Friday, July 30, 2010

Solemn profession

Thought I would post some photos from the solemn profession of Br. Mauritius a few weeks back. They were taken by Franz Kälin, a professional photographer in Einsiedeln. They also provide a glimpse of the abbey church and Abbot Martin, who studied at Saint Meinrad. If you look closely, you will see a couple members of the Swiss Guard (the Pope didn't need them that day). Br. Mauritius is a former member of the Swiss Guard, and invited them to the ceremony. It was a good day, and I was glad to be there. However, I told Br. Mauritius that there was only one thing wrong with the ceremony. You see, we have this tradition at Saint Meinrad Archabbey (an Einsiedeln tradition!) of getting a corona or tonsure for solemn vows, and his was missing. He doesn't seem too concerned, though. Everything is still valid, I guess ... :)

High noon

While I was in Luzern on Tuesday, around noon I wandered into a shop to browse around and overhead a woman with a British accent ask the clerk at the counter a question:

“Are those bells ringing for some sort of service,” she asked, referring to the tolling coming from a church somewhere in the city.

“They’re ringing because it’s lunchtime,” answered the clerk, hestitating.

The woman who asked the question laughed as if this were the funniest thing in the world. We will give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that it was nervous laughter at not having realized that it was noon. Surely, there are church bells that ring at noon where she is from.

Perhaps not, though. At Saint Meinrad, I have grown accustomed to bells marking the day, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have helped ring them to summon worshippers to the church for the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, solemn profession, and funerals. And on ordinary days, they help me to not only remember what time it is, but Whose time it is, and that we all live each moment in the presence of God Eternal (on my good days).

For many people in the United States at least, hearing church bells tolling throughout the day for a Mass, wedding, or simply for “lunchtime” was part of daily living a generation or two ago. But it strikes me (pun intended) that the experience has become less common in recent years as the neighborhood church has slowly lost its place as the focal point of community living. Before coming to the monastery, I lived in a number of neighborhoods where church bells were only heard on Sunday morning (when I prayed for them to be quiet so I could go back to sleep, but that’s another story).

Here in Europe, it’s quite the opposite. Whatever effect secularization has had on society, the bells are loud and clear and quite numerous here. I find it comforting (now). In Rome, it is not uncommon to hear church bells ringing somewhere in the city all day long. And in each town I have visited in Europe this summer, church bells have marked the time in prominent fashion for all the citizenry to hear. There have been a number of occasions this summer when I have stopped whatever I was doing and just quietly listened to the tolling, making it my prayer.

Such was the case at noon today, when the bell you see above tolled at Einsiedeln (yes, I climbed up the steeple to take the photo, but I used the stairs, and not while the bell was ringing). There are many bells here, more than at Saint Meinrad. There are so many of them ringing at different times of the day that sometimes I am not quite sure precisely what they are signaling. But when the bell above tolls, it means it’s for something important. It is the largest of the bells at Einsiedeln, weighing close to 7 tons, and it is more than 400 years old.

It rang today at noon for a number of reasons, I suppose. Yes, it was lunchtime. But before lunch, the monks gather in church to pray. And this bell rings at noon every Friday for one other reason—it is the hour and day the church has traditionally recalled Christ’s crucifixion for the life of the world.

It is a moment of gratuitous eternity, and that is something for which we can all be thankful—and for lunch, too.

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.

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.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

St. Gall

A week ago I took a daytrip to St. Gall, about two hours northeast of Einsielden by train. In this town is one of the oldest and most important former Benedictine abbeys in the Western world. Centuries ago, the abbey library of St. Gall established itself as a leading center of learning and research, and today it remains not only a beautiful museum but also a professional library attracting scholars for the study of manuscripts, medieval history, and monasticism.

The Irish monk Gallus built a hermitage on the site in 612. He was revered as a saint, and several decades after his death, in 719, the monk Otmar established an abbey where Gallus’ hermitage stood (more than 200 years before Einsiedeln was founded), and he later imposed the Rule of St. Benedict. As the centuries unfolded and the monastery grew, it became an extremely influential cultural center in the West.

