"An Hour With the Hermits," by Marybella Macaulay; The Irish Quarterly, v. 21, August 1893, p. 443-446.
brief 19th-century Irish travel essay about Cordoba, Spain, captures
the remoteness of an unnamed monastery. Wistfully infused in
the essay is an exoticism about ruins, mountains, and silence that
culminates with arrival at a monastery of hermits. Some
text was unclear from the digital version and interpreted; some
are here broken for easier reading.
Silent as a city of the dead is this old-world Cordoba, as we drive through its streets in the grey light of early dawn on our way to the mountains to visit the hermits who dwell there.
One takes advantage of the stillness and absence of sunlight to admire its surroundings. There are mountains on nearly three sides, and on another the Quadalquiver flows past the old triumphal arch and other Moorish ruins. It amuses one to imagine what the spirit of one of the Musselmans would say to the changes reflected by so many centuries in the cherished "Mesquita." Formerly it was entirely open, there being no doors whatever to the building; but, when the Christians got possession of it, the four hundred arches which formed the entrance were gradually closed, changing the outward appearance considerably.
There is an air of other times about the whole city, owing perhaps to the very narrow streets, and the strange houses which from the outside look like miserable cabins, and on entering very often are found to be like palaces. Some of the older streets are so narrow that three persons can scarcely walk abreast. This was done to keep off the rays of the sun. The windows are very small and deep set in the walls, which are extremely thick; and many of the houses have a "patio," which is a square garden in the centre, and into which all the rooms of the house open.
Now we leave the town behind, and, passing through a long avenue lined with trees, take the road to the mountains. Very soon we have to leave the comfortable carriage, and mount (some of us very unwillingly) uncomfortable-looking donkeys or mules. I prefer the former on the principle that the lower one's fall the less one's pride or bones are injured. We get into marching order and move on.
In parts the path is almost perpendicular, and covered with great stones, causing the animals to stumble, and making us lie almost flat to keep from falling off. It makes me giddy to look back and see how high we are getting, or to keep one's steed from going, donkey-like, very near the edge. Oh, the horror of it when he does so, and one's legs are hanging over the side of some of the steepest declivities I have ever seen. At last I brave the laughs of the rest of the party, as they are easier to bear than such uneasiness, and quietly sliding off, determine to finish the ascent on foot.
All inconveniences are atoned for now, as we stop for a little rest, by the magnificent view that stretches out below us. High up the mountain sides are gardens of olives, apples, plums, etc. The air is heavy with the perfume of the rosemary trees and other flowers of which there are great quantities. Down below, the snow-white houses of Cordoba gleam in the rosy light of the slow, rising sun, which, shining on the fields of corn, make them look like glittering gold. Away in the distance are villages, scattered like sails over the ocean. Intense stillness prevails, broken only by the delicious song of the lark as he sends up his morning hymn of praise high above our heads.
One would like to linger longer and impress such a scene on one's mind; but, if we delay, we shall have the mid-day sun on our return journey; so, reluctantly, we move on. After many circuitous turns we see higher still little white houses nestling like doves in the dark bushes.
As we get nearer, we hear the tinkle of a bell calling the hermits to Mass, and have a good time to wait at a strange entrance-gate in which there is an urn where food is left for anyone wanting it. We amuse ourselves reading the names of former visitors scribbled over the place, and add our own with remarks. Presently we hear from within "Ave Maria Purisima” and having answered "Sin pecado concibida." The permission from the bishop duly examined, we are allowed to enter.
A fat, jolly-looking little old man, clad in a brown habit, and with enormous shoes, opens the gate and goes before us up a long avenue lined with tall pine trees. At the end of this there is a large crucifix on a pedestal, in the centre of which is a skull and underneath is written in Spanish —
As you see, I myself saw.
As you see me, you shall be.
All ends here: think of this,
And sin you will not.
We come now to the main building, which consists of a chapel, library, infirmary, and the superior's house. The little chapel is very devotional, built in the shape of a cross; and round the principal altar are a multitude of pretty silver lamps, gifts of pious visitors. Here one notices the absence of the dressed statues which prevail in all Spanish churches. At first one feels anything but devotional at seeing Our Lady in velvet and lace, with rings and a mantilla; but by degrees, when one sees it is a way of showing respect, we begin to think it quite natural.
Kneeling at the foot of the little altar, so far away from the world and all its cares, so far away, too, from our Irish home and all who love us, the consoling thought comes forcibly to one's mind and touches one's heart: that we have still one Friend always near, and the same whether we seek [for Him] here on the mountain tops, in far-off Australia, or in the "Isle of Saints;" and with a little prayer that He may guide and bless all our dear ones, however distant, and unite us once again as in the old days, we pass out to the grounds.
The master of novices comes to show the novitiate, which is still higher up the mountain (the novices must leave the world very far behind). It is a little house with only three rooms, the principal one where the novices sit and are taught some trade, carpentering generally, or how to make rosaries. There are many skulls about on the tables, in fact they are the most prominent article of furniture. We go to a brother's house, which is very small, with three little rooms; a kitchen, where we have to stoop to enter, a bed-room, with a large board for a bed, and a tiny sitting-room, in each of which there are skulls.
The novitiate lasts a year and a half. Strict silence is the rule; the brothers never meet except at Mass, and have no communication whatever with each other. There is an urn in each cell where the dinner is left; should it happen to be still there when the brother comes again, he enters to see what is wrong. If ill, the brother is brought to the infirmary. They go to rest at five in the evening and rise at twelve, and then pray till dawn, when work for the day begins. Each hermit has a garden with all sorts of fruit trees to till and mind. What is not required is sold, and the proceeds go to the common purse.
We pass on to the cemetery, in which, naturally, there are more skulls. The coffins are placed in drawers, the end turned out, and closed with a stone. It is a help to meditation, making ihem consider who shall be the next to be placed in the vacant places.
We try to get some information from the brother as to the details of their life; but he is evidently used to that, and frames all our questions admirably. As a souvenir of our visit, we buy rosaries made by the brothers; and with mingled feelings of sadness and admiration, turn our steps again towards the world below.
We pity these men who lead such austere lives with no companionship, none of the comforts, and scarcely the necessaries of life; at the same time we cannot but admire their greatness of soul in being able so to break all human ties and devote their lives to praising God and praying for others and preparing themselves for the other world, which will last longer than this. They do well to go so high up the mountains, for it lifts their thoughts beyond the clouds so near them.
But, all the same, a grateful feeling creeps over one, and we thank God for having asked us to serve Him in a different way, for having given us kind and good friends to help us by word or example up the rooky and often-times dangerous path through life, and to warn us of the perils we are likely to meet on the way, and the best means to avoid them.¶