Saturday, June 26, 2010

Morning melody

One morning each week for many years, Einsiedeln Abbey’s Fr. Maurus (right) and Dr. Hans Ulrich Jäger-Werth have mounted the hill overlooking the monastery, town, and nearby lake to play a few numbers on their alphorns.

Alphorns are long wooden horns traditionally used by Switzerland’s mountain dwellers to produce rich, natural, open-pipe harmonies.

Fr. Maurus, who is 80 years old, is the former pastor of the Catholic parish in Einsiedeln, while his friend is the former pastor of the Protestant church in town. Now that they are “retired,” the two have continued providing their brief ecumenical hilltop concerts (although admittedly a little later in the morning than in earlier years) for anyone within earshot.

It’s a splendid way to greet the sun—Swiss style.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tradition and culture

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see sections of the Einsiedeln Abbey Library, which as librarian Fr. Odo remarks in an English brochure, is a treasure trove of “tradition and culture.” Housed here are many thousands of invaluable books, manuscripts, missals, codices, and prints covering many centuries. Included are works dealing with Einsiedeln history and culture, Benedictine monasticism, theology, liturgy, biblical studies, and spiritual and devotional literature.

Although I was not able to see it, one of the library’s most prized possessions is a transcription of the Rule of St. Benedict brought here by St. Meinrad over 1,000 years ago.

Reading and writing have always been important aspects of Benedictine tradition and culture. In his Rule, St. Benedict specifies that monks devote daily periods to spiritual reading. For many centuries, students were educated by monks, and before the invention of the printing press, monks were largely responsible for preserving and passing on the written word in Western culture. For centuries, Bibles and missals, among other works of literature, were transcribed by hand (and quite artistically) by monks. According to Fr. Odo, of the 117 choral manuscripts dating from the 9th to 12th centuries that are in the library, 64 of them were transcribed at Einsiedeln. Just thinking about it gives me writers’ cramp—no laptops, spell-check programs, or even electrical light to work by.

Pictured is a block book on the Life of St. Meinrad from the 15th century. The artwork depicts the holy martyr’s death. Notice the ravens, which are part of the insignia for Einsiedeln—and Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 125:2

It’s difficult for me to believe that I’ve spent nearly a month in Europe already. It has been an enriching experience, primarily because of the people I’ve met, and also because of the things I’ve taken in while here—be it a breathtaking view, a different way of doing or seeing something, or a native culinary delight (a euphemism for Swiss chocolate).

One of the monks here at Einsiedeln asked me what has impressed me most thus far. “The mountains” was my answer, and it’s true. I was raised in a region (northwest Ohio) that—while it has its own positive attributes—is extraordinarily horizontal. Daily lifting my eyes to lush hills, towering snow-covered mountains, deep forests, and village-dotted valley lakes is a completely new experience for me. Such vertical surroundings are overwhelming for some who are unfamiliar with it. I’m told there are those who feel “smothered” or even crushed by such a mountainous landscape, but for me it’s comforting—like being wrapped in a blanket.

With all that said, however, there are two things that impress me more than the mountains, and they intersect with one another on both vertical and horizontal planes. First, I am edified by the commitment to prayer that I have witnessed within the communities of men and women that I have visited—whether it’s been expressed in Latin, German, Italian, or English. “Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God,” St. Benedict tells his monks in the Rule. I am reminded of this each day when I see Einsiedeln’s Fr. Wolfgang—who is over 90—gliding to church at the sound of the bells behind his walker. As his devotion demonstrates, prayer requires effort, submission of the will to the guidance of the Holy Spirit (or der Heilige Geist, one of my favorite German phrases, simply because of the way it sounds when it is spoken).

This past weekend I experienced der Heilige Geist in two other ways. I had the privilege of spending a couple days at Kloster Fahr, a convent of Benedictine women near Zurich about 30 minutes away. Fahr (top photo) dates to the 12th Century, and is a sister of sorts to Einsiedeln. Together they constitute a double monastery of men and women under the abbot of Einsiedeln. Fahr is administered by Prioress Irene Gassmann (second photo), who visited Saint Meinrad Archabbey in 2006.

At Fahr, I was invited to pray Lauds and Vespers with the sisters in their choir. Since the pitch of their combined voices was a bit too high for me to match, and because my liturgical German is somewhat uncertain, I mostly listened. Closing my eyes, I was able to let the sisters’ spirited chant of praise wash over me like water through the rocks in a Swiss mountain stream. And I was reminded of St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). The spirit of the sisters of Fahr lifted my own.

