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Posts Tagged ‘monk’

Photo: Denis Dobrovoda.
Justo Gallego Martínez, 2018, in the cathedral he built in Mejorada del Campo, Spain. The self-taught monk even made the crypt he wanted to buried in.

I often wondered about the investment of time and money that went into places people wanted to be buried. In the case of Egyptian Pharaohs and Chinese emperors, it had to do with what they believed would happen after death. But what about European kings and queens? It’s hard to understand.

Today’s story is about a contemporary monk who built a crypt for himself as part of building a cathedral — alone.

Matthew Bremner writes at the Guardian, “One late spring evening in 2018, Justo Gallego Martínez said he would show me his grave. The old man was warming his hands by a stove in the dim back room of his cathedral. A dusty film coated the concrete floor. The shelves and tables were full of relics, screws, chipped wood, crushed glass, half-eaten loaves of bread. A bare hanging bulb cast the room in jaundiced light.

“ ‘I want to be buried here,’ Justo said, signalling around him to the cathedral’s cavernous nave and the 20 trembling towers sprawled across thousands of square feet of his own land on the outskirts of Madrid. … He’d be buried there because it was his cathedral.

He’d designed it entirely in his head, without a single measurement or calculation on paper, without a record of any of the materials he’d used. And he had done it largely by himself. …

“Outside, the uncovered frame of a dome, 35 metres high and 10 metres wide, loomed above us. The nave lurched around 45 metres to our left, covered by a half-barrel vault whose exposed beams curved upwards like a whale’s ribcage.

“The rest of the cathedral was an architectural Frankenstein’s monster propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic and excessive quantities of concrete. Large chunks of the building were already in decay, invaded by moss and rising damp. In the aisles dusty cement bags were piled as high as the first-floor gallery. Other rooms erupted with broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidised saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses and plastic bags fossilised in pigeon shit. It sprawled over an area the size of a football pitch. …

“Next to the shrine, the floor opened to the darkness of the crypt below. This hole was where it had all begun, Justo said. Here, he had first started to dig, and to formulate his vision. …

“In early 2018, I came across an article in a local paper about an ex-monk building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, just outside Madrid. For almost 60 years, with no help or architectural expertise, Justo Gallego Martínez had been constructing a cathedral that was almost the size of the Sagrada Familia, using waste and recycled materials.

“When the monk started his project, the locals had called him a madman. Since then he had fought with family members, made enemies and won an adoring international public. He had never gained formal permission to build the structure, which meant it was illegal. …

“As I got to know Justo better, I realized that he was a mess of incongruities. He could be open-minded and bigoted, forgiving and stubborn, kind and brusque, wise and simple. He was a flawed genius, who never sought to be named as such. …

“Justo’s early life was marked by religious fervor, political upheavals and health problems. As a boy, he was very close to his mother. ‘She was the one that taught me the words of the Bible,’ he said. At an early age, he had to leave school to escape the dangers of the Spanish civil war, which ravaged Madrid and its surroundings. His mother’s teachings were a vital part of the little education that Justo would receive.

“The young man had always dreamed of dedicating his life to God. … At the age of 27, he entered the monastery of Santa María de Huerta in Soria, northern Spain. Many of his fellow monks found him strident and difficult; he would work longer hours than necessary and often pray into the night. Insisting on remaining teetotal, he even refused to drink the wine during communion. ‘They were very suspicious of me,’ he once told local journalists. ‘They said I was breaking the rules.’ …

“Justo told me that after he was rejected from the monastery, he went to Mejorada del Campo and fell into a ‘funk,’ what we might consider depression. … Where would he channel his religious fervor? What could he do with himself that would mean anything? It was in the midst of this self-questioning, he said, that it came to him – the idea to build something for his creator: a cathedral, which would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice himself for God.

“So, in 1961, he started to dig.

