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.

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