On Sunday morning, I was picked up at Fahr by Fr. Aaron Brunner, a monk of Einsiedeln who studied at Saint Meinrad, and who is now an associate pastor for Queen of Peace and St. Anthony churches in Zurich. After being shown both churches by Fr. Aaron, I attended an English Mass at St. Anthony. The church was filled with English-speaking worshippers, though they hail from many different countries. It was a great blessing to pray, sing, and listen to the readings in English after a month of German, Italian, and Latin. I hope that I retain that appreciation once I return to the United States.

The observance of Benedictine hospitality is the second thing that has impressed me even more than the mountains of Switzerland. In his Rule, St. Benedict says that all guests to the monastery should be received as Christ. The mere presence of a guest always imposes on the host what could be considered as obligations or limitations. As a visiting monk from the United States staying here at Einsiedeln, I am well aware of this. However, I cannot speak highly enough about how warmly I have been welcomed by the monastic community of Einsiedeln. Rather than obligation or limitation, my presence here has been treated as an opportunity. I feel as though I have been received as Christ.

Even with the language issue, this has been the case. The other day, one of the monks here apologized to me—me, a foreigner who doesn’t speak German visiting a German-speaking country—for not knowing enough English to carry on a conversation. If an apology is warranted, the reverse should be the case. To be sure, the language differences have been frustrating at times, and prevent me from getting to know many of the monks here as well as I would like. However, there are plenty who speak at least some English, and when that is lacking, I can sometimes pick up the gist of what is being said in German. Beyond that, genuine Christian hospitality requires no speech, and as monks the one language we have in common is our life of prayer. As Benedictines from two different continents, it may be expressed differently, but it has the same structure, flow, and content. Vespers is essentially the same whether it is said in German, Latin, or English.

Hospitality was also in abundant supply during my visit to Fahr. There are nearly 30 sisters at Fahr, which is known for its agricultural boarding school for women, its winery, and its restaurant (Zu den Zwei Raben, or “Two Ravens,” a reference to Einsiedeln’s coat of arms, which pictures the two ravens that brought St. Meinrad’s killers to justice.) It is a lovely place, and while most of the hard-working sisters at Fahr speak little if any English, they were most gracious in welcoming me. For one meal, Einsiedeln’s Fr. Patrick (who was serving as the weekend chaplain) and I joined the sisters in their refectory. Prioress Irene even took time out of her busy day to give me a personal tour, and to have afternoon coffee (and Swiss chocolate!) with Fr. Patrick and I.

Later, Fr. Aaron also extended hospitality by giving up most of his Sunday and some of his discretionary income to show me around Zurich. Like me, he’s fond of chocolate, and he insisted that I sample several Swiss varieties. “You have to try this,” he repeated. Our sweet tooth tour included a stop at a Sprüngli confectionary shop for its celebrated Luxemburgerlis. We worked off the calories by hiking a couple hours along the top of the large hill to the southwest that overlooks Zurich, called Uetliberg. There, we climbed an observation tower to get a birds-eye view of the city, Lake Zurich, and the surrounding countryside (third photo). Since the skies were cloudy, visibility was limited, and the Alps could not be seen as they normally are.

We also briefly toured the heart of Zurich, at the north end of the tip of Lake Zurich (last photo). The largest city in Switzerland (around 2 million in the metropolitan area), Zurich is a global financial center. Some of the world’s biggest banks are in Zurich. Wearing my $30 Timex while walking along the avenue Bahnhofstrasse, I peered in shop windows at Swiss watches priced at what some people pay for a nice car.

I will have to return to Zurich to visit some of the museums and famous Protestant churches in the city, which include St. Peter (largest church clock in the world) and Fraumünster (featuring stained glass windows by Marc Chagall).

Looking over what I have written here before signing off, I see that chocolate seems to be a recurring theme. Perhaps it should be added to my “most impressive” list for Switzerland. It needed a little more balance on the horizontal plane anyway—mountains and prayer, hospitality and chocolate. So be it.

Ehre sei dem Vater und dem Sohn und dem Heiligen Geist.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sankt Gerold

This week I spent a couple wonderful days in Austria at Propstei Sankt Gerold, which has long been associated with the Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Sankt Gerold is about an hour and a half away from Einsiedeln by car, just over the border from Switzerland and not too far from the Austrian border with Germany. Incidentally, we also passed through the very tiny country of Liechtenstein (I think).

