PILGRIMAGE: Saint Martin du Canigou, France—The Empty Grave by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Saint Martin du Canigou, France—The Empty Grave by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The gray peaks of the Pyrenees stretch out in a ragged semicircle in front of me; their lower slopes, carpeted in lush, dark green, plunge out of sight into steep chasms.  A hundred feet below my rocky perch, the tan stone buildings of the Abbey of Saint Martin du Canigou cling precariously to a rocky outcropping.  Beside the small church with its squat, square-topped bell tower and gray slate roof, the main two-story monastery basks in the morning sunshine, looking down onto the enclosed cloister garden, with its open colonnade on one side that follows the edge of a steep cliff.  At the far end of the garden is another simple two-story stone building; like a few of the others it has a red tile roof.  In the wall of its flagstone porch the two red wooden French doors of my room are closed tight against the coming heat.

Although the little monastery which is my home for the week is 3,500 feet above sea level, it is dwarfed on three sides by much higher peaks.  I can almost feel the solemn, imposing presence of the majestic 8,500 foot bulk of Mount Canigou, out of sight beyond the shoulder of the ridge to my right.

It’s almost time for Midday Prayer in the chapel, so I get up from the boulder that I’ve been using as a seat, turn around, and start to pick my way carefully down the steep path toward the monastery.  It occurs to me that the peaceful scene down there certainly doesn’t reflect the trouble and tumult that have marred the abbey’s history.

It was founded almost a thousand years ago by a local lord, Guilford Cabreta, with the help of his brother, the abbot of the famous monastery of Saint Michel de Cuxa, some miles distant.  Saint Martin’s future was to prove neither illustrious nor peaceful.  Over the next 700 years it would continually be the target of some sort of intrigue or other involving local Catalan nobles, the powerful Abbot of Ripoll, or some local bishop.  Armies would twice make their way up the holy mountain to loot the monastery.  In 1428 an earthquake would reduce a number of its walls to rubble.

Thinking about the earthquake reminds me to keep my eyes down and watch my footing – the steep, rocky path roughly resembles a staircase with uneven steps, some of them two feet high.

Rebuilt immediately after the earthquake, the little monastery was still not destined to leave much of a trace on local history during the next 350 years.  Finally, in 1783, the five elderly monks who were left decided that they could no longer keep up the monastic life here in “this frightful solitude.”  So one sad day they closed up the monastery and set off down the mountain, taking with them their most prized possessions, including the monastery’s archives and library.  The old men and their treasures vanished without a trace.

As soon as the monks abandoned the place, the harsh climate began to take its toll on walls and roofs, and the forest began to reclaim its territory.  Local people came up from the valley to help themselves to columns and carved capitals until eventually the entire cloister disappeared.  The ruins of Saint Martin du Canigou became just one more romantic picnic spot in the French Pyrenees.  Today’s neat, well-kept buildings are a clear sign that something unexpected has happened to the romantic ruins.

In the 1920s the newly appointed Bishop of Perpignan, Abbé de Carsalade, who had always been attracted by the mystery of the place, decided that the ruins of Saint Martin’s should be restored so that God’s praises could once again be sung on the mountain.  Thus began an inspiring story of resurrection.

His idea caught on, and with plenty of popular support for the project, the little monastery church was rebuilt, then the guest hostel and two monastery buildings.  A quarter of the original stone columns and their capitals were recovered and used in a new cloister garden.  Over the years, teams of volunteers have spent every summer rebuilding and repairing Saint Martin’s.

Since the simple stone buildings have no heating at all, the place is always closed during the bitter cold winter months.  During the summer, the monastery is staffed by volunteers who are led by a couple of monks of L’Haye les Roses near Paris.  They welcome the thousands of pilgrims who make the long trek up the mountain road to the monastery.  These days the place is able to host up to sixty-four overnight guests at a time.

I join the wide dusty road that leads to the entrance, and step through the simple gate into the cloister garden.  In the glaring sunlight I make my way slowly along the flagstones toward the church.  Just to the left of the small arched door, I notice one of the more curious features of Saint Martin’s: a depression the size of a small bathtub carved into a flat section of the granite mountainside.  The volunteer guides love to tell the story of how it got here.

It seems that the abbey’s founding patron, Guildford Cabreta, eventually joined the monastery himself and lived out his last fourteen years here as a simple monk.  Shortly after his arrival, he asked to have his grave dug right away, near the entrance to the church, to remind him each day of the brevity of life and the futility of all Earthly honors.  The first time I saw this grave and heard the story I dismissed the whole thing as slightly bizarre, a typical example of medieval religious eccentricity.

The ringing of a high pitched bell in the church tower breaks in on my reflection.  Its song rides on the warm breeze across the little ravine to the east, and echoes off of the tan stone cliff, calling our little community of monks, lay volunteers, and visitors to Midday Prayer.  I turn and step through the low, rounded arch into the little church; a few others are already kneeling in the quiet shadows.

As I sit in the cool semi-darkness, I can still picture that empty grave outside.  Suddenly it strikes me that what’s important is not that it’s a grave, but that it’s empty.  I hear the deafening blast of a trumpet; before my eyes every grave that ever was bursts open in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.  Every unmarked trench on every battlefield on Earth suddenly lies open and empty in the bright sunshine.  Every little child’s grave, every ditch ever dug in a pauper’s field now lies open and empty in the bright sunshine.  Every tomb, every burial mound, every mausoleum, suddenly lies open and empty in the bright sunshine.  I see the graves of my mother and father, of my sister and brother and of all my relatives, all suddenly lying open and empty in the bright sunshine.  And, best of all, I can see my own grave in Saint Mary’s Cemetery suddenly lying open and empty in the bright sunshine.

Père Hugues gives the signal to begin, and the voices of twenty men and women fill the chapel with a simple, beautiful song.  The monastery of Saint Martin du Canigou, twice sacked by soldiers, racked by an earthquake, lying in ruins and overrun by the forest for years, is alive again; the holy mountain is singing once more.

Outside in the cloister garden is the grave of Guilford Cabreta, lying open and empty in the bright sunshine.


Picture a particular cemetery, and the grave of someone you love.  Sit with this image for a few minutes: what sounds do you hear?  What do you see?  What memories of this person and what feelings does this image evoke?  Do you remember the day he or she was buried?

Now imagine that it is the end of time, and that same grave is now lying open and empty in the bright sunshine of eternity.  You are reunited with that loved one.  What do you say to him or her?  What emotions do you feel?  Our belief in the Easter mystery includes exactly this scene.

Benedict says, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.”  Today, on this Easter Day, however, as the church rejoices that the Lord has conquered death, try reflecting instead on this statement: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to live forever.


Sacred Scripture (Luke 24:1-8)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 72, “The Good Zeal of Monks,” vv. 11-12)

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

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