Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Laymen are not allowed into the monastery where the recluses live. But the monks themselves do not shut themselves off from the world. In their opinion, this way of life is a way to see it from a different angle

“Around the World” was looking for the right perspective in the convent of St. Pelagius in Oviedo, in northern Spain.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

“The Monastery of St. Pelagius. Nuns of the Benedictine Order. Closed for visiting”. The words carved into the stone at the entrance did not inspire hope. But I had an appointment, and I called …

The heavy door closed behind me. I followed my sister-in-charge into the bowels of the huge medieval building where I was to live for a week, and consoled myself with the words of the abbess: “We do not shut ourselves off from the world. We move away to see it better. After all, you can only see something big from a certain distance”.

From the rusty-barred window of the guest cell, the world looked really different than ever. But the monastery's Wi-Fi password, private bathroom, and starched linens made up for the new state of affairs. “There is one problem here, — said Sor (sister) Josefina, —there is no bell. Can I come pick you up tomorrow morning?” I said: “No need, I have an alarm clock in my mobile”. “Well then, tomorrow at six come for coffee”. – And she gave me the key to the door separating the guest house from the interior of the monastery, where ordinary mortals are not allowed access.

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The first day, Wednesday

6:00The next morning, I strongly regretted that I had refused Josefina's offer of rubbish: at six in the monastery corridors there was such silence and darkness that it took horror. In dashes, from one switch to another, I overcame the main part of the path. The difficulty was that the light behind them had to be turned off: electricity is strictly saved here. Is it a joke – 10,000 square meters of area! And you have to pay for the light at the general rate (Josefina told me this yesterday, habitually groping for the button of the next switch in the darkness). Here, before the morning prayer, those who need to cheer up from sleep can drink coffee.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

6:30–9: 00My place in the choir is on the edge, next to Josefina. The choir, where the nuns gather for prayer at least five times a day, is located immediately behind the altar and is separated from it by a high iron grate. Some fifty years ago, the grate was deaf – even the chaplain who served the liturgy could not violate the seclusion of the nuns and communed them through the windows cut in the bars. Such strict rules for women's clausura (reclusion) in Spain are a thing of the past; now there is a door in the grating separating the choir from the altar so that the sisters can come to communion.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

9:00 At breakfast, self-service – on the tables, arranged with the letter P, only bread and butter with low cholesterol. For the rest, you need to go to the carts in the middle of the refectory: your choice – scrambled eggs, cheese, sausage.

I was especially struck by the presence of the latter, I thought that I would not see meat for a week, but it turns out that they don’t eat it here only on Fridays. Meals are held in silence, but at lunch and dinner, one of the sisters from the pulpit reads extracts from the rule of St. Benedict and the news instead of the radio.

10:00–13:30 After after breakfast, everyone goes on business – some help in the kitchen, some work in the workshops. There are two of them: restoration (two calls from the street) and binding (one call). Opening hours: from 10:00 to 13:00 daily, except weekends. I was assigned to binders. At my workplace there is a stack of baptismal registration books in which page numbers must be stamped.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

While I'm typing, I'm counting in my mind: one by hand a stitched and bound volume will cost the customer (church utensils shop) 30 euros (hereinafter the prices are given as of 2015.Note. Pagination —my work —costs three euros. It takes me at least 40 minutes to write one book. With a three-hour working day, the output is somewhere around 13.5 euros. It turns out that I don’t even work off food.

Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

Dejected by the low value of my work, I try to eat at lunch smaller, despite the fact that the nuns on duty are trying, on the contrary, to feed me better and now and then put new dishes on our table (for four): vegetable puree soup, fried potatoes, fish, meatballs. Some of the sisters are given separately prepared food they are on a diet prescribed by a doctor.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

21:30Benedictines attach great importance to communication between the members of the monastery. After the liturgy and dinner, the sisters gather daily in a special “recreational” hall for conversation. Today its main topic was my appearance in the monastery. A month ago, at the same general meeting, the nuns, having studied my resume and received a number of recommendations from people they trusted, gave the go-ahead to the abbess, mother Rosario, to cooperate with a Russian magazine.

