Revelations at a Benedictine monastery near the León Cathedral

Evening street scene in front of Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León
The neighborhood near Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León, comes alive at night.

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.

Groups of pilgrims enter the double door of the chapel at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León. A stone arch is over the doors.
Earlier in the evening, pilgrims entered through the stone arch of the Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León chapel for Night Prayers.

Pilgrimages stretch physical limits

Wet and weary pilgrims stand in line at the registration desk of the Benedictine monastery.
Wet and weary Camino de Santiago pilgrims wait in line to be registered for the night.

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

Pilgrims with paper devotionals in hand circle the narthex while listening to a Benedictine nun explain the Night Prayers at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León.
Benedictine sister explains Night Prayers in the Narthex before entering the chapel 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

The tall Leon Cathedral made of creamy yellow limestone is framed by azure blue skies on the Camino de Santiago.
León Cathedral, One of the Most Important Cathedrals on the Camino Frances.

“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

Rose window filled with multi-colored stained glass is silhouetted by interior walls.
Rose window at Leon Cathedral in Leon, Spain.

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'

Stain glass fills a huge arched window at Leon Cathedral
One of 723 windows at León Cathedral

“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 León Cathedral at dusk with street lights glowing in the plaza
León Cathedral at dusk. Photo by UNSTOPPABLE Stacey.

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

Two nuns stand with four hospitaleros (volunteers) including author Stacey Wittig at Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León on Camino de Santiago.
Monjas Benedictinas with Hospitaleros at chapel of Monasterio de Benedictinas Santa María de Carbajal León on Camino de Santiago.

“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

Handmade sign reading "Pilgrims Blessing" in Spanish and English on Camino de Santiago

Learn more this Benedictine monastery on the Camino de Santiago at Benedictinas Santa Maria de Carbajal.

Related stories:

Kindness of Strangers: Camino Angels on the Primitivo

Lourdes Pilgrimage: Lourdes to Santiago Camino

Camino Guidebook by Stacey Wittig and Johnnie Walker recently released

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.

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