Basili Girbau, monk and hermit of Montserrat
This interview was originally published in Spanish as "Padre Basili, Monje de Montserrat" in the Madrid-based magazine Planeta Humano, no. 15, May 1999. The interview was conducted by Ana Tagarro. The original text and bibliographic information comes to us from our friend at Montserrat.
[When the Dalai Lama, after a visit to Spain, was asked what was wisdom, he responded: "Ask Father Basili." For the past twenty years, Father Basili Girbau has been living in a remote cave in the mountains of Montserrat. He doesn't like hearing about his relation with the Dalai Lama, although everyone in the monastery a thousand steps below knows that the Dalai Lama calls him by telephone. Nor does Father Basili like it when he is asked about wisdom. "Figure it out yourself," he replies.]
Let's see if we can get your view on the human being.
The human being is a species in transition. The rational man -- the rational mind -- is only the first step after the monkey. And by the way, since then we have not let off killing one another. Clearly we are a decadent species and we have to work towards transformation of the species.
How can we make that transition?
Essentially, the only thing that is needed is to want to do it. From the Stone Age to today we have been improving the species, but we are still in the process. In reality, that improvement depends on each of us. If you improve, we all improve. Human beings are unique. Individuals are not the same.
I deduce that you think that the human being can be improved?
Clearly human beings can be improved, but not by their own power. The force comes from above, or ... from wherever ... from the center of the heart ... It's just a form of speaking.
Could you be more specific about that force you speak of?
I am Christian. For me it is the Holy Spirit. Our religion is especially apt for making this improvement.
You are familiar with other non-Christian cultures ...
Yes, and it is essential to integrate the positive things of all cultures.
What is the point of contact between the different religions?
The mystical level. I would say that the mystics of all religions, having an open heart and sincerity, are living the same reality, though the language is different.
[All religions are represented in Father Basili's cave in one form or another. There are photos of Hindu monks, Orthodox icons, stones from every place on the planet. ... It is Sunday and Father Basili is going to celebrate Mass. He follows the Church's prescribed ritual but with a certain idiosyncrasy imposed by the place and its character. His congregation -- this editor and a photographer -- are seated on stone benches. The sermon is typical of Father Basili's ironic humor and his great learning. He speaks and reads several languages, which he indicates he learned long ago in sacristies and travels. Language fascinates him -- "words are alive." Every so often he clarifies the meaning of the phrase "The devil comes from division."]
Do you consider yourself a philosopher, a thinker?
I am a "no thinker." You all limit everything to thinking. What about intuition?
I suppose that intuition is a form of knowledge ...
Knowledge doesn't mean putting an object in front of your nose to examine it. Knowledge is a movement of the mind in which we identify with the object and in a sense become the object. Knowledge does not consist of uprooting a flower but in identifying with it. If you uproot it, remove its petals, analyze it, when you think you know it it is no longer a flower.
You spoke in your sermon of temptations. Which do you consider the worse?
Temptations are the same ones for the last 40,000 years: power, money ... Ah, power! That extraordinary pleasure of ordering others. Or doing whatever you like ...
[From the radio comes "The Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart. It is impossible to continue the conversation. Father Basili is a classical music enthusiast. He hums along and conducts with his hands. For Father Basili there is no concept of an interview. Questions of any sort generally annoy him. He will raise the tone of his voice and breathe deeply, as if asking divine assistance to put up with such ignorance. But a moment later he smiles. A sincere smile.]
How did you come to be here?
I arrived in Montserrat on March 13, 1973. I substituted Father Estanislau Llopart, who had gone to Japan. I stayed three years. I left on April 4, 1976 to take charge of a monastery on Majorca. Then I returned.
And how did you become a monk?
I grew up in a family of what they call the Catalan bourgeoisie. There were the parties, the discos and such, but I felt a great emptiness. I saw it all as so stupid. A friend invited me one day to a Marian congregation offering catechism classes in eighteen neighborhoods [of Barcelona]. I went first to Gracia1, but was not impressed. Then I went to a district on the outskirts, a poor quarter, in a street car ride that seemed never-ending. And upon arriving, we were pelted with stones. I found this interesting. While they stoned us I thought: "This has something going for it."
You were then sixteen years. Later you traveled to many countries ...
In 1961 we went to Palestine. We were there two and a half years. But it seemed too prosaic going by plane, so we hitchhiked 42 days to get there.
Why did you decide to go to Palestine?
The abbot decided. The monk doesn't decide anything. That's how it works. It's kind of infantile. Once there, we three priests and two monks traveled by bus to Persia. From Amman to Baghdad and from there to Tehran. We traveled all over Mesopotamia.
And now don't you feel the weight of solitude?
No. Solitude is the interior sense of not being aware of the self, of not noticing the self and people around you.
And have you ever felt fear?
No, definitely not. In 1976 they let me read a book called "The Exorcist" and I read it in one night. I went outside and I had the temptation to be scared. The temptation, no more. It didn't go beyond that.
- Gracia is a popular neighborhood in Barcelona.