It was a l-o-n-g train ride from Santiago to Burgos followed by a not-so-long drive to Santo Domingo. Arriving midday, I hid from the Spanish heat during siesta emerging late in the afternoon to tour the monastery’s impressive cloister.
Later, I scored a pew in the front by being one of the very early arrivals in church. It was a good thing, too, because the place was packed out. Shortly before 7:00, an old monk in a hooded black robe (looking a little bit like the grim reaper) entered, and dragging one foot he came forward to light the candles on the chancel. Three more monks came in, each clearly suffering the infirmities of age, and found their places. One was bent at the waist forming a near perfect right angle with his body.
At 7:00, the rest of the monks entered, and bowing two at a time at the altar took their places in the stalls. In all, eighteen monks, nine on each side began to chant vespers accompanied by yet another monk who softly played an organ. Their seriously old head monk sat apart and chanted a bit but mostly left the singing to his juniors, most of whom looked rather senior.
To hear these men in person was a special treat and worth the hours it took to get there. For nearly an hour I was mesmerized by what to me was a musical performance, and to them, nightly prayers.
That they do this every single day is hard to grasp. I appreciate the comfort of routine, but several times a day–for a lifetime–is beyond comprehension.
After vespers I had a leisurely meal at my hotel, then returned to the church for compline, an abbreviated version of vespers. Since it began at 9:30, the tour buses had gone and the pews were mostly empty.
Traveling to hear these monks was yet another pilgrimage for me. Now when I put my earphones in I will have a new appeciation for the Gregorian chant I so enjoyed in person.
Postscript: These men in black were just as good as that other man in black. Gospel takes many forms. Cells do, too.