Political maneuvering in the wake of the French Revolution led to the dissolution of the Abbey of St. Gall in 1805. Since then, the Canton of St. Gall has overseen its care, and since 1824 the former abbey church has been the bishop’s cathedral in the canton.

Although there have been no monks living at St. Gall for the last 200 years, the abbey’s more than 1,000-year-old existence has left a considerable imprint on Western Europe. Anyone who is at least slightly interested in monastic life, medieval history, Baroque architecture, ancient library collections, or the scholarly study of manuscripts should visit St. Gall if given the opportunity. It is a major tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The library alone is worth visiting (admission is 10 Swiss francs), and I found myself spending a good deal of time there. Built in the 18th Century in Baroque style, it features exquisite woodwork, including the inlaid floor. Before entering, visitors must slip gigantic grey slippers over their shoes before padding around to look at the exhibits. I successfully resisted the urge to get a running start and then slide halfway across the floor in my slippers—but just barely.

The library holds some fascinating, beautiful, and rare and important pieces—2,100 manuscripts, 1,650 incunabula, and 170,000 books. About 400 manuscripts are more than 1,000 years old—many of them produced at St. Gall in the 9th and 10th centuries—and have survived centuries of fire, war, revolution, and the Reformation relatively intact. Just a few samples of the superb calligraphy and colorful illuminated manuscripts could hold your attention for hours. The collection includes biblical and liturgical studies, musical and literary history, Old High German language, and the history of law and medicine. Many of them were transcribed or illustrated by monks at St. Gall, and are great works of art in their own right.

Among the library’s rare treasures are pages from a volume by the ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro written in either the late 4th century or early 5th century, fragments of St. Jerome’s Vulgate manuscript of the Gospels dating to the early 5th century, early medieval Irish manuscripts, a number of colorful illuminated psalters from the 9th-Century featuring gold and silver lettering, and the Cantatorium, the oldest wholly preserved music manuscript in the world, from the 10th Century.

Two items, however, are of particular interest to any Benedictine monk. First, the library houses the most important reproduction of the Rule of St. Benedict in the world, most likely produced at St. Gall in 820. It most closely resembles the original Rule, which has been lost. Second, there is the world famous Plan of St. Gall, drawn up by monks on the island of Reichenau around 820 for the abbot of St. Gall. Sketched in red ink on parchment, the document shows the layout for a proposed early medieval monastic community that draws on the principles of the Rule. It is a simple but very detailed outline showing the layout of a proposed monastic church, cloister, workshops, and various other buildings.

The plan was never fully carried out. The Abbey of St. Gall, which has undergone a number of transformations over the centuries, was originally constructed in the 9th Century, and bears little resemblance to the Plan of St. Gall. However, since it is the oldest preserved architectural design in the world, and has come to represent the ideal construction of a monastery according to the Rule of St. Benedict, it has drawn worldwide interest. During my novitiate year at Saint Meinrad, we spent some time studying and discussing the Plan of St. Gall, so it was a thrill to see it in person.

I have not said much about the church. I suppose the photos I have posted speak for themselves. The current construction is 18th-Century Baroque, and so bears some resemblance to the church at Einsiedeln. However, the church at Einsiedeln is bigger, is even more ornate, and, of course, has something St. Gall doesn’t—the Black Madonna and Lady Chapel. I am not a Baroque fan by any means, but on that measure, I prefer Einsiedeln.

As nice as the church may be, the library at St. Gall is the real attraction in my view. In addition to tourists, researchers from all over the world either come to the library or access it through a computer network. Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed, so I was not able to include pictures (the shot of the Plan of St. Gall at the top of the post is from a facsimile display in the museum’s Lapidarium, which also houses a collection of architectural sculpture from the Carolingian, Ottonian, Gothic, and early Baroque periods).

So, if you are interested in a long-distance peek at the St. Gall Abbey Library’s architecture or some of its precious holdings, log on to the library’s website: or

Better yet, visit in person if you can. It’s worth it.