It is to Sankt Gerold that several monks from Einsiedeln escaped with the original Black Madonna during the French Revolution until they were able to return to Switzerland. St. Gerold, as legend has it, was a hermit living on the site in the 10th century. Later, a monastic community was established. St. Gerold’s tomb and the original walls of the church can be viewed in the crypt below the existing church. Einsiedeln has held the property for over 1,000 years.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Einsiedeln’s Fr. Nathaniel Wirth carried out an extensive renovation of the buildings, many of which had fallen into disrepair. It is now a popular retreat and cultural center that draws many people from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It includes a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Einsiedeln, guest rooms, conference rooms, restaurant, swimming pool, hiking trails, and a lovely garden. A number of programs are conducted at Sankt Gerold, including concerts and horse riding therapy for handicapped and disadvantaged youth. It also serves as the church for the town of Sankt Gerold. Einsiedeln’s Fr. Kolumban (who studied at Saint Meinrad in the late 1990s) has been assigned to Sankt Gerold since last year.

It is a place of beauty and restoration for soul, mind, and body, as the top two photographs help illustrate. The sculpture helps define Sankt Gerold’s perspective. Fr. Kolumban explains that the mother represents visible reality while the child represents invisible or transcendent reality. Together, through the love of God, they are held together as one in this world. “As human beings, we are sinners redeemed by God’s love,” Fr. Kolumban says. “But before that was made necessary, we were created in God’s image by that very same love. Sometimes we forget that.”

It’s a good image with a simple but profound message.

During the visit to Sankt Gerold, Fr. Kolumban and I visited a couple of very old churches in the surrounding area. Pictured is the interior of St. Martin on the outskirts of the mountainside village of Ludesch. It is one of the loveliest, most well-preserved old churches I have ever seen. The current stone and stucco structure (with walls about 4 feet thick) was built around 1400, but evidence suggests its history stretches back at least a couple hundred years further. The current interior architecture, artwork, and Gothic furnishings date to about 1600. Also included is a Romanesque crucifix from around 1200.

The thin but sturdy wooden rails in the foreground of the photo were used as benches and kneelers on the right side of the sanctuary where the men sat (15th or 16th Century). Women had to sit on the left, but they didn’t have to kneel as the men did, so there are no elbow rests on their side. Another church we visited in Bludesch had the same seating arrangement. I suppose anything is possible, but I can’t imagine anyone nodding off in such circumstances.

Lastly, purely for your amusement, is my new friend Tiffany hamming it up after giving me a ride around Sankt Gerold. It was my first jaunt on horseback, but Tiffany was very patient and attentive—not to mention sturdy. After all, she’s used to dealing with children.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

High praise

Lobet den Herrn, ihr auf der Erde … ihr Berge und all ihr Hügel, ihr Fruchtbäume und alle Zedern, ihr wilden Tiere und alles Vieh, Kriechtiere und gefiederte Vögel, ihr Könige der Erde und alle Völker, ihr Fürsten und alle Richter auf Erden, ihr jungen Männer und auch ihr Mädchen, ihr Alten mit den Jungen!
-- Psalm 148:7, 9-12

Would you go to Mass on a high mountain? What if it were said in German? What about in a wooden chapel surrounded by cows? Would you go to one there?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but yes I would—but please hold the green eggs and ham.

On this rainy, foggy Sunday I did all of the above. Shortly after Lauds, I accompanied Fr. Gregor (the novice-junior master here at Kloster Einsiedeln) on his chaplain assignment. Together we walked to the bus station in Einsiedeln, and rode for about 20 minutes toward Schwyz to the south. In Brunni we got off and rode a cable car up the mountainside, about 500 meters below the summit of the Big Mythen, to Holzegg. There, a number of hiking trails converge on a café/bar and a small wooden chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas.

After come coffee and tea, Fr. Gregor went ahead to the chapel to prepare for Mass, while I lingered and took in the view. Unfortunately, it was quite limited due to the weather. I’m told that when the skies are clear, the vantage point offers an incredible view of the Alps (which was fine, since I forgot my camera).

The Holzegg chapel is one of several in the mountains surrounding Einsiedeln that some ordained monks travel to on Sundays during the summer to say Mass for vacationers, tourists, and hikers in the area. In most cases, the mountain chapels are operated by foundations of local residents who then find priests to minister during the summer. On a nice day, Fr. Gregor said around 70 people might come to Mass at Holzegg. On this day, there were about 30 or so. There were also plenty of seats available at the café—normally quite crowded on nice weekends.

About 15 minutes or so before Mass began, I began heading down the narrow trail toward the chapel. Surrounding me in the fog and mist was the sound of bells—not from the chapel, but from the necks of dozens of cows grazing in the rocky pasture. These cattle are very friendly—or at least intensely curious. As I stopped to watch them, they all gathered near me, a thin ribbon of rope the only barrier between us. If I moved a few steps further down the path, they came along, galloping, clanging, mooing, and tinkling (yes, I do mean that in the sense you might imagine). As I entered the chapel and took a seat, the ringing and mooing continued outside. For a while, I thought the herd was going to come in and join us. Fr. Gregor, completing one last head count before Mass, passed by me and whispered, “Many cows, few people.”

