The abbey of Reichenau means little or nothing to most people. But to students of medieval and monastic history it evokes all sorts of images. Founded in 724 by Pirmin, the abbey initially followed a mix of Irish and Benedictine monastic rules and customs. Then, after the Synod of Aachen in 817, it switched to the Rule of Saint Benedict exclusively, as did every other monastery in the Carolingian Empire.
Reichenau sits on a small island in Lake Constance, and from its shores you can gaze out at the confluence of modern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It’s a gorgeous spot, and though the island is only 2.8 by .9 miles, the monks managed to find the space to build some twenty churches and chapels, as well as plant gardens and vineyards that serve up produce to this day.
Modern guide books speak of it as a “cradle of Western culture,” and this is not to take away from the Irish who allegedly saved civilization. The Irish influence was strong here, and in the tenth and eleventh centuries Reichenau was a center of art, music, liturgy and book production. Its manuscripts were the finest north of the Alps, and the 10th-century wall paintings of the church of Saint George mirror some of the illuminations of the manuscripts that were made just a few yards away.
I was fortunate to visit Reichenau recently, in the company of a group that included members of the Order of Malta as well as several other friends. In the course of a day we toured the island, and while cars abound, the place retains the serenity that the monastic island has always had. All the space that is not devoted to housing or commercial use is cultivated to produce fruit and vegetables. Greenhouses abound, and they enclose overburdened tomato plants by the acre. And it’s incredibly peaceful, as befits a monastic island. And for that reason the entire island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Reichenau may have been a vibrant monastic center for nearly three hundred years, but the centuries were not kind. By the 16th century only a handful of monks remained; and in 1757 the bishop of Constance banished the last of the monks, due to “stubbornness.” But the monastic tradition is a bit like a weed. It is hard to eradicate, and just when you nod off it sprouts again in the garden. And so in 2003 a small cell of monks returned to re-colonize the abbey, and today the monks recite the liturgy of the hours and provide pastoral service to the neighbors. Happily, as in the case of many monasteries today, the monks don’t pray alone. Once again it serves as a center of local spirituality, and many of the neighbors join the monks in daily prayer.
I did not mean to provide a history lesson, but I do find a visit to a place like Reichenau to be personally moving. For one thing, I realize once again that it is possible for a place to acquire a sacred character, and one sees this at Reichenau. For 1300 years people have sought God there — even during the times when the monks were absent. Today, as in its early days, nothing seems hurried. And if not all the residents visit the abbey church for prayer, they till the soil with the same loving care that the monks showed when they cleared the brambles and thinned the forest in the 8th century.
What also struck me were the 10th-century frescoes in the chapel of Saint George. They depict eight miracles of Jesus, and they parallel illuminations produced in the abbey scriptorium during those same years. What’s inspiring is this: the frescoes were meant to teach and to provide points for meditation — especially for those who could not read. More particularly, they depict Gospel passages that inspire Christians both then and now. In that respect they suggest that we share a communion with those who gazed on them centuries ago. As much as we might think we are so advanced, our daily challenges have really changed very little despite the passage of time. We should not be surprised to learn that illness and disasters and lack of faith beset people in the late 900’s, just as they do today. Yet, the message of the Gospel is the same then and now. Jesus conquers death and is lord of life.
Finally, the historian in me is quick to point out that humans haven’t really changed all that much in the last 20,000 years. We all have our good days and our bad days, and we all have our moments when we feel unappreciated. There’s a passage, written by an 8th-century scribe at Reichenau, that hints of this. “O happiest of readers, wash your hands and grasp the book, turn the pages gently, hold your fingers far from the letters. He, who does not know how to write, does not believe that this is work. O how difficult writing is: it clouds the eyes, squeezes the kidneys and at the same time brings agony to all members. Three fingers write, the entire body suffers….” It’s the 8th-century version of “Hey, I worked my fingers to the bone to write this thing. Now don’t mess it up. And I’d appreciate some thanks once in a while.”
It’s a little humbling to look upon something that has lasted for nearly 1300 years. Despite our self-perceived sense of superiority, we all should ask what we will leave behind that will last for a thousand years. Certainly it will not be the appliances and other junk that we will accumulate. Soon enough most of that will make its way to the recycling center. Perhaps what has the best chance for survival is the faith that we have received and which has taken root in the garden of our daily lives. That, it seems to me, would be a wonderful legacy for the next generation. That, after all, is the meaning of tradition. We have received, and what we receive we pass on. But to it we add something of ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he spoke the parable of the talents. He gives talents to all of us, and we should never bury them. If we are good tillers of our own soil, then we will bear a ton of fruit and vegetables — more than enough to share.
+Exactly four days after landing at Amsterdam, I arrived on bicycle at Reichenau. Naturally you would assume that I biked all the way from Holland to the Austrian border, but it would be wrong of me to leave the impression that I did that. I didn’t. In fact, I only rode the last bit on bike, and I did so in the company of seventeen fellow riders. It was great fun as we explored Reichenau, and no one got hurt. The only mishap was when one rider did a slow-motion careen into my bike. Thankfully, not even our feelings were hurt, though we did not appreciate the laughter from our colleagues.
+Archeologists are in the process of uncovering and restoring the hospital that forerunners of the Knights of Malta established in Jerusalem in the late 11th century. It was never really lost, but most people were unaware of its existence until the current owner sought a permit to open a restaurant in it. The story is recounted by Catholic News Service in this article.
It makes you wonder what else is out there, waiting to be uncovered.
+Among the many talented monks at Reichenau was Hermannus Contractus, who composed one of my favorite pieces of chant. He lived from 1013 to 1054, and I find his rendition of the Salve Regina to be sparingly beautiful. This performance is by David James of The Hilliard Ensemble, and the three and a half minutes well reward the listener. It is a wonderful musical meditation.