I will post more later on the past week's trip to northern Switzerland and Germany, which included visits to the historic city of Stein am Rhein, the island of Reichenau, and the German monastery of Weingarten near Ravensburg. Tomorrow I am heading to the Swiss monastery of Engelberg (Mount Angel) for a few days. On the way back I plan to stop and see a little of the city of Lucerne, which I am told is the most beautiful city in Switzerland.

Unti then ... Peace.


A bit of breaking news to report. While I and about a dozen monks from Einsiedeln were away this past week in northern Switzerland (more on that later), one of the most severe storms in recent memory hammered the central part of the country. One of the areas hit hard was Einsiedeln, and it left quite a bit of damage in its wake.

The storm hit around 4:30 p.m. on Thursday just as the monks back at Einsiedeln were beginning Vespers. At Freudenfels in northern Switzerland where we were, we heard the news about 6 p.m., shortly after Abbot Martin—who had been with us for the week—received a phone call. He immediately left for home with Br. Anton, who is knowledgeable in responding to such matters. The rest of us were not due to leave until Friday afternoon.

Einsiedeln was primarily affected by severe hail (or hagel in German), though there was also quite a bit of wind and rain. The hail was so thick and pelted the area with such intensity that it shattered between 200 and 300 windows in the monastery cloister and surrounding buildings—mostly those on western facades. The pictures I have posted were taken when I returned Friday evening after most of the damage had been cleaned up, and the broken windows taken out or covered—thanks to many monks and employees who stayed up late into the night Thursday. Cloister hallways, many rooms, and the surrounding grounds had been littered with glass and debris.

However, none of the windows in the church itself were broken—not one.

The storm also caused some roof damage, and broke out windows in many vehicles. Similar damage was also reported in the town and surrounding area. Thankfully, though, no one was hurt. Obviously, windows can be replaced.

The hailstorm (or hagelsturm) did make a mess, though, and from what I hear was quite a spectacle. The monks said that as Vespers began Thursday, it was extremely dark, and they could hear the wind pick up. The hail hitting the building was so loud that they had a hard time hearing the organ. Afterwards, as they finished singing the Salve Regina and processed into the cloister, they found the hallways and many rooms covered with broken glass.

Outside, the hail was so large and plentiful that it resembled snow (the last photo is taken from the Blick news website, which has many shots of the destruction). On Friday afternoon, some of the hailstones were still visible in the monastery garden.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


The last couple of weeks I have not traveled so much, and have settled into the prayerful rhythm of each day at Einsiedeln. It is a special place in so many ways, and it is a joy to live and pray with the monks here. Br. Suso, who is the beekeeper, even called me a "confrere and friend" the other day. (After that, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he has one less bee to keep because one sacrificed its life by sinking its stinger into my left earlobe in the garden one evening).

It has been nice to simply and slowly become more familiar with the place, the people, and the way of life here—whether chanting a Psalm in German, sharing a meal, or enjoying a good laugh. God, after all, is to be sought in the ordinary.

I have even helped out a little (and I do mean little), serving at Mass or Vespers and cleaning the silverware after meals (something the juniors do here). One morning I helped Br. Thomas pull weeds and plant some flowers in the courtyard.

Seeing me in the sacristy one day while Fr. Cyrill was showing me around, Abbot Martin came in and smiled when he saw me. “Are you staying?” he asked.

Of course, my home is Saint Meinrad Archabbey in the United States, but there is no doubt that I have been made to feel at home here at our mother abbey in Switzerland. It may take me a while to put it all together well enough to explain it, but this experience is also making me feel more at home with Saint Meinrad. There is so much history and tradition here, of which Saint Meinrad is a big part. Reading and hearing about it is one thing. Seeing and experiencing it is quite another. And the monks here may be from a different culture and speak a different language, but they aren’t really all that different from the monks of Saint Meinrad. I look forward to integrating all this more fully into my daily life of prayer and work at Saint Meinrad when I get back. (Can you tell I’m a bit homesick?)

