High On A Mount In Spain, An Incredible Site Dedicated To The Blessed Mother
By Michael H. Brown
[adapted from Seven Days with Mary. Montserrat prayers included below for your convenience]
The surprisingly early history of Mary was demonstrated in places like France, where the Virgin appeared to an infirm woman at a place called Le Puy, and her intercession was seen at numerous sites in Italy, where she continued to quash and replace pagan idols. This might come as a shock to those who believe that devotion to Mary is a recent fad. It assuredly is not. It's at the foundation of traditional Christianity. For twenty centuries she has healed. She has helped the impoverished. She has brought countless happiness.
In the early days she often did this through miraculous images, including the ones claimed to have been carved or painted by Luke. According to legend, Luke painted Mary while she was staying in the home of John, using the top of a table that had been built by Jesus in his father's workshop. As he painted, according to this account, Mary related details of the life of Jesus, details that were later recorded in Luke's Gospel. The painting was supposedly discovered by St. Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) in the fourth century, and eventually found its way through Ukraine to Poland, where it was damaged through the ages and eventually repainted on new canvas but backed with the original wooden boards. Historians have never been able to verify such ancient facts, but there are those who believe the portrait is behind the famous image of Czestochowa.
There were many such images, and they were an important way for heaven to communicate with humans. Just as we photograph loved ones, so did heaven want us to have remembrances of Jesus and His mother. There have always been special graces with such images because they invoke a heavenly blessing. Those who confuse such images with idolatry do so because they confuse heavenly images with those of demonic creatures. That's a shame, because holy images have been an important vehicle of Christian evangelization for two millennia. At the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great used one such image to ward off a plague!
There is intercession with Mary's images and one of the most vivid examples is known as Montserrat. It too is an ancient image -- the original may likewise have dated to the earliest centuries -- and it's called Montserrat after a towering mountain by that name.
Far up the incredible highland, which looks like massive sawed-off stone, is a monastery and church containing a slender statue of Mary in a sitting position, darkened by the smoke of candles and holding the globe in one hand as Jesus sits on her lap.
It is a most mysterious image, the Virgin's face elongated, her head crowned with a diadem and wearing a tunic and golden mantle. It's located in an alcove high above the church behind the main altar, accessible to the pilgrim by a narrow stairway that takes one onto a step allowing the actual touching of the relic. The image is known as the "Little Dark lady of Montserrat" and also La Jerosolimitana, or "native of Jerusalem," for peasants in the region repeat the legend that this statue represents one of those carved by Luke and brought to Spain in the first century.
Once more there's no way of knowing the exact origin but what we know is that Montserrat is one of the world's holiest and most august sanctuaries. As long ago as April 22, 718, there was word of a statue in the area of Barcelona that like so many others had to be hidden from Arab invaders. The hiding place had been a cave where the image remained hidden for two centuries. There were already holy men high up the mountain, hermitages that in the words of one writer were "built on impossible ledges and on incredibly high places, situated like a eagle's aerie," transforming the peaks -- the enormous blocks and crags -- into altars of perpetual adoration. There was no holier place outside of Jerusalem and by 888 a hermitage called "Santa Maria" was in existence, overlooking the vast expanses of emerging Europe below.
The image of Our Blessed Mother remained hidden until 890, when some local boys spotted a strange light coming from the eastern part of the mountain. It was near the cave. They described the light as like that of many candles, descending from heaven, and as they approached, these boys, like James before them, heard the sound of music and canticles. It was a Saturday, and the boys quickly informed the local priest in the village of Monistrol. The priest didn't believe them at first and wanted to see for himself. When he ventured up Montserrat he was stunned to see the lights and hear the inexplicable music. The boys were right! There was a miracle on that mountain! The priest informed the Bishop of Manresa, who also headed for the site, followed by a procession of villagers.
"The canticles, the lights, and the fragrant aroma that rose from this mysterious place affected the people so much that the bishop, filled with the deepest devotion, ordered that the cave be entered, and there they found the image which had been a fount of miracles and an object of universal veneration," wrote Jose Maria de Sagarra in a book about Montserrat. "The bishop wanted to take such a wonderful treasure to his cathedral at Manresa, but when those who were carrying the Virgin reached this place where today the monastery rises, they found that they could not move a single step backwards or forwards, and this new miracle was interpreted as a sign that the Virgin desired her sanctuary to be erected on that very spot, as was done."
I was shocked upon visiting Montserrat not only of its awesome, majestic height (4,055 feet), not only at the beauty of the monastery's incredible gold-gilded basilica, not only at the fantasy setting, but also at the tangible graces that exude from the wood statue, which is about three feet tall.
This miraculous image, believed to be a replacement of the original, is Romanesque in style and is said to date to the 12th century. It has that dark Byzantine look to the face and the aura surrounding it leaves the pilgrims in reverential awe.
The Virgin, at the heights of a mountain; the Virgin in a high place just as Christ went to Mount Tabor -- a high place -- to communicate with heaven.
The Virgin, holding the world.
It's not clear why mountains have spiritual significance, but since Moses this has proven to be the case and there is no better example of a holy mountain outside of Israel than Montserrat, the monastery a drive of several harrowing and spectacular miles around the mountain and itself located more than midway up at 2,846 feet. Some say it is among the best candidates for former sanctuaries of the Holy Grail.
