After a day of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi and another one in the medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona the plan today was to leave the city and take a train from Barcelona and travel thirty miles west to visit the Monastery of Montserrat.
So, with rigor mortis fingers clutching our wallets and our valuables we descended deep down into the metro tunnels and began our journey.
It took about an hour to arrive at our destination and then another thirty minutes on the funicular railway to reach the top of Catalonia’s Sacred Mountain. This is a place of pilgrimage where apparently every Catalan visits at least once in their life to watch the sunrise over the Serrated Mountain (Montserrat).
I have to start with another rather unlikely religious yarn.
The history of Montserrat began in the year 880 when a small group of shepherd children (these stories generally include young children – Knock in Ireland, Fatima in Portugal and even Joan of Arc) saw a bright light descending from the sky in the mountains and heard angels singing and instead of being shit-scared the music filled their hearts with a radiant joy.
The children ran home to frantically report the experience to their parents. They were sceptical but were persuaded to go to the place where the children had experienced the visions to collaborate the story and lo and behold they experienced the visitation as well. Next to come along was a local Priest who, surprise, surprise witnessed the same.
The visions occurred in and around a cave which was explored by the religious elders of the community where miraculously they found an image of the Virgin Mary. This is the Black Madonna, considered to be one of the most celebrated images in Spain, which is believed to perform numerous miracles and attracts millions of visitors every year from all over the world. People queue a long time to visit the Black Madonna, about three hours on the day that we were there, and when they get to the front of the line they get just about five seconds to make a wish before it is all over.
An interesting issue about the Madonna is that she is black and so is the infant Jesus which is just one of those pieces of evidence that some scholars rely upon to support the theory that Jesus wasn’t a sort of blond Nordic type that we all imagine him to have been in the west but rather more like a dark skinned man from the Middle East. Rather like an Arab. If Muslims believed in Jesus and were allowed religious portraits then I am certain he would be black.
Seems to work well both ways I think but that surely is the point, Jesus can be whatever you want him (or her) to be…
Another interesting fact is that in 1493 Christopher Columbus named the Caribbean island of Montserrat after the Virgin of Montserrat.
Not content with the dubious story of the Black Madonna, some also claim that somewhere in a cave in these mountains is the Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ and in previous times Monks used to live in the caves whilst they searched for it in-between prayer sessions.
Many places claim to be the likely site for the Grail (it is good for tourism, after all) but my favourite story is that it is currently in Fort Knox in the USA where tourists can’t go. The legend states that there is a special room somewhere deep inside the vault that stores not just the Holy Grail but also the Ark of the Covenant and the True Cross, complete with the dried blood of Christ. I expect Indiana Jones found them all and handed them over to the US Government for safe keeping!
Safe because the main vault door is twenty-two tons of steel and can withstand a direct hit from a two kiloton nuclear warhead. I don’t believe the story of the Holy Grail but for certain the Depository has housed a copy of the Magna Carta, the Hungarian crown jewels including the Crown of St. Stephen, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and various other historical documents from all over the world.
After visiting the church and the Benedictine Abbey and catching a brief glimpse of the Black Madonna from about one hundred yards away we left the monastery complex and took another funicular ride to the top of the mountain. Well, almost the top because after the train there was a steep climb and we didn’t fancy slogging our way right to the top. It was too hot!
The Monastery of Montserrat is about 4,000 feet high and isn’t even the highest in Catalonia because this is nearby Vall du Nuria which is about 7,500 feet high. By comparison the highest Monastery in the World is the Buddhist Rongbuk Monastery near the base of the north side of Mount Everest at 16,350 feet above sea level.
Building Monasteries as high as possible is rather like building churches as high as possible to try and get closer to God. Rather like the Bible story of the Tower Of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) …
Some people thought it was a good idea to build a tower so high they could get to heaven and prematurely meet God to see what he looked like (was he white, black or woman). God didn’t like that idea so he invented different languages so that no one could understand one another and they couldn’t complete the construction. Maybe this is why God allows natural disasters such as earthquakes to destroy Cathedrals like Christchurch in New Zealand, the Great Fire of London to burn down old St Paul’s or terrible wars and people like Bomber Harris whose job it was to destroy German Cathedrals in World war Two. Just a thought.
I didn’t feel especially close to God I have to say but I did enjoy the views and when we had had quite enough we took the train back down to the Monastery, stopped for a drink and then took the return journey all the way back to Barcelona. It had been a good excursion and I had enjoyed it.