Song of Toledo – Kindle, Nook and Paperback

Song of Toledo, a novel of 11th century Spain.

Now available on Amazon.com, and soon at other distributors and retail outlets.

Can a man go home again after fighting his own king?

The year is 1086, and for Brother Bernardo, who is accompanying the new archbishop of Toledo from the great monastery at Cluny back to the ancient capital of Hispania, that question is like a hammer blow sounding louder with each step he takes. Fourteen years ago, fleeing from the new ruler of the Christian realm, he abandoned his homeland, the defeated aide to an assassinated king. Now, following Alfonso VI’s historic victory over the Moors who have controlled Toledo for 300 years, Brother Bernardo is stepping back into a past he thought he had left behind forever.

Song of Toledo is the story of a man trying to find peace in a world that has changed in ways he never imagined possible. But it is also the story of Pelayo, the young novice whom Brother Bernardo takes on as a companion when he stops briefly at a small monastery along the way. Against his wishes, Pelayo is told he must accompany Brother Bernardo before he decides whether to take his vows and spend the rest of his life cloistered from the world. And it is the story of Faisal, the young Moor who has seen his beloved Tulaytula (Toledo) snatched from his people, shattering his own hopes for the future.

Written against the backdrop of the historical re-consecration of Toledo’s main mosque as a Christian cathedral, a time when the tide began to turn against centuries of Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula, Song of Toledo follows the increasingly intertwined stories of Moors and Christians alike as they try to make sense of lives which are slipping, quickly and inexorably, out of their control.

Song of Toledo – Now in Kindle, Nook and Paperback

Song of Toledo, a novel of 11th century Spain.

Now available on Amazon.com, and soon at other distributors and retail outlets.

Can a man go home again after fighting his own king?

The year is 1086, and for Brother Bernardo, who is accompanying the new archbishop of Toledo from the great monastery at Cluny back to the ancient capital of Hispania, that question is like a hammer blow sounding louder with each step he takes. Fourteen years ago, fleeing from the new ruler of the Christian realm, he abandoned his homeland, the defeated aide to an assassinated king. Now, following Alfonso VI’s historic victory over the Moors who have controlled Toledo for 300 years, Brother Bernardo is stepping back into a past he thought he had left behind forever.

Song of Toledo is the story of a man trying to find peace in a world that has changed in ways he never imagined possible. But it is also the story of Pelayo, the young novice whom Brother Bernardo takes on as a companion when he stops briefly at a small monastery along the way. Against his wishes, Pelayo is told he must accompany Brother Bernardo before he decides whether to take his vows and spend the rest of his life cloistered from the world. And it is the story of Faisal, the young Moor who has seen his beloved Tulaytula (Toledo) snatched from his people, shattering his own hopes for the future.

Written against the backdrop of the historical re-consecration of Toledo’s main mosque as a Christian cathedral, a time when the tide began to turn against centuries of Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula, Song of Toledo follows the increasingly intertwined stories of Moors and Christians alike as they try to make sense of lives which are slipping, quickly and inexorably, out of their control.

Religious toleration: In the eyes of the beholder?

The period of “convivencia” in medieval Spain is often looked to as, if not a perfect model, at least an example of how different cultural and religious traditions can co-exist.   An example, in a word, of how potentially conflicting communities can “tolerate” each other.

But what does “toleration” mean? Evan Haefeli, a history professor at Columbia University, argues that though we gravitate toward a few common terms, “in fact we are describing a diversity of arrangements, dynamics, and possibilities taking place in different societies at different times.”

He notes a little later, “Far from being a stable category or experience, toleration is fundamentally a relationship, and inherently an ongoing, ever-evolving relationship, the content of which varies significantly depending on the parties involved.”  Viewing toleration as a “perpetual motion machine”, he suggests, rather than as a static, achievable reality, will lead to a better understanding of the world in which we have always lived.

Freedom and Religion: Is it Either/Or?

Pick up a newspaper on any given day and you’re bound to find an article describing a clash between some form of secular political power and a religious institution. In the West, these episodes play out, at least for the most part, in courts or legislative bodies. But that has not always been the case. In medieval Spain, over the course of many centuries, who controlled a city very much determined the plight of the religious communities within that city.

