"Disillusionment is Positive": Conversation with Basili Girbau, hermit of Montserrat
This interview was originally published in Spanish about twelve years ago in the Barcelona magazine Integral, for which we have no other bibliographic information, including who conducted the interview. It is reproduced in Spanish at http://www.terra.es/personal/javierou/con-basili.htm; the publication information comes from the Web site owner. Our friend at Montserrat, who graciously brought the interview to our attention, informs us that Father Basili died in late December of 2003. The Fr. Estanislau referred to in the interview, passed away in April of 2003. There are presently no hermits at Montserrat, reports our friend, and at present no one ready to become one. NOTE: Footnotes are added by the translator.
Scarcely an hour's distance separates the hermitage of Santa Creu1 from the Monastery of Montserrat, which we can see below us clearly, just as we can distinguish the dots of color that are climbers ascending by the wall of the mountain. And far below, the glitters and shadows of the world. The hermitage is one of so many caves smoothly bored into the sacred mountain. The cave is enclosed by a glass wall, making habitable a small space containing a bed, a table, two chairs, a small gas stove, a bookcase with books, a cross, a pair of pictures of Ramana Maharshi2 (Hindu sage of the twentieth century) and an altar. Sufficient for Father Basili, the "hermit of Montserrat," who, after having traversed half the world like Ramon Llull3, has lived fifteen years like Blanquerna4, rising at dawn, praying and meditating.. Father Basili, sixty-six years old, with a long and copious beard, a scholar who knows such diverse languages as Arabic, German and Hebrew, is at present the only inhabitant of the twelve hermitages of Montserrat.
At the end of the twentieth century, in a society given over to consumerism, is it possible to live in an ascetic manner, like a hermit?
For one who wants to do so everything is possible with the help of God. There exists a grace, call it a love, that gives me the strength to go on discovering that it is possible to live happily without having to satisfy so many needs. So many people think that if one does not have this or that one cannot be happy. Then, after much effort, obtaining what they think they need, comes the question: Now what? More things?
And you have answered this question for yourself?
My answer is to live. It's not a matter of philosophizing or discoursing. You are here. What more do you want? You breathe. Your heart beats. What matters yesterday? What matters tomorrow? You are here. So laugh, laugh until you burst. You have what is essential, You don't need more or less.
How did you decide to live here?
I am used to saying that I don't know. There is no entirely rational explanation. The mind alone does not act; rather, it is a vital and living energy manifesting itself in different ways. It would certainly not have occurred to me to ask permission to live in this hermitage had I not been preceded by a monk, Father Estanislau, who was here until 1972 and who continued living like a hermit in other places. The one thing I do want to do is to deepen my consciousness. And with this deepening I believe that I -- and everyone who lives this way -- is helping all of humanity. I also think that it is important to find that context that helps you realize a communion with all people. The distance from which I live apart from others helps me better understand coexistence, and makes me feel closer to people, though in a different way.
Isn't it difficult to live in solitude?
That is something to ask a tenant in one of those anonymous city blocks surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people but who lives a terribly solitary life. Solitude resides in the heart. I am not in solitude. Solitude is entirely external, in the sense that I happen to live in a half-cave in a mountain. If you live fully you are not alone. One will be alone in the sense of not being near people, but only in that sense. For me, real solitude would be the need for, the absence of God, the absence of this plentitude, this point of transcendence.
What has been the result of your being here, up to now?
Peace, joy, interior silence, release or detachment from things that happen, and seeing how faith, love, prayer really take effect and become useful.
Nowadays, what is the goal of people who, like yourself, are dedicated to contemplation?
As I have mentioned, I believe that the power of love, of prayer, has a real effect on the world, and that anybody who decides to deepen his interior life and cultivate a spiritual life beyond the material is helping all of humanity.
At first glance it appears that there are many points in common between contemplation, Christian mysticism, and the various Eastern religious currents that have created a new spirituality in the second half of this century.
