Sunday, 23 August 2009

More Spain

of Montserrat and Religious Epiphanies

The monastery set high upon the mountains at Montserrat is a spectacular place. At a height of over four thousand feet the views are panoramic.

The monastery is reached by electric train, not a funicular as such, which is surprising given the gradient.

There's also a cable car, but not to be ridden by the faint of heart, we were told.

We took the train. :-)

The rock formations are truly stunning. The rocks are sedimentary, which itself is pretty amazing given they're now at such a height. The awesome power of Plate Tectonics is not to be underestimated.

But there were others there in search of greater powers.

We queued for an hour to see the 'Black Madonna'. It's a wooden statue, probably of the Egyptian Goddess Isis and child, adopted by Christianity as one of its own. Second hand Icons aren't above us, apparently.

Touching the Madonna's finger is said to bestow health and happiness and who-knows-what.

How this is achieved by merely touching a statue isn't quite explained in the guide book. But there was no shortage of folk willing to give it a go. Even the finger's paint is worn away. Surely no self-respecting miraculous visitation would allow its paint to peel? It does make me wonder how it repairs broken hearts and souls when it can't wave a paint brush about. Perhaps on a cosmic scale paint doesn't matter.

The legend is that the monks found the Madonna already on the mountainside. But when they tried to remove it to put it in their monastery it wouldn't budge. So, they had to build a new monastery around it. Which I guess makes as much sense as your average religion requires.

I took no photographs of the Madonna - the monks respectfully ask that no pictures are taken within the Basillica. Lots of people did snap away. Perhaps it takes an atheist to really respect a religion. Perhaps religion is wasted on the faithful.

In my mind, if there is power in such places as this it doesn't lie in the furniture.

Behind the Madonna is a small chapel. Very few miracle seekers either noticed it or were interested in it. But to me it was a gem, a small oasis of peace amongst the bustling line to the front. Here was a place to truly ponder higher powers, while staring up at the back of the Madonna's head, in a stillness that so often may only be found in church pews.

I had an aunt who died of cancer. She was deeply spiritual, and she died with great dignity. If there is anything to be said for organised religion surely it's in the little personal battles, the little personal spaces in tucked-away chapels, not in the crowds shuffling to see a largely uninspiring clump of wood.

We sat through the public service. Usually the choir, the Escolania, sings prayers, but the boys were away on holidays. So much for religious temperance. Instead, guest choirs and preachers are brought in to do the honours.

A single priest sang hymns and prayers, repeating each in several different languages.

I'd have preferred just the one delivery in Latin. It's not that it makes much sense to me anyway. But it was an experience, one that should you find yourself in northern Spain, you should take for yourself.


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