Tying Reichenau and St. Gallen Together

The art of the monastic tradition at Reichenau reached one of its pinnacles with the development of a great architectural plan for a newly developed abbey at St. Gallen. Monks on the island created this medieval gem, and it exists today as one of the treasures of the Stiftsbibliotek at St. Gallen.

The stitched-together vellum manuscript of the plan was used on the reverse side for an unrelated text. You can see some of it on the lower left of the above image, and you can also see some of the text showing through on the bottom fourth of the manuscript. (Never wasting a precious treated animal hide vellum led to the creation of palimpsests in which the earlier text was scraped away and then replaced by new writing. New scanning technology sometimes allows scholars to read the earlier text of the palimpsest. And occasionally this yields an earlier version of an extant text or even one we thought was lost.)

A really gorgeous set of volumes was produced by the University of California Press in the 1980s called The Plan of St. Gall, and I found a used copy on Amazon of its smaller offspring volume, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, which is a large-format book with amazing illustrations and stellar typography and an overview of the architectural history of the multi-volume set. The architects Horn and Born took the original vellum and redrew portions of it to allow us to see what the intended sections of the monastery design entailed.

The book shows different schematics for the ways parts of the abbey design were intended for use, a really superb map of the journeys of Irish monasticism (starting with the desert fathers and mothers and extending through Columba and Columbanus), and also photos of the 3-D wooden model the two architects created (which is now in the lower level of the Library in St. Gallen).

It becomes clear that monasteries were not only housing for a group of men at prayer…they were hospitals, community centers, agricultural and craft centers, breweries, hotels, pharmacies, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and places of scholarship and learning. And they sometimes, like St. Gallen, they became seats of government as well. (In fact some cantonal offices are housed today in the old abbey buildings.)

One of my favorite bits of the plan shows the area that is reserved for housing people like me: “Pilgrims and Paupers” (domus peregrinorum et pauperum). I’m grateful to fall into the “pilgrim” category! ; ) You can also see a camera (room for servants) and a storage cellar in the upper part of the drawing and in the lower is a very functional kitchen design with an oven (fornax) on the right and a brewery on the left.

I am certain that Columbanus had now idea how his monastery would grow. And it was not just in St. Gallen. As I will show in a later blog post, the monasteries he founded became the backbone of continental monasticism in northern Italy and north of the Alps.

One of the questions I posed for myself as I started the pilgrimage was to try and learn more about what gave the monasteries such staying power. To have been founded around 600 and to endure until the time of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars is no small feat. I surmise that part of the reason is that they were not unidimensional institutions that existed only as a place of prayer (which was, of course, their primary function). I remember being on Skellig Michael off the southwest coast of Ireland and learning that part of the monks’ function there – at the edge of the known world – was to effectively create a “force field” of prayer to protect “the world” from the unknown forces of evil in lands unknown beyond the Atlantic. (And this was even before Donald Trump…Maybe we need some monastic “spiritual repellant” again!)

When I think of the ways our church building in Fort Collins is used, it is a far smaller but still essential part of our physical plant. Yes, the primary mission of our church is “to worship God” but it also includes helping to “make God’s realm visible in the lives of people,” and that may take the form of using our space to interview clients for the Homelessness Prevention Initiative or to provide a home for Prairie Mountain Zendo or for Alcoholics Anonymous or for the Interfaith Hospitality Network or any of the many community groups that call our building home. It gives us staying power and helps us to reach our stated mission.

The monasteries also became part of wider networks: the Catholic Church, the paruchia or family of monastic houses in the Irish tradition, and eventually part of later monastic traditions (some Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, Augustinian, etc.). That reliance on broader networks of support and accountability is something we independent-minded Americans sometimes neglect, thinking that we can go it alone. Sometimes in my tradition (rooted in Congregationalism) we think that the only “real” church is the local congregation, and while that works in the short term, when bad things happen (e.g., a fire, clergy misconduct, congregational misconduct, search and call) it is essential to have a wider church to draw upon. We’ve adjusted our way of thinking and also our ecclesiology (theology of what the church is and ought to be) and we will continue to do so.

