One of the more unusual places I visited in Europe recently was the Santa María de Montserrat monastery in Catalonia. Visitors to the monastery can see up close the Virgin of Montserrat, which some Catholics claim was carved in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Christian church. Local legend holds that the statue was discovered by shepherds, who were drawn to the hidden relic by a heavenly light and sacred music.
Art scholars, however, hold that this black Madonna is a wooden Romanesque sculpture that dates from the late 12th century.
As I approached the religious icon, I set aside my skepticism for a few minutes, resisting the urge to liken the glass-encased sculpture to Zoltar, the animatronic fortune teller from the Tom Hanks movie Big. Instead, I said a silent prayer as I touched the wooden scepterheld by the Virgin.
My prayer might some day be answered, or it might not, but for the moment I suspended my disbelief and found at least some inspiration in the relic, and I did not suggest that the nearby holy water was simply collected from nearby kitchen faucets. I silenced my inner comic and pondered the many centuries that this statue has served to provide solace to pilgrims, including the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola.