Monday, August 16, 2010

Uphold me, O Lord

Scenes from Sunday's solemn profession of monastic vows by Br. John (left in top photo) and Br. Matthew. They're the guys with the daring haircuts--what we call a corona or tonsure. Here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, the monk receives the corona twice--when he enters the novitiate, and when he makes his final vows four years later. Both signify the renunciation of his old life and his promised fidelity to the monastic way of life. Benedictines make three vows--stability, obedience, and conversatio (or conversion of life, which includes celibate chastity).

In the first photo, Br. John and Br. Matthew kneel in front of the abbot and the altar to sing the Suscipe ("Uphold me, O Lord, according to your promise, and I shall live. And do not confound me in my expectation.") They sing this verse three times, pausing to allow the fully professed monks of the community to repeat after them.

In the second photo, Br. John signs his vow chart upon the altar after reading it aloud. Next to him is Fr. Guerric, the novice-junior master.

In the final photo, the two lie prostrate and are covered with a funeral pall (the same used to cover a dead monk's coffin). While on the floor, one of the church's largest bells tolls solemnly while the community prays for their perseverance. This all signifies their mystical death and burial with Christ--and their resurrection in the monastic way of life as the pall is removed and they arise to receive their cucullas (choir robes) from the abbot.

It is a wonderful ceremony, and is rich in symbolism tied closely to that of baptism and funeral rites. Br. John and Br. Matthew have willingly given themselves over completely to seek God as monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Congratulations to both of them, and may God's peace guide and sustain them during their monastic journeys.

I am next in line--in January, God and chapter willing.

Many thanks to Mary Jeanne Schumacher of the Saint Meinrad Archabbey Communications Office for the photos.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where your treasure is ...

One day while hiking in Switzerland, one of the many rocks on the path I was on caught my eye. I picked it up and marveled. It was a mini-mountain—a three-dimensional, triangular shaped stone with a flat bottom that looked remarkably similar to the real mountain in view before me—the Little Mythen. I kept the pocket-sized replica as a souvenir of my trip, and remember thinking that oftentimes, the most valuable treasures are free and right under our noses.

Many visitors to this blog have commented on how striking some of the photos posted here have been. I had a good but very simple camera (on loan from Br. Adam), some stunning scenery, and eyes filled with wonder to work with. However, it occurred to me after returning to Saint Meinrad that while I have taken and shared photographs of beautiful places throughout central Europe for an entire summer, there is little of the beauty I am privileged to enjoy each day of my monastic life right here. So today, before returning the camera, I walked around the Archabbey grounds to capture some of the scenery which surrounds my prayer, work, and community life as a monk of Saint Meinrad. It is home, and it is beautiful—free and right under my nose.

As I settle back in here, we are preparing for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary on Sunday and the solemn vows of Br. John and Br. Matthew. May God uphold them during their monastic journeys, through the intercession of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, St. Benedict, and St. Meinrad. (This now places me, God-willing, in the “on-deck circle” for January.)

Enjoy. And may we all keep eyes trained on the numerous treasures before us.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Home away from home

Br. Mauritius at Our Lady of Einsiedeln Church, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Indiana. I hope he doesn't melt. It is a little warm here--97 degrees Fahrenheit (36 Celsius). With the extremely high humidity, it feels like 110 (43 Celsius). People are advised to stay indoors if possible. Step outside and you immediately break into a sweat. And five days ago I was inside a glacier. But Saint Meinrad's Fr. Rupert, ever the optimist, says, "I have encouraging news. It's not nearly as hot today as it will be tomorrow." It is still good to be home.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Dank sei Gott

P.S. Even with (or because of) all the chocolate and gelato I ate overseas, I came home to discover I lost 10 pounds in Europe! It is good to be home.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

High point

Today Fr. Basil and I went to southern Switzerland (about four hours by car) high into the Alps to see the Matterhorn (4,478 meters or 14,692 feet). We traveled to the town of Tasch, then by train to Zermatt (which is car-free). Then we rode what is billed as the highest cable-car system in Europe up, up, up, and up some more. Our point of view was the summit of the Little Matterhorn (3,833 meters or 12,736 feet), which is just to the east of the Matterhorn.

How high were we? We were so high that it was below freezing. Coats were necessary. Noses grew rosy. I made a snowball. In August. We were so high that there were glaciers below us. We were so high that from our vantage point we could see three countries—Switzerland, Italy, and France.

As much as I have been impressed with the mountain views in Switzerland up to this point, nothing in my lifetime compares with what I saw today. The pictures I have posted only capture a sliver of how absolutely stunning it was. It was beautiful in a way that only the truth of creation and redemption can be—awesome, powerful, and even harsh. From that height, one can look down and see centuries-old glaciers still slowly grinding, scraping, and carving the solid rock. And as they have gradually receded, green growth has eventually found crevices to poke through. I was on top of the world, and yet I felt incredibly small.

The first photo above expresses it best. The crucifix is planted on the summit of the Little Matterhorn. In the near distance just below and to the right is the eastern face of the Matterhorn. On a plaque below the corpus is a short message in several different languages: Be more human. Amen.

The second photo is shot from the same vantage point, this time to the east toward Breithorn (4,164 meters), at the far right. Below the peak and to the left are several glaciers. If you zoom in on the peak’s snow cap, you will see tiny black dots resembling a line of ants. Those are either very brave or very crazy people.