Leaving the area of monasteries around the Bodensee, the next stop is to Columbanus’s first monasteries at Annegray and Luxeuil in the Vosges region of France. Stay tuned!

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Reichenau: a monastic island with an artistic history

Columbanus and his 12 monks were the fathers (and grandfathers and great-grandfathers) of more than 100 monastic foundations in continental Europe…a pretty astounding accomplishment by any measure. A “daughter house” of St. Gallen was another monastic community on the Bodensee at Reichenau Island. Established by St. Pirmin in the 8th century, it became home to a renowned scriptorium whose manuscripts are still found in libraries in Germany and Switzerland. (Though it is very close to the Swiss border, Reichenau is in modern Germany, very close to the city of Konstanz.)

St. Georgkirche, Reichenau

Today Reichenau is mostly a destination for hikers and bikers seeking a nice lakeside get-away. (I had lovely dinner table companions from Bonn at a small Weinstube one evening, and we conversed the entire evening in my lousy German, which improved with wine.) But I wasn’t there for the hiking or biking…I was there for the monastic art! While there is still a large monastic church in the center of the island (whose treasury is chock-full of relics…purportedly even a bit of Matthew the evangelist!), the murals in the smaller St. Georgkirche are astounding. Frescoes are made by painting directly onto wet plaster, but the murals in the Georgkirche were done with a dry technique. The bad news: as in many churches, they were plastered over when that style of painting went out of vogue. The good news: the plastering protected them for centuries, until a clergyman discovered them in the 19th century and started to peel away the layers of history and plaster. Today, only two groups of visitors are allowed in each day with a guide. To control the humidity in the church, the inner and outer doors are never opened at the same time.

Three illustrations from Reichenau (top: St. Columbanus and St. Gall on the Bodensee. Middle: manuscript illustration of stilling the storm. Bottom: mural of stilling the storm. Similarities abound!

One of the most interesting aspects of the murals is that they are very similar to medieval manuscript images of the same era produced at the abbey scriptorium. Imagine how cool it would be to walk into a church in Ireland or Iona and find that the monks who made the Book of Kells had also illustrated the walls of the church! (Well, in fact they did leave some great high crosses! The images of the St. Martin’s Cross on Iona have parallel illustrations in the Book of Kells…which was like written on Iona.)

Eight murals comprise a cycle of illustrations of the miracles performed by Jesus. They were made circa 1,000 AD and are the largest surviving cycle of murals north of the Alps from the early medieval period.

I’ll include some all-around photos as well as some of the individual illustrations. I have used different “filters” to pump up the visual effect, which can otherwise be hard to see.

Here are some of the murals themselves.

The images depict (top) the raising of Lazarus and (bottom) Jesus driving demons from a man into swine at the Lake of Gennesaret.

There is more art and architecture from Reichenau to come, so stay tuned!

The Library Treasures of St. Gallen

The Abbey of St. Gall is still a magnificent structure, though it hasn’t been a monastery since the late 18th century. About 30 years after the ornate abbey church was constructed (and the medieval abbey demolished to make way for it), the prince-archbishopric of St. Gallen came to an end, and the monks dispersed for other abbeys in the region.

One of the things that has persisted is the Library (Stiftsbiblitek) of St. Gallen. Visitors can tour the Baroque Hall, where the library staff have displayed an array of manuscripts from their collection (about 15 of them). Of course, one cannot take photos in the library (someone might use flash!) But being Swiss, they are super-organized and have digitized many of their manuscripts, which are available online and with the iOS app “e-codices,” which is free and terrific. (Go ahead, get the app, then look under “Stiftsbibliotek St. Gallen” … you’ll be gone for hours!)

