Walking with Ignacio in Catalonia
Boboy S. Consunji (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – St. Ignatius of Loyola is best known as the founder of the Society of Jesus, the religious order that runs prestigious academic institutions around the world, to which Jorge Mario Bergoglio belonged before he became Pope Francis.  Ignacio de Loiola, as he is called in Basque, is also the Patron Saint of Catholic Soldiers, the diocese of the Philippine Military, the entire Basque country, and various towns and cities in Spain. 

If I had ecclesiastical clout, I’d like him to be the Patron Saint of Slow Travel as well.

In 1522, Ignatius ended his military career to become a soldier of the Catholic faith.  He left his home in Loiola, a small town in the Basque part of Spain, en route to Manresa in the Catalan region. The journey covered almost 700 kilometers. He traveled on foot for a month. Had he mounted a horse or any faster mode of transport, he would have missed out on the Spanish countryside, both profound and melancholy in its remoteness. The slow journey through the changing climates and challenging terrain of then rural Spain should have given Ignatius perspective — that he was part of God’s creation, and God had a plan for him within it.  Perhaps Ignatius realized in the vastness of it all that he was never meant to live his faith in isolation, and that he had to be a man for others.

The Ignatian Way, or El Camino Ignacio, is all about slow travel. It’s not anything like standard tourism where you’re pressured to hit major landmarks within a 10-kilometer radius. The Camino is designed for you to walk slowly through the same countryside that once offered shelter and inspiration to the pilgrim Ignatius. It allows you to explore the quaint villages and towns that had spiritual significance to Ignatius.  Make the same journey to spur your own reflections. 

If you’re a tourist who is usually stressed by ticking off must-sees in guidebooks, or even an irresolute Catholic, the Ignatian Way is recommended. The slow immersion allows you to form a stronger connection to a place. Spain, for one, is most fascinating, and it deserves to be explored thoroughly. Spain must not be rushed.  Spain needs more of your time to get to know her people well, over long lunch hours. The Spanish are earnest conversationalists, and can cover any topic as passionately as they rub garlic and tomato on toast. There are city squares and back streets to linger in, providing context for everyday living. There are little-known restaurants waiting to be discovered. I remember the roasted escargots and the Basque version of bouillabaisse (fish stew of mussels, crayfish, eels, codfish head) that I had in a local place. I would’ve missed it if I had stayed on the bus for a half-day city tour.

The Basque country takes up the first half of the Camino. In a previous piece, I covered the Loyola Sanctuary, Zumarraga, the Arrantzazu Monastery in Onati and Laguardia. This time, I’ll retrace my steps along the Catalan stretch. It has seven stages, 183 kilometers in all.  Daunting it is, but you don’t have to hike through it all.

Catalonia, which sits on the Mediterranean coastline, is made up of four provinces, of which Barcelona makes the biggest splash. Barcelona is incredible for its architectural wonders, art, history, culture, cuisine, nightlife and the energy of the Catalans. But it belongs to a different kind of pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of mass consumption.  You may consider it as your final destination in Spain, after completing the Camino in Manresa, which is just a 40-minute drive from Barcelona. 

Ignatius entered the Catalan stretch by way of Lleida, one of the oldest towns in the region.  Lleida is an interesting introduction to Spain’s Roman past. The main attraction is the Cathedral of St. Mary of La Seu Vella, a monumental structure erected on a hill in the 1200s, that blends both Romanesque and Gothic styles.  Ignatius in the 1500s, and our group last autumn, were fortunate enough to witness its splendor, at different points in time. It first stood as a place of worship, a place no one could be indifferent to with its sheer ambition. The restored version we saw was sober in its magnificence. But in the centuries between, it was witness to war and suffering — Catalan revolts made it into a military fort. Francisco Franco the dictator turned it into a concentration camp in the last century. Despite all that, it silhouettes Lleida gloriously today, proving that evil is no obstacle to beauty and bliss.  

