Hymns by the Boys Choir
Then, a line forms to receive the Holy Bread from the Padre. I am reluctant to join the line. Not because I am Hindu, but I do not wish to disturb their tradition with my ignorance. But Anu cannot think of leaving without a Blessing, so we join the queue. When Anu reaches the Padre, he sees we are not the usual pilgrims. “Are you Christian?” he asks. “No Father, but I believe in all religions” was her reply. (‘How can I lie in the House of God?’ is her approach). Oh God, we are not of the Faith, is he going to kick us out? No! He does not give her bread but does a unique thing: he gently raises his right hand and blesses her on the head. Anu is ecstatic, because she is the only one in the entire line to be blessed thus. Grace of the Black Madonna herself? Now it is my turn. He takes one look at me, and probably thinks: this guy can still be redeemed. He puts the Holy Bread in my mouth. I feel blessed too.
We come out of the Basilica and suddenly the mist has lifted. The sun is out in all its glory and it is clear the Black Madonna wants to help us. Montserrat is truly the beautiful Serrated Mountain as promised (that’s what the name means in English). I quickly shoot the pictures that I wanted.
The Serrated Mountain behind the monastery
The mountains as seen from the arches of the Monastery
The view from the Mountain-Train Station
The Stairway to Heaven
The ‘other’ spiritual experience
Oops, we have only 10 minutes before the bus leaves the mountain! We have no time for the Nature Walk, the Museum, or the Mountain Train Ride. But there is this ‘other’ spiritual business…
The ‘other’ spiritual business
The Benedictine monks had an age-old tradition of making liqueurs from the local herbs. This continues today. We have a free-voucher to taste 4 local liqueurs at a local shop. This must be a sales gimmick? Yet, I am curious and we taste the liqueurs in the shop.I never saw this coming, all 4 of them taste divine! I must pay for my lack of Faith. So I, the tight-fisted accountant, end up buying 2 delightful bottles — of Ratafia and Crèma Catalana. That completes our spiritual journey !