And so Mass began – in a wooden chapel surrounded by cows, said in German on a high mountain. There we were—30 or so pilgrims, and twice as many cattle—making a racket in the fog, and hopefully praising God with all our hearts. How can you possibly beat that? I loved every minute—though I understand little German and even less Bovine.

Later in the afternoon, back at Einsiedeln, a few of us monks peeked out of the cloister along the gallery railings to see a church packed with Croatian pilgrims celebrating Mass. There were an estimated 3,000 of them. No cows.

Still later, after Vespers, several other monks and I attended a choir concert performed by the students of Einsiedeln high school—and directed by Fr. Lukas, who is also the choirmaster for the monastery. Most of the songs were in English—everything from Billy Joel to Andrew Lloyd Webber to ABBA. It was a rousing performance.

The last piece was “Heaven is a Wonderful Place.” And so it is, whether it is sung in German, Croation, English, or Bovine. After all, the “kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Ring those bells!

Praise the Lord from the earth … mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Psalm 148:7, 9-12

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Happy Tails

Switzerland is a hiker’s paradise. Numerous sign-posted trails crisscross the mountains, hills, and valleys, and a number of them stretch out from the Abbey of Einsiedeln. It is possible to traverse much of the country this way, and there is plenty to see. I have yet to venture all that far, but it seems that one breathtaking view after another lies just around the bend or over the next hill. From top to bottom:

1. Pilgrims of various sorts dot the landscape along the hiking trails. This is near the Abbey’s sawmill/lumberyard and horse training arena. I wonder what the four-pawed pilgrim sporting the backpack brings along for such a journey? Each must carry his or her own weight.

2. A view of the Abbey from the small mountain directly behind it. Included are the church, monastery cloister, and associated workshops, gardens, and other facilities. The town of Einsiedeln lies beyond it. This day, nobody is lifting off the ski jump to the right.

3. In the valley a short distance from the Abbey. The cows and sheep grazing on the hillsides create their own music as they munch away. What sounds like a perpetual orchestra of wind chimes is performed by the bells tied to the animals’ necks (so they can be found in the hills if they stray). I may get one for myself--just in case.

4. The Big Mythen (MEE-tun) as viewed from near the town of Schwyz. Some of the monks of Einsiedeln are from hometowns on this side of the mountain, and others are from towns on the other side (closer to the Abbey). They razz each other about which side is the “front.” I maintain neutrality.

5. The Alps as seen from near the town of Schwyz.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spirit and fire

All the monks of Einsiedeln under the age of 60 are required to be members of the Abbey’s fire department—unless other assignments dictate otherwise. The Abbey’s fire department also has civilian firefighters, including the current chief. In the event of a large fire at the Abbey, the town’s fire department also pitches in.

On a warm Wednesday afternoon, about a dozen Abbey firefighters—mostly monks—held a training exercise at a facility about 40 minutes away in the town of Schwyz (the capital of the Swiss canton to which Einsiedeln belongs.) I tagged along not only to watch part of the training, but also to do a bit of exploring in the area and see more of the spectacular mountain views which are so commonplace around here.

There are a number of structures at the training facility to simulate real firefighting situations, and the flames are controlled by a flow of gas. I stood at a safe distance taking some pictures. In the top photo, a trainer guides two monks battling a field of flames. In the second photo, Fr. Cyrill steps up, ready for duty.

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed a snack of Swiss sausage, cheese, and bread—even the photographer, who did none of the work!

Monday, June 7, 2010

About town

This afternoon I ventured out from the monastery to explore the village of Einsiedeln. There was a street fair going on, so there were many vendors selling everything from purses to sausage (I’m told this occurs every first Monday of the month). At a bread and meat booth, I stopped to purchase a soft pretzel and a small hunk of dark sourdough bread with flax seed. Many different kinds of breads can be found around here, and I haven’t tasted a bad one yet! I could live on the bread and soup served in the monastery. It is outstanding!

Einsiedeln is a small but thriving village, dotted with cafes, restaurants, shops, bakeries, and delicatessens. Many people—young and old—were out and about despite the dreary weather. Many were walking dogs or riding bikes. Directly across from the church is a bookstore, but it is closed on Montag (Monday), so I will have to go back some time. Unlike Rome, there is not a gelato shop on every corner, but there is plenty of Swiss chocolate! Things are fairly expensive around here, so perhaps that will help me resist that temptation!

The first picture above is a look toward the village from the hill on which the Abbey church sits. The second photo is a view of the garden behind the monastery. Both photos were taken on Samstag (Saturday) when it was sunny and warm; today was rainy and foggy. Once the weather improves a little, I intend to explore the mountain behind the Abbey.