Just as a point of contrast, when we were going to be in Ireland a few years ago, I contacted the Royal Irish Academy and asked if the Cathac of St. Columcille (the earliest extant Irish manuscript anywhere…a psalter perhaps written by Columcille himself) was going to be on display when we were there. And here is their response: “It certainly can be…when are you coming?” So, when we wandered in, they showed it to us in a display case, then set us up at a workstation where we could see the digitized version. Then they said, “You know you’re not really allowed to take photos of it, but if you wanted a few snaps without flash, that would be okay.” And then they showed up with a little bag of postcards and bookmarks for us. And then we ran into Peter Harbison (THE authority on high crosses, who has an office there), and we chatted with him for a half-hour. Ah…Ireland…

Here is one of the manuscripts I saw and loved…and Irish-inspired Psalter from about 820, the Psalterium Gallicanum.

Though they weren’t Irish, they had contact with Irish monks who were traveling on the continent en route to Rome, and they were the recipients of Irish gospel books, psalters, and Latin grammar books (at which the Irish were expert!) brought by those roving Hibernians.

The cool thing about the collection here is that 1) the Reformers didn’t burn the abbey’s books; 2) They didn’t have Henry VIII to plunder their coffers and dissolve the monastery; 3) They didn’t have Cromwell; 4) Napoleon didn’t steal the books.

Today, the library has the largest collection of early Irish manuscripts on the continent. Fabulous. I’m going to include some of the illustrations of Codex Sangalliensis 51, an Irish gospel book from around 750, so after the Lindisfarne Gospels and before the Book of Kells. Think of this as the filling in the Oreo of Irish monastic manuscripts!

Compare this page to the famous Chi-Rho page of the Lindisfarne Gospels…not too far afield from one another!
Jesus in the center, with two-finger teaching pose. Usually he is holding a gospel book with the writing toward you, the reader, but not here. And if you look at the eyes of the Twelve underneath him, only one is looking toward us (top-center)…everyone else is looking at Jesus.

This page shows the crucifixion, with Longinus and Strepheton at the sides of Jesus and angels above his shoulders…very typical in Irish high crosses that came later than this manuscript.
The symbols of the gospel writers are seen in the four corners of this page (clockwise from top right): The man (Matthew), the od (Luke), the lion (Mark), and the eagle (John). BUT, the other animals have wings and talons, as if they’ve been bird-ified!

Okay, in my dreams, I would be able to spend weeks looking at manuscripts in St. Gallen and read them with my crappy, 35-year-out-of-date college Latin and my even crappier Koine Greek. But unless you are an academic (or probably the Bishop of St. Gallen), you’re out of luck.

BUT…check this out! It is a manuscript copy of the four canonical gospels, and it’s interlinear, meaning in two language, the original Greek and Latin translation (along with nice manuscript coloration). Yep, this is how the Irish saved civilization! This is probably the fourth-oldest surviving copy of all four gospels in one place. And it’s in St. Gallen.

The name of this manuscript is Codex Sangalliensis 48, but it has a code-name: “Codex Delta,” making is sound even more intriguing. This manuscript was written in about 850 by Irish monks in the last of Columbanus’s monasteries: Bobbio, Italy, but wound un in St. Gallen. This is the first page of the Gospel of John (the title is Euangelion kata Ioannon…the Gospel according to John) and the famous first phrase: “En arche en ho logos…In principio eras verbum…in the beginning was the word.”

I could go on and on (and I probably already have), but one last image. This is a later illustration from a book of saints’ lives, and it shows our Irish pals, Gall and Columbanus, making their way across the Bodensee (Lake of Constance). Beautiful. (And in a later episode, I’ll show you how this image mirrors mural art on the monastic island of Reichenau on the Bodensee.

