Bobbio: The final leg of the pilgrimage

It is so nice to have a traveling companion join you on your journey…true in life and true on pilgrimage. I was fortunate enough to have both happen…most recently my wife, Jane Anne Ferguson, joined me in Italy for the final leg of my Columbanus pilgrimage. Jane Anne and I have led Celtic Christian pilgrimages in Ireland (with Dom and Sarah Crossan) and in Scotland, so it was great to share part of this Irish saint’s journey as well.

Columbanus crossed the Alps from Bregenz and St. Gallen, which cannot have been easy for a fellow in his 60s traveling on foot. There was no 17-kilometer long tunnel for him to go through, so he had a lot more “up and over” than I did driving on the Autobahn/Autostrada across Switzerland into Italy. He came to Milan, the Lombard capital, to meet with Agilulf, king of the Lombards.

You may remember that St. Ambrose of Milan was a very influential fourth-century “doctor of the church,” and his orthodox Christian theology in Milan had been replaced by Arian Christianity with the influx of the Lombards. Arianism holds that Jesus Christ was begotten by God the Creator at a set point in time and was not pre-existent with God from the beginning of time, and was therefore subordinate. Arianism did not deny the divinity of Christ, but asserted that the Christ aspect of the Trinity derived from the Creator. That may sound like a theological nit that isn’t worth picking, but two ecumenical counsels found that Arianism was heretical, and it cost lives trying to settle.

At any rate, Agilulf himself was an Arian Christian, but he was married to a woman named Theodelinda, who was a Bavarian Catholic. Columbanus clearly fell into the latter camp, and yet Columbanus’s biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, claims that Columbanus “was honorably received by Agilulf…[who] gave him the choice of settling within Italy wherever he wished.” (trans. Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood.) Whether Agilulf was quite so magnanimous is up for debate, but Columbanus and his monks settled along the River Trebbia. “It was a bountiful fertile place, with refreshing waters and abundance of fish,” records Jonas. His biographer also tells us that Columbanus found a half-ruined church in Bobbio, which he restored. Then he and his monks began to gather timber and to construct an abbey.

The abbey and its scriptorium (which copied many Irish manuscripts) became renowned as a center of learning in the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy. Columbanus prepared the soil and sowed the seed well in Bobbio. “After a year,” writes Jonas, “blessed Columbanus completed his blessed life in the monastery of Bobbio. on 23 November, he gave back his soul to Heaven, freed from its body.”

It may also be that Columbanus died in his cave-retreat in the hills near Colli, just above Bobbio. One tradition holds that this is the case, so my pilgrim-partner and I included a trek into the Appenines to search for the cave at Colli, which was an adventure along a sometimes unmarked trail. Near the end, we found shock-cords fastened to a rock wall with pitons to help us and fellow pilgrims walk along the steep hillside as we approached the cave. It was just beginning to rain a little, so the shelter of a large overhanging rock, which formed the cave, was welcome. A small open-air chapel with and altar had been set up there, and two crosses — a large wrought iron one and a smaller Celtic cross from an Irish admirer, were mounted into the face of the overhang. It was a lovely, solitary place for a prayer that we shared, giving thanks for the life and the courage of this Irish pilgrim.

It is almost as if Columbanus brought spores of an ascetic Irish Christian infection (in the best sense) and inoculated what is now France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy with them. His was not an “aromatherapy version of Celtic Christianity,” as an elderly Irish priest told me years ago in Dingle. It was “muscular Christianity,” to borrow an anachronistic term.His monastic rule has a somewhat elite macho vibe that sets it apart from the kinder, gentler Rule of St. Benedict (whose lifetime was about 50 years earlier than that of Columbanus). Perhaps that spiritual and physically demanding lifestyle gave it a certain cachet and appeal that drew adherents who became the apostles who formed more than 100 monastic communities in Columbanus’s wake.

Today, Bobbio, more than any other place associated with the Irish saint, remembers and honors Columbanus well. Perhaps it is because, as one writer puts it, “Bobbio was an Irish town three centuries before the Vikings founded Dublin.” School kids know about Columbanus…middle-schoolers have their school in part of the old monastic buildings. (Napoleonic forces made their way here, as well, and Lombardy was a department of the French Republic for a time…so the monastery that had been founded in 1,200 years before “the little corporal” came to an end. Priceless manuscripts from the monastery, like the Bobbio Missal, a Gallican mass book, now live in Paris. Some others are in Milan, safely housed in the Ambrosian Library, where Italian librarians keep them out of the hands of everyone, even scholars who wish to have them digitized for online use.)

When we visited in late September, there were few tourists, and no sign of Americans, which was nice! The town is clean and net, has a beautiful Roman arched footbridge across the Trebbia, and preserves the legacy of its past rather beautifully. When we first walked into square in front of the cathedral, we saw a large metal compass embedded in the stone walkway, pointing in the direction of Navan, the presumed birthplace of Columbanus. The cathedral is not of Columbanus origin, but it is the first church one encounters after crossing the Roman bridge into town. The monastery cloisters house museums on two sides, a hallway one, and a school on the fourth. Just beyond it is a church dedicated to Columbanus and where his body lies in a stone sarcophagus in a crypt under the altar. (More about that in the next episode!)

Luxeuil…the “big name” in Columbanus

If you mention Columbanus and his monasteries to most people who know something about the history of early continental monasticism, the first place they are likely to name is Luxeuil. That’s a logical thing, since his monastery there became large and influential, more so than Annegray. Today, Luxeuil-les-Bains is a small city that seems to have fallen on hard economic times and whose claim to fame is the centuries-old hot springs from which the suffix of its name derives.

Interestingly, Columbanus tended to found monasteries where there was a source of water coming up from the earth, perhaps a carry-over from the pre-Christian Celtic tradition of seeing such springs or “wells” as coming from the source of sacredness. Many “holy wells” in the Celtic world were appropriated after the coming of Christianity and rededicated to saints. (So, Tobermory on the Isle of Mull is a combination of the Gaelic word “tober” [well] and the name of Mary the mother of Jesus. And the Bridewell Place, just off Fleet Street in London, is a well named for St. Brigid, or Bride in English.) If you’d like to see a short video of holy wells in Scotland and Wales from my first sabbatical, click here.

The Abbey in Luxeuil was dissolved during the French Revolution, when the church was seen as an instrument of the ancien regime. Since that time, the main monastic buildings have become a school and the municipal offices of the city. To be honest, it feels as if they have largely forgotten good old Columbanus. The church in Luxeuil adjacent to the monastery buildings certainly remembers him, and there is a copy of the great 20th c. statue of him outside, but the cloisters mention nothing of him, nor of the monastic tradition that was the lifeblood of Luxeuil for more than a thousand years.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I was a bit disappointed with Luxeuil and its lack of remembrance of its favorite son. (I was also thinking of this as a potential pilgrimage stop for the future, but I rejected that idea after visiting.) I dropped by the Tourist Information Office and asked about Columbanus, and the best the kind, young woman could do was to hand me a brochure about Annegray and to tell me there was a statue next to the cloisters. (The only business I saw in town named for Columbanus was a lingerie shop.)

Luckily, I was not deterred by the lack of a good steer. I knew that there was another statue of Columbanus inside a different courtyard in the school, and when school let out, I wandered right into the courtyard, looked around, and imagined myself as a latter day Benedictine. And the statue of Columbanus in the courtyard was somewhat less macho than the one that recurs in several sites associated with the Irish monk. (Score one for taking a walk at the right time and ignoring the “propriété privée” signs.)

I did have a nice experience in the rather grim, forbidding church, however. I found not only a chapel dedicated to Columbanus, but also a statue of St. Gall and his pet bear, and there was a lovely prayer of Columbanus.

I’m not usually one to light candles in a church to offer a prayer (blame my Congregational roots), but I did light a candle for Columbanus and gave thanks to God that he had the faith and the boldness to strike out into the Merovingian kingdom.

The translation of the prayer of Columbanus, in my best junior high school French, is “Lord, my God, May I never be separated from compassion. May my lamp burns with its flame and burns within me, that it enlightens others, that it never goes out.”

While the light of Christ, kindled and reflected by Columbanus and others across the millennia, has not gone out, I wondered what would be remembered of this saint in Luxeuil a century from now. To be sure, Columbanus himself upset the powers and principalities of his time. He urged the young Merovingian ruler who ascended the thrown while Columbanus was at Luxeuil to stop sleeping around and choose a wife. And when the young man refused (at the behest of his mother, who was pulling the marionette’s strings), Columbanus mourned. And when the rich young ruler asked to have his illegitimate children baptized, Columbanus refused. (Not the 21st century in its mores…) And that led the rule and his dear mother to banish Columbanus and all his Irish and British monks, sending them under armed guard to the Atlantic coast to be shipped back to Ireland. Well, that didn’t work, when poor weather convinced the ship’s captain that the storm was a message from God that Columbanus was to stay on the continent, so Columbanus and his followers, back on dry land, set off once again, eventually winding up in Bregenz.

Annegray: Columbanus’s first monastery

When Columbanus was first granted land by the Merovingian nobility, it was in a beautiful valley in the Vosges region. Though his biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, recounts that it was an uninhabited wilderness (a good place for a monastery), there is some archeological evidence that there had been a Roman settlement called Anagrates there before the time of Columbanus and his monks.

What is visible today is an outline of a stone monastic settlement, likely one that was founded by Columbanus’s successors.

One of the elements of my pilgrimage that has traveled with me thus far is the singing of the daily office: the series of what American religious sister Macrina Wiederkehr calls “seven sacred pauses” each day to stop and be in touch with God. The day starts with vigils in the small hours of the morning before dawn, continues with lauds at dawn, and continues through the day and into the evening, concluding in “the great silence” of night. For more than a millennium, Annegray was a place of perpetual prayer, of monks lifting their voices to God.

The tombs are from a much later period in the monastery’s history.

Having experienced the chanting of psalms, antiphons, and hymns at Bregenz, I understand a little better what it is like to work your way around the circuit of psalms. In our Protestant branch of the church, it was all we sang for a good many years, but it’s hard to work through 150 of them unless you do as the monks do: sing eight or ten of them a day.

Still, many of us have favorites. One that I often use in a funeral or memorial service is Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Monastics must have a familiarity with the psalms that few others do because they live them and breathe them more than the rest of us do.

When Columbanus lifted his eyes to the hills from Annegray, he saw up to a hilltop retreat and to a cave, where he would spend time alone or with a helper/servant. (Remember that he was middle aged and still managed to trek across Europe by foot…without benefit of orthotic arch supports or hiking boots wit Vibram soles.)

“Let none disparage the benefits of silence; for unless they grow lax, the secluded live better than the social.” -Columbanus

It was here that I perhaps felt the deepest connection with Columbanus so far: on a place high up on a hillside, at a place of retreat and prayer. It was easy to send God’s presence here as well as that of Columbanus. It is a site lovingly kept up by a group of volunteers: Les Amis de Saint Colomban. A chapel was constructed here in the late 19th century so that pilgrims who trekked up the hills and to this beautiful spot would have a special place of prayer. It is a distinctively non-Celtic idea…the Irish monks, of course, would typically have prayed outside in the glory of God’s creation.

After establishing the monastery at Annegray, Columbanus has next steps: gathering a monastery at Luxeuil.

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!

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.