But for now, I am simply becoming familiar with life inside the monastery. Below is the monastic schedule, or horarium, observed here on weekdays. It is similar in many respects—though not identical—to ours at Saint Meinrad. (This is translated roughly into English; the schedule posted in my room was all in German, but it wasn’t too difficult to make sense of it).

5:30 a.m. – Vigils
Breakfast – Bread, cheese, fruit, cereal, and homemade yogurt (unlike American yogurt, it is rather firm, white, and more tangy than sweet).
7:15 a.m. – Lauds
Work or classes
11:15 a.m. – Mass
12:05 p.m. – Noon prayer
Lunch – This is the main meal of the day, usually soup, vegetable, pasta or potato, and meat. Desserts aren’t big around here.
Recreation until 2 p.m. (includes option of social/coffee with guests).
Work or study
4:30 p.m. – Vespers
Personal time/Lectio Divina
6:25 p.m. – Adoration (juniors only)
6:30 p.m. – Dinner, typically a lighter meal than lunch.
7:55 p.m. – Chapter or brief community meeting, followed by Compline and night silence.

Tonight, after dinner and during recreation, Br. Mauritius showed me photographs of his time in the Swiss Guard—specifically his detail during the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He had a pretty good view of everything!

On Wednesday, I will be going with a couple monks to Schwyz. Next week, plans are to visit a monastery in Austria for a few days.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Greetings from Switzerland!

After a very long but scenic train ride from Rome, I arrived Friday evening at the Abbey of Einsiedeln, where I will be for the majority of my stay in Europe this summer. The trip was a smooth one, though I was exhausted when I arrived; I had spent 12 hours either on a train or in a train station that day. However, the spectacular view as we rumbled through the Swiss Alps the last few hours of the journey more than made up for it! Toward the end of the trip, the train glided along the shore of Lake Zurich, which is surrounded by small villages, pastures, rolling hills, clear streams, and beyond the valley, the snow-capped mountains. On Friday when I arrived, the day was sunny, and many sailboats were on the lake. I can’t imagine more pleasant scenery!

As much as I enjoyed Rome and Italy, I am very glad to be here in Switzerland. For one thing, it is a little cooler, and much more quiet. In the long run, it is more my speed. Most importantly, visiting Einsiedeln is a unique opportunity for me to be immersed in the tradition from which Saint Meinrad Archabbey sprang. As you know, Saint Meinrad was established by the Swiss-German monks of Einsiedeln in the mid-19th Century. Our church at Saint Meinrad is named for Our Lady of Einsiedeln.

“Einsiedeln” means hermitage, and the church and monastery here in Switzerland were built over the site where Saint Meinrad lived as a hermit and was killed by two thieves in the year 861. The monastic community here began in the year 934, so Einsiedeln is well over 1,000 years old. Among other things, it has survived the Reformation, the French Revolution, and a number of devastating fires. The property here has been destroyed, rebuilt, and renovated many, many times. The beautiful church has undergone several transformations – from Romanesque, to Gothic, and Baroque (its current design, since the early 18th Century).

For now, I have posted only a view of the front of the church’s façade (viewed from the village just below). I haven’t taken pictures of the interior yet—it’s difficult to decide where to begin! To say it is greatly ornamented would be an understatement. Countless frescoes and statues decorate the ceiling vaults, pillars, and capitals in a vast array of color and action. It is teeming with grace and liveliness – one might even say playfulness. Many figures—mostly angels and cherubs—do much more than serve as decorations. They leap from the artwork, dangle from pillars, and point to other action. The purpose is to overwhelm the worshipper and draw one’s attention and devotion to the eternal truth of God, who transcends all. It is quite unlike anything I have ever seen.

Thousands of pilgrims come to this church—many to seek the prayerful intercession of Mary by visiting the black marble chapel of Our Lady of Einsiedeln just inside the entrance. Adorning the chapel since the 15th Century is the well-known Black Madonna and Child (a replica of which was given to Saint Meinrad Archabbey for its church). Every evening, the monks of Einsiedeln process to the shrine to sing with devotion the Salve Regina. To hear it is to be swept up into the praise of God by all his saints.

The monks here, as at other Benedictine abbeys, are dedicated to the daily round of prayer and receiving pilgrims and guests as Christ. As is the case at Saint Meinrad, many minister to surrounding parishes, and give retreats or conferences. In addition, the monks of Einsiedeln operate a high school to prepare students for university. I was afforded a peek at this Saturday night, when I was invited to accompany some other monks to a year-end band concert performed by the students. I was quite impressed!

