Ever since I discovered the beauty of the Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat, I have made it my personal goal to know more about the unassuming structure and its adjacent abbey either through internet research or frequent visits. Because I want to write about the abbey for a society magazine, I decided to book an interview with one of the Benedictine monks through my good friend, Benedict (what a coincidence noh?).
Last Monday, I was able to interview Dom Maurus Cuachon, OSB about the history and activities of the Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat, or more commonly known as San Beda Church. The abbey church is not a parish church and serves a dual purpose: it is the college chapel of the Colegio de San Beda and also, the abbey church of the Benedictine community that resides in the abbey adjacent the church.
Dom Maurus graciously gave me a very rare opportunity to enter the cloister of the monks, and it was, I must honestly admit, a most edifying experience. It was a sigh of relief when I entered the cloister: the silence, the muted splendor and the obvious effort to maintain harmony and beauty were all stark, different realities from the realities of Mendiola and the rest of Manila’s mean streets. Some of the things I saw were flamboyant iron door knobs, a drinking fountain with Spanish tiles decorating it, and a statue of the Good Shepherd proudly standing at the garden.
The refectory was exquisitely appointed with hardwood tables and chairs. At the middle is a podium where readings are read during meal times. The hall is adorned with different coats-of-arms of the different Benedictine communities. The entire space is well-ventilated and well-lit because of the huge windows that let light and air freely flow inside. I was told that the reason it’s relatively big is because at one point in the history of the abbey, around the 1950s, there were close to 100 monks living in the abbey. Now they just number at around 30.
Then we headed to the Chapter Room, a magnificent room artistically designed not only to please the senses but to really, lead one to prayer, silence and contemplation. Dom Maurus told me that the Benedictine community once had an abbot named Dom Celestine Gusi, OSB, a Spaniard who had aristocratic taste. He wanted the Mendiola abbey to be at par with the great monastic abbeys of Montserrat, Subiaco and Monte Cassino, and thus, made sure that the entire place not only exude the severity always associated with the monastic life, but also beauty, harmony and heritage, things that definitely edify the soul.
The Chapter Room’s altar is colorful, decorated with mosaic, and is found below a simple baldacchino. A two-sided cross is found hanging from the baldacchino. The corpus of Jesus at the front, and the body of Mary at the back of this crucifix are made of ivory. Beside the altar is the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, an original statue brought by the first Benedictines to the Philippines who arrived in 1895. The one that sits in the abbey church is just a replica of the one found inside the Chapter Room.
A tapestry by a Jewish artist is hung at the back of the altar, and it is a piece of art that relays the story of Creation. Long benches or pews for the monks are embellished with gold paint while Latin inscriptions surround the chapter room’s ceiling.
Then, I was brought to the Sacristy, an exemplary sacristy. Vestments from the 1940s were shown to me, and they are still in top, usable quality. The impressive vestries can obviously be thought of being made of the finest hardwood, and indeed they are (narra). Dom Maurus also indulged me and showed me a Ramon Orlina chalice given by the famous artist to a Benedictine friend of his. In one corner of the sacristy I saw the reliquary cabinet. It is a cabinet filled with different saints’ relics. It is only brought out during Solemn Professions when monks are accepted entry into the abbey. I believe I was told that the said cabinet is opened during the Rites when the Litany of the Saints would be sung.
Finally, I was led to a small garden at the back of the church. I knew immediately what it was when I saw an angel – it was the monks’ final resting place. In small niches, the monks’ remains are kept in a small cemetery just behind the abbey church. Many of those burried are the Spanish pioneer Benedictines who were first interred in La Loma, the traditional cemetery of the old Catholic religious orders of the Philippines. Some of those who are interred in San Beda’s grave for monks are Lesmes Lopez, OSB, the principal painter of the Abbey Church, and the renowned architect and cultural heritage advocate, Dom Bernardo Ma. Perez, OSB.
The experience though did not finish in the cemetery. I was finally brought by my host to see what was under the tabernacle veil that hides the tabernacle.
The tabernacle is a must-see item. Made in the Gothic tradition and given by a monk’s family from Spain, the tabernacle is made of brass, mounted on a slab of black marble and supported by four ivory legs. It is embellished with topaz and amethyst and other semiprecious stones. However, it’s main feature would be its enamel frontal. The frontal image of the tabernacle is by far the best I have seen. It is, however, threatened by age and soot and the Benedictines are still looking for someone abroad who would know know ho to treat the enamel of their precious tabernacle. As of now, they cannot find anyone else in the country who knows how to deal with enamel.
If you have the time, visit San Beda Abbey and make sure to go there during Liturgical celebrations. They have the best liturgies in town especially during Holy Week. I think that the beauty and heritage of the church enable the monks to celebrate their liturgies not only in a more solemn way but also, in a more beautiful way, one that is inspiring, poetic and loyal to the prescribed texts.
Many parish priests throughout the country have destroyed the faith and piety of people because the priests especially after Vatican II destroyed many elements of churches without considering the long-term effects of their actions. Some completely removed the beautiful santos, retablos, altar rails, stained glass windows for the sake of “simplicity”. Many have been ignorant, and many still remain ignorant about how the Church should stop being too narrow-minded and just focus on what really matters. The Benedictines through their notable abbey and their well-celebrated liturgies should be commended for keeping the people’s celebrations solemn, beautiful and steeped in tradition and meaning. This holy week, try to visit that quiet space that not only silences the senses but also lifts the soul.