Now they look at me with lively curiosity&nbsp ; I'm talking about myself. Then 25 nuns, seated in a semicircle, take turns saying their names. Before leaving for the last prayer of the day compline  everyone comes up to me, hugs me and says: “Welcome to our home”.

Holy real estate

The Monastery of Saint Pelagius occupies an entire city block in the center of Oviedo. And until the 19th century, its northern wall was part of the fortifications of the city

Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

1. Monastery courtyard with gallery, claustro
2. Refectory
3. Chapter Hall
4. Church (choir, altar, temple itself)
5. Monastery garden
6. Tower with belfry
7. Small courtyard
8. Courtyard with fountain
9. Guest house
10. Lobby and main entrance/facade
11. Workshops
12. Cart yard (parking place)
13. Infirmary (lower floor) and workshops (upper)
14. Rear gate
15. st. Jovellanos (former city wall)
16. st. San Vicente
17. st. Aguila 

Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Second day, Thursday

9:30After breakfast, Rosario's mother gives me a tour of “the house.” The monastery is not called otherwise than the house of the nuns among themselves. This is really their only home, their property, and they themselves must maintain it in order and pay taxes. One of the older sisters, Carmen, took the tonsure 72 years ago and remembers how in 1942 their common house lay in ruins after the civil war bombings, and her obedience was not to bind books, but to knead mortar and take out construction debris.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

From the well-groomed monastic garden we go up to the novice building. Here the cells are designed for two or three nuns, and “conveniences on the floor.” The rest of the nuns live each in their own room with a private bathroom. The building has been empty for 10 years now. “Crisis of vocations,” Mother Rosario sighs. “And we are getting old. We are 27, two no longer get out of bed, four more are under ninety. More than half are pensioners.”

State pension (about 600 euros) has been paid to nuns since the legal status of the clergy was regulated in Spain after Franco's death in 1975. “We registered our workshops, started making contributions to the pension fund, ,” says the abbess.

14:30With one of the pensions, the sisters bought a minibus. On it, as always on Thursday afternoons, eight nuns go for a country walk. I am with them. Three of the nuns have driver's licenses, but today we are driven by Aurelio, the only man who works here for a salary (also a cook and cleaner). He is about 50, he has all the men's work: minor repairs, carrying heavy loads, and you never know what else.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Aurelio proposes a new route – a footpath on the slopes of the nearby Mount Naranco. It offers a wonderful view of the city, but Rosario's mother complains that there are a lot of people here. However, this shortcoming is redeemed by a sports ground that appears on the way: the nuns recklessly try every exercise machine – “bike”, “ski” and a walking simulator. Walkers look around in amazement, some stop to stare. I understand why the abbess doesn't like crowded places.

Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

21:30At the evening “gathering” there was only talk about the site. Those who go next week are also asked to take them to the simulators. “Let's write to the mayor, — someone suggests, —let him build such a platform for us somewhere closer” .

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Saved relics

The Benedictine convent in Oviedo was founded in the 9th century. His name – St. Pelagius (martyr Pelagius of Cordoba) – received in the X century in honor of a 13-year-old Christian boy who was quartered in 925 in Cordoba for refusing to convert to Islam. His remains were transported by Christians to Asturias and placed in a monastery, where they are kept to this day in the altar. This is the main monastery relic. For more than ten centuries now, the nuns have been ending the day with a prayer addressed to the martyr.

Nothing has survived from the original architectural appearance of the monastery, except for a few columns of the pre-Romanesque period. The current appearance is the result of the restructuring of the 17th-18th centuries. But the monastery archive keeps the entire history of the monastery in documents.

The earliest written monument is the decree of the Leonese king Bermudo II dated 996 that the entire Soriego valley adjacent to it with villages and peasants goes to the monastery.