The Abbey of Einsiedeln is also involved in numerous other works, including horse-breeding and forestry. It is also well-known for its library and archives, which have been temporarily relocated while new facilities are constructed. Br. Mauritius, one of the junior monks here (who will make solemn vows July 11) is a member of the fire department. Incidentally, he is also a former member of the Swiss Guard, and served both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican before coming to the monastery. He will return to Saint Meinrad with me Aug. 9, live in the monastery, and spend a year studying pastoral ministry at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. So, I will have the opportunity to return his generous hospitality!

There are two other juniors here—Thomas and Philipp—as well as two monks from other communities who are studying here—Johannes and Matthias. Each of them speaks at least some English (their English is much better than my German!), and they have all been very welcoming and helpful. So, for that matter, has the entire community. Many of them—including Fr. Urban, the prior, and Abbot Martin—have ties to Saint Meinrad due to seminary studies earlier in their monastic vocation. The most recent is Fr. Aaron, who will soon take over as associate pastor at the parish church in the village of Einsiedeln.

Fr. Urban, Br. Mauritius, and I have briefly discussed some tentative plans for the summer. Primarily, I will be getting to know Einsiedeln, its monks, and their way of life since Saint Meinrad Archabbey is an extension of this place. A number of excursions are also planned—to Zurich, to other monasteries in Switzerland and Austria, and to some mountains for a hike or two.

Perhaps I can also pick up at least a little German, which is almost necessary for all practical purposes. The liturgy here each day is primarily in German, with some Latin. This will be a challenge for me, praying daily in another language (sometimes it makes my head hurt!). The Latin is a bit easier for me since I’ve had more exposure to it and it is so much a part of the tradition of the universal Church. However, it is still difficult, and the liturgy here—while beautiful—is a bit more complex than what I am accustomed to at home. Hopefully, I can ease into it a little. In conversation, the monks and others around here speak a quite distinct Swiss-German dialect, which is more informal. However, many here are very accommodating toward me in using as much English in conversation as they are able, for which I am grateful.

So, basically, I will be soaking up the Swiss-German heritage of Saint Meinrad and Einsiedeln. During my free time, I also hope to get some work done in preparation for an upcoming retreat I am scheduled to give at Saint Meinrad when I return. I also hope to visit Annecy, France, which is near the border of Switzerland. It is in that region that my patron saint—Francis de Sales—lived and is entombed.

It is a great blessing to experience so many elements of my monastic vocation coming together like this!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Roma: City of Contradictions

Some amusing moments captured on camera during my stroll about Rome Thursday. I think the Centurion was talking to his stock broker.

The Dome

Today--my last day in Italy--I visited the Pantheon, a marvel of ancient architecture. Built almost 2,000 years ago, it includes a huge rotunda capped by a coffered, concrete dome with a central, circular opening to the sky (top photo). It is the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome, and is still well-preserved. Since the 7th Century, it has been a Catholic church, known as Santa Maria Rotunda, but it was built long before that.

It is unique and simply amazing!

The area around the Pantheon is a pleasant one to stroll about. I had lunch (panini) sitting on the steps of the fountain in the piazza, watching people from literally all over the world and listening to the street musicians--some of whom were quite good. The narrow, winding, cobblestone streets spreading from the piazza are filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants of various scales.

I made my way over to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Baroque church built in the 17th Century. I was stuck by the amount of marble in this church, and the number and elegance of its side altars.

After that I walked over to the Piazza del Quirinale, which includes the palace for the president of Italy, and the Scuderie del Quirinale museum, which is currently featuring a very popular Caravaggio exhibit. Unfortunately, I was not able to go in; advance tickets are sold out, and daily admission requires very long waits in line. Several hundred people were waiting in line outside the museum when I went by.

The Fountain of Trevi is nearby, so I went over to flip in a coin. On the long walk back to Sant' Anselmo, I passed by the imposing Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (the first king of a unified Italy). It is so large that it can be seen from many vantage points in Rome (second photo).

All in all, a good day. During my visit, I have covered quite a bit of Rome on foot (yesterday, I walked back from the Pope's General Audience at St. Peter's along the Tiber River to Sant'Anselmo).

Incidentally, near the Trevi Fountain, I saw a young man wearing a Toledo Mud Hens T-shirt. Naturally, I inquired about it. He is from Luckey, Ohio, about 20 miles north of my hometown of Findlay! We reminisced briefly about old Ned Skeldon Stadium, and then went our separate ways, an ocean apart (and then some) from Northwest Ohio.

Tomorrow (Friday), I take the train back to Einsiedeln in Switzerland, where I will be the majority of my time in Europe. I am looking forward to it!


