Middlemen: Montserrat & Compestela

Most of us would like to avoid the “middleman” in a transaction knowing that middlemen make their money by jacking up the price at every step along the way. Generally the closer you get to the source the better. This just makes economic sense.

Except when it comes to faith.

When it comes to faith and the Christian faith in particular, there are a lot of people who put their faith, hope and trust in the middleman or woman as the case may be.

Go to Rome. The whole role of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church is as the “Pontifica Max”, the great bridge between God and man. So historically the church has become the “door” to heaven and God: witness the emphasis on St. Peter, traditionally the first Bishop or “Papa” or “Pope” as head of the church holding the keys. The mass itself, in the Roman Catholic church not a symbolic act of remembrance, but believed to become the actual body and blood of Christ to be sacrificed anew at each mass for the sins of the faithful and hence the means of God’s grace. Then within this church you have layer upon layer, almost like a giant layer cake, of Apostles and saints, all of which offer additional avenues of grace and to God. The top layer of the cake is of course Mary the Mother of Jesus, since if anyone should have Jesus’ ear and be able to act as a middle person for communicating prayers and wishes, it would be Jesus’ Mother. Go to half of the churches in Europe and you walk out asking yourself, “Whose church is this anyway?”

Such a pyramid scheme of faith is ripe for abuse and plays to humankind’s deepest fear, hopes, wants and dreams. Long before the advent of “Marketing 101” the church had discovered that faith is marketable (a good thing and an attempt to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission of “Go into all the world and make disciples”) and profitable (not such a good thing). The Crusades, retaking the Holy Land and traditional holy places (what a sales concept!) from the “Infidel” (or Muslims, setting the world up for a whirlwind of conflict and agony) were a way to gain God’s favor and grace (after all the people whom you slaughtered were “Infidels”). If you couldn’t make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, conveniently the relics of saints started popping up across Europe. And tons of relics started to appear, some genuine, but most fake. And people flocked to visit, to see and touch these relics, and make their requests of saints who had lived exemplary lives, only to be cut up and quartered by the faithful and have their remains drug all across Europe.

So you have the miraculous discovery of the bones of St. James in Santiago de Compostela which I blogged about early. People, then as now, eager to brave a horde of people to stand in line and put their hands on the shoulders of a statue of St. James to receive some kind of grace, or just a wish list of wants and desires. During the Middle Ages up to 2 million people a year made the pilgrimage, on foot walking the Way of St. James (long before tour buses) to be blessed in some way by this statue.

One of the stops along the way was the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat, about an hour and a half outside of Barcelona. Here there is a 2 foot high wooden statue of Mary that has miraculously turned black. For some reason black Madonnas have a particular appeal. Like most of these miraculous black statues centuries in the smoky candlelit sanctuaries with poor ventilation have contributed to the coloration, but in the case of the black Madonna of Montserrat scientific examination has shown that . . . yes, back in the Middle Ages it was painted black.

If you remember PILLARS OF THE EARTH (TV miniseries or book) you recall how when the town was in danger of decline and the cathedral in danger of not being finished, the inventive young builder carved a statue of Mary out of rock, and then inserted a particular kind of rock in the eye sockets that when heated in the morning by the rays of the sun would appear to weep. Voila! Faith! Money!

So, back to the mob scene at Montserrat today. This is religious tourism pure and simple. Bus loads of people from around the world standing in long lines to climb high above the main altar (as in Compostela), to place their hands on the shoulder of the black Virgin and make a wish. The lines go particularly slow when there is a Russian tour group. Apparently, and this is just for Russians, if the Russians put their hands on the walls of the church in the passage leading to the statue they receive a special power reserved only for Russians. So it slows down the line.

Today’s pilgrims and tourists to Montserrat are more unruly than at Compostela. Nothing like it was originally with pilgrims grabbing a quick sexual encounter behind the pillars in the cathedral or basilica as the case may be: none of that hanky panky, just thousands of people talking at once everyone trying to be heard above the noise of everyone else. So every one of these churches has an assigned “husher” who every five minutes adds to the non-religious atmosphere by shouting “Silencio!” in four or five languages, or just “SHHHHHH!ing” loudly into the microphone. [Interestingly there is none of this at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona where the sheer beauty of the inside causes people just to stand in awe and there is organ music playing in the background a not-to-subtle reminder that this is in fact a church. I don’t know why the Benedictines at Montserrat haven’t discovered the organ background music trick.)

Montserrat doesn’t have the giant swinging incense burner that Compostela has as an added attraction for pilgrims, but it does have a world famous boys choir which performs for 15 minutes every day at 1 pm. So the hordes of tourists all pack into the church at Montserrat like sardines in eager anticipation while the “SHHHHHH!ing” priest does his thing and a single usher tries in vain to control the crowd. When a fantastic fire hazard has been created and not another body can be squeezed into the church, precisely at 1 PM the boys choir files in, does its thing singing three songs, and files out.

As for me, I prefer to deal direct. No middle man or middle woman.

The whole point of Jesus incarnation was for the Word to become flesh, God to take on human form and come to us directly to open the way by which we could see and touch God in the person of Jesus Christ and go to him directly. Rich or poor, Pope or pauper, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, believer or nonbeliever, Christian or Muslim . . . everyone . . . everyone . . . has direct access. No middleman necessary. No hype. No superstition. “Whosoever will may come . . . “ Walk right in. Step right up. Use the front door.

4 thoughts on “Middlemen: Montserrat & Compestela

  1. I don’t understand why people don’t question having to go ‘through a middle man’. God is accessible to all.

  2. Seems like sometimes we need a middleman. Remember the wedding at Cana. Wasn’t Mary the middleman or the middlewoman there?

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