Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mountains and Mystics

Some scenes and thoughts from the last few days:

On Saturday I was invited by Br. Mauritius to join him and his parents, Rudolf and Elisabeth Honegger, on a mountain hike. They were all spending some time together before Br. Mauritius leaves with me for the United States to study at Saint Meinrad.

First we stopped for a short tour of Schwyz, the capital of the canton to which Einsiedeln belongs—where I was able to see the building where Mr. Honegger once served as a member of parliament. At Stoos, south of Schwyz and above the towns of Brunnen and Morschach, we began climbing Fronalpstock. At almost 2,000 meters (or 6,500 feet), it is probably the highest I have climbed during my time in Switzerland.

It was a pleasantly strenuous trek, and also a bit challenging at times, especially on the descent. The top couple hundred meters or so are pure rock, and the trail is very steep and narrow. You not only had to watch your step, but also your center of gravity.

We had a good climb, and were richly rewarded by the view you see above (taken by Br. Mauritius’ father since I did not bring my camera). Before descending, we rested, enjoyed a hearty meal at a restaurant high on the mountain, and also watched some paragliders launch over the valley. It was a very good day, and I enjoyed getting to know Br. Mauritius’ parents a little.

On Monday, I accompanied a local youth group on the first leg of their weeklong hiking and camping trip. About 25 of us set out early in the morning (by train, bus, and foot) to Flüeli in the foothills of the Alps south of Luzern and above the town of Sachseln. Leading the group was Einsiedeln’s Pater Hieronymus (Fr. Jerome in English), aided by Br. Anton, a few diocesan priests and lay adults. Incidentally, P. Hieronymus (pictured above) is 88 years old. He is a character.

The kids were enthusiastic but very well-behaved, and several of them know a little English. It was obvious that this was an annual trip they look forward to. I went along at the outset because the first destination—the Ranft Valley—is where Niklaus von Flüe, the patron saint of Switzerland, lived in the 15th Century. Known as Brother Klaus, he was a hermit and mystic, and was canonized in 1947.

Often called the “Political Mystic,” St. Niklaus led a very unusual life. As a very young man, he experienced a deep longing to give himself completely to God. Later, he was a soldier, a farmer, a husband, and a father. Well respected for his wisdom and discretion, he also served as a councilor and judge. However, as responsibly as he handled all these commitments, he still yearned for a life of mystical union with God.

After having a vision of a lily being eaten by a draft horse (which he recognized as a sign that his spiritual life was being swallowed up by his worldly life), at the age of 50 he left all to become a hermit in the Ranft Valley. With his wife’s consent, he left her and their 10 children, his farm, and all his other duties to lead a solitary life of prayer and contemplation.

Skepticism, criticism, and ridicule over his decision eventually give way to admiration. Living in a tiny room attached to a small church, Niklaus led an austere life, and according to legend, subsisted on nothing but the Eucharist for nearly 20 years. Many people—including far-off leaders—came to the valley to seek spiritual guidance and secular advice.

In 1481, the country was pulled back from the brink of civil war on the strength of his counsel. Hailed as a peacemaker, Brother Klaus had left the world seeking peace, only to bring peace to the world. A man of deep prayer and extraordinary vision (he recognized the Trinity of God in the symbol of a mystical wheel), Niklaus had discovered the peace he was looking for. “Peace is forever in God, for God is peace,” he said.

Since his death in 1487 at the age of 70, many miracles have been attributed to him. Today, many in Switzerland credit the country being spared from invasion during World War II to his intercession.

As I said, his was a very unusual life, but also deeply inspiring (it kind of makes you wonder if the rest of us really know what we’re doing). Since I arrived in Switzerland more than two months ago, I have heard many utter his name. He is still very important to the peace-loving people of Switzerland. So, the visit to the Ranft Valley was a special one—not only for the young pilgrims, but for this foreigner experiencing the place’s peaceful power.

Together we celebrated Mass (with P. Hieronymus presiding) in the Upper Ranft Chapel built in 1468 for Brother Klaus. The cell he died in (with one window toward the altar and another toward the outside so people could visit him) is still attached to the chapel. Nearby is his family home and birthplace.

After a short hike downhill to the town of Sachseln, we also visited a 17-Century church built in honor of Brother Klaus. The saint’s relics are contained in a silver effigy encased within the altar of the church (final photo). His hermit’s habit is also on display there. Incidentally, in 1984, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to this remote area.

Late in the afternoon, this pilgrim parted ways with the young group, which continued on their journey. I caught the train to Luzern, and then back to Einsiedeln.

My time here in Switzerland is growing very short, as I am due to return to Saint Meinrad next Monday. A couple last-minute adventures are planned. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I will visit the island of Ufenau (owned by Einsiedeln) located in Lake Zurich. On Thursday, I will see (but not climb) the world-famous Matterhorn in southern Switzerland. Also on Friday, Br. Justinus plans to show me some early illustrations of the monastery of Saint Meinrad recently discovered in the shifting and sorting of documents that has occurred with the renovation of Einsiedeln’s archives. I am eager to see these, as Abbot Martin has told me that he believes we do not have them back home in Indiana.

I leave you with Saint Niklaus’ famous heart-felt prayer:

My Lord and my God,
take everything from me
that keeps me from you.

My Lord and my God,
give everything to me
that brings me closer to you.

My Lord and my God,
take me away from myself
and give me completely to you.

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