Being here July 11 for the solemn profession of Br. Mauritius meant a great deal to me, and he in turn will be present at mine (God willing) in January, since he is returning to the U.S. with me to study at Saint Meinrad. His family and many guests were here, and I was surprised and humbled to be treated as a guest of honor of sorts during the day’s festivities. It was a very good day, and the smile on Br. Mauritius’ face said it all.

The next day, he invited several of his remaining guests and me to visit his family home in Wollerau on Lake Zurich (you would not believe the view). His mother filled us with goodies, and Br. Mauritius also showed us his parish church. Since there were several priests in our company (one Swiss, two Italian, and together forming quite a comedic trio), his father took us all to his new office to have it blessed. Along the way, we passed by a vineyard owned and operated by Einsiedeln for the production of its wine (one of the other works of the abbey).

Later in the week, Br. Mauritius, a couple of vocation guests, and I visited Kloster Seedorf, a community of Benedictine women about 90 minutes south of Einsiedeln by car. Living there now as a chaplain for the community is Einsielden’s Abbot Georg. He was Abbot Martin’s predecessor, having served as Einsiedeln’s leader from 1969 to 2001. The four of us had a lovely dinner while Abbot George dipped into his considerable bank of stories.

That same day, the four of us traveled a bit further west to Kloster Maria-Rickenbach, another community of Benedictine women located high on a mountainside (we took the cable car up). We visited with some of the sisters, who were hard at work. One of the things they do is grow and harvest various herbs for producing special teas.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring along my camera to any of these places, so I have no photos to share. However, I did remember to bring it along with me on a solo hike I made to Mount Etzel north of Einsiedeln along the south shore of Lake Zurich. Etzel is not a big mountain (a little over 1,000 meters), but is an important one in the history of Einsiedeln and Saint Meinrad. At the foot of Mount Etzel is the site where a young monk from the island monastery of Reichenau chose to live as a hermit for about seven years. A chapel marks the site, although it is currently inaccessible due to an extensive renovation project.

In the year 835 this monk withdrew still further into the wilderness to establish another hermitage. Einsiedeln is built over the site where he lived for another 26 years until he was martyred. The monk was Saint Meinrad.

Packing a lunch and taking my time to stop and enjoy the view whenever the notion grabbed me, I made a day trip out my little pilgrimage to Mount Etzel. I hiked east to Birchli, and then north along the shore of Lake Sihl, through some meadows, across the covered bridge at Tüfelsbrugg, and then over the rolling hills leading to Etzel. The climb to the top was rewarded with spectacular views.

The first photo below was taken from the top of Mount Etzel looking south toward Lake Sihl and the direction from which I came. The next shot is the view on the other side of the mountain, looking north over Lake Zurich and the villages along its shores. Einsideln owns one of the two islands shown--Ufenau to the left. The last photo was taken on my descent, about halfway down Mount Etzel, once again looking south toward Lake Sihl. Einsiedeln (barely visible) is in the distance to the far right—about a two-hour hike away.

As you can see, even the valley is not exactly flat (for some reason, before coming here I thought all valleys were flat). Then again, Saint Meinrad did not have paths cleared ahead of him like I do here and now. It’s nice to know that I am trudging along with many other monks in some pretty sure footsteps—steps that eventually crossed a century and an ocean to the (smaller) hills of southern Indiana.

Tomorrow, I leave with a few monks to spend most of the week on a holiday of sorts in northern Switzerland near the border with Germany (and very close to the island of Reichenau, which we may visit). I am accompanying them on their annual community period of recreation. One segment of the community goes somewhere for one week, and another segment goes somewhere else the next. I am looking forward to it, and promise to take my camera. When I get back I will also have to share my experience during another day trip I recently made to St. Gall and the wonderful library at the former monastery there. Peace.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Riding high

Below are a few shots I managed to take on the train back to Einsiedeln from Annecy. On the way to Annecy, I had traveled west across Switzerland and through big cities like Geneva and Bern before approaching Annecy from the north (and the south; mountains make that possible and even necessary). On the return trip I purposely took a longer route (about 10 hours) through the Alps east and south of Annecy, eventually approaching Einsiedeln from the south. The view was worth every minute. For those following along at home, the route followed a path that included Cluses (France), Chamonix-Mont--Blanc (France), Martigny, Sion, and Brig. A moving train makes taking photographs a little tricky. Unwanted objects tend to crowd into view at critical moments. These, however, didn't turn out half bad.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Annecy, France (Part II)

I had the sense while in Annecy that the attractions previously mentioned are more of a draw for tourists than are St. Francis de Sales and his good friend, St. Frances de Chantal. That is unfortunate, since the two have so much to say to people of our times. Still, I think the two would enjoy a good gelato on the town. Who wouldn't?

