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Monthly Archives: August 2015
Following the path of the Holy Grail
Nestled in a rock face near the Spanish city of Jaca is the ancient monastery of San Juan de la Pena. It dates back to the ninth century and by the 11th century became the spiritual and intellectual centre of the Kingdom of Aragon. According to legend the Holy Grail was kept here until the 14th century.
There is no final proof but It was believed to be the chalice used by Jesus during the Last Supper and the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea collected the Blood of Jesus on the Cross. Today the original is kept in the Cathedral of Valencia with a copy displayed on a stone altar in the old monastery.
Whether true or not, the monastery San Juan de la Pena is a mysterious and unique place. While on our recent walk on the Camino, I took a day to explore the area on the mountain from which there are spectacular views of the Pyrenees mountains in the distance.
The Monasterio Nuevo, or new monastery, further up the mountain is a much bigger complex. Its exterior has been rebuilt with a modern museum interior giving much insight on how the monks lived according to the Benedictine Order
The monastery had enormous influence not only in the ancient Kingdom of Aragon but throughout Europe of the early Middle Ages. The monks lived disciplined lives, following a daily routine of contemplation, work and study. Silence was highly cherished. The monks took a vow of silence and were only allowed to speak if it was absolutely necessary or when it was a good thought or blessing. It was obviously an atmosphere that was conducive to highly-focused study and inner spiritual work.
The exhibition in the new monastery illustrates a colorful history of rise and decay. The influence and success of this monastery in the early Middle Ages can be attributed to several factors that are good lessons for today’s corporates:
- The monks were absolutely focused, disciplined and dedicated to their task
- At the same time they did not exclude themselves from the outside world, honing the art of networking and relationship-building with the rulers and decision-makers of the time.
- A charismatic abbot, or leader, was crucial in maintaining cohesion, discipline and respect
- Basic material needs were catered for by the Kingdom with at times generous grants and donations
Its a mute point on whether the decay started in the year 1399 when the Aragonese King Martino V took the Holy Grail to his palace in Zaragoza and when the monks asked for it back he tricked them with a replica. There were several fires that destroyed much of the monastery complex in the 17th century. Decay came in line with infighting and power struggles. Grants and privileges from the king were reduced and at times completely stopped. Loss of focus and purpose came in line with vows being broken and poor leadership.
An organisation is only as successful as long as its members are motivated to abide by the internal codes and ethics which always reflects on how it is perceived by those outside. There will always be circumstances that cannot be controlled, such as political change or upheavel. But it is how adaptable and flexible that organisation is to unpredictable changes, that will ultimately determine its survival.
The magnificent churches and cathedrals along the Camino are shrouded in mystery and legend. Overlooking the town of Estella is an impressive modern Basilica. It is built on the hilltop where in 1085 shepherds were attracted by a cluster of stars. Hidden in a cave they found the image of the Virgin Mary. First of all a chapel was built, and then a Baroque church and finally in 1951 a star-shaped basilica recreating the intense light effect that was produced when the carving was discovered. In the interior a 14th-century Gothic image of the Virgin of the Puy from the 14th century is conserved.
After leaving Estella on a beautiful meandering path, Alyce walks ahead to the village of Villamayor. She finds the church open. An elderly man, who looks like a priest, appears from nowhere, asking her to come over. He showers her with blessings and prayers of protection, grabbing her by her shoulders and giving her a long hug. Alyce feels this wave of energy coming her way. What we don’t know at that time is that our friend from the US, Jim, met the same man at the same place only a few minutes earlier. He gives Jim a match to light a candle before a silver processional cross. Jim is at that moment overwhelmed by a truly spiritual experience, momentarily falling to his knees. That evening Alyce and Jim share their experiences with me, still moved by the encounter. But the next day we meet the man who runs the Albergue in Villamayor. He tells us he knows of no old man or priest in the village. The church is in fact mostly locked with the pilgrims often complaining about this. The real priest is in fact a young man. So who was the stranger giving blessings to the passing pilgrims?
Days on the Camino
We’ve been on the Camino since July 30th, starting our walk along the Arles Route from Lourdes. We have met some fascinating people on the Way, while walking through drenching rain, searing heat and spending nights in Albergues with 30 strangers in the same room. Its an emotional topsy-turvy and especially during the first few days you ask yourself: Why am I doing this?
Since my first walk on the Camino in 2006 I’ve been hooked on this experience because this walk is so much more than just a hike. You can indeed walk this route like a physical endeavour but if you open yourself to the mystery of this path it will teach you so many things. Someone said to me yesterday that the Camino is an analogy of life. You have highs and lows, beauty and ugliness, pain and joy, company and loneliness. In the end you just have to go step by step and deal with things as they come. However, the feeling that you are being carried and guided by some higher force gets more intense as you go along. We are body and soul and the soul part is in the end what its all about.