Montserrat is a monastery located in the mountains about an hour outside of Barcelona. It is renowned for its boys choir, and for a sculpture known as the Black Madonna — one of only a few such representations of Mary in the world. I first visited it 3 decades ago, as a 20 year old college student, complete with backpack and hiking boots. At that time I had been studying in England, and was traveling through southern Europe. By the time I got to Barcelona, I was exhausted and fed up with tourists (yes, I was one, too, but somehow that didn’t count!) So I decided to get away from it all and go on retreat at this remote monastery I had been reading about. To do so, I had to catch a train to the foot of the mountain and take a tramway up to Montserrat. When I got there I was the only tourist around — I was surrounded by mountains, the beautiful church, the songs of the practicing choir, and a deep sense of peace. In that place, I was able to hear the “still, small voice” that has been my guide ever since.
Last month, now in my fifties, I returned to Montserrat. This time I came with my family, among whom is my own 20 year old daughter. I had told them about this place for years, and I couldn’t wait to share with them the ethereal experience I had had. Except now we had to get there by bus — charter bus, which parked us in a lot overflowing with other buses. When we got there there were buildings I had never seen before: two gift shops! — two cafes! — one hotel! — an art museum! — and lots and lots of visitors. It is still a beautiful place, but I longed for what I had once had. After a bit I slipped into the back of the Basilica, hoping to have some quiet time before the boys choir sang at noon. I closed my eyes, and settled into the silence—of which there was none. All around me, school groups and travelers conversed freely, took pictures copiously, and filmed everything in sight. I prayed for quiet — and the voices just seemed louder. I prayed for stillness — and was nearly jostled off my seat by people crowding in for a better look. I prayed to feel what I had felt 34 years ago, and felt — alone. Finally, in desperation, I changed my prayer: “God, help me hear today what it is you want me to hear and see what you want me to see.”
And everything changed. The voices, once distinct and jarring, now seemed more connected. When I listened carefully, not to the words but the sounds, I heard yearning, and hope, and sorrow, and searching — all the sounds of what it means to be human beings, reaching out for something bigger. I was part of that humanity – not apart from it: reaching out for God and being met with love.
Sometimes we need peace and quiet, and a place apart from everyone else to hear God’s voice. And sometimes we need to be open to the place where we are, filled with surprises and irritations and disappointments, and simply ask for God’s help in accepting the new gift being offered today. ”Help me to hear what you want me to hear and see what you want me to see.” The choir still sounded beautiful and the church was still stunning, but everything else was different. So was I.