From Lleida, we spent the night in Vilagrassa, the starting point for a 90-minute hike to Verdú, still on the same trail that Ignatius took. The hike was not especially spectacular. It was a grueling journey through acres of flatland of grain, olives and oak. When the walk ended, I was happy I made it, sans any sores on my feet. The Verdú stop turned out to be even more thrilling.

I had not even heard of Verdú before, and I would have missed it if I motored through Spain.  The town circles the grand Verdú Castle, erected in the 11th century, its 25-meter tower visible from any point. The entire town is like a movie set, reminiscent of King’s Landing and Winterfell from Game of Thrones. But it’s real, and it’s all functioning. The townsfolk go about their business on paths of brick first laid in Gothic times. People still live and work in the ancient stone houses that have since been remodeled with modern appointments. Strange, but I didn’t see any electric wires dangling in the streets of Verdú.

At the center of Verdú lies an imposing edifice made mainly of stone, but melded with glass, copper and rusted iron. The museum — Mayoral Galeria d’Art — hosts “Tasting Miró,” a unique experience in which Spanish artist Joan Miró’s work is fused with gastronomy. Catalonia’s top chefs prepared courses for our group spread across rooms and rooms of authentic Mirós.  Each course is meant to reference Miró’s interaction with other great Spanish artists like Picasso, Dalí and Tàpies. This stop had nothing to do with Ignatius’ trek, but it’s Verdú’s not-to-be-missed treat to the weary pilgrim.

The Catalan stage then passed through yet another centuries-old city called Cervera. The city is placed on a hill and this geographical situation has influenced its structure with narrow alleys, sloping neighborhoods and dark alleys once inhabited by witches. Cervera was a journey through Spain’s magnificent past that was, at the same time, eerie.

After exploring Cervera’s Gothic past, we headed for the pilgrimage’s highlight: Montserrat. We checked into the hotel adjacent to the Benedictine monastery after dark. That evening, we didn’t see much of Montserrat. The huge rock pillars were not in view, nor was the shrine where Ignatius knelt all night in vigil before the Lady of Montserrat, laid down his sword to renounce his military past and start a life of spirituality. At 7 a.m. we woke to the sound of church bells loudly pealing and reverberating through the Montserrat mountains. The sun was just starting to reveal itself in the horizon. Fog and an autumn chill filled the air. The multi-peaked mountains were finally appearing. From a distance we could hear chanting. We were led to an open courtyard with marbled black and white floor, the entrance to the monastery. All the Benedictine monks were in attendance for the morning Mass. There were no tourists in sight, just a handful of church volunteers who were mostly Asian. The service was sung entirely in Catalan. That particular morning in Montserrat was the single most eloquent spiritual experience I ever had. 

After the service, we went up to see the Black Madonna up close, and spent some time with the abbot for a private tour of the sanctuary right behind the Madonna. At 9 a.m., tourists came trickling in, disrupting the stillness we had enjoyed. We left the monastery in search of Ignatius’ sacred space around the mountains and hiked for about an hour. There, thousands of feet above Barcelona, we were able recapture a state of grace.

The Camino descends to Manresa where Ignatius found a cave to live in for almost a year.  Manresa is as significant as Montserrat in Ignatius’ life. In Manresa he wrote the Book of the Spiritual Exercises, a handbook to deepening one’s faith and discerning one’s vocation in the service of God. In Manresa, the Society of Jesus was essentially born. 

The walk with Ignatius ended in that cave in Manresa. It was tiny, claustrophobic in fact. It was a fitting punctuation for a journey that took me out of my comfort zone as a traveler. By taking it all in, and not settling for the familiar and expected, one gains insight and clarity, like Ignatius did in his long journey. 

Travel differently, try the Camino Ignacio, heed the poet William Blake’s advice:  “See a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower… hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

 

 

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 For more information on The Ignatian Way, click on http://www.catalunya.com

And for flights to the Basque region and from Barcelona, visit http://www.turkishairlines.com.

Email the author at boboyconsunji@gmail.com.

 

 

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