To enter the aerie monastery of Montserrat is to penetrate a labyrinth or delve into the center of a palm heart. As I traverse deeper into the spiritual core of Catalonia, Santa Maria de Montserrat slowly unfolds into darkness. First, there is the train journey into the hushed pastoral Llobregat valley. Then, the ascending cable car sweeps me into the supernal massif base where the sun shines more forcefully than on the rest of Spain. From its too relentless glare, I pass into the blessed shadow of the abbey. Immediately the cool stone walls enfold me in their embrace. Tranquility follows me like a clandestine companion into the depths of the monastery. The closer I move to the heart of Montserrat, the more obfuscated my path becomes. The stairway to revelation is not bright but bathed in soft night. “Let there be light,” the Book of Genesis declares, but in the inner sanctum of Montserrat I awaken to the desideratum of darkness.
At Montserrat, darkness has a place and a purpose. As I make my way to La Moreneta, the dark-skinned patroness of Catalonia, my senses come alive in the gloom. I inhale the musky incense of the altar and guide my steps by the touch of hot fingers brushing the dusty corridors.
“I hear the rustle of the wind passing by me, another unseen confederate along my path.”
Even my sight develops and heightens. My pupils dilate to the lambent quality of the shadow and I notice subtle details: the sharp indentation of a sculpted martyr’s cheekbone, the gold glint from an unused sconce, the play of black against gray velvet drapery. The darkness allows me to see the hidden things of life, objects and expressions that conceal themselves from the glare of light. Watching the candle flames flicker across the way, I think about how night reveals the stars to me and manifests the beauty of the unlit moon.
I climb in the darkness to where the Black Virgin sits in her dim alcove. She presents an inscrutable smile to all her venerators, comforting them from her dusky throne. Her expression and the low effulgent baptistry remind me that we all live in a world where we cannot see beyond our limited torches, though I pretend to know my way through each day. The presence of darkness illuminates the world I do not perceive nor understand. It exposes my hidden fears and gives reign to cloaked secrets.
“In the darkness I can embrace uncertainty; failures are judged by the harsh light of day, but the night shrouds them.”
Perhaps that is why Montserrat prefers to be suffused in black, as a reminder to all who enter that this is a place of comfort, a haven for the wounded and the broken. There is no judicious God here, only the healing glance of a sable hued Mother.
The hermits who once lived above the basilica understood the importance of darkness too. Hidden in the caverns of the mountain, they daily contemplated their lives amidst darkness. Lack of light emphasized their solitary communion with God, but it also accentuated their dependence on the community of brothers, their need for spiritual company. The darkness of the cloister solidifies my own reliance on others and my desire for tactile relationships. In the darkest hours of life when I grope helplessly, ready helping hands are always there to catch me. For all its dedication to seclusion, Montserrat is nevertheless a mountainside village enjoined by common spirituality. Those who abide here support each other and succor the endless line of pilgrims seeking reassurance.
Darkness is so often eschewed in our society. It is crushed out by candle light and search beacons and even the ambient glow of technology. Darkness is seen as an evil, as if only bad things happened at night and the absence of light fostered misbehavior. Darkness is seen as foreboding, cruel, and unworthy. But darkness does not have to be cold, it can also be intimate, forgiving. It can hide just as many good deeds under cover and kindnesses not meant for the spotlight.
“At Montserrat, I have come to appreciate the dark and find solace in it.”
I have discovered that darkness has its own type of beauty, the attraction of starless skies and ebony tones. Tonight when I return to my room in Barcelona, I shall commune with the night. I shall kill all the lights and see what the shadows reveal.
Both a rack railway and a funicular connect the Catalan monastery of Montserrat with the rest of the world. The abbey has remained a sanctuary for the Benedictine order of monks who live here and for many political dissenters over its tumultuous history. Santa Maria de Montserrat publishing house is one of the oldest European active presses, and its Escolania, or choir school, has been a musical institution since the 14th century.
Is there a place where you have felt comforted by darkness? Which of the two ways to the Montserrat abbey would you choose to take: rack railway or funicular?