In March, my wife and I took a long awaited trip to Spain. It was the infusion of culture, food, landscape, weather I needed to spark my creativity.
For my birthday, we hiked to the Hermitage of Sant Joan del Codolar, at the base of Montsant, Sacred Mountain. When I travel, I seek out hermitages. These quiet places, set in nature, are perfect for reflection. So, too, are birthdays.
I always feel residual energy in these places left the devoted individuals who spent their lives to seeking a relationship to Love, their passion, Spirit. But, I’d never met a hermit.
The small chapel of Sant Joan came into view through the alley of ancient cedars. A woman was doing laundry in a blue bucket on the stone terrace. When she saw us approaching, she dried her hands on her shirt and hurried to greet us.
Gesturing back to the bucket, she said, in Spanish, “I’m doing my laundry and listening to the invasion.”
That morning, Russia had invaded Ukraine.
The woman introduced herself, “I am a hermit. My name is Montserrat.”
Montserrat wore a long, braided pony tail, blue jeans, a red t-shirt for breast cancer awareness in Tarragona, and a black sweatshirt. Her face was deeply lined and tanned.
For 47 years, she’s lived in the small house next to the chapel. She looks after the grounds, hikes the mountain gathering plants which she presses and pastes onto cards and bookmarks.
She took us into her house, one room lined with shelves filled with maps, dictionaries, and books of poetry, philosophy and religion, to show us her creations.
In addition to hiking and praying, Montserrat paints daily–devotional portraits of saints. Her current series is Saint Cecilia. A pile of paintings were on the table.
Montserrat showed us the pigments she makes from leaves, roots, and flowers of the plants she gathers on her walks. She mixes these with egg yolks to make the paint. She only buys gold leaf.
I thought of the Benedictine mantra, ora et labora, work and prayer. In this concept, all our actions are prayers which we consecrate to Life. Laundry, gathering plants, painting, even talking with visitors is a way of blessing, of communing with God.
The idea that our work is our prayer has always appealed to me. Maybe this explains why I seek out hermitages, and why I am drawn to the devout saints, artists, athletes, who work consistently to make their lives a gift, the shape of their unique self.
“We become what we celebrate,” Mattew Kelly wrote. Devotion is how we celebrate our lives. Devotion is a coming to Love. Love of ourselves, our creation, Life, the mystery with which we are engaged.
My wife and I talked with Montserrat for two hours. It was like being with an old friend. My wife asked her if she ever got lonely. Montserrat answered, “No, everyone I’ve ever met is with me.”
She walked us through the alley of cedars, stopping at the trail that went through the vineyards to the village several miles away. We thanked her for her time and she put her hands over her heart and said, “Thank you! Your hearts haven’t been contaminated. Don’t let your hearts be contaminated.”
The war continued to be updated on the radio. The laundry continued to soak in the tub.
Walking back to town, the last lines a poem I’d written many years before came to me:
Two strangers we were
no longer strange, just openings
between which god flew.