Only three monks continue to live at at the residence beside the monastery. :: A. S.
Before people cross the threshold José García, the friar who gives guided tours of the smallest monastery in the world, warns: “This month we have a special offer: the first three times are free, but we charge IVA on the fourth.”
After ten minutes, one of the four people who are following him on this illustrious tour of El Palancar understands what this elderly brother (he will be 82 in June) means, as he hits his head on the sturdy stone above one of the doorless doorways, which are no more than one and a half metres high and one metre wide. One metre eighty, says the veteran monk, was the height of San Pedro de Alcántara (1499-1562), an exemplary Franciscan who wanted this to be a barefooted Order, patron saint of Extremadura and the man who ordered this 72 - 75 square metre monastery to be built amid perfect meadows and pretty fields. He was also, of course, the saint after whom the town of San Pedro Alcántara on the Costa del Sol is named. It is difficult to photograph this monastery because the rooms are so small and there is little light.
The Convento de la Concepción de El Palancar is in Pedroso de Acim (a village of 124 inhabitants which is situated between Cáceres and Plasencia). It is known as “El Conventino”, the little monastery, by local people in this border region which is where Juan de Sanabria spent the last part of his life. He took the name Pedro when he entered the Franciscan order at the age of 16, after abandoning his Law studies in Salamanca. The monk, after whom numerous streets in Extremadura have been named, and is said to have cured a four-year-old blind girl in the nearby village of Casas de Millán, made austerity his byword. He asked for a cell - which is a much more realistic name for such a tiny room - in which he would not be able to stand up. Or lie down. He only wanted a space large enough to sit.
To sit upon a polished stone, in fact, with a tiny window to the left, the sloping roof at eye level and a wooden cross at his feet. “He told me that he had slept only an hour and a half between each night and day for forty years, I think it was. He slept sitting down, with his head resting on a piece of wood jutting out from the wall. Even if he wanted to lie down he couldn’t, as you know, because his cell was no more than four and half feet in length”, wrote St. Teresa de Jesús, who never went to El Palancar but who was the “great confidante”, in the words of Brother José García, of the saint who founded this monastery for ascetics. He visited her on several occasions, until he died in Arenas (Ávila), “which was renamed Arenas de San Pedro in his honour”, explains Brother José García.
This octogenarian with a great sense of humour describes the place he is showing to the tourists as “a monastery within another monastery”. And physically, this is correct. Seen from outside, El Palancar is deceiving. It looks much bigger than it is, especially when seen from the top of the small mountain that protects it, on which there is now no sign of the forest fire which in the summer of 2006 forced the four monks who lived there to phone the 112 emergency number first of all and then follow the advice of local people and flee.
They returned the following day and foundthat everything was exactly the same, and almost as it is today. Now there are three monks there and they take turns to show visitors the tiny monastery which adjoins the residence in which they live, a small building with a garden, vegetable plot and 20 rooms. Outside there is also a dormitory with 30 bunk beds which this Easter was occupied by a group of young people accompanied by Franciscan priests.
None of this accommodation existed in 1557, when the mini-monastery was built by Pedro de Alcántara on the vegetable plot with a small house which nobleman Rodigo de Chaves had given him as a gift.
When you press the button at the entrance the monk comes out, dressed as such, wearing sandals and socks, a black zipped top for warmth and a grey scarf which is almost as wide as a blanket. It is cold in this low, narrow passageway, where he stops to explain where we are.
“San Pedro”, he explains in the tone of voice in which one relays secrets, “ordered this monastery to be built after he had been a friar for more than forty years, and he didn’t do that so he could live miserably but so that it could be a place to put an end to people’s ambition and fantasy. We mustn’t forget the historical context. We are talking about the Golden Age, and gold was not a metaphor”.
The smallest cell
As he didn’t like the Spain or the Franciscan Order of those times, St. Pedro de Alcántara accepted the nobleman’s gift and went to live in the house at El Palancar, which was named after a nearby spring from which no water flows nowadays. The Emperor Carlos V offered him the chance to be his confessor in the extraordinary monastery of Yuste, but he preferred to live the life of a hermit together with a few other friars. He gathered seven together and they occupied a shabby, dark monastery, in which there was a kitchen which today would be considered toy-sized, a dining room without a table which was also the room where they prayed together or talked, and a chapel which had room for seven people if they were thin and didn’t mind being elbow to elbow, literally.
Chapel, dining room, kitchen and ten cells, the smallest that of the saint, which was built in the stairwell between the two floors. There is also a central patio measuring three metres by three metres. That is all there is to El Palancar, where the temperature drops several degrees as soon as you walk inside. “On one of the occasions when he visited her in Ávila,” relates the guide, “Santa Teresa asked San Pedro what he did to combat the cold and he answered as follows: It’s easy, I go into the room, I open the door, I open the window, I take off my cloak, I shiver violently for a while, then I close the window, close the door, put the cloak on and I’m in heaven.”