Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rock of Joy

There is a good tradition at the Abbey of Einsiedeln in which part of each monk’s holiday (what we Americans call vacation) is spent together relaxing for a few days away from the monastery. A few different places and time periods are offered as possibilities, and the times are staggered so that when one group is away, the others keep the monastery operating.

It is a good way for everyone to not only relax but also to interact with one another outside the everyday routine of prayer and work at the monastery. Mass is celebrated and meals are taken together daily, but the rest of the time is free. At Freudenfels, there is ample opportunity to hike, swim, bike, simply be alone and quiet to read, or together to talk or play cards. Group outings are often organized as well.

Last week, I accompanied a dozen monks for one such holiday to Freudenfels (German for Rock of Joy), about a two-hour drive northeast of Einsiedeln. The site is located on a hilltop overlooking the point where the Rhine River empties out Lake Constance. Just across the water is Germany, and down the hill from Freudenfels are the Swiss towns of Eschenz and Stein am Rhein. The latter is a beautifully preserved medieval city, complete with protective wall surrounding the village (now comprised of homes). This is despite the fact that Stein am Rhein has the sorry distinction of being bombed by the Allies during Word War II; it was mistaken for Germany because it is situated on the north side of the Rhine.

The property of Freudenfels has been associated with Einsiedeln for more than 1,000 years. King Otto I offered the large farmstead and the parish of Eschenz to the monastery so that Catholic monks could minister to the area (and pray for his soul). In addition, the farm operation was a source of income for the abbey. In later centuries, the property had many owners, but Einsiedeln obtained it for good in the 17th Century. Today it consists of two separate operations—a tenant farm, and next to it a training and seminar facility for LGT Group, a banking firm associated with the prince of Lichtenstein. LGT has use of the property for most of the year (also a good modern source of income for the abbey), but the monks have reserved time and exclusive use for a week of holiday in the summer.

It is a beautiful place. On the way there, one of the monks teased me, saying we were going to sleep in a barn. It turned out to be true. We did sleep in a barn, but it is a barn that has been nicely transformed into a very comfortable hotel and auditorium without losing the character of its origins. The building dates to the 16th-Century but burned down and was rebuilt in 1900. Parts of the original building can still be seen. From the road and pasture, the building still looks like a barn. Just outside, the cows from the nearby working barn head out to pasture at 6:30 a.m. each day (no need for an alarm clock).

On the other side of the building is a terrace overlooking the lake, and next to it a rose garden complete with fountain, walking paths and benches—an excellent place for meditation. Just below, latched into the hillside, are a couple other buildings, including the property’s feature—a 13th-Century castle. It looks much different today than it did during medieval times, and its interior has been renovated to accommodate LGT’s employees, but it also has retained much of its character—thick walls of massive stacked stones, and large rough-hewn timbers supporting the ceilings. Each evening before dinner, we celebrated Mass in a small chapel tucked toward the back of the first floor of the castle.

The photograph above is a view toward the lake from the garden, on the hill just above the castle. The top two floors of the castle can be seen. Another building below the hill is hidden from view. To the left of this garden is the renovated barn that we stayed in.

During the week at Freudenfels, I took the time to get some reading done, and also hiked a little in the area. One morning three of us rode bicycles down the hill, through the city of Eschenz, and into Stein am Rhein. There we visited the former Benedictine Abbey of St. George, which is now a museum. It is absolutely beautiful, one of the most well preserved medieval monasteries in Switzerland—stone archways, frescoes, floor tiles, woodwork, etc. The monastery was founded in the early 11th-Century, and underwent significant structural changes in the 15th and early 16th centuries. There were later alterations, but overall it appears very much as it would have in the 15th-Century.

The monastery was dissolved in 1525 as a result of the Reformation. What makes it unique is that medieval monasteries that survived the Reformation and French Revolution have typically been renovated many times over, and more often than not now reflect the Baroque style. Ironically, because St. George was dissolved when it was, it has retained much of its medieval look. One sector houses a massive wooden wine press larger than the house I once owned (no kidding).

However, since we were on our bikes, I did not have the camera with me, so I was unable to take photos (go figure). Still, it was a real treat. If someone wanted to film a movie about monks in a medieval monastery, this site would be an excellent choice. The three of us agreed that Benedictines somewhere should buy the place back and inhabit it.

Some other sights from the week (when I did have the camera):

1. A view toward Stein am Rhein (the steeple belongs to the church of St. George) from the tiny island of Wert outside Eschenz. It was on this island that the monk Otmar, who founded the monastery of St. Gall, was exiled for several years before his death. The island is owned by Einsiedeln but is inhabited now by a handful of Franciscans who minister to the area. Much of the island, reached by a long wooden bridge, is open to the public, and is a peaceful refuge for man and beast alike. Several of us spent one afternoon on the island relaxing, swimming, and canoeing.

2. At the Benedictine Abbey and Basilica of Weingarten (founded in the 12th Century) in Germany near the city of Ravensburg. Sadly, the monastery is in the process of closing (one its monks is joining Einsiedeln). Pictured in front of the basilica are, left to right: Fr. Remigius, Br. Klemens, Br. Thomas, Abbot Martin, yours truly, Br. Phillip, Fr. Aaron (back), and Br. Anton (he’s a bit taller, but Br. Anton looks a lot like my Uncle Joe). Also on the trip to Freudenfels with us, but not along on this particular outing, were Fr. Raimond, Br. Konrad, Br. Gerold, Fr. Gabriel, and Fr. Joachim.
3. The Gothic cloister of Weingarten, included only because it’s really cool.

4. Last, but certainly not least, the Abbey Church St. Mary and Mark on the German island of Reichenau in Lake Constance. Visiting the island (not really an island since 1838, when it was connected to the mainland with a dike) was like seeing where your great-grandfather was born and lived. It was at this monastery on Reichenau, which exerted great religious and cultural influence on the region and Europe in the early middle ages, that St. Meinrad began his monastic life. As a young monk of this monastery, he left to become a hermit first at Mount Etzel, then at Einsiedeln, where he later died. Einsiedeln, of course, founded Saint Meinrad Archabbey in America.

Since the 18th Century, it is no longer a monastery church, but the Benedictine monks of Reichenau for many centuries were cultivators of religious worship, education, art, music, poetry, etc. The monks working in its scriptorium produced many important manuscripts that were exported throughout the Western world (including the famous Plan of St. Gall, mentioned in the previous post). Among the notable monks at Reichenau was Hermanus Contractus (1013-1054), who has traditionally been credited for composition of the Marian antiphons Salve Regina and Alma Redemptoris Mater.

The monastery church of the Abbey of Reichenau, founded in 724, is mostly Romanesque, but has been rebuilt and refurbished many times over (the choir in the apse added in 1453 is late Gothic). So, its appearance is much different now than it was at St. Meinrad’s time, but it remains the seed planted in fertile soil that eventually sprouted and spread its shoots into Switzerland and Indiana.

There are two other churches on the island—St. George and St. Peter and Paul—which we visited as well. Both are Romanesque jewels from the early middle ages. Most impressive are the wall paintings of the miracles of Christ inside St. George.

Because of its history, Reichenau is a UNESCO Word Heritage Site. About 10 years ago, an effort was begun with the oversight of the Archabbey of Beuron in Germany to re-introduce Benedictine monastic life to the island after an absence of more than 200 years. There are currently three monks living on the island. I pray this revival flourishes and bears fruit in a Church and world that sorely need it.

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