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.