A Tale of Two Churches

Interior of the Cathedral (former abbey church) in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Sometimes, you just feel it in your bones. Maybe it’s because that’s how you grew up. Or perhaps it’s what you came to believe on your own as you grew into adulthood. Some places say “home” and others say “not home.” And for a boy raised in New England Congregationalism, educated in secular California and Calvinist Scotland, and steeped in Process Theology in divinity school, sometimes cathedrals just say “not home.”

And maybe that’s the point: they aren’t supposed to be home for humans…they are supposed to be an overwrought tabernacle where God dwells. But if we really think that God is just at church, then what happens outside the church? Is that not of God?

Columbanus wrote, “There is no God who dwells far from us, whom we seek…for He resides in us like the soul in our body. Ever must we cling to God, to the deep, vast, hidden, and lofty God.”

Maybe you thought panentheism was a new thing, but we have it being espoused by a sixth-century Irish monk! Panenthesim (not pantheism) is the idea that God is simultaneously intimately within us, among us, and infinitely far beyond us. The real stumbling block for many Christians is that God is not a judge sitting somewhere “out there” keeping tabs on us. After all, if God is also within us, it takes power from the church and its ability to sort the saved from the damned.

And those ideas clearly get expressed in architecture. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” What ideas were behind ornate Baroque cathedrals? What image of God were they trying to convey? What did they say about the church and its power?

That was clearly an issue for our Pilgrim and Puritan forbears, who preferred a plain, white meetinghouse to an ornate cathedral. (Not to mention Presbyterian iconoclasts who rampaged through Scottish cathedrals and Cromwell’s minions who ravaged Ireland…that’s a post for another day.)

The Reformers and Catholic folks in St. Gallen, Switzerland, seem to have avoided iconoclasm rather well. Calvinists didn’t tear up what their Catholic forbears had created…although the entire library at St. Gallen was moved, and some of it was appropriated by the cantonal government in Zurich during the Reformation…and even today, they’ve only returned some of it “on loan.” The monks went to other monasteries.

The Laurenzenkirche (Church of St. Laurence) is part of the same stream as many of our United Church of Christ congregations: Evangelical & Reformed…and as progressive as we are.

The interior is comparatively simple…no inconographic images, but plenty of 19th c. ornamentation. (The communion table is off to the right…concert grand piano ready for a concert that night.)

Just in case anyone needed reminding, preaching the word is literally the high point in Reformed worship. Not a pulpit for acrophobic ministers!

I felt a lot more at home in the Laurenzenkirche, which is “evangelisch und reformiert” a merger of Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism, which is a component of our United Church of Christ tradition in the U.S. The aquarelle painted walls are actually beautiful and not too distracting. The church is open for prayer during the day, and they have a staff of three clergy. I’d love to have been there on a Sunday!

What is the image of God you get from this church? God still seems pretty transcendent (up there), but there is a lot more room for human understanding of Christian life and sacred texts. With balconies pointing inward toward the rest of the congregation, it seemed to convey and ecclesiology (theology of what church is and means) of community…and pretty exalted clergy leadership in understanding our sacred texts.

And peoples’ theology does change even when the buildings are not so malleable. Within the over-the-top Baroqueness of the cathedral, there were clean, Swiss, understated elements for today’s worship. At the rear of the cathedral, a lectern containing a psalter and gospel book encompassed three massive quartz crystals, and pilgrims setting out on the Camino to Santiago de Compostella left prayers of intention written on rocks.

The scallop shell is the emblem of the Camino…a walking path to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. This one is embedded in the steps outside the cathedral in St. Gallen.

At the front of the cathedral (between the congregation and the locked choir and chancel), a really simple alter, ambo (lectern), and stone benches were in place for the celebration of the mass. This felt more “like home” to me, too: people leaving their own prayers, the words of scripture beautifully and accessibly displayed, the clergy and the community together in worship. That bespeaks a theology far different than God above, humanity below, and a governing prince-archbishop in the middle. (Interesting that Pope Francis yesterday allowed greater latitude in vernacular translations of the prayers of the Catholic Church, raising the hackles of theological conservatives. What would happen if they got something wrong? Maybe God wouldn’t understand their translation?!?!?)

