It is easy to become blasé visiting an attraction of the kind which has previously been visited on numerous occasions. Visiting the Kloster in Swiss Engelberg, having stayed in a few monasteries and visited more already this charge could have justifiably been aimed at me.
Less than five minutes after meeting our guide it was obvious this was going to be far from a mundane tour. Father Thomas was intelligent, engaging, informative and entertaining, his narrative had me fascinated in the monastery and the monastic way of life. The fact he was a real monk and not an actor which has been the case on some other visits added to the authenticity of this tour.
Engelberg Abbey as its name suggests is located in the ski resort of Engelberg, and is its largest tourist attraction. It is surrounded by Mount Titlis and other imposing peaks at the head of the Nidwalden valley.
“They even have a Facebook page”
The Order of St. Benedictine has a number of monastic communities which vary in the manner in which they lead their daily lives. Although all monks take a vow some Orders are considerably more liberal than others and it appeared that the Engelberg monastery is one of the more open-minded. They even have a Facebook page!
It is possible to stay at the monastery, the rooms were quite comfortable and rates appear on par with the hotels of the village. It seemed to be an ideal place to stay for those looking for something a little more peaceful and different.
Those wishing to join the Order can remain for up to a year before making the decision to become a novice. This normally involves another year of study, prayer, work and probably some meditation prior to being accepted into the Order.
The community is governed over by an Abbot and in more ancient times the ‘profession’ of each monk was decided by him. Nowadays those with a particular interest are able to follow this provided it is within the rules of the Abbey and will benefit the community as a whole.
Monks usually remain within a community for life and even when the Abbot steps down they remain within the abbey fulfilling some other useful role. However they are not involved in any further decision making process and on at least one occasion the outgoing Abbot was unable to accept the changes made by his successor and decided to leave.
“had me dubbing him the Hippy Monk”
There was one particularly open-minded Abbot who presided over the community during the sixties; he introduced a few liberal changes which apparently raised a few eyebrows. He even wore a ponytail, and his ‘flower power’ image immediately had me dubbing him the ‘Hippy Monk’. It would be interesting to learn more about this enigmatic character.
The Abbey was virtually destroyed by a fire in 1729, apparently the result of a homemade firework experiment that went terribly wrong. Whether the teacher in question managed to keep their job or if another ‘profession’ was found for them is unclear. Fortunately it was rebuilt and whilst not exactly beautiful on the outside, it is impressive and the interior decoration is quite spectacular.
The monastery is an integral of the community as well as providing guest accommodation for skiers looking for something a little different it has a school. Although there are boarding facilities the local council also pays to enable children from the village to be educated there. Alongside the ‘civilian’ teachers, several of the monks teach at the school, whilst not surprisingly teaching religion, other subjects provided by monk educators include mathematics and languages.
There are also daily services provided for the both monastery and local communities, enabling them to sing their praise accompanied by the largest organ in Switzerland. Sounds pretty impressive when written down, it must be even more so when played.
“I wonder if they receive rent payments in cheese?”
The Abbey ‘branched out’ in 1873 with some of the community travelling to America to establish the Conception Monastery in Missouri, which was quickly elevated to priory and then Abbey status by 1881.
The Abbey also rents some of its land to the nearby cheese factory, I wonder if they receive rent payments in cheese?
The factory is worthy of a visit too, making hundreds of different cheeses and it is possible to watch the whole process in a special ‘cheese makers goldfish bowl’. The process has been broken down into its constituent parts which are displayed in the shop and cafe. It is possible to walk around the purpose built mini-factory and watch the cheese maker going about his daily tasks.
Afterwards sit and enjoy a fondue or other suitable dish with a coffee or glass of wine whilst still watching the next batch of cheeses for sale being completed. Once ‘fondued out’ buy a few of the excellent cheeses to take home with you. There are some really interesting and innovative concoctions worthy of finding a little space in anybody’s luggage.
Engelberg was the kind of ski resort it is easy to be enamoured with, whilst it does not have many kilometres of piste or particularly testing runs it is small and quite intimate. There are two separate skiing areas and the resort found skiing long before it found the tourism of snowsports. It was not purpose built during the heyday of skiing in the sixties and seventies, people merely came here to ski, the pretty village was already in place.
William Wordsworth even wrote a poem about it “Engelberg, the Hill of Angels” (reproduced from Black Cat Poems) long before any ski resort appeared.
Whilst my normal preference for visiting a destination like Engleberg would be to ski in winter and trek or climb in summer I found both the monastery and cheese factory really interesting. It was genuinely with some regret the tour of the monastery in particular came to an end. I really felt it would be worthwhile staying there a few days to experience just a little of the daily life of the monks, if some skiing could be included too it would make for a great trip.
There a whole post about Benedictine monks without mentioning the liqueur of the same name, which contrary to popular belief was not produced by monks in need of a little herbal libation. Sorry to disappoint anybody.