Yes, these points in common do exist. For example, an anonymous fourteenth-century medieval author, possibly a Carthusian monk, wrote a book entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing," a beautiful treatise on contemplation with many postulates similar to those of Zen meditation. St. John of the Cross himself recommends that in order to achieve union with the divine one should practice exercises that are basically the same as those of transcendental meditation. They are intended to empty the mind and produce, as he puts it, "simple loving attention to God, with no concrete or particular thought." In my case it was Ramana Maharshi, a Hindu I discovered through a book in 1963, who really opened for me a practical path towards interiorization. Of course, many paths exist in Christian tradition but, for whatever reason, they are not being used. Ramana Maharshi was what tradition calls a jivan mukti, a man without mind. There was no longer any need for his mind to function because God had filled him with his spirit. Ramana says: When the moon (which is to say, the mind) is illumined by the sun during the night, the moon helps you to see. But when the sun illumines the moon -- that waning quarter moon one sees during the daytime -- then we don't use the moonlight in order to see because we see directly from the light of the sun. The sun is not the mind, it is being-in-itself, the I of my little "i," the reality of all reality, from which proceeds and from which is created one's mind."
I have heard you say, on another occasion, that in Zen Buddhism there is a saying: "If you meet the Buddha on your way, kill him." And, furthermore, Raimon Panikkar5 adds: "If you meet the Christ on your way, eat him." What does this mean?
Nothing, really. There are answers that one must find for oneself. But I will tell you that the Buddha one has to slay is the one found outside of oneself and in front of you, because the Buddha is only within. Likewise to eat the Christ means to interiorize and let him live, through faith, in your heart.
Nowadays there is a great loss of religiosity, of religious feeling. Many people have turned their backs on religion. Why is this so?
Well, we speak of everybody as if the world consists solely of ourselves, the people of Europe and America, when in fact there are many places in the world where there is much religiosity and much fervor, a great sense of God. Now, in the West this absence of religiosity is real. I think this is due, on the one hand, to the excessive value placed on material things, to comfort, to money, and, on the other hand, to the excessive value put upon the discursive capacity of rational intelligence without considering, truly considering, the actual results. This leads to great intellectual and technical development that could bring about grand benefits but its results are as if in the hands of an irresponsible child. I refer, for example, to atomic energy, which has been used in a completely irrational manner to manufacture weapons. Fear of the enemy has led to an arming to the teeth, creating the potential for enormous destruction. Not very intelligent, eh? This is what happens when people live superficially, as they do today. Everything should be in proportion. There is no interior without exterior, no depths without surface, no surface without depths. What is terrible is to live on the surface without being aware of the depths, just as it would be terrible to be aware of the depths without being aware of the surface. Likewise, religion can be lived at a superficial level, for many barbarities have been committed in the name of religion.
Do you think that religion needs to evolve?
No, it needs to deepen. In religion nothing should evolve. What should evolve is people, who should discover their roots, the roots of the self, their origin, the source ...
What should change in society in order for it to improve, to become more just?
The heart of man. Nothing else. It's that simple. But it is so hard for most people, troubled by an almost insurmountable inertia.
Can there be a spiritual renewal in the West?
Yes, certainly. To the degree that men disillusion themselves. Disillusionment
is a very positive thing. If one lives deluded, then disillusionment is a
liberation. I recommend complete disillusionment, for everyone, for as a person
becomes disillusioned so arises enlightenment. Disillusion in the positive sense,
eh? In order to discover the negative of illusion and in order that what remains
- Creu is the Catalan spelling of Crux.
- Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) of south India lived alone and without possessions nearly his entire life on the Arunachala Mountain, coming to live in an ashram only towards the end of his life at the persuasion of followers. He wrote only a little, but his talks were transcribed and published.
- Ramon Llull (1235-1316) was a Catalan layman who wrote a variety of apologetic, philosophical, and esoteric works, and spent much of his life in peregrinations across Europe and North Africa teaching and preaching.
- The "Book of Blanquerna" is a romance by Llull in which the protagonist (i.e., Blanquerna) sets out on a lifetime quest for knowledge and spiritual understanding
- Raimon Panikkar (b. 1918), a Catholic priest, has taught extensively and written many books and articles on comparative religion, philosophy, society, politics, and spirituality. He is a Catalan born of a Hindu father and Catholic mother.