“Justo worked feverishly. Alone, he barrelled mountains of dirt, scaled scaffolding with no harness and soldered with no mask. Sometimes he would have visions. Laying bricks, he would suddenly remember the holy trinity, drop to his knees and weep. …

“Justo came from a relatively well-off family who owned land near Madrid. Over the years, he sold much of it to fund the construction of his church. He also relied heavily on charity. …

“Justo hated sharp angles and straight lines and tried to avoid them at all costs. He preferred curves and circles – vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars and spiral staircases. ‘God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.’

“To make circles he would bend metal rods around columns and draw around circular water drums or tins of paint. But making curves was more difficult. They were expensive and had little tolerance for error. A millimeter of imprecision in one step could culminate in a spiral staircase that didn’t quite reach its landing.

“The curve Justo loved most was the dome, which was modeled on St Peter’s basilica in Rome. With large blue metal girders curving up to a pressure ring at its centre, it looked like a mechanical spider atop the nave. The dome took him 30 years to imagine and seven years to build. It is the only thing I ever heard him boast about. …

“Justo made up for his technical shortcomings by devising strange solutions. He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with concrete to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure for arches. When the columns he built were too short, he filled the gaps with clumps of iron, piling them up like mismatched books to the height of the support beams. He’d then solder them together. …

“Soon there was interest from local newspapers. Then the national press came, followed by journalists from abroad. At the end of 2003, photographs of Justo’s cathedral appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. …

“The cathedral became even more famous in 2005 when it appeared in an advertisement for a new soft drink made by the Coca-Cola Company. Justo only agreed to the advert to get funds to continue building. He wasn’t thinking about cash, only more bricks. Indeed, when the commercial was shot, Justo had no idea of the consequences of his decision: ‘I didn’t know it was going to be on TV. I thought they were just going to print something on the side of the can.’

“There was an irony to the advert’s success. While Justo had tried to embody temperance and humility, one of the world’s biggest brands had turned his abnegation of the ego into the exact opposite – a celebration of individual accomplishment. The ad had made his faith synonymous with ambition, his devotion with perseverance, and his sacrifice with self-interest.

“Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo – to touch him, to hear him speak, to understand him, his inspiration, his genius and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, pilgrims accost him and fanatics pitch him with all manner of schemes for the future of the cathedral.

“People often talked about him in saintly terms. They marveled that, during almost 60 years of construction, he had suffered no significant injury. Carlos Luis Martin, an architect who helped Justo at the cathedral, recalled witnessing an accident: ‘I was working in the crypt. Justo tripped over a stone and fell and smashed his head on the ground hard … “God has healed me, and now all is fine,” he said. And there was not a scratch on him.’ ”

Read the article at the Guardian, here. No firewall. Justo Gallego Martínez died on 28 November 2021.

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Photo: Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.
A 1600s Armenian Gospel, with a depiction of the evangelist Mark, has been digitized by Benedictine monk Columba Stewart’s project.

I love learning about the many unusual careers and pursuits out there. In today’s story, a monk who was working on preserving old manuscripts by digitizing them, accidentally became a sleuth in dangerous regions.

Joshua Hammer writes at the Smithsonian, “When Columba Stewart, a 63-year-old Benedictine monkbased in Minnesota, arrived at the Kaiser Library, a government-affiliated archive in Kathmandu, Nepal, he stared up at the three-story building — wobbly, riven by cracks, too unsafe to use.

“It was three years after the massive Nepalese earthquake of 2015 that had killed 9,000 and laid flat much of the Kathmandu Valley. Rain leaked through holes in the roof, inundating broken masonry and congealing into gray mud on the floor. Many of the library’s manuscripts, some dating to the ninth century and written in Devanagari script (an ancient orthography system still used across the Indian subcontinent) on birch bark and palm leaves rolled up and held by clay seals, had been moved downstairs. The scrolls were stacked in bags and shoved into old glass cabinets on the ground floor. Exposed to the dust of an ongoing construction project to shore up the building’s weakened structure, as well as occasional seismic vibrations, the works were at risk of rapid disintegration.

