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Andechs Monastery: A Spiritual Journey – Munich, Germany

Andechs Monastery: A Spiritual Journey
Munich, Germany

My son, Brian, called yesterday. This is his last week off before classes start at the University in Munich. He thought Wednesday looked to be the best of a bad lot from the Munich weather report. Did I want to go with him and some of his friends to Andechs Monastery?

“Have you been reading my mind?,” I asked, remembering that dark amber nectar of the gods. “No”, he said, “your essays.” “Well..” I hesitated. I have work to do. Spiritual journeys are only a part-time occupation for me. There is tuition to pay, for one thing. “Yes, I guess so,” I said, “but it will have to be in the afternoon. I’ll get up early and work through the morning.”

The Andechs Monastery
The Andechs Monastery
So it was settled, and I still wasn’t sure why I had said yes. I am sometimes impetuous, but not often irresponsible. This seemed like both. “They will need a guide,” I reasoned to myself. Brian and his friends haven’t learned yet that gestures are the way we anchor ourselves to the Universe. In their youth and inexperience they will probably catch a bus from Herrshing to the Monastery, and miss the entire point of the journey. It is important to go on foot if you want prayers to be answered. They need someone older to show the way. And, anyway, I had to go into Munich and talk to the printer. He has found another “problem” with my book. The afternoon would be mostly wasted anyway, and I could do this on the way.

So now, a day later, I sit with a maß of the god’s dark liquid in front of me, gazing at my oldest son sitting at the far end of the table from me, talking and laughing with his friends. We have traversed the Kiental again, but, as I expected, I had to put my foot down and declare there was no way I would even think of getting on a bus on a journey of this importance, before he and his friends agreed to walk with me.

It is different making the pilgrimage with young university students. They still have the energy and enthusiasm of the children they used to be, but none of the world-weariness of someone who has to pay the bills. They are mischievous, funny, obviously bright with big, exciting ideas. Fun to be around. I see why Brian likes to be with them. I catch them raising their eyebrows and smiling at each other as I practice my German, the lingua franca of the day.

I spent most of the train trip chatting up a 14-year-old girl who had the misfortune to be sitting in the section of the train with open seats when we sat down. She was trying to study her English lessons. I thought we could practice with each other, but she was even more reluctant to speak English than I was to speak German. After 20 minutes I had pretty much exhausted the topics on which I was knowledgeable in German. So, we smiled at each other the rest of the trip, listening to the craziness of the others.

The beer, the noise in the room, my limited vocabulary conspire to direct my attention away from the conversation in the monastery pub. My mind wanders. Eventually, it settles on an older German man at the next table. He is drinking a beer and sneaking an occasional kiss from his wife, who had moved over to sit beside him when a space became available in the crowded bar.

As I study him, he morphs suddenly from an anonymous German man into someone very specific. I stare at him, confused. This is George Seemueller, my wife’s father, Brian’s grandfather. Dead these twenty years, from before Brian was born, but looking at me now as he looked at me then, in his kitchen, drinking whisky sours and telling stories of his youth into my tape recorder. As German, I see now, as any of these men sitting around me. Brian carries his name as his own middle name.

Memories overwhelm me. George was young once. As young as my companions here, and just as likely to put a beer mug into his bag as a souvenir of a place like Andechs, I think fondly. I remember the last night I spent with him, when he was still well enough to sit up telling stories. I can hear us all laughing about the night he and Uncle Chuck stole the beautiful Christmas tree off a stranger’s car on Christmas Eve and left the stranger with the homeliest tree on the lot. Carol and I wanted so much to have a baby before he died, so he could hold a grandchild, but we didn’t make it by several months.

But the fruit of our efforts sits just there, laughing, the way he would have laughed at his grandfather’s stories, if he could have heard them. I can see both of them now, just by shifting my gaze slightly to the right. Tears well up in my eyes, as they do now, thinking of it again. “Too much beer,” I think. But, no, that can’t be right.

And then it occurs to me that this is why I am here. This is why I have come on a day I should be working. A prayer is being answered here, if only I can pay attention and listen. I have come twice on foot to this monastery, asking for understanding and wisdom. Something important is being explained to me here, at this moment.

And suddenly I sense that everyone of us sitting at this table is going to die, as George died, as I will die, and as surely as that young man across the table from me will die. But something lives on, too. I feel it right now. There is German blood coursing through Brian’s veins as surely as it coursed through George’s veins, although I don’t think George ever set foot in Germany, to my knowledge. I never heard him mention it. It was his parents, or grandparents, who lived here.

Brian knows this, I think to myself, and I have never been more certain of something in my life. Somehow Brian feels this attachment to his roots, is aware on some level of the long line of ancestors reaching back for hundreds and thousands of years and leading up to him, to who he is in the world. Even the gravitational pull of beer near the great mass of youth cannot explain his attraction to Germany, without this added pressure of his past weighing on him. Why else would coming to Germany be the only thing that mattered to him when he was just 16 years old? Brian knows in his being, in his blood and bones, that this land is his land, too.