While he is a respected doctor of the Church, Francis is not as well-known as St. Francis of Assisi (for whom he was named). I identify strongly with him (Francis is the professed name I had desired long before I got to Saint Meinrad) not only because he is the patron saint of writers and the Catholic press. I also share many of his spiritual perspectives, and aspire toward many of the virtues and personal traits he exhibited. For example, 350 years before Vatican II, he was a rare proponent of the so-called universal call to holiness. That is, everyone is called to a life of prayer and faith and service in whatever state they may be in. Francis was a renowned spiritual director, and he famously encouraged many of his directees by stressing that a relationship with God is not the exclusive property of clergy, monks, and nuns.

Gentle in disposition, he also emphasized God’s enduring love for all his people (rather than a watchful, vengeful God seeking to condemn or destroy). The adage that honey brings about more good than vinegar comes from Francis de Sales. The image of a honeybee was a favorite of his, and he used it often to illustrate his teachings.

An extremely bright, well-educated man from a noble family, he renounced a potentially lucrative career as a lawyer to become a priest at a time when the Catholic Church was responding to the Protestant Reformation. His priestly life was one of hardship and self-sacrifice. He was assigned to an area that had converted to the Calvinists, and could not get anyone to listen to him. Doors were literally slammed in his face. So, he began writing small pamphlets defending the faith and slipping them under the closed doors. Within a short time, most of the region had come back to the Catholic Church. He was persistent, but never forceful. He appreciated and respected the gift of free will God gave to each person. In fact, he pleaded with the duke of Savoie not to impose exile on those who did not convert to Catholicism.

In 1602, he was named bishop of Geneva, but lived in Annecy since Geneva remained a Calvinist stronghold. He was a true pastor, traveling on a mule hundreds of miles over rough terrain through severe weather to visit the 600 parishes in his diocese.

He may be most well-known for authoring the Introduction to the Devout Life in 1608, a work that originated from a spiritual guide he had written for Madame de Charmoisy of Annecy (her house can still be seen in the town). His life’s masterpiece is the more complex but very rich Treatise on the Love of God. Many of his sermons, conferences, and tracts are also still available in print. However, the real treasure he left behind were the letters he wrote to many spiritual directees – religious and lay men and (especially) women. His simple but profound insights are conveyed in ways that are still accessible and valuable to this day. I encourage anyone to read them; they contain some famous maxims. My favorite: “Be who you are, and be that perfectly well.”

Among his directees was Jane Frances de Chantal, a widowed mother who became a close spiritual friend. They exchanged many letters. Eventually, with the help of Francis, she founded the monastic Order of the Visitation in Annecy for women such as herself who wanted to lead a contemplative life. She began 87 monasteries as foundress of the order, which operates in many countries today.

Enough history; I could go on and on, but you get the picture. As you can see, going to Annecy was a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts for me personally. It was such a joy to see where Francis de Sales lived and worked in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was able to see—and attend Mass in—the old churches where he was ordained and where he preached and taught. And I was able to pray in the presence of his remains (and those of St. Jane Frances de Chantal) at the Basilica of the Visitation on the hill above the town. Since this year is the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Visitation Order, there are numerous exhibitions in the Annecy area. I was able to see a few.

It was also a privilege to visit and pray (in French, of course) with Annecy’s current sisters of the Visitation at the basilica. I attended Vespers a couple times during my stay, and visited some with the sister who ran the gift shop. Somehow, despite the language barrier, I was able to convey to the sisters that I am a monk from the United States whose holy patron is Francis de Sales. They promised to pray for me. (They can also benefit from our prayers, especially for more vocations to their order).

