N.B. I am adding some old material that I wrote for the blog sometime back, but never managed to publish. I was inspired to start with this post, which is from June 2016, because I am in the middle of a very similar experience…
On a whim, I contact the monastery of Poblet to see if they happened to have any vacancy in their HostageriaInterna, that is the hostel inside the monastery. As a Cistercian house, they take seriously the responsibility of hospitality, and so after convincing Fra. Borje, the hostager, that I was not some creep, I was off to live with the White Monks for 24 hours.
Santa Maria de Poblet was founded by the Cisterican Order in 1151. It quickly became one of the most important monasteries in the Order; it was directly dependent upon Morimond, one of the chief Cistercian houses. It also became of central importance to the Crown of Aragón.
Eventually, Alfonso II, Jaume I and a half-dozen other kings of Aragón chose to be buried there, beside the high altar. Jaume entered the monastery and took vows ad sucurrendum. The practice was popular amongst the nobility in the twelfth and thirteenth century and while cynical to modern eyes, I think reflected, at least on the part of kings, a genuine effort to reconcile their often contradictory spiritual and political selves.
It turns out that the Hostageriatakes people ad sucurrendumas well, so to speak. The monastic hospitality is aimed at people (well, men) looking for a place of spiritual retreat and comfort during crises and difficult times. The monks even appeared to be counseling one of the two other gentlemen who were availing themselves of the monastery. When I contacted Fr. Borje, he was reluctant to accept my request, but I convinced him that my interest was deep, and that I was not just coming to take pictures.
The Hostageriais in a small house, probably dating to the sixteenth century repairs and upgrades to the monastery, very much inside the inner walls. The outer walls enclose the monastery’s vineyards, attached hotel (the Hostageria externa), and the visitor center. The inner walls surround the church, cloisters, monastic residence and the guest house. To reach the inner compound, I had to pass through the portageria, talk to the portero, and then wait for Borje to meet me. The busy monastic schedule meant that he could only admit guests between breakfast and midday prayers or between lunch and vespers. My arrival time, delayed by a horrible line at the Barcelona airport car rental office, fell squarely in the afternoon.
Borje was, I think, about my age, perhaps slightly older. Though he is from Barcelona, and, like most of the monks, a Catalan, he spoke flawless Castellano, and we chatted pleasantly. He grew up in the El Born neighborhood of the city, but had been in the monastery for over a decade. I did not pry too far into his background, but he told me he still goes home for visits regularly. He was warm and friendly, but also immediately pointed out the monastery’s schedule, and the importance of punctuality. He also mentioned that, while not technically sworn to silence, the monastic community preferred to live in quiet solitude. I could speak to him, and the brother who manned the portageria, but otherwise I was told to let the monks talk to me, if they were so inclined, but not to address them. After seeing me to the simple room, he left, saying “receuerdes visperos, a las siete en la iglesia, puntual por favor”.
Vespers is the evening prayer service of the monastery. Historically, following Saint Benedict, the monks prayed 8 hours a day (matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline). The Cistercian Order, in the twelfth century, were strict observers of the Regula (Rule of Saint Benedict), but their modern descendants are not quite as strict. The monks at Poblet today have 6 services throughout their day. Vespers, the traditional evening prayer, is at 7pm. When the bell rang, about 2 minutes before, I walked up from the guesthouse, into the magnificent twelfth century cloister, and then in the monk’s door to the church itself. Vespers, Lauds, and the Mass are popular with visitors and people staying in the Hostageria externa, and so for those services, guests of the Hostageria internaare observers from the church pews. The monks themselves (all 17 of the 18, one played the organ) sit in the choir, towards the front of the church. As with all the hours, the ceremony consisted of the monks singing part of the cycle of the Psalms, the spiritual focus of monastic life. The psalms and antiphons are chanted in Catalan. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, only some hymns, and the Gloria responses were sung in Latin. Readings from the Bible were also in Catalan. Thanks, Vatican 2, for diminishing my medieval experience!
Next came supper, and again, the 1300-year-old influence of Benedict was clear. The Regula reads “Therefore let two cooked dishes suffice for all the brethren;
and if any fruit or fresh vegetables are available, let a third dish be added.” My experience broadly conformed. We walked from the church into the cloister, and then into the refectory at 7:30 sharp. The refectory is frequently among the most striking parts of a Cistercian monastery. The high ceilings and windows, combined with their extremely austere aesthetics is interesting. The 80-foot-long room had ceilings which peaked more than 40 feet overhead. The room otherwise had a low door on the left into the kitchen, a pulpit from which one monk would read during meals, and a low bench for utensils in the middle of the room, near a medieval (not working) well. The lower walls were trimmed in dark wood benches, with dark wood tables in front. I was directed towards a table near the front with the other guests. Dinner consisted of some sort of cabbage and bean dish, tortilla (Española), and hard brown bread. Cherries for dessert, which worked for me. Throughout dinner one of the monks read an article about theology from the pulpit positioned halfway up the right wall of the refectory.
