Two Monasteries (Zwei Klöster)


This is my first encounter with the Pyrenees. The big, smooth, tarred road from Biarritz to San Sebastian snakes it’s way along the coast behind me. On the left, to the east, lie the blue mountains, the Pyrenees. They are not particularly high, their outlines curve gently, sharp ridges are seldom, and the summits are rounded. They are like solid music. The last foothills come down nearly to the sea near Hendaye. We follow the coast. Côte d’Argent is a good name for it. The waves flash silver-white. The coast falls away steeply to the right. Men are looking for birds’ eggs among the scree. To the left, the first cliffs: not particularly majestic, but quite cliff enough for a first welcome. The car purrs around the bends. We are on our way to Spain, to the monastery of Ignatius of Loyola.

For the time being along the coast, always at the water’s edge. The driver sometimes slows down and tells us about the landscape. We roll through Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and then through Hendaye, where Pierre Loti[1] died, and where Unamuno[2], to the great annoyance of the Spaniards, lived, and Claude Farrère[3] built a house. And that there, that is the river Bidassoa, the border. To lisp by the Bidassoa at night[4]… Yes, I know, the lisping was elsewhere, but it is very nice here, too. Customs guards, gendarmes, passports, salutes, please, thank you, frontier post, and the same thing in reverse on the other side. Spain. Hello.

How balconies change the appearance of the streets! Fuentarabia, praised as picturesque, but also, much as I hate to admit it, spotless streets. Just as I found no evidence in all my travels through the South of France for the continued validity of the reputation of the “scruffy south”. It’s true that Marseilles stinks like a sardine can around the old harbour, and one is not likely to find a luxury apartment in the narrow alleys behind the Cannebière. But the little towns in the Midi, the southern towns that I have seen here in the Pyrenees, are no dirtier or cleaner than any small German town.

Before Zumaya, where our route leaves the sea to turn off towards the south, to the monastery, we met an elegant limousine. “That’ll be him!“ said the chauffeur, just like that. “Who?” I asked. It was, if he was not mistaken, a great Spanish tenor from Madrid, who was on tour in San Sebastian. He had heard him. And to the beat of a four-stroke engine, he sang a few nice parts from Verdi, only pausing briefly in the corners. Anch’io sono pittore! He would have had a good voice, he told us, but he couldn’t afford to have it trained. He was convinced that in less than two years, he could be as good as this tenor was now! But as it was, he drove right on past immortality, with the brakes under his feet, the steering wheel in his hand, and unfulfilled artistic ambition in his heart. The tenor was probably paying a visit to Zuloaga[5], and he showed me his big villa among the greenery. So that’s where he paints.

The landscape had nothing special to offer now, and the chauffeur became talkative. Gypsies overtook us, and he declared that these Bohemians came from Bohéme, Bohemia, which was news to me. And than we spoke about the Spaniards, and about the hardship which weighed on the little man. In fact, we met here, as everywhere that I have been along the Spanish border, policemen and priests, priests and policemen, policemen and priests. Everybody here is Catholic, said the chauffeur. For example, there are no Protestants at all. But the Protestants have their own priests, he said. They are called Rabbis. I replied gently that there are also Protestants who have their own vicars, and he eventually believed me. And we drove on and on.

After a few hours, the mountains opened up, and a valley appeared. The car rolled straight towards the monastery, along a wide access road. My heart stood still. The basilica with the high dome rose up between grey facades to it’s right and left, with lots of wooden-shuttered windows. It invites the road to come to an end between it’s round portals, which it does. Further back, to the right of the causeway, stood the seminary buildings for the hundred and fifty Jesuit novices who live here. The basilica stands on it’s own with these houses, and the holy house of Ignatius, in the mountains. The surrounding valley is quiet. The black eggs are hatched here in the mountains. The big house, with the church and the few outbuildings. The Spanish world was ruled from here, and a great deal of discreet rule is still prepared here today. The founder of the order knew what he was doing. The striking similarity between his spiritual exercises and those of the yogis was discovered long ago. There is hardly a significant difference between them. What the military of all countries has tried with naked force, and never managed, was achieved here with the utmost elegance: to take people, transform them into a state of semi-paralysis, in order to extract the greatest strength from the weakened ones.

The interior glistens with gold. The floor is of beaten silver, the tabernacles and altars of all the precious materials that exist: gold and silver and semi-precious stones and alabaster and marble… But how masterfully! Nowhere does the treasure cry out. Everything serves God in apparent humility. One can visit one wing of the house. And while we are walking around in the wide, darkly-clad staircase, I hear voices. Perhaps we are not allowed to enter here? The Spanish guide makes an inviting movement of his head. The Jesuits are praying. In the semi-darkness of the gray afternoon, I see the one leading the prayers, a wonderfully fine head with golden spectacles, with thin lips and grey eyes. Another stands next to him. The little chapel is separated by a little grill, and they sit inside, the black cassocks on dark brown. I am allowed to enter a small ante-room with a light-coloured carpet and a little window onto the chapel. A young novice, cut off from the others for some reason, is kneeling in front of it. An attractive, black man, perhaps twenty years old. His gown is spread across the floor. I stand motionless and listen.

The voice of the leader stands out clearly. But what is the other one? It rolls, and returns, I cannot understand. There are clearly a lot of men’s voices. And then I see ten or fifteen novices at the back of the chapel, who are the choir. Now I hear it, “Ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis”. I am captivated. It repeats over and over. Repetition is the only really artistic form that there is, as Buddha and his inspired translator Neumann knew, because the ear no longer leads the brain after the eighth time, the nerves relax subtly, so that the poison penetrates every pore. Repetition makes the word unfamiliar, and it comes back transformed. What wonderful movements of the hand! What heads! What a sum of character, intelligence, knowledge and spirituality! The decoration on the walls shines palely, soft carpets soften the tread. I have never seen such elegant prayer.