So many wonderful elements of my monastic vocation have come together during this trip in ways that I had not anticipated. For example, here at Einsiedeln each evening just before compline, the community meets in the chapter room for a few minutes to listen to a short spiritual reading. Since my arrival, they have been listening to St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God.

The photographs, from top to bottom:

1. Statue of Francis de Sales erected in Annecy (near the lake) in 1924.
2. The Basilica of the Visitation, constructed on a rock above Annecy. This is where the remains of Francis and Jane now rest. The neo-Byzantine church is relatively new. It was finished in 1930.

3. The golden reliquary, in the form of a recumbent effigy, containing the remains of Francis de Sales. It is located to the left of the sanctuary. To the right is another containing the remains of Jane Frances de Chantal.

4. Saint Peter’s Cathedral, built in 1535. This is where Francis was ordained priest and where he presided as bishop for 20 years. (Photographing the many old churches in Annecy was difficult. Most of them are quite dark inside, and getting the entire exterior within a camera frame is a challenge because of the narrow streets. To take this shot, my back was pressed up against the wall along the sidewalk opposite the cathedral.)

5. The Church of Notre Dame de Liesse (Our Lady of Joy), probably the most impressive church in the city from an architectural standpoint. Its origins are in the 16th century. However, only the bell tower remains from the church that was destroyed during the French Revolution. The rest of the current building was constructed in 1851. In 1566, Francis’ mother prayed in the original church, asking God to give her a son to be consecrated to Him.

There are many other such sites in Annecy, but I cannot show photos of them all. Among them are: 1) the Church of St. Francis, built in 1614, the first site of Annecy’s Visitation Order (until the French Revolution, the remains of Francis and Jane rested here); and 2) the oldest church in Annecy, St. Maurice, built in 1442, in which Francis made his First Communion and was confirmed, and where he later preached and taught quite frequently.

Perhaps later I will post a few photos of the spectacular scenery from the long train ride back to Einsiedeln through the mountains.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

St. Benedict, pray for us

St. Benedict, you were a man of peace. You walked the paths of peace your whole life long and led all who came to you into the ways of peace. Help us, St. Benedict, to achieve peace; peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our sorely troubled world. Through your powerful intercession with God help us to be peacemakers. Aid us to work for peace, to take the first step in ending bitterness, to be the first to hold out our hands in friendship and forgiveness. Beg God to let peace permeate our lives so that they may be lived in God’s grace and love. And at the end of our lives obtain for us the reward of peacemakers, the eternal blessed vision of God in heaven. Amen.
-- Judith Sutera, O.S.B., Liturgical Press

A special prayer of peace for Einsiedeln’s Br. Mauritius,
who makes his solemn vows today.
Glückwünsche, Br. Mauritius!
Möge der heilige Benedikt über dich wachen.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Annecy, France (Part I)

I spent most of last week in southeastern France—the Savoie region of the French Alps bordering Switzerland and part of Italy. Specifically, my destination was the city of Annecy.

Savoie is the region where my holy patron St. Francis de Sales (whose name I took when I made temporary vows) lived for most of his life (b.1567, d.1622). The patron saint of writers and the Catholic press, for the last 20 years of his life he was bishop of Geneva—but lived in and presided from Annecy because of the Calvinist stronghold in Geneva during the Reformation.

Annecy is about 30 miles south of Geneva on the northwest tip of Lake Annecy, which sparkles with the cleanest fresh water I have ever seen. I traveled there by train, about a six-hour ride from Einsiedeln through Zurich, Bern, and along the northern shore of Lake Geneva into Geneva and then south into France. Annecy is about 90 miles east of Lyon.

Today, I thought I would simply post some information about Annecy along with some photos. In a separate post in the near future I will mention a little more about Francis de Sales and my spiritual pilgrimage of sorts in Annecy.

