Reflections on a springtime in Mallorca

Frederic Chopin’s love interest Amandine Dupin (under the pseudonym George Sand) once penned a memoire entitled “A Winter in Mallorca,” reflecting on her and the composer’s one time retreat from Parisian society in Valldemossa on the northwest coast of the largest Balearic Island. Along with Dupin/Sand, Joan Miró and Rafael Nadal, Providence has forever connected me to this scenic and historic island in the Mediterranean, roughly equidistant from the mainland Spanish cities of Valencia and Barcelona.

My association with Mallorca goes back well over a decade. My college roommate and I attended Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill together, and were moving our boxes into Lavis Hall at the University of Scranton, when he said to me “The music from the room across the hall cannot possibly be in English.” It wasn’t. Directly across from our dorm, in a decision for which I will forever be grateful to Res Life, someone who would come to be one of our closest friends was also unpacking his belongings, but from a much longer journey.

We came to discover his mother had been born in New York, met his father while abroad, and eventually married him, moving to Mallorca to raise their family. A dual citizen, he had been told to pick from any of the Jesuit universities in the States, and Scranton needed a goalkeeper for the soccer team, so he moved from the palm trees and beachfront paradise to the home of the Steamtown Mall and The Office, long before the television show existed. (His sister with the same stipulations recently graduated from St. Joe’s). We have become parts of one another’s families and visit one another almost yearly, a blessing almost too wonderful to comprehend.

In my multiple trips to Mallorca, I have become fascinated with the island’s ancient and Christian history. My friend’s mother, beginning her graduate studies, was working on an archeological dig of Roman ruins when she first arrived there, and amphitheaters and vestiges of the empire that once ruled the Mediterranean litter the countryside.

Christianity first reached the islands the Romans called Balearis Majorca (Major) and Balearis Menorca (Minor) 1,600 years ago, with intervening periods of influence by the Byzantines and Moors. As a theologian, it is this history that most interests me.

The gothic cathedral of the largest city and capital, Palma, dates from 1229. Called La Seu (“the site”) in Mallorquin — the island’s geographical separation and Catalan history have evolved into a language completely distinct from Castilian Spanish — the stunning cathedral has modern renovations and contributions by artists Antoni Gaudi (which I love) and Miguel Barceló (which I don’t).

Philosophers Ramon Llull and Gaspar de Jovellanos spent time there, the latter unwillingly, as he was imprisoned in the Bellver Castle for supporting the radical views of Enlightenment thought, including democracy and women’s equality. The castle, isolated in the hills above Palma, is a moving place to visit, for despite its truly magnificent views (thus the Catalan name “Bell-ver”), it was a site of mass execution both in the distant past and during Franco’s reign.

We Americans are also spiritual descendants of Mallorca, particularly on the west coast. Native Junipero Serra, now beatified, set up evangelizing missions in what is today California, hence the religiously-named cities of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Diego, etc. His family home is preserved in its original condition in the Mallorcan town of Petra.

As the product of three Jesuit universities, now working at a fourth, I was blessed to have a private tour arranged for me at Montesion, the oldest Jesuit school in the world still in existence, coincidentally celebrating its 450th anniversary the week before I arrived. In a chapel behind the ornate stone monument to the door he so famously manned for decades, I had the opportunity to pray in private before the life-size reliquary holding the remains of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the 16th century Jesuit porter who, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “while there went/Those years and years by of world without event/That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.” The experience was quite powerful for me.

Since the 1960s, Mallorca has become a popular tourist destination and an increasingly relaxed place to spend one’s “holiday,” with the proliferation of bars, and chaise lounges under tiki umbrellas, and speedboats racing around the island’s towering cliffs meeting the sea — all of which I in no way ascetically avoid when I’m there. But there is more to Mallorca than sunburned English tourists and beachside nightclubs that wheel out foam machines at 5 a.m. (they don’t eat dinner until 11 p.m. in the summer, so the nights stretch out). There is a culture and gastronomy and history and self-identity that is unlike any place else I’ve visited, and with both my stepfather being born in Ireland and having studied in Florence, I’ve done my share of European travelling.

The rocky ledges dotted with spindly pine trees, and sandy vistas that stretch into the ever-receding horizon of the Mediterranean, and bustling metropolis of Palma where every windy street feels like an immaculately scrubbed and constructed movie set, and statues of saints being carried through the streets before fireworks, and Masses said in Catalan in stifling stone chapels, all somehow get in your blood and transform the way you look at yourself and your life decisions and your God. As George Sand put it, “It is as green as Switzerland under a Calabrian sky, with the solemn silence of the Orient…everything seems to pose with a kind of vanity to please your eye.” And, I would add, your soul.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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