Notes From Underground (May 25, 2015)

Written by John Watters


Our tour of Roggenburg ran long Sunday morning, and we lingered over a wonderful lunch. As a result, we were running late for our four- to five-hour ride to Schlägl in Austria, and didn’t arrive until shortly after 8 p.m.

Much of the next 16-17 hours we spent below ground.

Sunday we ate supper in the restaurant beside the abbey, in the brick-and-mortar arched basement. Tucked into several corners were tables inside giant old barrels, presumably relics of earlier brewing days. Our party commandeered two, each holding six people. The barrels were charming – but also unbearably hot. In our misery, though, we “barrel people” bonded together and spent two hours cracking one another up with gallows humor about the heat. It could not have been more fun.

Monday began with a tour of the abbey, and again, a portion of it was spent underground. We toured the crypt of the original abbey, dating back to the 13th century. It was an eerie place, dimly lit through tiny slits of windows, several of which featured panes not of glass, but thinly sliced agate.

To one side of the crypt, an entrance led to the bottom of a bell tower that was constructed in Gothic times, but soon afterward filled with rock and sealed. It lay undisturbed for more than 500 years, until it was rediscovered just 20 years ago, The painted walls, perfectly preserved, look as if they were finished just yesterday.

We were led on this abbey tour by Matthias, a Norbertine frater due to be ordained later this year. Matthias was both deeply knowledgeable about the abbey and very proud of it, although when he introduced us to the abbey’s collection of art and artifacts by calling them “modest,” he was clearly understating things. An assemblage of paintings and reliefs, some dating to the 1400s, graced one room, and rare books and manuscripts – some dating to the 1200s – filled the abbey library, which was even more spectacular than the one we had seen at Roggenburg Abbey the day before.

The Schlägl abbey’s baroque church occupies a middle ground between Asam Kirche’s dark interior and Roggenburg’s bright, uplifting worship space. As we viewed its elaborate wood carvings (the choir stalls alone took ten years to create) and three magnificent organs, we were treated to an impromptu mini-concert from the church choir rehearsing in the same space.

We next toured Schlägl’s brewery. The abbey is the only Norbertine one still brewing beer, and it is quite a successful enterprise, with its product being distributed as far away as Vienna, and occasionally being imported into the United States. (I’m told it can sometimes be found in Green Bay, and it’s very definitely worth looking for.)

Matthias administered the brewery tour, as well, and was as knowledgeable about the brewing process as he was about the abbey. He took us throughout the facility, including (surprise, surprise) the cellar – used for aging the beer – which was a chilly 4 degrees Centigrade, if memory serves.

For lunch, it was back into the restaurant’s cellar, where all of us seasoned “barrel people” (with one especially hardy – or crazy – exception) carefully avoided the barrel tables. We enjoyed another fine meal, complete with beer that had been brewed literally across the street.

The night before, during one of the few times we were above ground in Schlägl, several of us spent time in the company of Matthias, sitting on the second-floor balcony outside one of the abbey’s community rooms, sipping abbey-brewed beer and peppering the young frater with questions.

We asked if he had been assigned a parish yet, and he said that tentatively he had, but he wasn’t free to share the information until it had been confirmed. He hoped it would be an assignment that would provide him with a home in the parish, but also would be close enough for him to maintain a presence at the abbey. His explanation was poignant. He said that for parish priests not affiliated with an order, the holidays – Christmas and Easter especially – are usually spent with parishioners and others who, however welcoming and friendly, are not “family.” Matthias struggled to find the right word, reaching for some German term akin to “peregrination” to describe the experience of feeling perpetually unmoored. What he meant, more simply, was that in a parish, he would always feel like a traveler. But when he could return to the abbey, he said, he would be able to truly experience home and family –those places he knew and loved the most, those people who cared about him and understood him best.

We spent a lot of time in Schlägl exploring the abbey’s brick-and-mortar foundations, but for Matthias, its foundations are even deeper. Our conversation gave me a better appreciation for the Norbertines’ steadfast commitment to the places they establish their communities.

From Schlagl, we left Germany, headed for Vienna

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