What does your space say about your sense of who God is and what God is doing?

What is your worship space like at church? What is the centerpiece visually, acoustically? What feeling do you get (home, someplace set apart, public venue, cold, warm, common, private, accessible, inhospitable, anonymous, intimate)?

What is your home space like, and how does that express your theology? Americans invest heavily in their private spaces, more so than many Europeans. How does that make sense to you in light of what you think God is doing in the world?

Space matters. Common space matters. It tells us something about who we are individually and collectively, as well as what we hope to become.

The Cathedral of St. Gallen

Like many European cities, St. Gallen has a beautiful cathedral, which is high Baroque but light (thanks to clear windows). Like most things Swiss, it is clean and well-organized. Built in the late 18th century, the cathedral is monumental. Like some archbishoprics elsewhere in this part of Europe, the archbishop of St. Gallen was not just in charge of things sacred, but also was the ruler of the principality.

St. Gallen also bridges the Protestant and Catholic traditions of this country, and for a time (after something called the Toggenburg War if 1712) the Canton became officially Protestant. In 1798, the Imperial Abbacy (yes, a real thing) was ended. Afterward, it seems that Catholics and Protestants seemed to live reasonably well together.

The cathedral has some cool stuff and some weird stuff, again like most European cathedrals. The weird stuff includes the bony relics of St. Gall himself, which are encased in a reliquary behind glass. (Maybe that’s a little cool, too, but mostly creepy.) Nearby, however, is something that falls into the “wicked cool” category: an early Irish monastic bell. These were hand bells (with neither the clanger nor with the 18th c. oil painting) used by monks to call others to worship. I have not seen these outside of Ireland, but this one is clearly very old.

The other weird, creepy thing that I experienced happened as I was sitting silently in a cathedral pew. I heard a “thwump-thwump” noise that kept repeating, so I turned around and saw a dark-skinned woman, 30-ish, walking on her knees up the stone center aisle of the church. I’m not trying to judge, but I just don’t think God wants us to do penance by wrecking cartilage.

I thought immediately of Mary Oliver’s poem that includes the lines, “You don’t have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” The other day, I was reading a book by Padraig O’Tuama, leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, and he writes that repentance is one of those “strong words” that often get thrown at people, and that it loses the meaning of the Greek word metanoia (which means to change one’s thinking… a change of heart might be the best translation). If you’re at Plymouth often, you’ve likely heard me say something similar many times.

Maybe God doesn’t really want penance…God knows that remorse and a change of heart are good for us and those around us. Does God demand painful retribution for our sins? Or would God rather have us work toward having a “clean heart,” as the psalmist writes?

The Legend of St. Gall and the Bear

I’m in St. Gallen, Switzerland, a town named for Gall, one of the twelve Irish monks who came to this part of the world with Columbanus, who became ill and stayed here as a hermit, while Columbanus and other monks crossed the Alps to Bobbio.

I’ll be sharing more about St. Gallen later, but I learned yesterday that a bear had found its way into a tree at my church at home in Fort Collins, Colorado, and by coincidence, St. Gall also had a bear encounter, at least according to the account of one of his biographers, Wilifred Strabo, a monk from nearby Reichenau.

One evening, after wandering alone in the Swiss woods, Gall stopped and made a fire to warm himself. Even as he was enjoying its glow, a bear emerged from the woods and charged him. Having powers over man and beast, Gall told the bear to halt. And of course, the bear did so, and then he slunk off into the woods…

and then he collected firewood for St. Gall, returned to the fire, and enjoyed the saint’s company. Apparently, the bear continued to visit with the saint throughout the rest of his life and became a regular companion of the Irishman.

I hope that the tranquilized and relocated bear in Fort Collins is safe and happy, and that he doesn’t try to hang around anyone at Plymouth.

