2.07.2011

Sacred Places Unplugged

The first time I traveled outside of the US on my own was soon after college. I spent volunteering a year abroad in Nepal and Calcutta. Aside from the over-stimulation of the senses, one of the big distinctions that I noticed in both places was the presence of temples almost around every corner. People were constantly remembering God, lowering their heads in a bow just a little as they passed by a temple (a habit which I soon acquired). On one end, you had road-side temples made from a few bricks placed together, where people would leave flowers and milk; and on the other end, there were grand architectural buildings of marble that were adorned with gold statues of deities. At the time this sort of obsession with God seemed to be specific to developing countries -- perhaps the threat of poverty keeps people humble I thought.
One of the entrances to the Samos Monastery, near Sarria


In Europe, I didn’t expect anything remotely comparable to Asia but I soon realized that Asia’s got nothing on this continent, which is full of magnificent churches and stunning monasteries. When you get out of the city (of course the cities have their own grand churches), you notice that every town is built around a church. One monastery that just blew me away is the Samos located in a village by the same name near Sarria. 
When I first saw it, as I was walking up to the town, I thought it must be beautiful college campus. I had never imagined that a monastery can be so grand. Founded in the 6th century, it’s one of the oldest monasteries in the whole of western world -- not to mention one of the largest. The few visitors that happen to chance upon it, walk around mesmerized; taking in the the air of grandeur and the feeling of sacredness all at the same time.

A mural depicting the life of monks: work and prayer
The river Rio Oribio runs through its side, adorned with lush lawns on both sides. The art located throughout the building can challenge any museum. The walls are endlessly filled with mural paintings by good-humored Spanish painters. :)  One of the painted nuns has the face of the Italian actress Sophia Loren. I think I saw an Elton John one too with the iconic colored glasses. There’s also a keystone with an amusing hieroglyphic, which when deciphered reads, “Que miras, bobo?” “What are you looking at, fool?”  One can’t complain that religious folks are too serious. :-)  The monastery also houses a beautiful baroque-style church and the relics of revered saints of the past. Monks (and layman) stay there for long-term retreats and prayers, so it still serves that primary purpose as well.

I continue to be humbled by learning the stories of people, throughout the centuries, who spent their whole lives in pursuit of a deeper search. It isn’t just the yogis of Himalayas, or the Buddhist monks of Nepal, but also the Benedictine monks of Spain that lived in the pursuit of something higher than themselves. The more I travel, the more I realize that people everywhere are driven by the same fundamental search for life's deeper meaning.

(From the Camino Journals)



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