Dinner ended promptly at 8:30, and we all exited the refectory together. After a few minutes of milling in the cloister, we gathered on the north arcade for the lecture. The evening air was just starting to get pretty chilly, and sitting on the stone benches did not help much. I began to understand how the monks could wear their white tunics and black scapulars: even in mid-June, the nights at Poblet are chilly. And older member of the community read a couple of passages from the Bible for about 10 minutes before the bell rang for Complines.
The evening office was considerably more interesting in that the guests of the Hostageria interna were allowed to participate with the monks in the choir of the church. One of the other guests, an older gentleman who was exceedingly kind to me, showing me where in the hymnal and psalter I could find the text for the service. Being up close and personal with the monks, sitting and standing with them as they proceeded through the psalms, and reading a long with them brought the whole thing to life in a far more profound way than sitting in the pews had for Vespers.
Compline ended by about 9:30, and despite the fact that sunset was still an hour away, the inner gates of the monastery were closed, and the monks retired. Luckily, I found myself tired enough to also fall asleep somewhat early, but not before a walk along the walls to admire the gathering evening.
Borje had hinted to me the day before that we were not compelled to join in all of the monastic offices, and I believe specifically he had the 5:15 AM Matins in mind. Nevertheless, I woke in the cold dark and stumbled to the church as the bell started ringing. Like Compline, I was able to sit in the choir stalls and participate in the ceremony. Two of the monks greeted me, and showed me the proper places in the hymnal and psalter to find the morning readings. Borje, who led most of the antiphonal chants, encouraged me to sing along. I tried, but was much more comfortable simply reading along with their chanting. The church was mostly dark, but over the 45-minute-long service, the sky began to lighten perceptibly, and by the time the appointed psalms had been sung, the church was glowing faintly in the morning light. It was again an impressionistic experience.
Morning offices continued apace quickly. After briefly retreating to my room, it was time for Laudes. The dawn service actually falls somewhat after dawn in midsummer, and is of sufficient interest to draw a few of the hotel guests to the church to watch. As a result, it was back to the pews for the guests. I found myself struggling to stay awake for the service.
At 8 AM sharp, we headed back to the refectory for breakfast. Breakfast was somewhat of a self-service affair, as we found the central bench laid out with cereal, yogurt, and bread. After grabbing some bread and cereal, I retreated to my table, hoping that the coffee would present itself shortly. Sure enough, one of the monks came out of the kitchen with a carafe wrapped in a napkin, approached the table, and asked “quieres café?” I am confident enough in my Catalan to know what he was asking, and so I gave an enthusiastic nod. Smiling, the man poured hot coffee, pre-mixed with milk… all over my cereal. This unexpected twist brought on a moment of panic on my part. Here I was in a Cistercian monastery in Cataluña, that is to say nearly out of my linguistic and cultural depth. I assumed I had made some sort of mistake, until I glanced at my fellow guest, who was contentedly slurping down his coffee-cereal slurry. The coffee-bearing brother had already moved on to repeat his bizarre breakfast concoction for the monks, and so I relaxed and accepted the situation. Of course coffee over corn flakes is about as good as you might imagine, which is to say not good. It isn’t undrinkable (or uneatable?), but it isn’t really two great tastes that taste great together. Reflecting on this unusual breakfast choice, I can only conclude that, as individuals cloistered away from the real world, monks get confused about how things work for regular people.
The busy Sunday morning continued with a full Mass at 10 AM. Like Laudes, the Mass attracted many visitors, and so once again I was relegated to the pews. For some reason I was surprised to find that the Mass was much the same as any Catholic mass. The presiding monks (the abbot and two others, who wore green scapulars denoting their role as priests) were quick and efficient with the service, and one even gave a very brief homily (in Catalan).
Other than all that, I got to tour the monastery, which is beautiful, and flanked by vineyards in which the monks work.
Architecturally, the twelfth-century cloister was the most impressive part, after the church, where I could not take pictures.All things considered, it was an amazing experience. I did have to wait nearly two hours after lunch to leave, as Borges had disappeared with the gate keys, but other than the slight delay, I enjoyed my live Cistercian experience.