Part of me has always wanted to be a monk. Ever since I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, in my senior year of college, I’ve fantasized about forsaking worldly cares and goods for what Merton called the “four walls of my new freedom.” And like many other moviegoers, I was captivated by the image of cloistered life in the recent surprise hit Into Great Silence, a documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. That film’s vision of order and peace seemed the perfect antidote to the 21st-century lifestyle. Though I had not practiced Catholicism or any other faith since I was 12, I longed to partake of such tranquility, at least for a few days.
Slideshow: "An Unquiet Grave"
Francis X. Rocca narrates photos from his monastic tour of the Valley of the Fallen and the Escorial.
"The Travel Advisory"
Where to stay and what to see
As it happens, monasteries are commonly accessible to outsiders, and always have been. In his seminal Rule for the religious life, the sixth-century Saint Benedict of Nursia enjoined his followers to “let all guests that come be received like Christ Himself.” Among those guests were the crowned heads of Europe, who during the Middle Ages were drawn to monasteries, abbeys, and convents by their vitality as centers of learning and culture, and by the presence of holy men (or women) who would pray for royal souls after death. Sticking close to monks also reinforced the all-important belief that the sovereign ruled by divine right.
Nowhere were such institutions more prominent than in Spain, where monasticism retained its influence far longer than elsewhere in western Europe. As late as the second half of the 16th century, King Philip II built the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo of the Escorial, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture 30 miles outside of Madrid. And just a few miles from the Escorial is the youngest royal monastery in Spain, finished only half a century ago. What makes the monastery of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen more than just an anachronistic curiosity is the fact that it is part of a complex built by the dictator Francisco Franco to memorialize those killed in the Spanish civil war. Franco himself lies buried in the basilica, near some 40,000 of those who died in battle.
When I learned that the Valley accepts guests, in both the monastery and external lodgings, the idea of staying with the monks immediately intrigued me. Not only could I satisfy my desire for a retreat; I might also learn something about the relationship between religion and temporal power. How, I wondered, did the monks carry on under the burden of their institution’s origins? And could a stay inside Franco’s monastery help me to understand the mind-set of a man who styled himself “Caudillo of Spain by the grace of God”?