Agés to Santo Domingo de Silos
I would have liked to see the diggings and the museum in Atapuerca, but this would have meant staying overnight, which I had not planned to do. Eric and my arrival in the centre of historic Burgos was accompanied by rain and Eric immediately made a dash for the albergue. I intended to see and hear the Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants in a cloister nearby and went to the tourist office close to the cathedral. The attendant proposed taking the bus at 17h30 to Santo Domingo de Silos, 60 km south of Burgos. She confirmed that I would reach the Monastery in time for the Vespers at 19h00.
Listening to chanting was on my list of must do’s, so I deposited my backpack at the bus station and walked around Burgos for a good two hours in the rain. I visited Spain’s ‘finest Gothic Cathedral’, which was impressive, especially from the outside – but I preferred the interior of the cathedral in Leon, which is still my favourite on this venture.
Burgos and the surrounding region share a long and turbulent history. As excavations in Atapuerca confirm, about 800,000 years ago human existence might have commenced here. Much later and leading into our own era, this part of Spain was occupied by various Iberian tribes, including stone-age tribes, Celts, Carthaginians and Romans. The latter occupied the peninsula from about 200 BC. The Visigoths followed from AD 450, and Moors from around AD 715, although they never really established themselves fully in these northern regions of Castile like they did in the South of Spain, where they remained to the 15th century. In the north they were weakened by Alphonso III, King of Leon, in as early as the mid-ninth century.
This was about the time that history had left some visible marks in Burgos; it was also the period when the first pilgrims passed through here on their journey to Santiago.
As Muslim armies were defeated and had to retreat, Alphonso and successive Spanish kings built castles to fortify the new southern frontiers. This is why the region is called ‘Castile’.
During the 11th century Burgos became the capital of the Kingdom of Castile and the seat of catholic bishops. As a result, many monasteries were established and I would have liked to see more of them if time had allowed.
Burgos Cathedral in the rain.
Before boarding the bus to the chanting monks in Santo Domingo de Silos I searched for provisions, but even this late in the day stores were still closed and I had to make do with some pastries, which I ate on the journey. On arrival I found bed and breakfast accommodation above a bar where later I had a hefty dinner after returning from the church service. Looking forward to the vespers, I made my way to the monastery just in time for the start at 19h00.
On commencement of the vespers, about thirty monks entered from the far end of the apse and walked two abreast towards the congregation. As they reached their benches in the choir, they bowed to each other and turned to seat themselves one by one in the left and right-hand stalls.
The vespers consisted mainly of chanting in a medieval style, similar to ‘Gregorian’ singing, interspersed by occasional solo singing as well as a short sermon from the pulpit. Prayers, psalms, praises to God are intoned with a few musical notes that are continually repeated in a monotonous fashion. The ‘singing’ is expressed in an extremely soft tone, a rhythmic mumbling is probably the best description. Monks mumbled mostly when seated, at other times they were standing and occasionally they simultaneously bent forward by 90° from the hips, chanting in this unusual position for quite some time – facing the floor. The subdued singing was accompanied by an organ that provided a barely audible, deeply vibrating and soft bass. Obviously it is not the ‘music’ that provides the meaning of the vespers; the words are important, the chanting merely is a foundation for their spiritual expressions – probably creating a meditation-like undertone.
Once I realized that Gregorian chants as heard on compact discs, which are often recorded by these very same monks, differ from those intoned during the vespers, I adjusted to the occasion. My senses were sharpened and I directed all my attention to the deep male droning and repetitiveness.
Certain members of the congregation, numbering only about twenty, were familiar with the proceedings and followed the movements of the monks to some degree. They were probably also experiencing a deeper relaxation, more than I did. I was only able to glimpse this state: my mind was unable to hold and maintain the inner stillness and unconditional surrender of self that the monks probably felt. However, this vespers experience caused the frog in my throat to be active again – there must be some reason for this. He is active under certain conditions and not under others – I find this interesting. Not that it matters; as long as I am alone, no one else is affected. Often there is only one hiccup, sometimes there are several. They are always followed by stomach muscles cramping ‒ fading as the body manages to restrain the frog. As a result he disappears and leaves me in peace again.
The monastery, the origin of which dates back to the 7th century, is part of the Benedictine Order and all its members wear the traditional brown, one-piece habit with a hood on its back. Most have a ‘rope’ around their waist.
Santo Domingo de Silos ‒ after vespers in the rain.
At the end of the Vespers the monks stood up, again bowed to each other and proceeded in pairs along the centre isle of the nave while still chanting. They passed close to me and I was surprised to see so many young faces amongst them. What struck me also was that all of them had kind expressions; some had wonderful glowing faces, open, friendly, and with a hint of a smile. They held their heads high, portraying confidence and a sense of authority. I now felt guilty for having previously expressed cynical remarks about religion and monasteries and I should apologize for this. Probably most monasteries were and still are occupied by genuinely dedicated monks who serve God and are beneficial to their communities. Many are likely to be conscious people who add greatly to the overall consciousness level of humanity.