And I feel a similar connection, to something beyond my own flesh and blood, maybe not to Germany, but to somewhere. I belong to something. I am part of it. Something old and permanent. I come from some distant past, and I have done my part to sketch a line from there to some place in the distant future that is beyond my knowing. Brian is my connection to that which I cannot see but feel now all around me, enfolding me in its power and grace.

This is why we feel such compulsion to have children I think. This feeling of being a part of something is what we wanted for George before he died, but now he is here, smiling at me, looking proudly at Brian. I start to tell Brian how easily his grandfather would have fit in here. How much he would like this place, the beer. How his laugh would ring around the rafters. And, indeed, I can’t get the sound of it out of my head even now.

It is time to leave. I can’t imagine what insights I might gain from drinking two of these beers. I may return some day to find out. But the effect persists. When I give Brian a little hug in the train station where we go our separate ways, I feel a jolt again, George near at hand, although I can’t see him now. Still, I am overwhelmed again with love and memories. Tears come again. For God’s sake, Dave, get a grip!

Am I drunk on beer or love? I can’t tell.

I can’t get the notion of journeys out of my head. I’m reading You Shall Know Our Velocity, a Dave Eggers book. It, too, is about journeys, both inner and outer. It is funny and serious all at once. It is about love and connection. I stay awake far into the night, finishing it.

In the morning I am not drunk, but still feel a shift in the world around me. Word reaches me from home. My middle son has apparently returned from a four or five month self-imposed exile to the desert. A foray into something so incongruous with his gentle nature–football–that his mother and I looked at each other dumbfounded when he announced his plans. But he has found his way back to the theater, a place he loves and which apparently loves him in return, giving him an opportunity to express his true nature in ways that were unimaginable to me at his age. If he has been paying attention, and I think he has, he knows a great deal more about himself now than he did six months ago.

And suddenly I see the thread that ties these journeys together for me, maybe the very purpose of life itself. Everything, I think, is a journey of self-discovery. What else could it be? What other purpose could be served? There is this thread that ties us into the world. We come from somewhere, we are going somewhere else, and we carry the thread on to the next person, all the while seeking to understand our role in the process. That’s all there is of permanent importance in our lives, it seems to me now, the love that allows us to touch the connections, to sense their presence guiding us forward.

The Andechs High Alter
The Andechs High Alter
I see my youngest son in a new light. Eric, given to us as a gift from the universe, unplanned and unexpected, at what we perceived then was the worst possible time: Carol in medical school, two other children under the age of five, money leaving our hands as fast as we could borrow it from the bank. Of course, from this perspective, 15 years on, we see that the universe knew better than we did and his arrival was just in the nick of time, a gift that saved us from ourselves, from the destruction that was surely ahead on the path we were traveling.

Now he is teaching us the gift of patience. He seems determined to do poorly in school. Perhaps, from where he stands, this is an open niche in our family. Perhaps he is just too much like his father, that one. Bright and kind, but preferring, as I did for most of my late teens and twenties, to hide his light under a basket.

There was a time, when Carol and I were first married, that I was considered pretty low on the potential scale. When Carol called home to announce the news and invite her parents to the wedding, her mother hung up on her. She couldn’t bear to hear her daughter was getting married to that no-account–let’s see, what was I in those days?–potter, I guess. She saw nothing but un-payable bills ahead of us.

It was George who called us back. He who said they would be delighted, both of them, to come to the wedding. This was only the first of his many gifts to me, but one of the biggest. Maybe he knew something about me I didn’t know myself. Maybe he was good at suspending judgment. Maybe he had enough experience with rascals and lay-abouts to know they sometimes turned out better than anyone expected. Maybe he just knew his daughter had enough good sense to get rid of the bum if it didn’t work out. I don’t know. But he accepted me then and forever after. (In contrast to Carol’s mother, who called me Dan, the name of Carol’s first boyfriend, for the next 10 years, and well after I started making a little money. I think I made the mistake of showing her one of the pots I had thrown.)

I see today that all of my children are on journeys, as I am, as we all are. We seek to know who we are, where we come from, where we want to go from here. And we want to feel that love envelop us, savor those connections, experience that grace. We make all kinds of decisions in our lives. Some lead away from the path, into the dark and frightening territory beyond, and others lead us back, to the light and our true nature. All are necessary to explore the terrain fully, to come to know it as ourselves.

I can no more live my children’s lives than they can live mine. But, occasionally, we share a path, a moment together in time, as Brian and George and I did the other day at the Andechs Monastery, when we can touch and feel the connections between us, share the pain and exquisite joy of being alive.

The beer perhaps teaches us patience, the ability to keep still in the silence, to wait without judgment for how things will turn out in the end, as the rock waits in the desert for the cactus to bloom. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. George understood that about me, God bless him. And the lesson today is to extend that same blessing to others. None of us is lost forever. Eventually, we all find our way home.

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