And suddenly something wafted towards me, a long sequence of sentences. Words. “Spinning mill, foreman…“ I looked it up later to see what it was. It was a page by the great Oskar Panizza[6] who is dead and despoiled, his books forbidden and cast to the winds, out of print, the most important ones never again reissued. It was the page about prayer. Here it is:

„On one of my journeys, I came one day upon a wonderful place, in Tyrol, in a village church. It was a fine and friendly building, with an airy interior. Apostles and saints stood in ecstatic position on the columns and walls and pedestals, holding the instruments of their martyrdom ostentatiously in their hands. And below them, in the pews, a black, crouching mass was encamped: living people. The moment I entered, I was met by a curious gurgling, rattling, purring and jangling, like the noise made by English weaving looms. At first, I really thought there were chaff-cutting machines at work, hidden somewhere in the cellar, or that a traction engine was threshing grain behind the choir, but I soon realized that recurring periods of a certain length could be regularly distinguished in the purring noises, similarly to how certain designs and colours came and went over and over again in automatic sequence in the cloth woven on those looms. And to my not inconsiderable surprise, these designs were periods of speech and sets of sentences here. „Blessed Virgin, Mary!“, and „now and in the hour of my death”, were the figures and nuances of sound which flowed past continuously, as if woven on canvas. And now I did notice that this purring and humming came from the lips and mouths of the cowering crowd of living people in the nave of the church. At the front, a long way in front, stood the foreman, in a white gown, and what he babbled and gurgled before them, admittedly eminently skillful in his work, the others weaved and purred back. First the old people in the front pews, then the factory girls at the back. And what they produced with their busy little teeth, such a high descant the little fingers weaved, sounded like letting peas clatter into pots and pans. I remained standing for a long, long time, probably half an hour, speechless and paralysed, and couldn’t believe it. Almost as long as by the Rhine Falls[7] at Schaffhausen; lulled by the unchanging rushing and roaring, and completely lost in thought, and carried away in my thoughts to a little, distant protestant church in the north, where I made my silent prayer to God, as a boy. Until the waterfall finally stopped, and the roaring came to an end, and I came to myself and recognized that that what I had heard was the sound of the prayers of the Catholic church,and that what they had woven, the work that they had done, was called: prayer“.

That was it. Slowly, I left the room, and the car drove slowly away. Behind us, in the mountains in which the fog was now rising, lay the monastery of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The monastery of Ronceval is on the other side of the border. The secretary of the Spanish embassy in Paris had said, „We can’t give you permission to cross the border several times. Did the French allow that? If you want to do that, we must send a telegram to Madrid.„ No, I thought. Disturb Primo de Rivera[8] personally. Perhaps interrupt him in the moment in which he is boldly laying his head in the lap of one of his female subjects? No! And every time I crossed the Spanish border, without bribes, without contacts, without taking a secret route, every time, I thought of the secretary, thankfully and affectionately. “I am a reputable woman!“ cried the Spanish border in Paris, but when one got down to it later, the difficulty could be overcome.

Ronceval, that’s right, where Roland[9] was killed. They still show the mace with which… but nobody is interested. The monastery is a few hours by road after Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, through beautiful forest gorges, above which vultures circle to see whether there isn’t a little something for them among a herd of sheep. The road turns higher, to about three thousand feet, climbs over a mountain pass, and there is the homely edifice. It used to be a monastery. There is still an abott and eleven monks, who are immensely wealthy, all the land in the area belongs to them, but Ronceval is far from being what it once was. A big heap of houses is connected into one structure, it encloses courtyards, and the church. The roofs are covered with a hideous tin. It is centrally heated because it is very cold here in winter, but I don’t think that a monastery with central heating is really a monastery at all.

The sacristan shows the church treasure. Jewels, relics, gold and silver embroidery, a thorn from… a piece of the bones of… are piled up. The sacristan must have some kind of irregularity of the inner secretions, he is as yellow as wax, with thin, bloodless lips and a strange micro-cephalic skull. He doesn’t stop until I have seen everything, and omits not the smallest detail. Above, in the church, the monks are sitting and praying an afternoon prayer, bold and loud. Their voices reverberate. Below, one is confessing. His head disappears behind the curtain of the confessional, and the arm of a priest is laid reassuringly on the shoulder of the speaker. „Nothing,“ a wise man once said, „gives the Spaniard so much pleasure as to kill a man, and to talk about it, contritely and in detail, afterwards, in church.“ I tiptoe out of the door of the church into the open air.

From outside, the monastery looks as though twelve monks sit in the well-heated rooms and twiddle their thumbs leisurely together. But there is a large, well-appointed reading room, and they also have a library. I make conversation with a Spanish priest. We speak Latin, which is to say, he speaks Latin. I recite all my mistakes from old school exercises, build ut in the indicative, and behave very badly. Si vales, bene est – ego valeo. When I take my leave, I don’t say anything more at all, because if I now called, “Bonus dies!”, the priest would probably slap me.





[4]Paraphrase from the poem Das Grab im Busento by August von Platen-Hallermünde






Next Chapter: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: The Basques (Die Basken)

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

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Back to contents: TuchoPyrenees Tucholsky Pyrenees Book


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