Annecy is a very popular tourist area—more so for nearby French, Swiss, or Italian residents than for international tourists, I believe (although I did encounter some British citizens). It has a lot of old-world charm, and would probably be a good spot for a honeymoon. It is popularly referred to as the “Venice of Savoie” because of Le Thiou canal that runs through the city’s center (first photo). Adorned with flowers and iron rails, crossed by stone bridges, and managed with waterfalls and locks, the canal is lined with sidewalk cafes and restaurants. As one dines, it is not uncommon to see a swan or two glide by in the canal.

It is a very old city. Many of the buildings date to medieval times, although the area shows evidence of being settled much earlier. Jutting into the narrow cobblestone streets are ramparts and colored stucco buildings covered with ivy (many now housing shops, bars, hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores, and, yes, gelato stands). There are also a number of old churches, but I will post later on that.

If you are into medieval castles, the Savoie region is a good place to see them. There are several in the Annecy area and surrounding countryside (including the birthplace of Francis in Thorens). Hanging over the town of Annecy is an imposing castle around which the town arose (second photo). Through the centuries, it has housed a number of lords, dukes, counts, and other such notables (peasants like me would have lived in the town below—or worse). One of the city’s landmarks is the Palais de L’ Isle (third photo). It is a little island castle seemingly cutting through the canal like a ship. For centuries it was a dungeon. Later it was an “old folks” home. Can you imagine?

An enormous park on the city’s edge looks out over the lake (fourth photo). The more sporting types hang out here. Jogging and biking trails, rollerblading—you name it. I am not sure what to call some of the things I witnessed going on there—all in good fun, of course. The lake beckons with sailboats, rowboats, pleasure boats, and fishing boats, and hiking trails wind through and up the surrounding mountains.

However, except for the abundant gelato shops (a pleasant surprise!), I did not partake much in these aspects of Annecy. I came to the city for St. Francis de Sales. More on that later …

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Living rocks

Happy Independence Day!

No such celebration in Switzerland, of course, but it was still a fine day. This morning I accompanied 86-year-old Fr. Luzius (first photo) on a hike to a mountain chapel where he said Mass.

We were in the Hoch-Ybrig range south of Einsiedeln, and took the road snaking around the bowl-shaped tip of the valley up to Chaseren, located at roughly 1,600 meters, or 5,250 feet. That is about 200 meters more than the highest point climbed during the trip the juniors took last week. Today we were high enough to be in the lowest clouds and to see a bit of leftover snow just above us (second photo). Much of the range is a wall of rock that at its highest points reaches well over 2,000 meters.

While still strenuous, today’s hike was a little easier than last week’s because the climb around the rim of the valley was more gradual and we were on a gravel path. It took longer though—about 90 minutes—to reach our destination. There is a more direct route straight up the mountain, but it is much steeper and more treacherous.

The rocky hillside pastures (filled with cows) near the top of the range is inhabited by a number of close-knit farming families who live in cabins scattered throughout the area (during the winter they live in the valley). It is a rough and remote region. The road only goes up so far (and 50 years ago, there was no road). It is a beautiful area, and its people live a good, simple, quiet life (they drink from continuous mountain springs of cold, clear, clean water), but it’s not for everybody. I’m not sure if I could do it, but I must acknowledge its intense appeal.

About 70 people, all living nearby, came to Mass at the chapel. I was fortunate enough to meet a couple who spoke English; the wife is Canadian, and she and her Swiss husband lived in Canada for some time. They supplied me with much of the information I am relaying in this post. (Fr. Luzius was very attentive, but knows little English, and I know even less German).

The couple told me that Sunday Mass at the chapel is not only a time to worship, but an opportunity to socialize. The hard work and rough terrain keep most of the families close to home during the week. People began arriving 30 minutes before Mass, sat outside the small chapel on wooden benches during Mass, and lingered long afterward to chat (third and fourth photos). One worshipper and his wife brought their dog. Children leaped barefoot through the grass and rocks as the cowbells chimed with each chomp.

“It’s a great place to raise kids,” the couple told me. “Our grandchildren beg to come up here to visit, and there’s no TV.”

