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Oseira Abbey: worth more than a visit!


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I've offered some other comments of my own experiences this Spring on the VdlP on "Via de la Plata and Camino Frances – same but different?" (10th August 2009). But, since I walked very deliberately for 'spiritual' reasons, here are a few more. (First, I should say that I'm an English Anglican vicar. I'm not a Roman Catholic, or a Spaniard, or a monk. Maybe there are others better qualified to comment than I: please let's hear from you.)

What is going on inside Oseira Abbey these days? Is it really worth a detour? I'd like to offer my own experiences there.

The guidebooks told me that I would need to be prepared to stay at Oseira for three days and that I would need to book (by telephone) in advance. I did. I called from Zamora Cathedral: a kindly cleaner helped me out, got me the number and let me use a 'phone.

On arrival, I found the refugio to be a dark, damp and nearly subterranean barn of a place, accessed from the outside of the Abbey. This is where most pilgrims stay overnight. It's very medieval. But I persevered with the Abbey gatehouse and on a second attempt, managed to get an answer, and get inside!

Oseira is a vast complex occupied by just a handful of mostly elderly monks. They are Cistercians of the Strict Observance (sometimes commonly called Trappist monks) and they follow a particularly strict rule of life and observe a great deal of silence. Cistercians (Brits may know) are renowned for their beautiful buildings: Fountains, Rievaulx, Furness, to name just three. Oseira started off at much the same time as these, but most of the buildings, the church apart, were lost in a fire and rebuilt in mostly Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Abbey is definitely worth a detour simply for its architectural beauty. But there is more!

As the guidebooks point out, the monks have long offered traditional hospitality to pilgrims en route to Santiago. They still wish to do so and they also wish to advertise to the world the value of what they do: following the contemplative life.

But they are in a bit of a bind! As the VdlP has become busier, they feel they can no longer accommodate pilgrims inside the Abbey as they easily and readily once did. They can't cope with the numbers. And the attendant noise is a problem! I felt a real tension, chatting to the hospitallero about this: how to be welcoming and quiet at the same time. (Brother Luis, as the hospitallero, is allowed to talk and has good English: he had a conversion experience in Soho in the 1970's!)

But, they still wish to encourage pilgrims (and others) able to stay at the Abbey (for at least three days) and who wish to use their stay for spiritual purposes. If this is your 'bag', I would recommend you try it out. Aside from a very comfortable en suite bedroom and full board, you are supplied with a chair and desk (plus Bible - in Spanish), freedom to wander at will around the cloisters and the chance to participate in the full daily monastic Office of services - starting at 5.30am (if so desired!). That's no less than six services in the Choir of the Abbey Church. And, for the rest of the time, golden silence.

Yes, as some have commented, this is Spanish Roman Catholic monasticism and a fairly 'extreme' end of the spectrum at that. It is not everyone's cup of tea, granted. For most people, it is way off their normal comfort zone and raises lots of questions about the value of the contemplative life (simplistically: Do these guys actually DO anything?!) That's no bad thing to ponder, probably, in our very noisy hectic world.

For me, in the course of a long solitary walk up from Seville, the three days at Oseira were a real oasis, a pause. If you're used to silence and retreats, you'll know what I mean. If you're not, it might be worth trying it out. I prayed on my own and with the monks in saying their Office, I read and wrote up my journal. I rested. It got me ready to get on the road again.
€2,-/day will present your project to thousands of visitors each day. All interested in the Camino de Santiago.
Thank you for sharing such a rich experience with us. Would you know if there is anything of this nature on the Frances?

Your religious background is more than adequate to provide insight to this treasure along the way. It is a shame that these brothers cannot find a happy medium where they can continue to allow pilgrims to stay while still remaining faithful to their vows. I hope this opportunity will remain open for others.

Again, thank you for sharing. I hope you will consider doing so again. Though some of us are not Catholic (I am a Latter-day Saint), the value of spirituality can be felt by all those who follow He who died for us all; the wrapping around the gift is irrelevant.

May your Camino never end,

Thank you for sharing this. I will hopefully be visiting Oseira in October when the Levante joins the VDLP at Zamora. The possibility of a short Retreat on the Way is very encouraging,

Men were joining the monks for dinner and the night after vespers were finished at Santo Domingo de Silos. I do not know details, but someone might. I do not think you need to spend three days, but I was told there was a lot of silence involved.

Some information on the monastery can be found in this thread:

Two others spots to mention. Again, like Oseira, they are well known.

1. Alcuescar, north of Merida: the Convent of the Slaves of Mary and the Poor. These guys are not contemplatives. It's a relatively new Order, set up in the 1940's on the back of the amazing pastoral work of the parish priest of Alcuescar, who realised that the rural poor really were poor: malnourished and illiterate. He gathered quite a following and the Order was the result. This focus seems to have somewhat morphed into a care home for men with learning disabilities. Residents wander around the cloister-forecourt: sometimes on their own, sometimes accompanied by a carer. Such folk have always made a huge impression on me: to be with them is a spiritual experience in itself. Some may know of similar work pioneered by Jean Vanier with the L'Arche Community.

The facilities (from the outside: I didn't have time to look around) seemed first rate. Next door is the convent where the brothers live and there is, of course, a (modern) chapel. If you like statues of Mary, they've got a big one!

