Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León, a Shelter on the Camino de Santiago
Last night in the shadows of the Gothic neighborhood of León, Spain, I spoke with a tall German. The spicy scent of chorizo drifted from the bar across the street, which also emanated laughter and a gentle buzz of people enjoying the night. We stood outside the arched stone exit of the Benedictine monastery’s chapel. It is here at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León that Camino de Santiago pilgrims find shelter for the night. We’re not far from the León Cathedral.
Pilgrimages stretch physical limits
I am working at this Benedictine monastery as a hospitalera, one who welcomes pilgrims and makes them feel comfortable after their day of walking under the hot Spanish sun, or trudging through spring thunderstorms, on Spain’s open Meseta. Their pilgrimages stretch physical limits, and that brings up buried emotions. Dehydrated pilgrims walk through the ancient monastery’s gate carrying love or anger. It’s baggage sometimes heavier than the packs they bear on their backs.
Night Prayers with the Benedictine Sisters at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León
The German and I had been at the chapel for Night Prayers with the Benedictine sisters. In one hour, we hospitaleros would bid good sleep to all the pilgrims and close the gates to the outside world. I had tasks to perform in the Benedictine monastery before then. However, it seemed to me that the lanky pilgrim wanted to talk, so I stopped to listen.
Earlier at León Cathedral
“I walked into the León Cathedral today. They offered headphones [for an audio tour], but I said no, I don’t want such a thing,” confessed the young man. He gestured a backhanded ‘Nein’ into the crisp night air. “I walked around inside the cathedral for about two hours. The afternoon sun was shining so brightly through the stained glass. I thought, ‘All this beauty!’ If God is beautiful like this… if this is just a bit of the beauty of heaven, then maybe I can believe again.”
León Cathedral, One of the Most Important Cathedrals on the Camino Frances
Over 19,000 square feet (1765 square meters) of colored glass illuminate the León Cathedral, also called ‘The House of Light.’ 723 windows tell stories from the Bible and illustrate allegorical characters. The medieval, Gothic church in one of the most important on the Camino Frances, one of many Camino de Santiago routes.
Colors of the glass change throughout the day as the sun moves
The rich colors of the stained glass change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. When I’m inside looking up at three stories of color, I try to imagine being a medieval pilgrim scoping out the largest building I’d ever seen. I think the incredible display would have been something like seeing color TV for the first time, or being at a huge rock concert with high-tech strobing lights and special effect smoke. León Cathedral is a seven minute walk from Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León, so I visit between work assignments at the Benedictine monastery.
'Its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel'
“The stained glass was so beautiful… The colors so brilliant. Maybe it was made to look like heaven, but that is what it looked like to me,” continued the German. Gothic cathedrals were indeed built to replicate the city of heaven. Builders, guided by Bishops and church officials, constructed the vision of heavenly Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation:
“And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall…” (Revelation 21:10 – 12)
Transported to a Different Realm by the León Cathedral
The rooms and sections of Gothic cathedrals were designed with exacting heights and widths for perfect spatial balance of light and stone. In the León structure, your eye is drawn upward to the celestial by the high rib vaults. The verticality and delicate architectural style symbolizes for some the love and mercy of God. As opposed to the earlier, heavier lateral Romanesque style that seems to illustrate law and judgement.
The León Cathedral with its stained glass, soaring architecture and spirituality that replicates the Biblical description evidently transported the German to a completely different world.
Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León Night Prayers
“I was very touched,” the German continued as he stood in front of the Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León. “It was an emotional experience for me to think that God is a God of beauty and mercy. You see, I come from a very Calvinist church in Bremen. Everything is dark and austere. There is no light of mercy. For a fact, I heard one Calvinist minister say that he would take out all the stained glass in the Gothic cathedral in Bremen and paint the whole thing over.”
Even in the shadowy night, I could see the look of horror on the young man’s face to imagine such a thing.
“Maybe I can believe again,” he whispered.
Like the stained glass windows
“I think you can,” I encouraged. “The Camino and these experiences open your heart. They open you. They create an opening for God’s love to shine into you, and then out through you to others. Like the stained glass windows.”
“Yes, an opening. That is a good description of the Camino for me,” he smiled standing in front of the open doors of the Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León. “The Camino creates an opening for me. I think I will walk around town a bit before the doors close.”
He headed down the shadowy street towards the brightly lit León Cathedral.
Pilgrim Blessing at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León
Learn more this Benedictine monastery on the Camino de Santiago at Benedictinas Santa Maria de Carbajal.
This piece about the Benedictine monastery originally appeared in Pinewood News in May 2017. Correspondent UNSTOPPABLE Stacey sends an article to the publisher from wherever she’s traveling for her column that appears every issue.