A retreat to a monastery evokes images of confinement in a stark monastic cell, severe monks and oppressive silence - the opposite is true at Engelberg.This content was published on March 25, 2002 - 15:48
As I approached the gates of the austere-looking Benedictine monastery, I was filled with misgivings - why had I chosen to get away from it all within the stern confines of a monastery, when I could instead be pampered in a Swiss spa resort?
And yet, I was curious as to how I would react to being plunged into such an environment and I had a peculiar desire to get a glimpse of those who have dedicated their lives to worship.
So I braved the iron gates and rang the piercing doorbell.
My fears vanished at the sight of the man who came to welcome me, who instantly shattered all my preconceptions about how a monk might act and look.
"Hello, lovely to see you - I'm Father Niklas."
A former lawyer with a warm, boyish face, Father Niklas chatted amiably as he led me through endless corridors to my room. He explained that he had come to Engelberg on a law conference 20 years ago and had kept going back to visit the monastery until he decided to join.
"It was the right choice for me - although of course, there are tough moments," he said. "For some reason, the month of May is particularly hard - spring fills the air and you want to get out and tear off on holiday."
We then stood before a row of ornate wooden doors, engraved with the names of saints and monks. "There are no door numbers here - so remember that you are Martinus," Father Niklas explained.
I was given the choice of a newly refurbished room or a "traditional" one, which to me conjured up images of a stark cross hung up on the whitewashed walls of a narrow cell, furnished with a bed as hard as a rock.
"A new one, please!" I beamed.
I need not have fretted. The new rooms were spacious, light, tastefully decorated with modern furnishings, while the older rooms were crammed with gorgeous antique furniture.
In fact, not only the rooms but the entire monastery was decorated far more lavishly than I had anticipated, with many rooms filled with exquisite inlaid wood panelling.
"Many of the monks who have lived here in the past spent years crafting much of what you can see today - for the monastery and the glory of God," Father Niklas explained.
Engelberg is one of the most famous and historically important monasteries in Switzerland and it wielded enormous power until the 1700s.
Vespers by candlelight
Anyone who comes to Engelberg has the option of participating a little bit in the life of the monastery by talking to the monks and attending religious services, both of which I chose to do.
I was guided to vespers by one of youngest novices, 23-year old Brother Patrik.
"The church is the heart of the monastery, and mass is really at the centre of our lives," he explained as we walked towards the vast baroque monastery abbey.
He explained that the monastery's 39 monks usually attend five religious services a day, starting at 5.30am with morning vespers.
As I sat in the gallery of the abbey, I was struck with the timelessness of the ceremony: the monks still wear the severe black robes of the Benedictine order and sing magnificently by candlelight.
Feeling serene, I was then shown the beautiful, newly restored library, which contains many hand-written manuscripts from the earliest years of the monastery along with thousands of theological and scientific books.
The survival of these precious works is extraordinary in view of the fact the monastery burned down three times since its foundation in 1120.
"Every time the monks threw the books out of the window to save them," Brother Patrik explained. "And we found a lot of old books under the floor panels last year, which had been quickly hidden away before the arrival of French revolutionaries, who sacked the place."
Then it was time for supper, a lively affair with wine and a three-course meal, attended by a handful of guests and a few monks. Monks usually dine separately in silence, whilst listening to a reading of the writings of the St Benedict, the order's founding father.
I was surprised about how willing the monks were to talk about their lives at the monastery.
"It's not a prison, you know," Brother Patrik explained. "We're here because we don't want to be anywhere else - we took that decision."
"It's a very deep experience to live here, to study and to contemplate - and it gets deeper all the time."
Teachers in robes
Many of the monks are also heavily involved in teaching at the monastery school, which has 300 pupils, many of them boarders.
"Teaching is a very important part of our work - it's giving something to future generations and we also learn a lot," said Brother Kuno, a maths teacher with a lively, mischievous demeanour.
Guests to Engelberg can also visit the many small businesses run by the monks, such as a wood carpentry workshop, a book binder's and a florist's. There's also an excellent cheese maker on the premises.
"We need these businesses to keep the monastery going, because the school especially is a big drain on our finances," Father Niklas explained.
And then, it was time for bed - a daunting prospect, with no televisions, radios nor external phones lines for company, only the chime of the abbey bells. But then, this is what a retreat is all about. And I had the best night's sleep in years.
By Vanessa Mock
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