Finding Columbanus, part one

Yesterday, I arrived in Bregenz, a beautiful, small town on Lake Constance in Austria. The Lake, called the Bodensee in German, unites Austria on its eastern shore, Germany on its north, and Switzerland on its south. Of course, when Columbanus arrived here, it was part of the Merovingian kingdom. Bregenz is an old Roman town (Brigantium), and was the jumping-off point for the southern journey over the Alps to Rome.

It is possible to see Columbanus’s mission as having two phases: the first is the one in which he left Bangor in Ireland and established his monastery in Luxeuil (now eastern France) and the second phase when he is forced to leave the kingdom of his royal patron (when he refused to baptize the illegitimate children of the young king, a playboy whom Columbanus encouraged to settle down and marry). In this second phase, he starts a monastery in Bregenz and eventually crosses the Alps to the Lombard-controlled region that includes Bobbio, the final stop of his pilgrimage.

But today, I am writing from a monastic guest room in Bregenz, where I have been offered hospitality by the brothers (now Cistercians). Pater Andreas, the guest master, extended a very warm welcome both when I wrote earlier in the year and upon my arrival yesterday. Last night, he and I walked along the lakeshore into town and found a place to sit and have a beer. Using what is left of my high school and college German, we communicated reasonably well. (Had I learned Spanish it would have been easy, as he is from Colombia!) And when he learned of my interest in Columbanus, he offered to take me to the Parish Church of St. Kolumban, but also to the aerie where he would go on retreat.

I can see why Columbanus would found a monastery here: on a great Roman road (where there would be some traffic and the possibility of spreading the gospel), along a beautiful lake (which not only allowed for good transport but for fish)..not to mention natural beauty.

In observing the monastic hours with the Cistercians here (starting at 5:15 and going through 7:30 p.m.), in chanting a dozen or so psalms a day in Latin, in sharing silent meals in the cloister, I am reminded of the life that Columbanus espoused, though without the deep asceticism. Sixteen brothers and priests comprise the abbey here, some are international, others are Austrian, and they range from the elderly to one or two in their 30s. As I looked around in the beautifully modern sanctuary listening to their clear voices, I wondered if perhaps I was praying and chanting with what might be the last generation of monks in Bregenz, a long line that goes back to 610 AD. I’m sure that God isn’t finished with them yet, but who knows what form or location their prayerful ministry will take.

Columbanus as “The Man Who Saved Europe”

In the United States today, we are plagued by hatred, racism, and fear. We suffer political leaders who are unable to rise to the challenge of creating a truly United States, let alone a united world. Many religious leaders among evangelical Christianity, which seems to be nearly the only form of Christianity the news media cover, lack the will, the grace, the talent, or the insight to break new paths forward for all people in creating God’s realm here on earth.

It is a grim situation. And though the scale and context are different, the challenges we face in the 21st century are in some ways similar to those faced on the European continent in the early Middle Ages, after the cataclysmic fall of the Roman Empire and the creation of power vacuums across the continent. The church that the Empire had embraced was in utter disarray, having sold out to powers and principalities that Jesus himself opposed. How would the death spiral of political and ecclesiastical decline be stopped? One answer came from the Irish monastic tradition.

In a really beautiful, hourlong documentary produced by the RTE and rebroadcast by the BBC, former Irish President Mary McAleese makes the case that St. Columbanus, a monk who left from Bangor (near modern Belfast) and set up monasteries on both sides of the Alps, essentially provided the spiritual vigor and leadership to pull European Christianity back from the  precipice. In all, Columbanus and his successors founded more than 100 monasteries, which became centers of learning where young leaders who would become heads of European dynasties were educated.

The documentary also features Alexander O’Hara, a fine scholar (with a Ph.D. from St. Andrews…I’m slightly biased…) who has done extensive research on Columbanus and his biographer, Jonas of Bobbio. Rather than tell you all about it, here is a link to the informative and approachable film, Mary McAleese & the Man Who Saved Europe. 