In 1085, for example, when King Alfonso VI imposed Christian control over Toledo for the first time in more than 300 years, the impact on the Muslim community was immediate and pervasive.

From Song of Toledo:

In some ways, very little changed when the Christian king claimed the city, but in other ways things changed too much for many of their friends, as well as his father’s colleagues, to accept. They were allowed to remain as more or less free citizens, keeping both their property and the right to practice their faith. And those who wished to leave could do so and take their belongings with them. Still, Muslims, along with the city’s Jews, were now forced to pay the annual head tax, which was traditionally paid by the faith communities who did not rule the city. At first, all their mosques remained in their hands except for the main Friday mosque near Faisal’s grandfather’s house. That mosque became the property of the new king, and he was free to do with it as he wished.

Soon after the change in rule, the families of many of Faisal’s friends took what property they could and moved south to Qurtuba, which, when the Christians held the city centuries before, they had called Córdoba. Faisal’s father opted to stay on with the administration as muhtasib, but he now knew he could be dismissed at any moment. As for Faisal, he had the hope of youth that the change would be temporary, but he couldn’t deny that the changes underway, if they continued for long, would change Tulaytula forever. Perhaps the uncertainty surrounding the city’s mosques was what concerned him the most. The mosque at which he had worshipped since his father taught him salaat stood at the base of the street on which his house was located. It was not nearly the size of many of the city’s other mosques, but except for Fridays, when Faisal accompanied his father to salaat in the main mosque, he always tried to be near Bab-al-Mardum, as the neighborhood mosque had been called since its construction nearly 100 years before Faisal was born. For one thing, it was obviously in convenient proximity to his home, but it also had a beautiful garden, including a fountain, which looked out over the southern wall of the city and across the Tajo River. And after salaat, from that garden Faisal fashioned no small number of his dreams as he gazed out across the river to the flat meseta beyond. . . . . .

In the modern West, this world seems foreign to us. But in other parts of the world, tensions and complexities which we might consider “outdated” are very much alive and well.

Here, for example, is an interview with the new Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Tunis.

Liturgical Conflicts – III

As I’ve noted in earlier entries, in the late 11th century a number of popes were intent upon unifying liturgical practice across Christian Europe. In Spain that effort was opposed by Christians who had been living under Moorish rule for centuries and had developed their own Arab language rite. Loyal to what would later be dubbed the Mozarabic Rite, these Christians didn’t appreciate Rome’s efforts, to put it lightly.

According to lore, in addition to the “El Juicio de Dios”, the battle between two knights, “one a Castilian and the other a Toledan”, as well as the story that two bulls, one named “Roma” and the other “Toledo”, were set to fight, and there also the victory was with Toledo, there was a challenge by fire. As the New Advent encyclopedia describes it, a copy each of the Roman Rite and the Mozarabic Rite “were thrown into a fire. By the time the Roman book was consumed, the Toledan was little damaged. No one who has seen a Mozarabic manuscript with its extraordinarily solid vellum, will adopt any hypothesis of Divine Interposition here.”

As with the earlier two incidents, I have adapted this incident for Song of Toledo. The following is an excerpt. I apologize for cutting the scene off rather abruptly, but it leads to the book’s climax, and for that I hope you’ll read the entire book.

From Song of Toledo:

Across the plaza, in the farthest corner from the cathedral, a large crowd had gathered in a circle. Through the crowd they could see a fire that had only recently been started but, judging by the flames reaching skyward, was becoming larger by the moment.

“What is that?” Brother Bernardo wondered aloud as they slowly began to move forward.

At least 50 people had gathered around a fire that had been started since Vespers began, and more people were spilling into the plaza from the surrounding streets. As they moved closer, the soldiers who had previously been on guard around the edges of the plaza formed a line between the crowd and the fire. They pushed the crowd back into a semi-circle around the fire, and when Pelayo looked closer he could see the cause of the fire behind the soldiers. A monk and two other soldiers, it appeared, were taking books from a cart and throwing them into the fire. Each armload of books sent a shower of sparks flaring skyward, and each shower of sparks spurred the crowd further into what was clearly a state of increasing agitation. When Pelayo and Brother Bernardo first came out of the cathedral, it was difficult in the fading daylight to see who the monk was, but by the time they’d made it half-way across the plaza they could see clearly that it was Brother Raúl.