VdlP-ers will be aware of the refugio in this convent. It's operated on a donativo basis. The welcome (from a lay brother, Jorge) was overwhelming. The kindness and grace of these brothers were palpable and moving. Jorge joined us for our meals, served us, chatted to us, ascertained any needs and encouraged any who wished to do so, to participate in the Offices being said in the church. I missed Mass but caught Vespers. A special place. I felt, so to speak, that I had had my feet washed.

2. The second place which really struck me as different from the rest was Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, just south of Salamanca. Again, it's well-known. Don Blas, the parish priest, is famous in the Camino world, I believe. A ball of energy. By the time I caught up with him, he'd 'done' five Masses that day and was 'pooped', although he still left me exhausted!! He's worth chatting to and spending time with, if you can cope with rapid-fire Spanish. The parish centre, which doubles as a huge capacity (by VdlP standards) albergue-refugio, is worth exploring: I say "exploring" because it's a warren of rooms and corridors. There is a wonderful little informal "capilla" down an alley and nearby a 'prayer garden' for meditation. American peregrinos might also like to have unfurled and view the very large Stars and Stripes (and hear the story behind its acquisition!).

Then, ask to see the nearby parish church: inside. Don Blas will let you have a key, if closed. The outside is of interest (Roman stuff, etc.). But, inside, it is a church transformed. He inherited it without a roof and put one on. He's also managed to dispose of all the usual Baroque tat and in its place, created a wonderful 'space'. There are also a dozen (rather "Spanish", I have to say) life-size statues of New Testament characters (Jesus, apostles and of course Santiago). They were recently carved, one a year, by a local campesino, until he died and carved no more. These are put on carts and hauled about the nearby villages by mules in Holy Week-Easter in mini-caminos. Don Blas said they have become quite a crowd-puller.

And I also found the entire village different. People there certainly couldn't be more pro-Camino. Shops were just opened up for us, though it was Sunday and gone closing, and so forth. I'd be interested to know if other peregrinos have found the same to be true.

These two spots aside, the countryside was a sacred space in itself; empty of people but full of flowers and silence. Otherwise, I found the churches mostly locked; and cathedrals: nul points! But that's just my opinion.

€2,-/day will present your project to thousands of visitors each day. All interested in the Camino de Santiago.
Over on the Frances there are at least two places I know of where pilgrims can sometimes take retreats -- You have to stay for at least three days, though. And you have to have some spiritual purpose.

One is at the Madres Benedictinas convent in Sahagun. Both men and women can stay there for nominal cost with nice rooms and silence (except for occasional street noises, and the bells that toll every quarter-hour, aaargh!) You can join the sisters for sung hours in their over-the-top baroque chapel, or use your own little chapel adjacent to the guest rooms. You need to book ahead, as the facility is popular with church retreat groups.

The other is the Monastery of St. Ottilia in Rabanal del Camino, run by a small group of German and Spanish Benedictine monks. They sing the hours in the parish church across the little square from the monastery gate, which is right next door to the ever-popular Refugio Gaucelmo, the "English albergue" in Rabanal. Their retreat facility faces onto the same square. They have a special feel for pilgrims, as they too were pilgrims, back in the day.

Sorry I don´t have phone numbers, etc. right to hand; I think both of these are listed in the Brierly guides.

On the Anglican vicars comments. I stayed at Oseira this year and they allow me to stay in the pilgrims house for 5 days. I needed to spiritually and physically rest. They were kind and very generous to me possibly because I was an ex Cistercian postulant and they tried they best to keep me there..especially Bro. LUis.
I was unable to stay in the guest house due to being booked. There were a number of retreatents from Sevilla and they adopted me. One lady asked why I did not join them for breakfast after Mass I had to reply I only did when asked. Well it happened her cousin was the Monk guest brother and she assured me I would be having breakfast with them every morning and I did. My stay there was one spiritual event:D.I enjoyed my down time especially when the pilgrims that did make it there left. The lady at the bar escudo was like a mother to me and every afternoon I was assured of a nice meal. I regretfully left there it was a pleasure to meet so many wonderful people. Bro. Luis asked me to to return and maybe some day I will. A wonderful place to stay and rest for a few days.Also they look forward to pilgrims there place is plentiful and if need be they will receive in the monastery.:p
PS there were about four young monks there now that had joined.
The difference between Santo Domingo de Silos and Oseira is Santo Domingo being of the Benedictine order have always allowed men to supp with them where ever you go in the World. Oseira is of the Cistercians which shelters much more their way of life such as silence being golden therefore one never shares meals with them. The difference being Cistercians have adopted a more primitive way to follow the rule of St. Benedict.I stayed at Oseira this summer for 5 days and the pilgrim hostel was not medieval or dungeon like. I enjoyed my stay to recover physically and spiritually. I do plan to return there next year and hope to be able to book to stay in the monastery; who knows maybe they will try to convince me again to stay and become a monk. I was a Cistercian Postulate twice and never persevered.
Pax vobis
The Cistercians encourage each abbey to be economically independent, and to follow the triple 8 rule: 8 hours to work, 8 to pray and 8 to sleep. The Oseira abbey is maintaining this and is offering pilgrims the hospitality that habitually extend, and in doing so, share their way-of-living with those who walk the Way of Saint James. Our arrival and stay in the Oseira abbey were serendipity pur-sang in the spring of 2014. The stunning building, the warm welcome by the hospitalero, the stories shared, the visit of the Abbey and the participation to the morning prayer were one of the most blissful experiences on our pilgrimage. The deviation from Ourense to reach Oseira is a very authentic, quiet and grandiose section of the camino Sanabrés.
Highly recommended.
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