The following piece of whimsy has absolutely nothing to do with my trip. It is provided purely for amusement and/or consternation. It is a short rant of mine from last summer's Iowa Summer Writing Festival, composed during a "fast-writing" exercise. I was reminded of it during a conversation with a monk here at Sant' Anselmo about the curious (to me) universal practice of placing stickers on fruit. It led to the observation that here in Europe, people peel and pare fruit before eating it. It is not eaten out of hand, skin and all, so there's no need to remove the sticker.

Peeling fruit is just one of many differences in daily life to be experienced in Europe (at least in Itay), such as:

-- Coffee. You drink it from a bowl if it's weak, and from something resembling a shot glass if it's strong.

-- Breakfast. It is likely to include cold cuts and cereal with chocolate chips.

-- Afternoons. If you need to conduct business between noon and 3 p.m., good luck. Many places--even tourist shops--close for siesta.

-- Dinner. Eaten around 8 p.m., at the earliest.

-- Toilets. They may or may not have seats.

-- Weddings (this pertains to Italy). Here, I am told, Catholics are more likely to affiliate themselves with movements rather than parishes. Consequently, people get married wherever they like. Since Rome is filled with beautiful, old churches, if you walk down a street on any particular day, chances are you'll encounter a wedding. I must have seen two dozen of them in my week here in Rome. Big groups of people milling about, all dressed up, taking pictures, etc. It almost seems as though people drive around until they see a church, and say, "Hey, let's stop and have a wedding!"

Anyway, enough of that. My rant on fruit stickers, which (hopefully) provides some food for thought about the struggle to live in the sacrament of the present moment:

Why is there a sticker on my apple? It is so annoying. I wonder whose idea it was to begin putting those little white stickers on each individual piece of fruit?

It gets in the way and irritates me to no end.

They all have them now--have you ever noticed? Oranges and bananas. But those aren’t the worst. Especially irritating are those you want to eat out of hand, skin and all--apples, pears, especially peaches.

I reach my hand into the fruit bin, and before I can take a bite, I have to stop and peel the thing off. And it’s never easy. My fingernail attempts to dig in between the sticker and skin of the fruit, but it won’t lift off! It seems like I spend five minutes with it, working all the angles. There’s a little arrow on one tip, but that, it seems, is just there to toy with you.

It won’t come off! So I flip it back into the bin and grab another. Same thing. OK, last one. This time, I really scrape at it, taking off part of the skin. Is this really necessary? And there’s this gluey film left behind. Is that even safe to consume? What is it? And it won’t wash off under the faucet--it just becomes gummier. So I grab a knife and carve it out, which I should have done from the beginning.

It’s maddening. There’s no point to it. It’s not like they contain essential or useful information. Believe me, I’ve checked. Braeburn, Red Delicious. Dole. USA. Some 4-digit number. Produce of New Zealand. Who cares?

Someone told me it’s for the cashier at checkout time. Well, he or she doesn’t have to eat it--I’m the one who bought the thing!

And not only does this annoy me to no end, but I have to tell everyone about it when I finally sit down at the table with everyone else. I’m still polishing, rubbing, caressing, examining, and I proclaim to anyone and everyone: “Whoever came up with the idea of putting stickers on each piece of fruit should be put away. If God thought they needed stickers, he would have put them on himself.”

No one laughs, or agrees, really, although they aren’t exactly being indifferent. It’s just something that has to be allowed to get out of the way before we all sit down to eat and talk about our days. Just like a sticker. It’s something in the way that needs to be taken care of before we can do what we really want to do.

Perhaps that’s why it bothers me so much. Because it’s there, and I don’t want it to be. It’s in the way.

I wonder now, though, whether it’s really in the way, or if I let it get in the way. It’s just a sticker, and yet it bugs me, sticks me this way and that. I can’t enjoy the fruit until it’s out of the way, but once it is, all I talk about is having had to remove the thing.

So who is in the way, the sticker or me? Is there a difference really?

I wonder now, how often I get in the way of myself instead of simply enjoying the fruit.

I mean really. It’s a sticker.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Witness to Grace

"If your mission is to be truly effective -- if the words you proclaim
are to touch hearts, engage people's freedom
and change their lives -- you must draw them into an encounter
with persons and communities who witness
to the grace of Christ by their faith and their lives."

Pope Benedict XVI
Comments to Catholic media
General Audience, St. Peter's Square

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Clinging to the Rock

When I was a child, I loved to draw mountains carved throughout with tunnels and caves. My secret passageways weren't just holes in the ground, though. They were meant to be lived in, and everything was provided to make that possible, even preferable. They were underground palaces.

I was reminded of this during my two-day visit to Sacro Speco (Sacred Cave) about an hour from Rome. The beautiful Monastery of St. Benedict--well over 1,000 years old--is carved into the side of a mountain there. It was constructed over the cave where a young St. Benedict lived as a hermit for three years before he began establishing monastic communities as they have come to be known. It was from this rock-hewn cradle that the Benedictine Order was born.

