Today we departed Madrid for a travel Eastward across Spain to Montserrat, with a brief stop in Zaragoza halfway there.
Zaragoza is home to Our Lady of the Pillar, a popular devotion here in Spain. According to tradition, when St. James the Greater was evangelizing here in Spain (specifically, here in what is now Zaragoza), he was having a tough time of it and was getting discouraged. It is said that one day the Blessed Mother appeared to St. James (while she was still alive, no less) to encourage him in his mission, and told him to return to Jerusalem.
At the same time, tradition holds that two angels appeared with a statue of Our Lady holding the child Jesus, which was standing upon a pillar. That is the statue that is here in the Cathedral today. This event is considered the first Marian apparition, and possibly the first devotional image of the Blessed Mother. There is a chapel built around the statue, which was always full of people praying, and a place behind the sanctuary where you can venerate the pillar itself.
As for St. James, he did return to Jerusalem, where he was martyred (as seen in Acts of the Apostles). Read our blog entries on Santiago de Compostela for more on his story.
Upon arriving in Zaragoza, we walked immediately to the Cathedral. The first thing we did was visit a side chapel with an incredible life size crucifix. The tradition in this church is to venerate this crucifix and bring your intentions to the Lord.
We spent some time in private prayer in the two Eucharistic chapels they had here while Msgr. Trapp went about to ask about Mass. We were scheduled to celebrate Mass at 3:30, but arrived earlier than expected and tried to get an earlier time. That was difficult to do because today was Sunday, and the day they observe the Feast of the Ascension here in Spain, so the Cathedral was packed and had several Masses going throughout the day. Ultimately, we decided to join in at their 2pm Mass, and so ran out to the Plaza Mayor for a quick lunch beforehand.
Mass was concelebrated at the main altar of the Cathedral in Spanish, and it was a great joy joining in the Mass with the rest of the community, especially in a place where everyone was coming to pray and celebrate this great feast.
Immediately after Mass we got right back on the bus and made our way to Montserrat. Montserrat is a Benedictine monastery near the top of a mountain in the Catalonia region of Spain. The monastery has roots going back to the 12th century, though the current church/Basilica here is much more recent than that. This monastery is home to a Marian image that is popular here in the region, known simply as Our Lady of Montserrat. It is said the statue of Our Lady was found in a cave here on the mountain, and the local bishop ordered it brought to the cathedral. But as they were carrying it down, the statue became heavier and heavier until they couldn’t lift it up anymore. So they built a shrine for her here on the mountain, where the monastery is now today. In the current church there is a stairway you can climb to get right up to the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat to pray to and venerate.
Also of significance here is that this is the place to which St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, came to dedicate his life to service of God. After being wounded, St. Ignatius, who was a solider, did a lot of reading. At first he read a lot of books on heroism and chivalry, which excited him, but he said he felt empty inside afterwards. He soon started reading the lives of the saints, which also inspired him, but found he no longer felt empty afterwards and was ultimately converted to a life of serving God. After he was healed he made a pilgrimage here to Montserrat and laid down his sword before our Lady, giving up and leaving behind his military way of life. An incredible gesture by a great saint of the Church, who we will talk about more tomorrow.
Unfortunately, much of the monastery’s land was seized by the government during the Spanish civil war in the 20th century and is now a state park. But the Benedictines still own their church and monastery, as well as a school and guest house, where we stayed. After an incredible job by our bus driver Jose, we made it up the mountain to the guest house and checked in.
We met for Evening Prayer as a group, and Msgr. Trapp told us about this place and the story of St. Ignatius that you read above. He encouraged us to pray about what it is we need to leave behind in our lives as we approach a life of holiness and service to the Lord, and at some point in these few days here to make the trip up to Our Lady of Montserrat and do that.
We then walked over to the basilica to pray. The monks there were finishing up chanting evening prayer, so we sat and prayed in the presence of their beautiful prayer.
It was a short wait until dinner, with a few men taking advantage of the trails to talk a late night walk and enjoy the beautiful views down into the valley below us. Tomorrow, we make our way to nearby Manresa.