When he realized who it was, Brother Bernardo began walking more quickly and finally broke into a run. Pelayo followed as closely as he could, but while the guards let Brother Bernarod pass to the fire, they held the boy back. Breathing heavily, Brother Bernardo went to the edge of the fire and picked up one of the books. As an old man with a long, gray beard shouted and shook his fist at Brother Raúl, Brother Bernardo leafed quickly through the charred pages of the book in his hand, then he tossed it aside and began to reach into the fire for any books that weren’t already burned beyond recognition. When one of the soldiers threw another armload of books from the cart into the fire, sending another shower of sparks towering into the air, Brother Bernardo had to jump back. He wiped his face and looked at the fire, then turned to Brother Raúl.

“Has it come to this, Raúl?” he shouted.

The crowd was growing more agitated by the moment, although it didn’t seem clear to anyone what exactly was going on.

“It has come to what is necessary,” Brother Raúl replied without stopping. He was moving quickly, turning as little as necessary and grabbing as many books as he could hold without stopping.

Brother Bernardo reached for the book he’d first picked up.

“This is our heritage,” he shouted, shaking the book at Brother Raúl. “It is written in a language you don’t understand, . . .”

“That is not the point, Brother,” Brother Raúl replied.

Pelayo realized then that the cart was loaded with prayer books written in Brother Bernardo’s native Arabic, and he learned later that Brother Raúl had spent much of his time since arriving going into churches across the city and confiscating as many of them as he could find.

Liturgical Conflicts – II

In addition to the “El Juicio de Dios”, the battle between two knights, “one a Castilian and the other a Toledan”, which marked the tension over liturgical issues between Rome and the local church in 11th century Spain, there is also a story that two bulls, one named “Roma” and the other “Toledo”, were set to fight, and as with the knights, there also the victory was with Toledo.

Once again, in Song of Toledo, I have adapted the circumstances of the event to suit my tale. What follows is my version of how that bullfight went.

From Song of Toledo:

Pelayo turned to Ferdinando as the older boy waved him over to the bullring fence in anticipation of the fight to come. He pointed to the barn doors of the low stone building.

“They should be coming out of two of those doors any moment now.”

Sure enough, they had not waited more than a moment longer when a door swung open sharply and a black bull stepped calmly out to the ring. When the bull appeared, a cry rang out from several young voices, and a flurry of children jumped up from the fires where they were eating with their families and ran over to the fence. A moment later, a second side door opened and another bull charged out. Finally, a few moments afterward, a small man with gray hair and a closely cropped beard followed, carrying nothing but what appeared to be a long, sturdy stick with a long knife attached to the end. The bulls stood at a distance from each other, seeming to pay attention neither to the crowd nor to each other. As for the man, he remained along the fence in order to keep his distance from the two animals.

The crowd watched as the bulls began to circle each other, first slowly, then at a trot. Finally, the black bull stopped and lowered its head and pawed at the ground once, then moved at a seemingly leisurely pace toward the white bull, who lowered his head and waited. The collision was not as forceful as Pelayo would have expected. Rather, the two animals locked horns and began pushing, their nostrils flaring as they began to exert themselves. Children let out a cry, now joined by adults, and Pelayo spotted soldiers throwing coins into a cup and a line of monks leaning against the fence across from where he and Ferdinando were standing. The bulls continued to struggle, the white bull breaking once to turn away, only to turn back around and lower his head when the black bull followed. . . .

. . . The crowd was now fully engaged in the fight, with cheers erupting at random from around the ring whenever one or the other of the bulls seemed to score a definitive blow against his opponent. For a while, it seemed the black bull was winning, because twice more the white bull broke off and ran away, only to have the black bull pursue. The third time, however, the white bull turned sooner, catching the black bull in the side of the face with his horns. Both squeals and cheers rang out from the crowd, and while some seemed invigorated by the blood streaming from alongside the black bull’s eye, others groaned and turned away.

