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Andechs Monastery: Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain

Andechs Monastery: Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain
Munich, Germany

I’ve been in Munich a month now, and friends who know I am here tell me over and over in e-mails, “You must make the pilgrimage to Andechs by traversing the Kiental on foot to the Holy Mountain.” No visit to Munich is complete without this spiritual journey.

The village of Herrsching, southwest of Munich
The village of Herrsching, southwest of Munich
So, when Sunday dawns bright and sunny after nearly two weeks of grayness and rain, I consult my S-Bahn map and see I can buy a ticket to Herrsching, near the Ammersee, on the other side of Munich entirely from where I am staying in Garching. From there a footpath leads the pilgrim over the Kiental to the monastery at the top of the mountain, a traverse of some two or three miles. I pack a light lunch (fasting being the order of the day after the debauchery of the night before), a couple of swallows of water, and enough books to make me feel the weight of the cross, and I am off. Later than I want to be, of course, but any movement the day after Octoberfest is a miracle.

I don’t really know where I am going. My guidebook is vague. But this is a spiritual journey and I trust I will know the way when I am there, on the ground. To make matters worse, with all the gear I have quickly thrown in my backpack I have forgotten my dictionary and phrase book. I am without a net, spiritually and linguistically open to whatever presents itself. “Discover the possibilities,” it says on my business card, which I am using as a bookmark in one of the novels (novels!?) I have brought with me. I consider this a propitious sign.

The downtown station where I must switch trains is crowded with revelers heading home from the Big Party, but the crowds thin as I go further and further south, the countryside becoming more and more rural and inviting. By the time I reach Herrsching I am alone in my car, except for a woman and her dog. The dog is a golden retriever, like my three office companions at home, and goofy like the puppy, who is the only dog I know who will just stop and back up suddenly on walks, running you over. The woman eyes me suspiciously, pulling her dog closer, as I keep smiling at her, but I am remembering dogs, nothing more.

I debark at Herrsching and step into a true Bavarian village. There is nothing like this where I live. I have the same feeling I had when I first visited my grandparent’s town in rural Pennsylvania when I was six or seven. There is a grandmotherly feel to the place. The houses are beautiful and capture my attention and imagination as I walk along. I wonder if I can sign up for gardening classes back at the Observatory. Flowers are overtaking stars in my consciousness.

I’ve no idea which way to go, but there is a tourist office across the street from the train station. Closed, of course, because it is, well…Sunday. If tourists can’t get their weekly errands done between 9:00 and 9:30 on Saturday and find their way out here like the rest of us, the Germans certainly aren’t going to pamper them. There is a large map next to the tourist office, but it looks like I am not the only pilgrim here and there is a crowd in front of it. And, anyway, it appears it is written in German. Not going to be much help to me. I see a mountain right in front of me. I’ll head that way. Eventually, I come to a sign pointing the way, arrows in opposite directions.

The sign reminds me there are many paths to the One in a spiritual journey. “I took the one less traveled by,” I whisper softly to myself, “and that has made all the difference,” and off to the left I go. The left one is right, as it turns out, an insight that fortifies me in my current political beliefs.

There are many of us walking along, mostly in small groups of twos or threes. But I am not the only solitary pilgrim. Ahead of me, an elderly woman, mid-70s at least, with ancient boots and a smooth walking stick, marches resolutely on, wearing her Sunday dress. I pass her without greeting, already learning the German way. (I’ve since learned from my German friend Karsten that it is permissible on rural paths to offer a simple Gruß Gott!, which makes me feel immeasurably better, and I have been Gruß Gotting everyone lately.) There are young and old, and everyone in between. Several women are pushing strollers, but the young riders are up on the shoulders of their fathers, instead. Those of us going up hill are sweating and breathing heavily. Those returning from the top are walking with a particular gait I’ve seen somewhere before, but can’t place at the moment.

Foot Path to Andechs
Foot Path to Andechs
“Pay close attention to the altered state of those who are on their way home,” I was advised. And I gaze now more carefully at those returning. Sure enough, their eyes are slightly glazed, and I realize this is the look (and the gait, now I think about it) of someone who has seen the Holy of Holies, who has been stunned by the presence of Truth.

The story of the monastery, as it was told to me (or, rather, as I remember it after an afternoon spent sitting in the outdoor beer garden at the monastery enjoying the fine view and companionable friends) goes something like this. Several hundred years ago, the cloister was under the auspices of a particularly humorless Archbishop, with a well-deserved reputation for moral rectitude and high expectations regarding the number of hours the brothers were expected to be at their prayers in the chapel. A few of the novitiates, unaccustomed to the hard surface constantly grinding away at their knees and not having signed up for this kind of nonsense, chafed under this regime and began calling the Archbishop, behind his back, the High Holy SOB.

When the Archbishop turned the screws another notch by declaring a week of fasting to go along with their prayers in order to “center our attentions more directly on our Creator,” our boys decided to look for loop-holes in the edict. They quickly discovered the Archbishop had failed to mention anything about drinking during the fasting period. One of them–Klaus, I think his name was–had paid uncharacteristic attention during the monastery brewery tour, and quickly realized that if you put enough barley in the beer, you could drink an entirely wholesome meal without having to eat anything. And, as he alone among the novitiates knew from experiments during his student days, doubled the alcohol content of the beer to a healthy eight percent, at least.

Later that week, on the midnight shift at the brewery, which all the novitiates were required to attend along with their other duties, Klaus and his friends put his plan into action, carefully altering the beer recipe posted for centuries on the brewery wall to double the amount of barley thrown into the vats. The result, several weeks later, and in time for the first of the Archbishop’s fasts, was a particularly dark and wholesome looking beer with a nutty flavor and a long, fruity aftertaste that lingered on the palate as visions of Our Savior lingered on the mind.

As the week went on, the brothers found the pain of fasting and kneeling fading quickly from their countenances, to be replaced by that stupid, shit-eating grin that is now considered the mark of a pious and reverent man looking upon the face of his Lord and Master. Soon the brothers were clamoring for additional fasting opportunities and ways to offer their praise. The Archbishop was so pleased–and refreshed–by the obvious success of his dictum he ordered a double batch of beer brewed to celebrate the end of the fast, and nothing at the Abbey has been the same since.

The Holy of Holies
The Holy of Holies
There is, of course, a church at the Andechs monastery in addition to the monastery brewery. In fact, the oldest church in Germany, dating from the 1420s, and still maintained and run by a small group of Benedictine monks. The stuccowork and painting inside is the work of Johann Baptist Zimmerman (whose middle name I find particularly ironic) and is spectacular. But there seems to be 300,000 people, at least, on the top of the mountain when I arrive, soaked and out of breath from the final steep push up a set of stairs cut into the mountain, but mumbling my prayers nonetheless. Two weeks of rain has given everyone in Germany the same idea: “Now Oktoberfest is over, let’s head to Andechs!” And, most unsettling to me, the vast majority of these pilgrims have not suffered at all to get here, they just drove their cars up to the big parking lot on the far side of the Abbey and strolled onto the grounds.

There is no chance I am going to get a beer today, in this crowd, so I wander into the church and around the monastery grounds and study the petitions and notes pilgrims have left near the cloisters asking for favors and proffering thanks for prayers answered. Eventually I find my way to a small shop selling religious artifacts. One can buy rosaries here and small statues of saints. I settle on a handful of religious medals that I can get three for a Euro. There is a St. Christopher in my selection, of course, the Patron Saint of Travelers. But I am also looking for St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. I can really use some help with my German. And, of course, eventually I am going to have to drink some of that beer.

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