PILGRIMAGE: Toledo, Spain—Breaking Chains by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Toledo, Spain—Breaking Chains by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

I’m strolling toward the old part of Toledo from the bus terminal well outside the ancient walls.  In AD 123 Titus Livy described Toledo as “a small fortified city.”  Since that time, it has changed hands among Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and Spanish monarchs, but on this spring morning as I approach the city gate, Toledo still keeps its air of “a small fortified city.”

I recognize the skyline from the famous painting, “Storm Over Toledo,” El Greco’s almost mystical vision of the cathedral on the hilltop, its gray tower pointing into the shreds of black and silver cloud as vibrant green fields in the foreground climb upward toward the purplish gray city walls.  Passing through the medieval gate, I climb upward toward the purplish gray city walls.  Passing through the medieval gate, I climb the ramparts.  After a few minutes of gazing down at the Tagus River winding across the rolling farmland, I set off to explore the town’s narrow streets.

I wander through quiet old neighborhoods whose houses bear the stamp of 360 years of Muslim rule, and busy commercial areas with their window displays of beautiful silver work and famous Toledo cutlery.  After stopping at the house where El Greco did some of his most famous paintings, I come to one of the largest gothic structures in the world.  Toledo’s cathedral has five naves; the central and tallest one, supported by eighty-eight pillars, towers 150 feet above the floor.  Everywhere there are masterpieces of painting and sculpture, of gold and silver work.  After an hour of visiting I decide my feet need a rest, and I head for the door.

Some blocks later I find myself in a wide sun-bathed plaza alongside the monastery church of San Juan de los Reyes.  High up on an outside wall, hanging in neat rows, are curious ironwork objects about a foot-and-a-half long.  Grateful for the excuse to sit down, I find a bench in the shade and consult my guidebook to find out what those things are.  A few seconds of page-turning solves the mystery: these are ankle chains taken off of Christian slaves freed from the Muslims by the victorious Spaniards in 1492.  I stare at these grisly reminders of slavery, and try to hear the story they tell of slaves being set free from captivity and returning joyfully to their homes and families.

It strikes me that the side of a church is the perfect place to display the broken chains of Christians who once were held captive.  Our God is, after all, in the business of breaking chains.  We believe that the Word became flesh, suffered, died, and rose again to free us from the chains of sin and death.  We are no longer slaves to evil, doubt, and despair, because the Lord has loosed our bonds.

As I watch the wall of San Juan de los Reyes glow in the afternoon sun, it easily becomes the wall of my own abbey church.  The rusting Muslim leg irons suddenly belong not to anonymous slaves, but to me and my brother monks back home.  The broken shackles become souvenirs of temptations we’ve overcome, trophies of little triumphs over vices, the tally of the times Jesus’s saving power has set one of us free.

What if we could see trophies like this displayed on every church wall in the world?  What if every victory over the fetters of pettiness and jealousy, for example, were recorded by hanging up the broken chains somewhere as an encouragement for the rest of us?  What if we could actually see and count up the hundreds, thousands, and millions of times that Jesus has delivered someone’s heart from the slavery of pride, hatred, or racial prejudice?  What if the walls of drug and alcohol treatment centers could display to the world the broken bonds of addictions overcome?  What if houses, apartment buildings, and convents were decked with the rusty remains of misunderstandings that have been overcome by love, courage, and God’s grace?  What an encouragement that would be to people who find themselves struggling with weaknesses, sins, or addictions!  The display of shattered chains in front of me this afternoon prompts me to steal a glance at my own personal chains – the broken ones and the unbroken.

It’s time to step back out of El Greco’s Toledo and into the reality of evening traffic and long lines at the bus station.  On my walk down the hill, I spot another church, but there are no chains on the wall.  I start looking for them everywhere: on houses, storefronts, and police stations.  I can almost see one, I think, hanging in the shadows underneath that balcony, where an old woman is sitting in the doorway watching the sun go down.


What are some personal chains (habits, feelings, ways of thinking, etc.) that are weighing you down on your journey?  Choose one in particular and reflect on how it is holding you back.  Do you really want to be free of it?  If so, ask the Lord to help you.  Perhaps there is a particular step you can offer to take in this regard as part of your Lenten observance?

If there is a chain that has been a problem for a long time, you might try this prayer: “Lord, if it is your will that I drag this chain along as Jesus carried his cross, then I will keep dragging it; please give me the strength to do so graciously.  But on the other hand, if it is not your will that I drag this chain around, if you want me to be free of it, that would be fine with me, but you have to do the freeing, because I can’t do it by myself.”


Sacred Scripture (Acts 12:6-7)

The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.”  And the chains fell off his hands.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 5, “Obedience,” v. 12)

Monks no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them.

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