The archive was miraculously saved in 1934, during the general mining strikes in Asturias. The monastery was chosen by the leaders of the labor movement as the headquarters of defense, armories were arranged in the attics. The government used military aviation to suppress the strike. After the bomb hit the building, a fire started, but the archivist nun threw bundles of documents out of the window, and then carried them behind her on a cart on long wanderings through other people's monasteries.

In addition to the archive, the inhabitants of the monastery took with them only the relics of St. Pelagius. Only five years later, in 1939, the nuns returned to Oviedo and began rebuilding their home.

Third day, Friday


strong> As usual, the morning is spent in prayer and work. Today I managed to bring the numbering time of one book to 30 minutes.

14:00After lunch, the three sisters received bus tickets from the housekeeper and went to the clinic. I got in touch with them. The bus is full of kids – the school class is going on an excursion. They make noise and pay no attention to the nuns. Church vestments on the street are a common phenomenon in Spain. Even reclusive monks (with the exception of the ministers of the most “strict” orders – Carmelites and Carthusians) regularly go out into the world. “Like all people who leave their homes, by the way, – Sor Esther emphasizes. – The monastery is not a prison. Nobody forbids us to go out, just why?”

Esther, a physician by training, is in charge of the monastery infirmary and all medical matters, such as electronic appointments with a specialist, dispensing medicines and caring for the sick. “Thank God I was persuaded to graduate from medical school before I went to the monastery”, – she rejoices.

Catholicism in Spain*

34.5 million Spaniards identify themselves as Catholic. This is 73.1% of the population.

The average age of monastics in Spain is 63 years.

In About 79,000 students study at 14 private Catholic universities, which is 64.3% of all students of private universities in the country.

In 2012, 268,810 sacraments of baptism were performed in Spain , 62,847 sacraments of marriage, 254,427 children received the first communion.

According to approximate statistics, there are about 61,000 monastics in Spain: 49,000 women and 12,000 men. Of these, 15,000 live in 860 closed monasteries, the rest belong to 409 religious communities and carry out missionary activities.

38.8% of Spaniards attend Catholic services.

* As of 2015

Fourth Day, Saturday

6:30-13:30 Weekly cleaning, laundry and ironing. Instead of a numbering machine, I get a bucket with a rag. At work, I ask my “colleagues” what they will use their free afternoon for.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

It turns out that today, on the weekend, there will be quite a bit of it. An hour and a half in the afternoon before prayer at 15:30 is the traditional siesta. Until the next service at 19:00, the time is scheduled by the minute: the soloists have a rehearsal in the choir, in the music class – a lesson in playing the zither, and at 18:00 for everyone a lecture, the first of a cycle dedicated to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Father José Luis, a seminary teacher, comes to the monastery only on Saturdays.

Not of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

15:30After the prayer, I stay for the choir rehearsal. From the face of Covadonga, who is conducting, it is clear that she is dissatisfied with something. “Gregorian chant is supposed to be rhythmic, and we stretch it out a lot”, ” she explains as she adds up the notes. An English philologist by training, Covadonga is in charge of two monastic “institutions” – the choir and the archive. She was sent to France to learn how to play the organ and the zither, and she sorted out the archive herself: “Now we are digitizing the 16th century. Time is sorely lacking”. Since computers appeared in the monastery of St. Pelagius, the sisters have converted archival documents from the previous six centuries – from the 10th century into electronic form.

18:00 All the sisters come to the lecture . Sor Esther writes it down. She wants to get her Bachelor of Theology degree online. Now this can be done practically without interruption from monastic life —the monastery is equipped with a computer room.

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Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Day fifth, Sunday

6:30–13:30Sunday is considered not just a weekend, but a holiday. No work, only praise to God, rest and fellowship. At dinner, instead of reading the charter, we listen to music, and instead of water, the kitchen attendants offer red wine. The menu is also festive: paella with shrimp, or rather with shrimp, because everyone gets only one.

14:30There are fewer nuns at the afternoon gathering than usual. One sister went to a neighboring town, 30 kilometers away, where her mother was sick. Another went to visit a lonely sister. Half a century ago, this was unthinkable. All meetings with the laity took place in a special hall, divided in half: on one side there were chairs for visitors, on the other – benches for the nuns. It was not until the late 1960s that the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) called the church to face the world.