As I knelt in the chapel during Mass and looked out the window down toward the lush folds of rock cradling the homes of these people, I could think of no other place on earth I would rather be praising God on this particular Sunday morning.

That was my Independence Day.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Catching up

So much to blog about, so little time! I need to catch up a little with chronicling my adventures of late. For most of the last week, I was in Annecy, France, and did not have Internet access where I was staying. I plan to post separately (very soon) about my special visit to Annecy, where St. Francis de Sales lived, worked, and prayed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

At the moment, though, I would like to briefly recount the mountain hike I took a little over a week ago with all the junior monks at Einsiedeln. Allow me to introduce everyone. In the top photo, from left: Br. Matthias, a visiting monk from Germany who is studying at Einsiedeln; Fr. Gregor, the novice/junior master; peeking over his shoulder is Sr. Nadia-Miriam, who is from a religious community in Zug and is studying at Einsiedeln; Br. Thomas; Br. Mauritius, who will make solemn vows July 11; and Br. Phillip. Br. Thomas and Br. Phillip are from separate towns not too far from Einsiedeln. We were able to see them both during the hike.

In the morning, after Vigils, breakfast, Lauds, etc., we set out on our trip. First, we took a train/bus combination for about 20 minutes to our destination not too far away from Schwyz. We began hiking up what is known as Mostelberg, which rises to the area around the Mythens (mentioned in a previous post). We did not climb the Mythens, which rise considerably higher and more steeply, but we seemed to go about as high as we could without climbing them. That was fine with me. To me, we were climbing a mountain. To most of the others I’m sure, we were climbing a large hill.

The first 45 minutes were the most difficult—straight up about 1,200 meters (the Big Mythen is another 600 meters). Imagine climbing up the steep stairs of a professional football stadium from the very bottom to the very top row—several times over. That is what it was like. About three-quarters of the way up, I was about out of gas, drenched with sweat, my legs begging not to have to lift my body up another step. I kept hoping that things would even out at each crest, but the trail just kept going up, up, up, while above us less courageous (but possibly smarter) souls glided effortlessly over the treetops in cable cars.

Some of the others in our group were chatting as though we were taking a leisurely stroll through the park. I had no breath to spare for that. They made sure, however, that I was still breathing, which I appreciated.

After that, the terrain mercifully evened out, as did my breathing, and I was able to enjoy the spectacular view from our high vantage point (second photo). We hiked several hours surrounded by incomparable natural beauty—through pastures and forests, across streams and up trails with grassy hills to one side and deep valleys on the other. Before coming to Switzerland, Saint Meinrad’s Br. Matthew advised me to take along hiking shoes and a backpack. On this day, I was very glad that I did; it made a big difference.

Early in the afternoon, we came across one of the many small chapels that keep watch over the hills. We prayed together and sang the Salve Regina before descending into a nearby meadow where we stopped for lunch and a long rest (third and fourth photos). Sausage, bread, cheese, apples, and water never tasted so good. After relaxing for an hour or so, we set out again, for several more hours of hiking.

As we descended, for much of the way we were on the ancient cobblestone path used for centuries by pilgrims headed for Spain. The uneven road declined sharply, so those precious hiking shoes had to be placed carefully. Once we reached the valley floor, we hiked a bit further to the town of Alpthal, where we stopped at an inn for a cold drink. From there, Br. Mauritius and I continued on foot back to Einsiedeln (another two hours). The others caught the bus back.

All in all, we spent about eight hours hoofing it. When we got back to Einsiedeln, some of the monks acted surprised that I had survived, let alone returned. “Congratulations. I am impressed,” one joked. “You are not like many Americans.” To be sure, the Swiss are a hardy lot. Later, I was told that one monk here regularly hikes a similar path to say Mass at one of those mountain chapels. He is 86 years old.

American or not, I longed for my bed that evening, and sleep came at once. The next day, I was a little stiff here and there, but not nearly as much as I had figured. It was worth it, though. It was an exhilarating hike.

On Sunday morning, I am accompanying the 86-year-old monk to the mountain chapel. That is, if I can keep up with him.