“Stewart had flown to the Himalayas at the behest of Bidur Bhattarai, a Nepalese scholar at the Centre for the Studies of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, who had traveled to his homeland after the quake to assess the damage. Library employees recounted their panic as books crashed to the floor and chunks of bricks and rocks came hurtling down: For months they had been forced to work outside under a tarp. …

“Stewart made three trips to Nepal in 2018 and 2019 (a spring 2020 visit was called off at the start of the Covid-19 worldwide lockdown), continuing discussions to begin digitizing the Kaiser Library’s collection, while initiating a pilot project at a nearby private institution: the Asha Archives. Its collection of 7,000 richly ornamented manuscripts on bound paper and rolled palm leaves was built up by Prem Bahadur Kansakar, and named after his father, Asha Man Singh Kansakar, a prominent early 20th-century social activist and writer from the Newari ethnic group — the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and the dominating force in Nepali politics and culture — and donated to the public in 1987. …

“Working remotely from his stateside base, Stewart supported Bhattarai in training a team of four Nepalese staffers to begin digitizing 1,000 manuscripts newly donated to the archives. Almost all were written on traditional Nepalese paper by Newari scribes. The works treat subjects including Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, religious rituals, Ayurvedic medicine (a holistic approach based on ancient Hindu writings) and grammar, along with poetry, written in Sanskrit, Newari and Nepali and dating to the 15th through early 20th centuries. Most had been wrapped in red- or yellow-dyed cotton for centuries, and recently have been rewrapped in undyed muslin or locally produced paper for conservation. …

” ‘Everybody knows Nepal because of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries,’ Stewart says, ‘but there’s also strong Hindu presence. The manuscript tradition witnesses that mix, in a variety of languages. Nepal is a meeting place; that’s what makes it so interesting.’

“Stewart lives and works at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he is a professor of theology at the affiliated St. John’s University and the executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). …

Over the past 20 years his work has taken him from the Balkans to the Himalayas, from the Sahel region of Africa to the Middle East, injecting him into the heart of conflict zones and resulting in several narrow escapes from rebel movements and religious extremists. …

“ ‘Sometimes I feel like a war correspondent. Other times I’m cast in a religious role. In northern Iraq, I’ll be in my habit at Mass with 1,500 worshipers chanting in Aramaic. Then I’ll be going around in a tank.’ …

“Stewart has built up an extensive rare-book collection for the library. On a virtual tour using his iPad, he takes me down to the basement, and removes from a shelf one of his favorite recent additions: a four-volume Old and New Testament, bound in oak, and printed in Nuremberg in 1480, twenty-five years after the Gutenberg Bible rolled off the world’s first printing press. … ‘The paper looks like it was made yesterday,’ he tells me. ‘The ink is black as can be, mixed with linseed oil to take the bite out of the type,’ he says. ‘Every piece of type was set by hand, backwards. They had to do that for every single page. That’s an extraordinary achievement in the service of knowledge.’ …

“Stewart’s work represents a high-tech evolution of the Benedictine mission. He conducted his first digitization project in 2003, in Lebanon, and went on to the rest of the Middle East and the Balkans, where Christian minorities have grown increasingly vulnerable, their cultural patrimony put at risk. Word of his deeds spread. Malian librarians who had rescued 250,000 Islamic and secular manuscripts from Al Qaeda in Timbuktu by smuggling them to Bamako enlisted his aid. Muslim communities in India, threatened by the Hindu extremist rhetoric of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have turned to him for help digitizing their archives.”

Stewart’s life path emerged accidentally after he “joined the St. John’s faculty. He was prepared, he said, for a life of teaching and religious devotion. That bucolic vision was disrupted when the university president, aware of Stewart’s knowledge of early Christian sites in the Middle East, asked him to take on a manuscript preservation project for the Orthodox Christian church in northern Lebanon.”

At the Smithsonian, here, you can read what happened next.

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