21:30At the evening “gatherings” we watch movies. The meeting room has a screen and a video projector. The Mother Superior brings in a laptop and puts on what was approved at the meeting: a documentary about pollinators. After the film, we discuss the problems of bees, hummingbirds and butterflies for a long time. In accordance with the recommendation of the filmmakers to plant as many flowers as possible, the sisters decide that in the summer, during a trip to the country (a house in the village is rented every year), they will plant plants that migratory butterflies cannot survive without.

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Sixth Day, Monday


strong>Today is my birthday, which was solemnly announced the day before. At the morning service, the sisters pray for me as they always do in honor of the birthday girl in the monastery.

10:00–13:00 The work is very slow, because every now and then sisters come with gifts: homemade postcards, bookmarks, crafts. Bookbinding colleagues present hand-sewn notebooks.

13:30We celebrate at lunch. In front of my device is a festive glass and a can of beer. They don’t put beer on sisters’ name days, but they made an exception for me. Instead of reading the charter, the music was turned on again. The manager of the discs found in her collection a particularly suitable one for the occasion: “Russian Folk Songs Performed by the Choir of the Soviet Army”. The first number, contrary to the name, was Glinka's choir from the opera Ivan Susanin.

Under the powerful voices of Soviet officers, who beautifully sang “Glory to our great Russian people,” 25 Spanish reclusive nuns raised their faces glowing with sincere joy from their plates, and I raised my festive glass of beer in response and did not know whether to laugh or cry, until It was also funny and touching.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed convent in Spain

21:30At the evening meeting, the sisters, being impressed by the officers, made me dance the “squat” three times, and then asked me for a long time – about Russian cuisine, about the weather in Siberia, about the collapse of the USSR and the conflict in Ukraine. At this time, a terrible thunderstorm broke out on the street, lightning struck somewhere very close, and the lights went out. Part of the lighting was restored immediately, but in “my” compartment it was dark, like in the belly of a whale. The weak light of the mobile phone screen only deepened the darkness. Still, a useless thing in the monastery – you can’t even shine properly, and the signal doesn’t “penetrate” the thick walls, and the sound breaks the silence reigning in the galleries.

The sisters have three devices for all: one — at the abbess, two more – for trips. Once, relatives gave a smartphone to a nun, but mother Rosario did not bless: “We already have to be distracted from the main thing – talking with God.” Here is the smartphone packed in the box. And the sisters are engaged in their main business and look at the world from a different angle, a little from a distance, but with wide eyes.

P. S. Day seven, Tuesday

10:00 After breakfast I left. All twenty-five sisters came out to escort me to the gate. Someone slipped me a bag of sandwiches on the road. Colleagues in the workshop brought cyclamen in a pot from the windowsill. We said goodbye for so long, with tears and parting words, that I almost missed the train. A week later, cyclamen bloomed with delicate white and pink flowers, similar to butterflies.

Out of this world: how to spend a week in a closed nunnery in Spain

Oviedo, Asturias , Spain

Population: ~ 220,000 people
Area: 186.65 km2
Population density: 1200 people/km2

Attractions: Cathedral of San Salvador, the main facade of the monastery of St. Pelagius, pre-Romanesque churches on Mount Naranco.
Special dishes: Asturian fabada (fabada asturiana) beans with smoked meats; carbayon (carbayon) – typical Oviedian puff pastry with almonds and cognac.
Traditional drink: apple cider.
Souvenirs : Asturian cabrales cheese (cabrales) with blue mold, traditional black ceramic dishes, handmade Asturian wooden shoes (madrenas) keychain.

strong>Distance from Moscow ~ 3350 km (from 6 hours in flight excluding transfers)
Time behind Moscow by two hours in winter, one hour in summer

Photos: Marcos Morilla, Getty Images/

< p>Material published in Vokrug Sveta No. 4, April 2015, partially updated in September 2022

Anna Papchenko

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