airport to whisk me away across the desert expanses of the Sierras, I was carrying with me a freight which I had not checked-in on the weighing machine at the air terminus on the Plaza Espana.
It was a freight of countless memories of the teeming Mediterranean port of Barcelona which had captured my imagination with its . strangeness and its gripping individuality.
But I knew also that, above all my memories of this city and its people, one memory alone would dominate all others. The memory of a mountain. A mountain called Montserrat . . the Mountain of the Sword.
As I boarded my bus that sunny morning on the Plaza Universidad, all 1 knew about the early history of this holy mountain was that legend had whispered it as being the seat of the Holy Grail.
I knew that it had a long tradition of piety, and that the silence of its heights had attracted many hermits to its rugged isolation. I knew, too, from a painting in the Dublin church where I had prayed as a child that to St. Ignatius, too. Montserrat had been a step in his search for God.
We rode in a modern dieseldriven bus, along a broad modem highway, out on to the dusty plains of Catalonia. The highway begins as the Avenida Generalissimo Franco and ends as a rocky mountain roadway 50 kilometres away, that goes looping upwards into the dizzy and fantastically ser
rated heights of Montserrat itself.
The roadway kept twisting and turning, so that one seldom saw very far ahead. Presently, however, we had our first close-up view of those truly amazing rock formations for which Montserrat is famous; towering skyscrapers of rock, serrated into natural pillars.
Then the bus ground to a standstill in front of a huge block of buildings nestling in the lap of these fantastic towers. We had reached the monastery erected in the ninth century as a shrine for the famous statue of the Black Virgin.
When the statue was found in the nearby Cave of the Virgin, an attempt was made to take it away, but we are told that all efforts to remove it further down the mountain failed. Today, the Black Virgin of Montserrat stands enthroned behind and above the high altar of the basilica.
We went through a truly magnificent entrance of alabaster, and up the stairway to the shrine itself, the Chamber of the Virgin, which, supported by eight pillars, was decorated by Juan Llimona.
The statue, the face of which is black, is said to have been made by St. Luke, and to have been brought to Spain by St. Peter. Today, the Black Virgin is the patron of Catalonia.
On the way down from the chamber numerous sanctuary lamps line the walls on either side. all wonderful examples of craftsmanship. and each the gift of an organisation or nation that, in donating its own particular lamp, made a gesture of homage to Our Lady of Montserrat.
As I wandered back again into the bright midday sunlight of the plaza I struck up a friendship with a Frenchman who seemed to have the history of the mountain at his fingertips.
He told me the monastery was taken over by the Benedictines in the tenth century. and five centuries later was granted a Papal licence which made it an independent abbey. In 1874, it came under the
control of the Bishop of Barcelona, but it still retained a certain freedom with a flag of its own, and the title of "The Mountain Kingdom of the Church".
Many of the original treasures of the monastery were lost during the Carlist Wars, and the present church wss erected by Philip II in 1565, although it has since been altered and extended considerably, the impressive presbytery being built in .1880, and the facade as recently as 1900.
One feature of the monastery I found for myself. I had wandered rather aimlessly across the plaza, and had peered through an open doorway. The chamber inside was obviously a chapel of thanksgiving. On the walls hung hundreds of small wax replicas of human hands and legs, ears and eyes, denoting particular cures granted and favours received.
There were paintings, too ... no works of art, but simple daubings of ordinary people who had gained favours through the intercession of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. One showed a runaway horse. Another, a train smash. A third depicted a man being run down by a motor car.
I descended by funicular to the Cave of the Virgin. The track descends almost perpendicularly through the foliage of evergreens and Scotch firs that cover the mountain.
The cave is, of course, now a chapel, and only a very small portion of the rock walls are visible. Close by, there is another repository of thanksgiving offerings.
About 80,000 pilgrims go to Montserrat each year, in fact, and many nations are represented in the monastery restaurant at lunch time. I shared a walk with a Cuban. I talked with an American teacher from Fairfield, Connecticut. I had drinks with two London Scots who spoke to me in Gaelic.
The appeal of this holy mountain had brought us all together on a summer day to this desolate but awe-inspiring retreat of the Black Virgin of the Cave, this home of Our Lady of Montserrat.
JOHN J. DUNNE