Ferdinando had opted to cheer on the white bull, but Pelayo, still feeling the fatigue of the journey, watched with little enthusiasm. When the white bull scored another blow, this time catching the black bull in the side of his neck as the black bull tried to turn away, Ferdinando and Pelayo both glanced behind them and spotted Don Juan Ruíz and Brother Raúl strolling casually toward them behind the crowd along the fence.

“Brother Raúl,” Ferdinando called out. “Since you and Brother Bernardo can’t seem to settle your differences with a civilized discussion, perhaps you should let these beasts do it for you. I’ve taken a liking to the white bull, so perhaps he can represent me and my fellow Toledans.”

Brother Raúl smiled politely at Ferdinando’s comment, but it was clear that Don Juan Ruíz was not pleased to see Ferdinando again. He stopped and touched Brother Raúl on the arm, then gestured toward an opening in the crowd along the fence. Without looking toward the boys again, both men made their way through the crowd toward the spot along the fence. Ferdinando, however, was not to be discouraged.

“My Lord,” he called out directly to Don Juan Ruíz, “I pray that you are not still upset about our encounter. I meant no disrespect. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I often say things which a more sensible man would not.”

As still neither man replied, Ferdinando shrugged and turned his attention back to the bulls, who had again locked their horns and were clearly stuck in a standoff. For several moments, it seemed neither bull was about to make any progress against the other, but then the black bull suddenly reared back and unhooked himself, and he quickly turned and tried to run away from his opponent. The white bull pursued briefly, but then it seemed he was ready to claim his victory, and he stopped and turned and strolled casually away, snorting a couple of times.

“Ah, see there, Brother,” Ferdinando again called out to Brother Raúl. “We can not deny the power of the soil on which we stand. This is not Rome. This is Hispania.”

Liturgical Conflicts – I

Liturgical conflicts – What’s the most appropriate way to worship God? – have been part of Christian history almost from the beginning. In Song of Toledo, part of the tension driving the plot involves that time and place’s dominant liturgical conflict. In the late 11th century, a number of popes were intent upon unifying liturgical practice across Christian Europe, and in Spain that effort was opposed by Christians who had been living under Moorish rule for centuries and had developed their own Arab language rite. Loyal to what would later be dubbed the Mozarabic Rite, these Christians didn’t appreciate Rome’s efforts, to put it lightly. According to medieval histories such as the Chronicon Burgense, one of the incidents sparked by this conflict was the “El Juicio de Dios”, when two knights, “one a Castilian and the other a Toledan”, were chosen to fight “pro lege Romana et Toletana”.

While I have adapted the tale (changing the year it occurred as well as its location) to fit the structure of my story, what follows is the introduction to my version of the battle between Ferdinando, a young, sometime reckless Toledan, and Don Juan Ruíz, the commander of the archbishop’s guard and, by extension, a loyal subject of King Alfonso VI, whom Rome had enlisted in its efforts to unify Christians across Hispania under the Roman Rite.

From Song of Toledo:

“I must say, however,” Ferdinando finally continued, “that as a son of Toledo I don’t believe it is anyone’s place to tell me how I might worship the Lord our God.”

Don Juan Ruíz hesitated, seeming confused by Ferdinando’s comment.

“I am referring to yesterday’s conversation between Brothers Raúl and Bernardo concerning our Toledan rite,” Ferdinando continued.

“Oh, that,” Don Juan Ruíz said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That has nothing to do with me, but it appears you have no choice in the matter. The Holy Father himself has deemed that Hispania will conform to the Roman Rite.”

“And how is that right?” Ferdinando persisted. “How do you have the right to come into my home and impose your will?”

“But, I just said,” Don Juan Ruíz laughed, “it is not my choice.”

“Are you not the archbishop’s protector?” Ferdinando shot back.

He was becoming agitated, and his voice grew louder, and he seemed suddenly eager to make the older man angry. Even his own comrades began to look concerned, and again Pelayo quickly glanced behind to see if Brother Bernardo were in sight, but no one in camp seemed to be paying them much mind. As for Don Juan Ruíz, the smile on his face once again faded, and he began to look around as if trying to decide how much longer he should continue the conversation.