Petrarch described Sacro Speco as "the threshold of Paradise," and it is easy to undersand why, and what drew St. Benedict there. It looks over a tree-filled valley at the bottom of which the Anio River runs fast and clear over the rocks. There's even a waterfall. The sound of the rushing water rises up and caresses the mountainside 24 hours a day. At night, I kept my window open to breathe in the cool mountain air and listen to the running water. I slept like a baby!

Below and to the right of Sacro Speco is the Monastery of St. Scholastica, which I also briefly visited, and the town of Subiaco, which comes from the Latin term Sublaquem (below the lakes). The name comes from three artificial lakes created in the valley by the Emperor Nero in the 1st Century (and which no longer exist). Incidentally, I learned that the first printing press in Italy was at St. Scholastica in the 15th Century.

Anyway, back to the "cave." There are five monks living at Sacro Speco right now, all from different countries. The monastery and church are well-preserved because they are owned by the state. I arrived on Sunday afternoon, when a 23-year-old intern (from Missouri) who works at the monastery was in Rome and came to Sant' Anselmo to pick me up. Together, we took the Rome metrobus (subway) to a bus station, and from there got on a bus to Subiaco. (This was a blessing, as I am still a little intimidated by the public transporation system here.) At the Subiaco bus station--at the bottom of the mountain--the monastery's prior, Fr. Luigi, came down in a car to take us up.

After getting settled, the intern (Andy) showed me around, and gave me a tour of the church. I was instantly awestruck. Everything is beautiful and yet very humble; overwhelming yet intimate. The church is hollowed out of the mountain in an irregular pattern and on several levels (like my caves!) Practically every surface is adorned with colorful frescoes that are hundreds of years old. Most date to medieval times, and each highly symbolic rendering tells a specific story in the life of Christ or in the lives of the saints, particularly St. Benedict. The cave's walls breathe prayer in a way that wraps you in them and makes you feel part of them rather than below them or held at an adoring distance. It is at once very sacred and very human, and therefore honest.

I wish I could post photos of the church's interior, but camera flashes are not allowed. Some frescoes have been damaged over the years by light, humidity, and human touch. If you're interested, I recommend you view some of them using the link I provided in the previous post. Still, that fails to provide the "full effect."

Nestled deep in the Lower Church is what remains of the opening of St. Benedict's cave, lit by 12 lamps representing the monasteries he founded. It is a place of profound peace, and I could not help but think of the life that has flowed from this "Rock" for 1,500 years. That includes the prayer and work of the five monks living at Sacro Speco, but also that of every monk throughout the world in the history of the Benedictine Order that has profoundly influenced not only Christianity but Western civilization.

One night, after Vespers and dinner (the food is outstanding here, too), I walked alone into the courtyard after a brief rainstorm. For some reason, I was drawn to a raised bed of roses, where I spotted at least a dozen snails. This struck me as funny because the dinner conversation (in Italian, so translated by Andy into English for me) had included the topic of snails. For at least 20 minutes, I stood and watched the snails, slowly doing what snails do, plugging away through the damp earth or clinging to the wet rocks, largely unnoticed.

At that moment, at least for me, and given the historic nature of my surroundings, I was struck by the myserious, plodding, clinging virtue of perseverance which even death cannot overtake. Over the years, the monks of Sacro Speco have been buried within the mountain--literally becoming part of a rock that still pours forth life 1,500 years after the time of St. Benedict.

Originally, I was only going to stay at Sacro Speco one night. I ended up staying an extra day. I did not realize until I arrived how much I needed the rest and peace the place offered.

On the second day, the other intern (Eli, from Guatemala) and I hiked down to the valley and the Anio River to the waterfall, which I have included a picture of. It speaks for itself. (Then we had to hike back UP the hill!)

On Tuesday, I ran into some good fortune, or providence, whichever you prefer. I was going to head back to Rome on my own this time via the bus and subway (as I said, still a little daunting to me). However, a group from Rome's Lay Centre (mostly Americans from New Jersey) had arrived for a tour. The priest traveling with the group is a Benedictine monk and the prior of Sant' Anselmo where I have been staying in Rome -- Fr. Elias (his home monastery is also in New Jersey). There was extra room on the group's bus, so I was offered a ride back to Rome, which I accepted. First though, the group stopped for lunch (pasta and lamb!) at the excellent restaurant/hotel run by St. Scholastica. No one would let me pay even for an after-dinner cup of coffee!

On Wednesday, the group's leader told me, they are all going to the Pope's general audience at St. Peter's. They have an extra ticket, and asked me to join them--so tomorrow it's off to the Vatican!