The Draw of the Sacred
I have forever been drawn to Monasteries, places of contemplation, devotion to God, and structured life. While biking along a path in the little town of Giverny, France, famous for being the home of painter, Claude Monet, I discovered the town was first inhabited by Monks who took care of the land. This realization brought such joy that tears formed in my eyes. This is how connected I feel to the Monk’s way of living. I am aware that my reaction is not “typical,” and the thrill of a Monk’s lifestyle is not such a thrill to most. However, people travel from far and wide to visit famous monasteries and reflect on the religious life of the priests.
Often the architecture itself is a draw, and then we have the influential history of Christianity, even the scandals of priests throughout history, the fascination with faith and its mysteries. In the mountains outside of Barcelona, Spain, Montserrat awaits the nature lovers, curious tourists, and faith-loving souls. A functioning monastery and impressive mountain landscape sounded like a bit of heaven to me. We took the train to the foothills of Montserrat. The journey upwards to the base, by Gondola, was expensive, but expansive, exciting and the perfect introduction of being swept into the mountains before landing at the Monk’s home-base.
My first question, as it always is in places formed like this was “How in the world did they get the material up the mountain to build this place?” When I looked it up online, I found that the first written mention of construction was in 880AD when hermit monks built various hermitages and lived a life of prayer. They must have been some buff, hard-working monks. Building any sort of structure in the middle of the mountains is impressive. In the midst of all the tourism, the monks are just beyond our reach, hidden in their walls in sections of Montserrat not open to the public. This descriptor on a website of their life touched me, “Their life is devoted to prayer and work. The Monks can be distinguished from other orders of Monks by their philosophy that there is an importance to everything that every person is.
They are keen to welcome people from all walks of life to the Monastery.” This was a comfort to read. As someone with faith, yet of a different form than the monastery I was visiting, my experience was mixed. Nature around me spoke of the glory of God. The trees, the mountains, the giant rocks, these weren’t full of man’s philosophy and versions of truth. They were just there, splendid and doing a great work-of-the-heart in many travelers’ souls. One woman we happened upon while hiking sat on the stone wall on the path, eyes fixed to the horizon, while her companion sat before a stone building, with a statue of the Virgin Mary inside. Each in their own thoughts, each with their own view of sanctuary.
I wondered out-loud to my husband what people of different faiths, or no faith, thought of this place. There is no denying the political and social involvement of this particular church order in Spain. When you walk into the church, elaborate candle holders hang, gifts from different cities/counties in Catalonia, with plaques listing what part of Catalonia each holder comes from. My husband is always talking about how everyone wants to be seen and to be heard. Yes, each of us wants our candle to be lit at the alter—to have a space in the sacred. It may not be in a grand Catholic Church in the mountains, but the draw of the sacred within us looks for a physical counterpart. Some find their sacred echo in trees, as I do, and some in ornate candle holders.
Humans seek representation in that which symbolizes to us what is spiritually powerful. Art is often this representation. Besides the breath of life I received from walking and gazing at the "jagged mountains" (the actual name meaning of Montserrat) and the trees, I felt my spiritual connection through a statue of Jesus, designed in the 70s, in one of the rooms offset the main sanctuary of the Church. There he was, his face, hands, and feet, all carved into a wood background. He was flat, artistic verses realistic, solemn and calm. I noticed how the artist put flecks of red coloring on his head, where the crown of thorns had pierced him. I remembered the saying, “The only man-made thing in heaven are the scars of Jesus.” I looked at the hands depicted and my heart was loved. Because I believe a God-man really did die, for me, this sculpture had much significance.
Here was where my heart was making sense of my draw towards the sacred. Because I am a spiritual being, I need to find my spiritual meaning, my purpose, on this earth. As I walked to the side, still staring at the face of Jesus, his face began to follow me. I was startled, then amazed. Because the artist had carved the face inwards, towards the wall, the face was 3-D, Jesus looked right at you, no matter where you were in the room! Now, this may, as my dad later described, look like the stuff of an “alien board game,” or it may have the warm effect, as it did for me, of amazed delight.
Jesus is always looking at me through the eyes of sacrificial love, no matter where I am positioned on earth, I cannot lose him, I cannot step outside his gaze. For me, someone who believes in a loving Divine being, this is quite the comfort. Quite the sacred moment. It made me sit in reverence and thanks. I wondered how the line awaiting to touch the “Black Madonna,” the most famous sculpture on Montserrat, could care so for that statue, when this brilliant piece of art and truth lay an easy, no-line access to them. But then, Jesus may be of little significance to them.
The draw of the sacred is in all of us, but what is “sacred” is not agreed upon for all of us. The stark contrast of the line to the black Madonna and this lonely sculpture didn’t escape me. I shall ever be curious as to people’s experiences of the sacred, and visiting Montserrat gave me a hunger to learn more about the inter-twinning of tourism and religion, the difference between curiosity and reverence, and the manifestation of appreciation that is different from worship. The draw of "some sort of sacred" is in us all.
Written by Beth Anne Mwano