“I am the archbishop’s protector,” he finally replied quietly. “And I am a subject of King Alfonso, as are you.”

Ferdinando didn’t reply, instead walking over to Pelayo and grabbing the sword from his hand, then turning and throwing it at Don Juan Ruíz’s feet.

“I do not believe this is the work of the king,” he spat out. “And I will defend the honor of my home,”

A look of amazement swept across Don Juan Ruíz’s face as he looked from Ferdinando to the stick and back again.

“This is foolishness,” he said in a quiet growl. “I have indulged your recklessness long enough. I am not in the habit of fielding challenges from impudent children.”

“Ah, impudent,” Ferdinando replied with a loud laugh. “I have been called many things — mostly by my father, I might add — but that is one I have never heard. Please, my Lord, do not consider me impudent. I am but a man defending the honor of my home.”

“You are not quite a man . . . “

“If you are so hobbled by the restrictions of age, sir,” Ferdinando interrupted, but Don Juan Ruíz persisted.

“I know what my eyes see,” he snapped, then he leaned over and picked up the sword at his feet.

“Did your eyes see me in battle by our king’s side, then?” Ferdinando smirked.

“No, and I strongly suspect nobody else’s did, either.”

Suddenly, as if prompted by the same signal, they both dropped into a semi-crouch, leaning over and grasping their swords before them in both hands. . . .

The Muhtasib- Overseers of Al-Andalus

Officials who regulate things – markets, schools, industries – have always had power. In the cities of Al-Andalus, as the part of Spain under Moorish rule was known in medieval times, the Muhtasib, or Master of the Market, held sway over much of daily life.

In Song of Toledo, Faisal is a boy coming of age in Tulaytula (Toledo). This is how he views the role he hopes to play as a muhtasib.

——

While Faisal wandered the city early each day in part for his own pleasure, he was also making a cursory check to see if there were anything unusual to report back to his father: strange faces in an established booth, perhaps, or a new merchant peddling an item he had never seen before. Naturally, he was familiar to all the regular peddlers, and more than one would make a show of trying to charm him with an overtly friendly conversation or the offer of a free sample or two. Faisal, however, had no authority at all, and he would simply smile and wave and be about his business as quickly as he could. Parchment makers, tanners, barbers, victuallers, potters, wheelwrights, yoke makers, weavers, shoemakers and shield makers; these and a host of other merchants and craftsmen all sought to curry favor with Faisal’s father, so they were more than happy to share the intricacies of their trades with the boy on the chance he might put in a good word for them with his father.

Like his father and his grandfather, Faisal wanted to be a civil servant, a muhtasib, or Master of the Market. As members of the city’s administrative structure, it was their job to make sure that the merchants whose shops lined the streets and whose booths crowded Tulaytula’s city squares were dealing honestly with their fellow townsmen. Specifically, they were called upon to make sure that the amounts of grain being claimed by millers were indeed what they said they were. For weavers, reported thread counts for their fabrics needed to be true. The wares of wheelwrights and shoemakers were inspected to ensure the quality of their products, as well as the products of potters and yoke-makers and shield-makers. They were to make sure that crafts were arranged in a reasonable order, and that partridges and slaughtered domestic fowl were sold with the crop plucked. Rabbits had to be skinned so that bad ones could be distinguished from good, and egg sellers had to have bowls of water available so that good eggs could be similarly distinguished from bad.

Cheese could only be sold in small leather packets, which had to be washed and cleaned every day and thus secured from worms and mold. Fat meats and lean needed to be sold in separate stalls, while tripe had to be sold dry and on boards, for water both spoiled it and increased its weight. Slaughtering was not allowed in the market place, but only in closed slaughterhouses, and the blood and refuse need to be discarded outside the market. Moreover, fish, whether from saltwater or fresh, could not be washed in water for this made it go bad. Nor could salted fish be soaked in water, for this also spoiled and rotted it. Naturally, leftover and rotten fish could not be sold.

