Written by Sr. Sylvia Jopillo, r.a.
Some 500+ kilometers from Madrid tucked on the upper apron of the mountains rimming the Lago de Sanabria in the province of Zamora is the Monasterio de San Martin de Castañeda.
This 12th-century monastery continues to stand among the hills and fields of the tiny town of Ribadelago. It is still known as the Monasterio de Santa Maria, although it currently houses its patron saint's parish church, San Martin de Castañeda.
The church benefited from the cultural reconstruction efforts supported by the government. Constructed by the Cistercian monks in the 12th century, on the outside, the present church exterior was recently renovated but maintained its imposing belfry and giant bells.
As in the olden times, one enters the monastery through an ancient gate. With the long-gone Cistercian monks, the monastery maintains its Romanic architecture, with its dark and cool interiors and retablos or side altars flanked by massive stone pillars.
The domes with their designs and the solid stone baptismal font dominating the side altar lead the eyes to the main retablo, with the antique wooden polychrome statue of San Martin de Castañeda mounted on a horse.
The church layout is in the form of the cross, with its side altars forming arches. The church became the center of the town's farming and fishing activities.
What is striking is the play of light and shadows in the church interiors—the rays pouring from its high windows into the dark interior trigger a sense of transcendence in me. How light and shadows can inhabit the same space, and how clear the boundary where they melt into each other like a liminal space hit me.
This sense of living with contrast showed during a catastrophe in Ribadelago in 1959 when the Vega de Tera dam's retaining wall collapsed. The rushing waters left little time for the Ribadelago's inhabitants to escape.
Reports showed that 144 (out of 532 inhabitants) went missing, and help came late due to the distance and poor road network connecting Ribadelago from the provincial center. The tragedy mobilized a nationwide effort to help the victims' families and the town.
At the site where most of the victims lived stands a mother and child statue to honor those lost to the flood. The surrounding mountains still bear marks by the cascading torrents of water from its summit and into the settlement.
I can sense the spiritual force of the beauty of Ribadelago with its lake and ancient church. Its scarred mountainsides and tranquil Rio de Tera. And yet, I can also imagine how the earth shakes with the rumble of the flood waters that swept everything away.
Over time, the tiny town continues its simple life as the clearness of each summer day and the cold of winter unfold as part of life's seasons.
The shepherds and the cow herders pass through the same trails and narrow roads, the farmers and fishermen harvest chestnuts and trout, and the tourists come with their thirst for rest, beauty, and silence. Everyone goes home with a full heart.