What was it Columbanus was able to do where others failed? What kind of vision does it require to found religious institutions in an era when they are being deserted? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president bright enough to do a documentary?

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Sabbatical 2017: Chasing after St. Columbanus

EU map from Plan of St Gall
Map of monastic development from The Plan of St. Gall in Brief by Lorna Price

It is a beautiful, hot, sunny summer day in Colorado, and I’m getting things lined up to embark on the pilgrimage portion of my sabbatical as senior minister of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Fort Collins.

Sabbatical is meant to be a time set apart – sabbath time – for rest, reflection, study, time with family…things that sometimes take the back seat in the everyday deluge of parish ministry in a larger congregation. I am really grateful to our congregation and to the UCC for making this a priority for those of us who serve in this ministry. And thanks to those who have generously given money to Plymouth to support this journey!

The theme of this pilgrimage will be to follow in the footsteps of an Irish monk named Columbanus (or Columban)…not Columba of Iona, but rather a monk who was born in Leinster in about 543 and died at the monastery he founded in Bobbio, Italy in 615. He is best remembered for re-evangelizing Europe in the early middle ages after the decline of the Roman Empire (and with it the imperial Christianity it fostered, which had but a toehold in central Europe).

Columbanus was indeed a peregrinus – a pilgrim for Christ who forsook his lush Irish homeland in order to bring the gospel to those in foreign lands. Together with 12 disciples, Columbanus left from Bangor (near today’s Belfast) and set sail for Frankish Gaul (France), landing on the west coast in 585 and proceeding toward the Rhine, where he worked with local Frankish rulers to found monasteries at Fontaine, Annegray, and Luxeuil. He later ran afoul of the state when he refused to baptize the illegitimate child of the king, and he and his Irish monks were banished…but not for all that long. They returned to found monasteries in what is now Bregenz, Austria; St. Gallen, Switzerland; and Bobbio, Italy. All told, Columbanus and his disciples founded more than 100 centers across Europe.

According to Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, Columbanus essentially united Europe by reintroducing orthodox monasticism from Ireland into the continent. And author Thomas Cahill credits him with being foremost among the Irish who “saved civilization” by bringing classical literature, learning, and Christianity back to the continent.

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My travel plan begins with a nonstop Lufthansa flight from Denver to Munich, and after an overnight, I’ve got a car leased for the next six weeks. After driving through southern Bavaria, my first stop is the Cistercian Abbey in Bregenz, Austria, where I will spend several nights with the brothers. A short trip will bring me to the great monastic library at St. Gallen, Switzerland. (St. Gall was an Irish monk, and one of Columbanus’s twelve disciples.) I’ll do a short side trip to the monastic island of Reichenau in the Lake of Constance, and then continue on to Luxeuil-les-Bains. I’ll spend time visiitng the archeological site at Annegray as well as the monastic buildings in Luxeuil. The final leg of the Columbanus part of the pilgrimage will be to cross the Alps into Italy and to conclude in Bobbio, where Columbanus’s tomb is located within the abbey he founded there.

How did an Irish monk succeed where others had failed in establishing a resilient Christian faith in Europe? And while we’re not likely to embrace his profoundly ascetic monastic rule, are there things we can learn from it 1,400 years later? I hope to address these and other questions as I become a pilgrim chasing after St. Columbanus.

If you wish, go ahead and subscribe to receive updates on this blog, and you’ll start seeing posts in early September when I arrive in Europe.

 

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Cimitile: Saints Felix, Paulinus, and Spreading Wealth in the Early Church

ImageCimitile is not easy to reach, at least by 21st century standards. It’s on the outskirts of Nola, a town in Campania. When we visited, our bus dropped us off on some distance away from the paleo-christian basilica, and as we walked through town, people looked at us as if to inquire why tourists would want to be in Cimitile. (The name is linguistically linked to the Italian word for cemetery, and it was a burial place even before Christianity arrived.) When we finally reached the archeological site, we found locked gates, but after a few well-placed phone calls, someone came and unlocked the padlock and chain that kept us from our destination. 