The list of regulations a muhtasib was called upon to enforce extended also to the conduct of physicians, the need for women to conduct themselves appropriately in public places, and the prohibition of the intentional distribution of false or incorrect news or instructional information. Indeed, the above is a mere glimpse at what their duties entailed. Faisal was learning all that he needed to know about a muhtasib’s responsibilities from his father. They were responsibilities that he very much took to heart.

“My son,” his father told Faisal countless times, “a man is only as good as his word, so if I can help a man protect the integrity of his product, than I am helping him protect his soul.”

Of course, not all of the merchants they inspected were as concerned about the state of their souls as Faisal’s father was. Nor, for that matter, was Faisal’s grandfather. For as far back as Faisal could remember, Grandfather had been in poor health and rarely able to leave his house near the city’s main mosque. But that didn’t prevent him from maintaining a keen interest in the affairs of the city. Most days, Faisal would find a time to visit his grandfather, and when he did the old man would want the latest news from the marketplace. Unlike Faisal’s father, though, Grandfather was no longer interested in specific rules and regulations. Rather, he wanted to know when new merchants appeared, or when another product – a perfume, say, or a new line of silk – arrived from a distant city or country.

“We are the envy of all, you know,” the old man told his grandson more than once when the boy was still young. “Not just Tulaytula, but the entire country. All of Al-Andalus. We have built a country like none other.”

“I know, Grandfather,” the boy would reply with a smile.

“I don’t think you do, boy,” the old man would object. “You have not seen other parts of the world. Indeed, you have not even seen other parts of the country.”

“I don’t need to,” Faisal would laugh. “You’ve told me about them so often I have a very clear picture in my mind of every place you’ve ever been.”

The old man couldn’t help but smile at his grandson’s reply, but he would shake his head at the same time, just to make sure Faisal understood his point. His joking aside, Faisal knew very well that his grandfather was right, and as time passed he came to appreciate the old man’s persistence. Indeed, he knew it had lead in no small way to his decision to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Perhaps he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe, as his father seemed to, that he was saving men’s soul by making sure they were being honest in their dealings. But he could certainly recognize that in ensuring the quality of all the goods that came within Tulaytula’s walls, and in upholding the rules that guided the behavior of Tulaytula’s citizens, he was doing his part, however small, also to ensure that at least his home would live up to the reputation that his country had earned across the civilized world.

The Muwashshah: Song and Poetry

“The muwashshah is both the product and a microcosm of the cultural conditions peculiar to al-Andalus. Its linguistic complexity reflects the fluid and diverse linguistic situation of the peninsula’s population. The muwashshah embodies the flexible and changing relation between the written languages (classical Arabic, Hebrew), as well as between these languages and the oral forms (the Arabic spoken in Andalusia; Romance; and Mozarabic, the dialect formed from the mixing of Romance and Arabic). It reflects life in the court and on the streets; the sociocultural relations between various ethnic groups, and between the sexes; and even the tensions and rapprochement between secular and religious interests. . . . Thus, the muwashshah exemplifies a pluralistic cultural politics that allowed for difference and plurality, clashes and juxtapositions.”

– From an essay by Tova Rosen in The Literature of Al-Andalus

In Song of Toledo, at a particularly low point for Faisal, he and his father happen to stop by the house of a merchant who hires out singing girls to wealthy clients. To put it mildly, Faisal is a rules-oriented lad, but the songs –the muwashshahs – to which he is introduced make him see the world in a very different light.

Here’s an excerpt of a muwashshah of al-Andalus, translated in Andalusian Lyrical Poetry and Old Spanish Love Songs by Linda Fish Compton:

I’m ready to give my father as a ransom for a precious one who is attached to my soul.

I loved a new moon, incomparable in its beauty. The eyes and long
lovely neck of the gazelle are modeled after it.
He swaggered in his beauty, which desires no increase, a full moon shining in perfect proportion. Elegance adorned him and his figure was slender.

He is a full moon that triumphs with sheer magic. The down on his cheek is curved over jasmine. A lily was placed beside a well-guarded rose whenever he came into view, trailing his beautiful train behind. He appeared to me as a creature worthy of excessive passion.

