Monserrat, the Mountain Side Monastery

Aaron generally leaves most of the travel planning up to me, so when he asked if we could go to Montserrat when we were in Barcelona, I made sure to make it happen. Montserrat has a long history as a monastery, pilgrimage site, and the place where St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuit order, the order of priests that ran Aaron's high school in Detroit) stayed in prayer and wrote his famous book, Hearts on Fire. Today, it is a Benedictine monastery with a beautiful church, a number of places to quietly pray, and a boys choir. Aside from it's religious significance, Montserrat is a stunning place to visit in the mountains just outside of the city.

Visit Montserrat

We went on Sunday, thinking that it would be a little less crowded, but we were wrong. We purchased a TotMontserrat ticket ahead of time which included the train trip from Barcelona to the base of the mountain, the return trip on the train that takes you up the mountain, use of the two funicular railways at the top, access to the multimedia exhibit (which in itself is pretty darn interesting) and lunch in one of the restaurants. Even though we ended up not using either of the funiculars, it still wasn't a bad deal.

Stunning setting for a monasterry

basilica (left) with the mountains in the background

Statue of St. JOHANNES de la Salle

Mass on Sunday is at 11:00AM, and we had arrived at 10:20. We took a few minutes to grab a map, take a brief look around, and admire the view from the top. The morning fog was starting to burn off as the sun rose higher in the sky. At this point, there weren't many people around and we headed towards the basilica for Mass. There is a small courtyard surrounded by frescoes in front of the entrance to the basilica. Here, we took some time to enjoy the sights, and take a couple of selfies :)

entrance to the Basilica

We then headed into the basilica for Mass. Along each side aisle, hanging from the ceiling, are beautiful scones. We were not able to figure out what they were exactly, but they resembled Eternal Lights, although I don't think any of them were lit. Each one was different, no two were identical, and each was stunning in it's intricate and delicate craftsmanship. Behind and above the alter sits the Black Madonna of Monserrat (more on her later). Since Mass is televised, the entire place is lit up, and it is stunning. Mass was held completely in Spanish (although it could have been Catalan), but we were able to follow along well enough. When we sat down, there were still plenty of seats, but during communion, we noticed that the crowd had grown to be standing room only. It was quite interesting to see a Mass presided over by approximately 30 monks. I have seen high Masses before with a few priests, a bishop, and perhaps a cardinal, but never this many before. The songs were all unfamiliar, but the sound of the organ filling the basilica is impressive. The rich sound fills and seems to radiate from every corner and alcove in the church.

inside of the basilica. Absolutely beautiful!

After mass, we claimed our free lunch in one of the restaurants, checked out the multimedia display (which is actually far more interesting than it sounds), and got in line to see the Black Madonna, so called because of the darkened color of her skin. It is said that the image was carved in Jerusalem and was brought to Spain. After being invaded, she was moved to a secret hiding location in the 7th century, in a cave near Montserrat, for safe keeping. There she stayed for nearly 200 years, until strange lights were seen and singing was heard coming from the cave. Local shepherds and the bishop investigated and discovered the image of Mary. Upon suggestion that she be moved to the local town of Manresa, it was found that she was too heavy to lift, thus indicating her wish to stay and be venerated on the mountain. The current statue of Madonna and Child was made sometime in the 12th century and placed in the Basicilla. In 1522, St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of priests, laid down his sword, giving up his life of battle for a life of prayer, in front of the Black Madonna. Today, pilgrims from all over the world come to see her.

Carving above the door to access the Black Madonna

To visit the Madonna, there is a side entrance to the Basilica. You must often wait in the long line that forms, and note that during Mass or other religious services, access is closed to preserve the solemnity of the service. The path back to visit her is quite beautiful. There are paintings and statues along each side. At the end, there is a set of stairs, decorated with mosaics of different female saints, and a lattice covered, arched ceiling. After these stairs, there is a much smaller, more narrow set of stairs, guarded by the most ornately carved silver doors I have ever seen. Once reached, the image of a seated Mary, holding Christ on her lap, and an orb in her right hand, can be seen. Her hand is open and may be touched. Her skin is blacked, most likely from the soot of burning candles for hundreds of years, but her hand is polished clean from being touched by pilgrims.

One of the saints along the side of the staircase

One of the saints adorning the staircase

 Carving on the door protecting the small set of stairs to the Madonna

Carving on the door protecting the small set of stairs to the Madonna

stairs leading to the small antechamber before seeing the Black Madonna

To visit the Madonna, there is a side entrance to the Basilica. You must often wait in the long line that forms, and note that during Mass or other religious services, access is closed to preserve the solemnity of the service. The path back to visit her is quite beautiful. There are paintings and statues along each side. At the end, there is a set of stairs, decorated with mosaics of different female saints, and a lattice covered, arched ceiling that leads to a small antechamber. There is then a much smaller, more narrow set of stairs, guarded by the most ornately carved silver doors I have ever seen. Once reached, the image of a seated Mary, holding Christ on her lap, and an orb in her right hand, can be seen. Her hand is open and may be touched. Her skin is blacked, most likely from the soot of burning candles for hundreds of years, but her hand is polished clean from being touched by pilgrims.

The black Madonna

Tile Painting on the Ave maria Path

Tradition for venerating that Black Madonna is simple. One may choose to look upon her, touch her hand or say a small prayer. To keep the line moving, the staff at Montserrat do ask that longer reflections take place in the small chapel behind the alcove (you can still see the Madonna). Of course, it never hurts to say a small prayer to her. It is at these times that I'm really glad that my 7th grade religion teacher made me memorize the Hail Holy Queen prayer :)

Upon leaving the alcove of the Black Madonna of Montserratyou are lead down the Ave Maria path. One side is lined by candles lit by visitors. The different colored glass holders with the flickering flames are quite the sight to see.

There is a painted plaque on tiles along the path. Unfortunately, I believe the language used is Catalan, so I was unable to translate. Bonus points if you can translate it!

The colorful candles lit by visitors along the Ave Maria Path

At this point, the sun was climbing higher into the sky and it was getting much warmer out. We were hot, tired, and starting to get thirsty, so we decided it was time to head back to Barcelona.

 Pilgrims visiting Montserrat

Pilgrims visiting Montserrat

If you are in Barcelona and have the time, Montserrat is definitely worthy of a visit, even if you aren't Catholic. The stunning views from the top, the interesting geology, and the small escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy port city are enough to warrant a day trip out there. There are lots of options for getting there and the Montserrat website makes it easy to purchase tickets. If you do visit, or have been there in the past, let us know what you thought of it!

 

Statue at Montserrat carved by one of the artisans for the Sagrada Familia