Sweet Sounds of Heaven on Earth

Located in the rolling hills of north central Spain, Santo Domingo de Silos is home to the Benedictine monks who have become famous with the success of their recordings of Gregorian chant in the United States, Europe, and beyond. Their albums have sold in excess of 10 million copies, many of them to young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Yet far from being attracted to the glamours of the world, these cloistered monks are dedicated to serving Christ through chastity, poverty, and obedience. Seven times a day they gather in the abbey church, to raise their voices to God in praise and thanksgiving.

The Gregorian chant to which they devote themselves is a tapestry of holy Scripture and writings. The words are in Latin and the melody is simple and singular. Gregorian chant focuses on one of the most beautiful and universally appealing aspects of traditional Christian I faith, an art form upon which all the later, more elaborate music of Western civilization was built. In its original, pure form, plainchant has survived intact from the Middle Ages and continued to inspire its listeners.

Through their worldwide dissemination of this music, the Silos Benedictine monks are helping people appreciate the spiritual riches of the Catholic Church. Thanks to the monks, chant is experiencing a rebirth throughout the world, especially with the younger generation. Many are looking to monasteries such as Santo Domingo de Silos as centers for chant scholarship and recordings.

The monks of Santo Domingo de Silos live according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Work and prayer are the two elements of their daily lives. When not singing, the monks attend to their assigned duties. Some are involved in studies, others in manual labor. Although they spend much of their time in solitude and silence, the monks lead visitors on guided tours through sections of the monastery.

Built in 919, the abbey lies in the Province of Burgos, in the great Castilian plain. It is believed that monastic life probably began in Silos during the seventh century, and was reorganized, full of vitality, at the beginning of the 10th century. After half a century of decadence, from the end of the 10th century to the first decades of the 11th, the man now known as St. Dominic of Silos (the namesake of the more widely known St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order) arrived in 1041, and served as abbot until 1073. Shortly afterward, the new prior began construction of a new cloister, sparking the beginning of a new era for the monastic community. After the death of St. Dominic of Silos, his successors completed the construction during the second half of the 12th century.

Monastic life at Silos continued mostly uninterrupted for more than a millennium. The only brief exception to this was the 45 years (1835–1880) during which the monks were forced to abandon the cloister when the state established anti-clerical laws.

Today, the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos remains a vibrant community. With their newfound fame, the monks are now dealing with a greater number of pilgrims and visitors than ever before. Despite their “celebrity status,” however, the monks' lives have changed little. Liturgical celebrations, asceticism, and providing hospitality to guests remain at the heart of the monastic community — as it has since 954.

While traveling to other Spanish shrines such as those at Avila, Montserrat, Zaragoza, or Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims visiting Spain will surely want to include Santo Domingo de Silos in their itinerary.

For pilgrims visiting Santo Domingo de Silos — whether for a morning, a day, or a week — the abbey offers an unforgettable experience. Each waking morn-ing begins with the warm embrace and angelic sounds of lauds. Less than two hours later, the solemn High Mass commences with the gentle sounds of chant, as rays of sunlight entering the monastic chapel highlight the rising clouds of incense. In the evening, visitors gather one more time to hear the sublime vesper prayers of the monks in the candle-lit chapel.

When the monks are not singing during the day, pilgrims can join one of the abbey's guided tours. These tours offer an excellent inside look at the physical structure of the Romanesque cloister. Of particular interest are the remarkable bas reliefs at each corner of the monastery courtyard showing scenes from the life of Christ. Another highlight is the painted Mudejar vault, depicting the everyday life of local Spaniards in the 14th century. Finally, each walk through the abbey ends with a stop at the cloister museum. Among the prominent features here is a reconstructed 18th-century pharmacy.

To get a true sense of the monastic experience at Santo Domingo de Silos, most visitors like to spend two nights in the abbey town. This gives pilgrims a chance to attend at least one full day of services, including the solemn Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. It also provides an opportunity to spend some time walking in the peaceful countryside surrounding the abbey.

The monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos is located about 100 miles north of Madrid, 40 miles southeast of Burgos, and is easily accessible by car, bus, or taxi. From Burgos, take N1 south toward Madrid, exit at the town of Lerma, and head east on the local road to Santo Domingo de Silos. The nearest rail station is at Burgos. From Burgos, there is a daily late-afternoon bus departure for Santo Domingo de Silos. Taxis are also always an option for traveling to the monastery from Burgos or other nearby towns.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to the monastery, call one of the many Catholic travel organizations leading pilgrimages there, or contact the abbey at: Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos, Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, tel 011-34-947-39-00-68, fax 011-34-947-39-00-33.

Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.