Among visitors through the ages have been Jaime I, known as El Conquistador; Fernando I; St. Vincent Ferrer; and St. Ignatius Loyola, who divested his clothes and gave them to a poor man after a pilgrimage to Montserrat, writing his famous spiritual exercises in a cave in nearby Manresa.
Few doubt the influence the Black Virgin had on Ignatius, who embarked on his new mission to found an order, the Jesuits, after spending a night in prayer before the image.
King Louis IV prayed here, and one of Montserrat's hermits accompanied Christopher Columbus, who dedicated one of the first churches in the New World to the Virgin of Montserrat, where an island today bears the name.
So too did Montserrat produce an abbot named Giuliano ella Rovere, who became the pope who hired Michelangelo.
As an emperor named Carlos V said, "a certain divinity which I cannot explain" flows from the sanctuary of Montserrat all over the mountain.
The Prayers For Montserrat
Let us pray (response: pray for us):
Oh Virgin of the heights in this world,
Oh Virgin of ancient miracles,
Oh Virgin who gives us insight,
Oh Virgin who lifts the spiritual blinders,
Oh Virgin who ministers with music,
Oh Virgin who always comes with light,
Oh Virgin who has formed so many holy men,
Oh Virgin who oversaw the development of Europe,
Oh Virgin who also oversaw the New World,
Oh Virgin who withstood all the assaults of the early centuries,
Oh Virgin who inspires popes,
(Ancient prayer to the Virgin Mary)
We turn to you for protection, holy Mother of God.
Listen to our prayers and help us in our needs.
Save us from every danger, glorious and blessed Virgin.
Litany of Mary of Nazareth
Glory to you, God our Creator
Breathe into us new life, new meaning.
Glory to you, God our Savior.
Lead us in the way of peace and justice.
Glory to you, healing Spirit.
Transform us to empower others.
Mary, wellspring of peace,
Be our guide
Model of strength
Model of gentleness
Model of trust
Model of courage
Model of patience
Model of risk
Model of openness
Model of perseverance
Mother of the Liberator
Pray for us.
Consecration through Mary
Oh Immaculate Mary, oh Virgin of Montserrat, I, a faithless sinner, renew and ratify today in thy hands the vows of my Baptism; I renounce forever Satan, his pomp and works; and I give myself entirely to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Wisdom, to carry my cross after Him all the days of my life, and to be more faithful to Him than I have ever been before. In the presence of all the heavenly court I choose this day my Mother and Mistress. I deliver and consecrate to thee, as they slave, my body and soul, my goods, both interior and exterior, and even the value of all my actions, past, present, and future; leaving to thee the entire and full right of disposing of me, and all that belongs to me, without exception, according to thy good pleasure, for the greater glory of God, in time and in eternity.
Consecration to Jesus the Incarnate Wisdom through the Blessed Virgin Mary
O Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. O sweetest and most adorable Jesus. True God and true man, only Son of the Eternal Father, and of Mary, always Virgin. I adore Thee profoundly in the bosom and splendors of Thy Father during eternity; and I adore Thee also in the virginal bosom of Mary, Thy most worthy Mother, in the time of Thine Incarnation. I give Thee thanks for that Thou hast annihilated Thyself, taking the form of a slave in order to rescue me from the cruel slavery of the devil. I dare not come by myself before Thy most holy and august majesty. It is on this account that I have recourse to the intercession of Thy most holy Mother, whom Thou hast given me for a mediatrix with Thee. It is through her that I hope to obtain of Thee contrition, the pardon of my sins, and the acquisition and preservation of wisdom. Hail then, O Immaculate Mary, living tabernacle of the Divinity, where the Eternal Wisdom willed to be hidden and to be adored by angels and men. Receive, O benignant Virgin, this little offering of my slavery, in honor of, and in union with, that subjection which the Eternal Wisdom deigned to have to thy maternity, in homage to the power which both of you have over this poor sinner, and in thanksgiving for the privileges with which the Holy Trinity has favored thee, I declare that I wish henceforth, as they true slave, to seek thy honor and to obey thee in all things.
V: The angel spoke God's message to Mary
R: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit
(Hail Mary, full of grace...)
V: "I am the lowly servant of the Lord:
R: Let it be done to me according to your word."
V: And the Word became flesh
R: and dwelt amongst us.
V: Pray for us, holy Mother of God,
R: That we may become worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: Lord, fill our hearts with your grace: once, through the message of an angel, you revealed to us the incarnation of your Son; now, through His suffering and death, lead us to the glory of His resurrection. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
However much the world tempts us, we know that it is a passing place and that if we do good, if we help others -- most of all, if we are reverential, if we love and serve Christ, and if we are humble, hidden as the Virgin's statue was hidden -- we will resurface, as at Montserrat, in glory.
Prayer of St. Alphonsus:
O Queen of Heaven, I, who was once a miserable slave of Lucifer, now dedicate myself to thee, to be thy servant forever; I offer myself to honor thee and serve thee during my whole life; do thou accept me, and refuse me not, as I should deserve. O my Mother, in thee have I placed all my hopes, from thee do I expect every grace.
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