Patience with others is Love,
Patience with self is Hope,
Patience with God is Faith.
– Adel Bestavros, 1924-2005 –
This image was taken at Abadia de Montserrat, a Benedictine monastery nestled in a deep crevice of a craggy mountain in Catalonia, one of 17 distinct regions of the Kingdom of Spain. My husband Tom and I journeyed here by train from Barcelona, to celebrate my 50th birthday.
After departing from Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya station, we rumbled out of the city and into the Pla de Bages, the basin of the Llobregat River. Traveling along these lowlands, we gently swayed with the rocking train, and I was torn between watching the scenery glide by, and observing my fellow passengers. An old woman caught a catnap, seeming to doze within seconds of taking her seat, no doubt relieved to be off the grossly swollen ankles that protruded from her well-worn sandals. A pair of teenagers lazed, enraptured with each other, fingers entwined, an aura of lust radiating around them. A studious-looking woman sat engrossed in a book, intently twirling a strand of her hair as she processed its content.
I have come to appreciate the hours of forced inactivity inherent in travel. Tom always shakes his head in mock exasperation at the bag of heavy books I cart around with me. He knows that the random assortment of characters with whom I rub elbows always prove more provocative than the printed page. He, too, is a student of human nature; we often catch one another in deep study of someone of whom at home we probably wouldn’t grant a passing glance. Sometimes just being in a foreign land gives everyday people an air of the exotic.
The train rounded a bend and I shifted my attention back to the landscape. Across the flat plains of the river delta, a spiky silhouette dominated the horizon–Montserrat means “jagged mountain” in Catalan. As we neared the peaks, we were struck by their strange, otherworldly shapes in shades of pale pink, resembling fleshy fingers reaching into the sky. The mountain is 10 kilometers long and 5 wide; the highest peak is St. Jerome at 1,236 meters. The massif is particularly imposing as it soars vertically from the valley floor; its face has very little vegetation to soften the appearance of its steep incline.
As we continued, the range loomed larger and larger. With each stop, we strained to hear the name of the town where we would change to the rack rail that would bring us up the mountainside to the abbey. At last, the station was called and we de-boarded at Monistrol Vila, where we immediately hopped on another train for the 600-meter ascent up the mountain. The locomotive heaved upward, hugging the cliff face. I resolutely stared out the window at the rock inches away, rather than the expansive vista in the other direction. Terrified of heights, this endless 15-minute journey was the admission price I paid to experience the mystery of the monastery above. Clenching Tom’s hand in mine, I concentrated on my breathing, saying to myself softly “just a few more minutes, just a few more minutes.” I even managed a momentary semi-hysterical giggle at the insanity of an acrophobic actively choosing to celebrate another year of life by scaling a mountainside.
Hallelujah, we finally arrived! I felt giddy with relief and bounded off the train. We climbed a steep set of stairs, emerging to a miniature world hanging on to the mountainside. With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I hungrily looked left and right, feeling like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, my head practically swiveling in circles. To the left was a tree-lined road leading to a 14th century Gothic bell tower and down a hill to a cluster of pastel dwellings huddled against the rock, each capped with the country’s ubiquitous wavy, orange-tiled roofs. To the right was La Placa de Santa Maria, a sweeping square enclosed on one side by a row of low-lying buildings that seem to be hewn from the rock, bisected by the taller, austere façade of the monastery. A third wall was composed of a series of elegant stone arches, each spanning roughly twenty feet; adorning the supporting columns were giant niches housing graceful sculptures of saints.
Among the buildings to the left of the abbey was the community’s only guest quarters, the Hotel Abat Cisneros, which has provided accommodation for pilgrims since its construction in 1563. Happily, it underwent a renovation in 2000, and while we found our room to be Spartan and monk-like, it was still cheerful—and afforded spectacular views of the sanctuary, the arched colonnade and, beyond that, the mountain and the Llobregat Valley. We had arrived at what photographers call “the magic hour,” and, indeed, as Tom and I stood side by side at the window, the world below was imbued with a peaceful, golden glow.
We made our way back out to the square, crossing it and following a small scattered crowd of people through one of the five arches leading to the basilica’s atrium. A bell tolled, signaling the beginning of a Mass. We hung back while the flock entered through heavy doors for the service. We admired the heights of the basilica’s pale stone, decorated with incredibly ornate statuary. Its towering exterior cast gray shadows across the atrium’s black and white marble floor, as dusk descended. We were alone as we stepped into the open-air square, the hush interrupted by the sound of our steps, which in turn prompted a squadron of resting pigeons to flap their wings and spiral away.
To the left of the atrium we found our way to the Ave Maria Path, a walkway running alongside the mountain and the basilica’s wall, covered with domed glass. Along the length of the corridor and against the rock are thousands and thousands of votive candles, in jewel tones of ruby, emerald, and sapphire. Here, at the end of the day, the chamber was awash in the luminous light of a vast multitude of prayers, untold flickering demonstrations of faith, the sight of which inspired a deep feeling of connection to these unknown seekers.
We enjoyed a meal of traditional Catalan cuisine in Hotel Abat Cisneros’ Saló de Pedra or “Stone Dining Room.” Formerly stables in the 16th century, the ceiling here is formed by a great stone arch, while the walls are bare rock. Despite the humble surroundings, dinner service was reverential, with an autocratic maitre d’ presiding fussily over the wait staff as they presented each course.