When I started studying in San Beda College, it was such a relief to learn that I didn’t have to take theology classes anymore because the ones I took at St. Paul were all credited. Unfortunately, I still have to enroll in three one-unit subjects called BENE or Benedictine spirituality. In hindsight, BENE1 (pre-requisite for BENEs 2 and 3) was a pretty interesting class. Thanks to it, I was able to participate in a Vespers as well as visit the Benedictine monastery right at the heart of Mendiola (which is usually restricted to the public).
It was our last meeting for the semester and our professor, Ms. Dango, kindly did all the preparations prior to the tour. Our first stop was the Abbey Portal (imagine a picture of a door). The entrance to this room is on the right side of the Our Lady of Montserrat Chapel when facing the altar. Since not everyone is allowed to enter the monastery, this serves like an ante-room. It is where the monks entertain their visitors like family and friends hence, there are a couple of cubicles for privacy. The thing that separates the monastery from the rest of the world is a wooden door, on which the words “you will find peace in this place” in Latin is inscribed. Dom Stephen, our guide, likened the door to the wardrobe in the popular children’s book, The Chronicles of Narnia. When you enter it, it’s like being transported into a different dimension. True enough, the aura changed once we stepped inside the monastery, it’s as if the noise and dirt of Manila vanished into thin air.
Next up is the garden which is my favorite. It is situated in the middle of the cloister. The first thing that we noticed in the garden is the lack of flowers. According to Dom Stephen, the design of the garden is in observation of Chapter 45 of the rules of St. Benedict which states that monks should live their lives every day like they are celebrating lent — an observance of simplicity, penance, and repentance. Also, there is a small pond in the middle of the garden which signifies life. Lastly, there is a marble statue of the Good Shepherd which is originally from the Vatican library. The Good Shepherd is a parable about a shepherd leaving his 99 sheep to go look for one that is missing.
Refectory is the place where the monks take their meals. Normally, what you see in dining rooms of most Filipinos is a picture of the last supper where Christ celebrated the Eucharist before his crucifixion. In the monastery’s refectory though, the painting is not that of the Last Supper but the picture of the meal Jesus shared with two travelers after he resurrected from the dead. The monks believe that the story doesn’t end in crucifixion but in the resurrection of Jesus.
In the middle of the dining hall is a podium with a microphone. During meals, the novice goes to the podium and reads to the monks excerpts from a spiritual book. This way, they aren’t only feeding their bodies but their spirits as well. The tables and chairs in the refectory are arranged in such a way that the seniors are facing the junior monks. Seniority is determined by who has been in the monastery the longest, irregardless of age. Dom Stephen added that while the outside world screams for equality in all aspect, they practice seniority inside for the sake of learning how to be obedient. They believe that the junior must respect the senior and the senior must love the junior because you cannot be a good leader if you don’t know how to be a good follower. They are to obey their seniors completely and without complaining as long as it is the will of God.
Lastly, there are different coats of arms hanged on the walls. Dom Stephen said that the Order of St. Benedict has over 800 Benedictine monasteries. To organize the community, the are divided into congregations with 20 to 30 monasteries each and the coat of arms signify each of these congregations. The head of the whole order is called Abbot Primate while the leader of a congregation is called an Abbot President. The current Abbot Primate is Notker Wolf.
The Chapter Room
Dubbed as the Sistine Chapel of the monastery, this is where the organization and elections are held. The monks vote for something by being given three balls colored Blue, White and Black for neutral, yes, and no respectively. After the discussion, they are asked to drop the ball of their choice in a basket and the outcome is determined based on the number of colored balls present. Also part of the room is the Abbot’s throne where the Abbot, believed to be the representative of God in the community, seats during such hearings. In the middle of the hall is a tapestry depicting the creation created by a Jewish artist.
Also inside the room are two statues. One is the original statue of Our Lady of Montserrat from Rome which is 128 years old. The other is of St. Benedict holding a staff with a book signifying the Rules of St. Benedict plus the chalice with a snake signifying the time when the monks tried to poison him. The former is hidden inside the monastery due to the rule in the Catholic Church that requires all relics or statues older than 100 years old to be hidden away from the public because they are prone to deterioration.
The room is so elegant looking and the cabinets look as if they were made with only the finest hardwood. Dom Stephen showed us some of the precious chalice owned by the monastery. He shared stories of vestments more than a hundred years old used only during special occasions (and not washed!), relics of saints and chalice made of gold embedded with precious stones. Much more than the precious items though, Dom Stephen is more delighted to share that the church is still practicing the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist the traditional way (same as hundreds of years ago) while other churches in the 20th century have modified the celebration.
The Cloister and Cemetery
Cloister comes from a Latin word meaning “enclosure”. Having a cloister effectively separates the life of the monks from that of regular people like you and me. Since there are more monks in the past than today, monasteries back then were bigger and almost everything that the monks might need could be found inside like bakeries and shops. The cloister is shaped in a rectangle to signify the four corners of the world. Today, we know that the world is actually round and it has no corners but that was discovered only later by Galilee while monasteries have already been established way before him. Before a dead monk’s body is buried, he is taken around the cloister much like his last pilgrimage, while the other monks sing chants.
On the walls of the cloister are two paintings, one shows the monastery in Subiaco where the Sacro Speco or sacred cave, the one where St. Benedict lived for 3 years is located, and the other is a picture of the monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat.
The cemetery can be found on the way back to the church. It is located in the area so the living monks can remember their departed brothers on their way to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments.
Dom Stephen hailed from the province and he shared that when he first went to the city in search of the Abbey, he was culture shocked but when he went through the portal, he felt right there and then that he wanted to spend the rest of his life inside. Other people might think of their way of life as boring and I know a handful who wouldn’t last a day inside the monastery but I sort of feel envious of them because they can live in an unadulterated environment, away from distractions like television and the internet. They live a life of simplicity but they are content otherwise they wouldn’t last that long. As the adage goes, doing nothing is different from being still.
There are times when I think of leaving the world behind and finding refuge in a monastery. Unfortunately, women are not allowed for valid reasons (disruption of the aura and temptation for the opposite sex). Also, I need to review my heart and intentions because I might be doing it for the wrong reasons. I believe monasteries aren’t prisons to hide ourselves in when we run away from life. It’s a place where those who are called spend their lives in silent retreat and prayer.
“You will find peace in this place”, the monastery captures perfectly what external peace is.