I’m not sure any of us knew what to expect; the town was quaint and unassuming, and the site wasn’t even open when it was meant to be (not altogether uncommon in Italy). But it was the most amazing place we visited anywhere in Italy, in part because the treasures were not behind glass in a museum display, but in situ – right there before us. 

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Cimitile was the burial place of St. Felix, a Syrian immigrant who had been ordained and then tortured for his Christian faith. When his father died, Felix sold everything and gave it to the poor (as Jesus instructed in each of the synoptic gospels). Felix became bishop of Nola, died around 250 AD, and his small tomb was visited by a young Christian nobleman from Bordeaux, whose family owned farms nearby. The rich young man was later named governor of the province of Campania in the southern heartland of Italy. 

This governor was of the senatorial class, Paulinus, a contemporary of St. Augustine,  returned to his wife and his properties in Gaul and then moved to other properties in Spain following the death of their only son. During his time there, Paulinus was ordained as a priest and then with his wife, renounced his formidable wealth and decided to return to Cimitile, where he devoted years to building a shrine to St. Felix. 

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Wax rubbing of St. Felix’s tomb inscription at Cimitile

What as most amazing about Paulinus was not that he was a married priest (not that uncommon in the 300s) or that he was from Gaul. Rather, it was that he was one of the ultra-rich of his day. Many clergy (with notable exceptions like Ambrose of Milan) had come from the middling part of the social scale. Not only was Paulinus on the Forbes List of ancient Rome, he was noble by birth.

But how does one dispose of so much property? You’ll have to read a GREAT book by Peter Brown (Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD) to find out the whole story. The short answer is slowly… Paulinus took his immense wealth and created a monastic community at Cimitile. It took more than seven years to create the compound dedicated to St. Felix, which became a major site for pilgrimage. The poor were fed and clothed as they visited the shrine. While Paulinus’s wealth previously insulated him from contact with the destitute, Brown says that “in Cimitile, Paulinus was constantly in contact with the poor.” (p. 235) Brown describes his “open-handed generosity. He provided them with warmth and wine.”

One of the other things that makes Paulinus unique is that he was also a poet of great renown. Not only did he create a monastic community and a shrine, he imbued it with words that entwined his faith with his creation. Paulinus wrote,

For this hope does not abruptly deprive us of our possessions. If it prevails and faith conquers, it changes for the better and transforms our wealth according to God’s law, making it no longer brittle but eternal, removing it from earth and setting it in heaven.

Again, Paulinus draws on the synoptic gospels. Here is Luke’s version: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Seldom in the history of Christianity do we see such a bold example of renunciation of immense wealth. 

The frescoes at the shrine, from the 9th century, are also instructive. The scenes of salvation are “this worldly,” unlike many images we’ve come to think of. Below are two biblical scenes of salvation: Jesus calling the disciples from their nets and Jonah and the great fish.

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Jonah and the “whale” are at the bottom right, below the missing fragment of plaster.

 

These frescoes are just right there in the chapel (away from the weather, but only just), and they are 1,200 years old! The most moving frescoes for me, however, were earlier ones that I found under the alcove arches across from the tombs of Saints Felix and Paulinus. They are almost invisible at first. As one looks closer, one sees the faces of early Christians – part of this incredible monastic community, perhaps – looking out to us across the ages. Men and women who share a faith in God that is in a lineage with our own. 

We have the words and the monastic settlement of Paulinus, but we have the faces of these anonymous Christians, which I find incredibly moving. 

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Look into the eyes of these early Christians and try to imagine what they experienced. Consider their faith as it was coming to this part of the world. For us Christians in the West, they are our ancestors in the faith. Look into their eyes and imagine what they might say to you from across the ages.