Monasterio de Leyre a physical place for a spiritual journey

May 4, 2013

The spirits of the past echo through the room like the voices of the present as they perform Gregorian chants. Filing in one by one, they pause to bow before the Virgin Santa María de Leyre in reverence. As the monks kneel in prayer, each contemplates his spiritual condition.

They perform this ritual between six and eight times a day, never losing sight of their purpose — to guide others in their religious journey while remaining on the narrow path themselves. Having made a sacred vow, the monks will remain in this place for the rest of their lives.

“When you promise, it’s like a marriage,” Prior Father Óscar Juansaras said. “When you have a girlfriend, you can say bye-bye.”

They are the Benedictine monks of El Monasterio de Leyre or “The Monastery of Leyre.” In all, they are 20 men of all ages and backgrounds that have heeded the call to commit themselves to Christ and the monastery. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the monastery has preserved its simplistic and natural state while accommodating the changes of the future.

“Christ is the head, and monks are the body,” Juansaras said. “If the heart doesn’t work, the hand doesn’t work.”

Rooted on the side of a mountain in Yesa, Navarre, the monastery provides shelter for the monks and a place for their worship. Additionally, part of the building serves as a serene hotel and restaurant serving cuisine native to the region. Whether spending a few hours or a week at the monastery, the most sacred places to see are the ancient crypt and the Porta Especiosa, said Isabel Carrillo de Albornoz, the director of the monastery hotel.

“The jewel of the monastery is the tomb,” Juansaras said. “All kings of Navarre are buried here, like all kings [from Madrid] are buried in El Escorial.”

The monastery’s most welcoming attraction, however, is the relationship visitors may have with the monks. Not only can guests observe, but they can also speak with the monks, request religious support and even stay in the monks’ chambers if seeking significant spiritual guidance and refuge, Albornoz said.

The experience guests can have with a monk is one that is significant, regardless of religious beliefs. Juansaras, a monk at the monastery, has been there for 20 years. He had explored the idea of becoming a priest before coming to Leyre but said he needed a clear message from God.

“One day I was on the beach and the next I was here,” he said. “When he [God] decides you come with me, ‘You come with me.’”

Since that day, Juansaras has been working to maintain the monastery, spiritually and physically. When the monks are not contemplating, praying or lending their wisdom to those in need of guidance, they must work to raise the funds they need to preserve the monastery, Albornez said. Since the government owns the property, monks must pay a fee to continue occupying the space. They do so by selling handmade liquor, eggs raised from their own chickens and a multitude of Monastery de Leyre items in the gift shop.

“The monks have to live with tourism because they need a source of funds,” she said. “[But] there is a good separation between tourist activities and the church.”

The atmosphere of the monastery does not lead guests to notice this divide, as they are able to experience as much as they wish. The only exception is one part of the abbey and the monks’ chambers that only men can view, according to religious rules, Albornoz said.

The monks have had to adapt to society’s changes in order to maintain the property.

“It’s like electricity,” Albornez said. “You have to live in your own time period.”

In keeping up with a changing economy, the monastery has started focusing more on visitors’ attractions, she said. As a momentary break from the hustle and bustle of Pamplona’s city life, guests can stay in the hotel adjacent to the monks’ quarters for as long as they wish. The hotel, fashioned on the site of the former monastery, was constructed in 1979 but has undergone renovations.

The hotel has 32 rooms that range in price from 35 to 77 euro (approximately $45 to $100), depending on the season. The hotel offers sweeping views of the reservoir and countryside and is busiest during the Easter and summer months, Albornez said.

Though part of the serenity of the monastery is living a simpler lifestyle than guests’ day-to-day routine, they do not have to forfeit the pleasures of eating well. The monastery’s restaurant features cuisine traditional of the Navarre region.

“The menu changes from one day to the other,” said head chef Jesus Torrea, who has been working there for 12 years. “I love the freedom to choose meats each day.”

Though the menu changes frequently, guests can expect many ingredients to remain the same, Albornez said. Lamb and beef flavored with garlic and onion accompanied by the region’s freshly grown white asparagus is just one example of what visitors can expect.

Whether enjoying an anniversary dinner or celebrating a baptism, wedding or other large-scale event, the restaurant can accommodate all needs, she said.

One group, longtime friends and new acquaintances, sat near the window sipping sweet red wine sharing stories and food. From the outside, the guests appeared to be at home in their dining room, laughing and enjoying one another’s company. The natural landscape outside the nearby window and the privacy of their table created an atmosphere of welcome, which can be felt throughout the monastery’s premises.

The group of 10 from Madrid agreed in unison, “We like it— the meal, the service and the food— and we want to visit it again.”

If the group does visit again, they will likely find new attractions added to the historical site. The monks hope to repair one of the most important organs in Northern Spain and host concerts as soon as 2014, Juansaras said.

But the monks aren’t the only ones hard at work. Albornez, who has assisted in the management and tourism activities at the monastery, hopes to build a restaurant with a bar and terrace overlooking the sparkling turquoise hue of the reservoir below.

Whether looking for religious guidance or simple solace from a fast-paced society, the monastery welcomes everyone, Albornoz said. Nestled in the hillside 30 minutes from town, El Monasterio de Leyre is a refuge not only for the weary, but for history fans as well.