Thursday, July 29, 2010

Engelberg and Luzern

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to stay for a couple days at Engelberg Abbey, about 90 minutes southwest of Einsiedeln by car. As the photo above of the monastery cloister and garden suggests, Engelberg is at a higher elevation than Einsiedeln, and the surrounding mountains are much closer and much higher. The highest is Mount Titlis at 3,239 meters, or 10,627 feet.

The second photo may suggest that I climbed up the handsome yet harsh Alps, but I assure you that I did not. I used the zoom lens while standing behind the monastery. Still impressive though, eh?

I am told that Engelberg (a small village of less than 4,000) is a primary Swiss mountain resort and ski location, so it draws many tourists and sports enthusiasts, but the steep terrain is for advanced skiers only. The monastery at the head of the valley just above the town was founded in 1120. Fire destroyed much of it in 1729, and it was rebuilt.

Engelberg Abbey runs a school and a dairy operation, among other works. It is a smaller community than Einsiedeln, with about 30 monks (by comparison, there are about 70 at Einsiedeln; 95 are at Saint Meinrad). Engelberg is the founder of two American monasteries, Conception in Missouri in 1873, and Mount Angel in Oregon in 1882.

A few discoveries during my stay are worth mentioning. First, the abbey church at Engelberg features the biggest pipe organ in Switzerland. Second, the inlaid woodwork pictured above is just one piece in a splendid array of intricate woodworking craftsmanship featured throughout the monastery. Included are floors, tables, walls, doors, molding, and many other pieces. The walls of one room near the porter’s office are covered with panels featuring personifications of the virtues.

It is amazing work, and it was all done by one man—Br. Colomban Louis, a monk of Engelberg who died in 1966. He has left quite an artistic legacy for future generations to enjoy.

One hallmark of life at a Benedictine abbey is table reading, which is prescribed by St. Benedict in his Rule. Monks typically eat at least one of their meals a day in silence while an assigned member of the community reads from a book, which might be a spiritual work, a biography, a historical account, or a book on current affairs. At Saint Meinrad, this occurs at our evening meal each day. Most monasteries I’ve visited here in Europe have table reading at two meals (unless it is a solemnity or some other festive occasion).

At Engelberg there is another interesting twist to this custom. At 12:30 p.m. the table reading in the refectory is interrupted, and the reader switches on the radio so everyone can listen to the news. When the news segment is over, the radio is turned off and the table reading is resumed until the end of the meal.

After two nights at Engelberg, I took the train to Luzern (about an hour away) in central Switzerland, rented a locker at the train station for my bag, and spent the day on foot exploring the city, which is a top tourist destination. To be sure, there is plenty to see and do in Luzern, and there were certainly a lot of tourists. The city sits on the shore of Lake Luzern with the Alps providing a backdrop. In the old part of the city, the faces of many buildings are adorned with various painted illustrations. Of course, I wanted to see all the old churches, and I visited several—including St. Leodegar (popularly referred to as the Hofkirche), a former Benedictine abbey dating to the 8th Century.

The Reuss riverfront through the center of town is what draws many tourists. On both sides there are shops and sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Luzern is particularly noted for its famous Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, a covered wooden bridge that zigzags across the river and contains in its rafters a number of paintings with scenes from the city’s history. The original bridge dated to the 14th Century, but much of it was destroyed by fire and had to be replaced in 1993. Next to the bridge in the middle of the river is a 13-Century stone tower. In the photo above, the twin spires of St. Leodegar can be seen in the distance between the bridge and tower.

A second covered bridge built in the 15th-Century, the Spreuerbrücke, or Mill Bridge, also crosses (eventually) the river of the town (I had never been on bridges with sharp turns before).

No visit to Luzern is complete without seeing the Löwendenkmal, or Lion Monument, which is not exactly easy to find, even with a map. I sort of stumbled across it. Carved out of a small cliff is a wounded, dying lion. The sculpture is dedicated to the memory of Swiss soldiers killed in 1792 in Paris during the French Revolution while in the service of King Louis XVI of France.

The inscription above the lion, Helvetiorum fidei ac virtuti, reads: “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss.” The sculpture, 20 feet high and 33 feet long, rests in the middle of the cliff above a large reflecting pool surrounded by a small park. It was interesting to note how quiet everything was despite the numerous tourists. In other words, the sculpture commands respectful attention.

In the evening, on my stroll along the river back to the train station for the trip back to Einsiedeln (about another hour), I stopped for a gelato. My time here in Europe is quickly drawing to a close. In less than two weeks I will be heading back to Saint Meinrad.

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