My eyes live just to attend him. If only my soul had feathers, I would fly to him.

The Liturgy of the Hours

“The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, ‘the divine office.’”

-Catechism of the Catholic Church

While the Liturgy of the Hours is still an important piece of the official prayer life of the Catholic Church, it seems safe to say that most people, if they are familiar with the Hours at all, associate them with the monastic culture that flourished across Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

From Song of Toledo:

“When he arrived at the monastery, Pelayo’s life changed almost completely. From constantly working alongside his father and, more significantly, rarely setting foot in a church, it seemed now he never left the small chapel that sat along the stream running through the monastery grounds. He had once thought going to church meant, at most, taking some time on Sunday. What Pelayo had never known until he came to Morela was how often some people – those who had decided to separate themselves from the world in order to dedicate themselves as fully as possible to the praise of God – actually interrupted their daily lives in order to turn and face Him.

Six times during the day and once in the middle of the night- at the Liturgy of the Hours — the brothers’ work, rest, or reflection were all interrupted so that they could come together in the chapel to pray and sing. It was the singing that Pelayo at first found strange, but he soon became fascinated by it. Or, perhaps more to the point, he became increasingly aware of how opening his mouth to sing somehow made him feel as if he were reaching out his hands to a person he could not see. While no single brother taught Pelayo how to sing, the brothers collectively showed him that the mystery and joy of song lay at the root of the life they shared. Not that their communal life revolved simply around singing. Rather, it revolved around worshipping and working for God, but that worship came most predominantly in the form of voices raised in song.

Each of the Hours —Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline — brought its own unique opportunity to sing praise to God’s name. In part, Pelayo was sure, it was simply that the shifting light of the day changed the atmosphere in the chapel, and that he and the brothers would bring a fresh set of hopes and concerns to offer up to God as the day wore on. But he came to see that there was more to it than just that. Each part of the day, Brother Domingo had taught him, brought new temptations, new opportunities perhaps to grow rebellious and resentful of the work before them, or to be excessively slighted by the words or actions of a neighbor, or to encounter more moments when they had to remind themselves of God’s love because, for one reason or for countless reasons, someone might again be falling prey to the doubt that God even existed. In other words, throughout each day Pelayo was repeatedly reminded of his need to be converted yet again, fully mindful of the fact that, indeed, he would need to be converted again the next day.

He had to admit, at first, it seemed rather strange to have the day interrupted so frequently so that they could all crowd into the small stone chapel next to the stream and sing. It was not a grand building. Rather, it was only a small, rectangular room with two rows of benches stretching along either side. At the front, on the wall behind an altar of piled, flat stones, hung a coarsely carved, wooden cross that stretched nearly from the floor to the ceiling. Nailed to that cross was an equally coarsely carved representation of the Lord, whose arms covered half the span of the wall. Thick and dark, in the dimly lit chapel the crucifix seemed at first a gloomy, foreboding presence, but Pelayo came to see that his first impression was merely a transitional one. While he had seen crucifixes before, there had certainly never been one in the hut where he had lived with his father. Now, to come in contact several times a day with a figure that was so looming and prominent was to be affected time and again by a host of new and unfamiliar considerations.

Over time, Pelayo decided that God’s divine presence was most apparent at Matins, which the brothers sang in the middle of the night. At night, with only a single candle to light their way, they made their way from the dormitory to the chapel, and it was in that darkness that Pelayo began to believe that he could actually feel God close to him. At Matins, he felt unimpeded by the sensations of the monastery’s daily routine or by any part of the world around him, by the brothers passing by in silence, the cold in his room, or the relative bustle of the Chapter, the period each day when the brothers met to discuss the monastery’s business. When they sang at night Pelayo stared into the near darkness, and somehow, he felt that God was looking back. He felt God in the coolness against his skin, in each breath his lungs inhaled, in the warm sleeves of his cowl as he sat with his hands clasped in prayer. The distractions of the day were cloaked by the night, and it was at night when he joined the other monks in song that he knew that he was closest to the Almighty.”

Despite its medieval (and earlier) roots, monastic chant is still alive and well today.