The third photo is a good shot of a receding glacier and the work it has helped to do in carving out the valley. Unseen from this high up, but deep within the crevice in the middle of the picture is the town of Zermatt from which we ascended. Incidentally, on the way to Tasch, we passed through a number of idyllic old villages with simple but solid pine-timber buildings, most of which are still in use after being built 300 or 400 years ago. And they rest on round pieces of rock atop short stilts to keep the mice away. That is stability! As we passed through these villages, Fr. Basil explained how difficult the life can be for the people in the region. (Both Abbot Martin and Fr. Aaron of Einsideln are from towns just to the north in the canton of Wallis). The surrounding mountains are beautiful, but also very dangerous. Occasionally, part of a mountain may come crashing down, crushing anything in its path and reforming the valley below. And in the winter, there are avalanches to contend with. Again, harsh beauty.

Anyway, when we were finished looking down at the glaciers, Fr. Basil and I descended deep into one. I had not known such a thing was possible. An elevator from the Little Matterhorn injects you deep inside the glacier below, where there are tunnels and rooms of ice to walk through. We are pictured in front of a natural underground crevice in the glacier. I think I am probably the only monk of Saint Meinrad ever to be inside a glacier wearing sunglasses!

The last photo is from the opposite vantage point—from the town of Zermatt looking up at the Matterhorn.

On the way down, Fr. Basil asked me (pun intended), “Was this the high point of your life?”

Pretty darn close. It was certainly a perfect day, and a perfect way to wrap up this summer. Tomorrow (Sunday) I pack and say goodbye to Einsiedeln, and early Monday morning Br. Mauritius and I will be on a plane back to Saint Meinrad.
UPDATE: Sunday, Aug. 8 --I learned today that while Fr. Basil and I were on the moutain opposite the Matterhorn on Saturday afternoon, a climber fell 700 meters to his death on the east face of the Matterhorn (which we were viewing). Again, harsh beauty. May he rest in peace, and may Our Lady of Einsiedeln comfort his family and friends.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Heaven and earth

When I arrived at Einsiedeln Abbey more than two months ago (it is difficult to believe it has been that long), I promised some photos of the church’s interior. It is somewhat difficult to take photographs in the main part of the church during the day when the light is good. First of all, it is forbidden. Second, snapping photos risks rudely disturbing the worship and prayer of the many pilgrims in the church each day.

So, I have cheated somewhat. The two photographs above—the Black Madonna and the Lady Chapel that houses the figure—are taken from Einsiedeln’s website ( The chapel is located near the main entrance to the church, and is the primary attraction for many visitors and pilgrims. Each day, several Masses are celebrated at the chapel for pilgrims, and at other times many people are silently praying in front of it. Each evening at the conclusion of Vespers, all the monks process down to the chapel from the lower choir to sing the Salve Regina, which many visitors also come to see and hear.

The chapel—in earlier times also called the Chapel of the Hermits and the Saviour Chapel—is located on the spot where St. Meinrad had his hermitage and was martyred. Later, the monastery was built at the location. On Sept. 14, 948, the chapel was to have been consecrated by St. Conrad, the bishop of Constance. However, he reported having a vision while praying in the chapel on the eve of the dedication, seeing Christ, the four evangelists, St. Peter, angels and many saints celebrating the rite of consecration. He heard the words, “No further, brother, it has been blessed by God.” So the legend grew that the chapel was consecrated by Christ himself in honor of his mother Mary, and this is why the chapel is such a place of devotion today. Each year on Sept. 14, the monks of Einsiedeln, guests, and pilgrims celebrate the miracle of dedication with solemnity, lighting up the chapel, church, and abbey with thousands of candles. I am sorry I will not be here to experience that.

The current Lady Chapel was erected in 1817. The previous structure was destroyed in 1798 during the French Revolution.

As the ornate and colorful ceiling vaults above and behind the chapel demonstrate, it is difficult to capture the church interior on camera. There is so much of it—like heaven swirling and rejoicing timelessly here and hereafter. How do you capture heaven on earth? That is the Baroque style, and its intent is to overwhelm you.

Although Baroque is not quite my preference (Romanesque symmetry and simplicity has more appeal for me), I certainly appreciate its purpose and beauty. I have seen quite a few Baroque-style churches during my time in Europe this summer, and in my view, Einsiedeln is by far the most impressive. It seems to be on another level entirely (it is consecrated by God, after all).

I took the three photos below myself. They offer views which most people visiting the church are not able to see. The first is the upper choir where we pray Vigils early each morning. It is above the main floor of the church, and hidden from public view by the altar piece shown in the second photo. So, visitors can hear the monks chanting Vigils, but cannot see them. This area has some beautiful woodwork, including the choir stalls and floor.

The last photo shows part of the ceiling fresco above the gated lower choir area where the monks pray Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and celebrate Mass. Much of the lower choir area—the location of the main altar—can be seen but not entered by visitors.

The church’s overall effect is make one feel surrounded by the multitudes of heaven rejoicing in the majesty God promises each of us. Earth is present, too, since numerous relics of the saints are kept throughout the church. They include the skull of St. Meinrad, kept inside the main altar--as St. Benedict says in the Rule, we are to keep death daily before our eyes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Castles and Chapels

A few sights from a very pleasant day around Lake Zurich (traveling by train, on foot, and by boat). The first is from a footbridge approaching the northern shore of the lake, with the 13-Century castle of Rapperswil and St. John’s church overlooking the town. The others are from the small island of Ufenau. There is evidence that this idyllic “island of silence,” as it is called, was inhabited as far back as several centuries before the birth of Christ. St. Martin’s chapel (second photo) was built in the 7th Century on the site of a 2nd-Century Gallo-Roman temple. St. Peter and Paul church (final photo) was built in the 12th-Century. The island, owned by Einsiedeln Abbey, is also home to vineyards, a restaurant, and nationally protected wetlands. I even spotted a couple donkeys grazing.

(Thursday’s planned trip with Fr. Basil to southern Switzerland to see the Matterhorn has been postponed until Saturday due to an unfavorable weather forecast.)

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.