-A 5-part journal of a kayak trip down the Danube in 2009-
Historically Austria was for a long time a center of Catholicism. There are many churches and monasteries along the Donau. And there is one that really sticks out:
A Benedictine abbey at the entrance of the Wachau. It is one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever seen.
Stift Melk is old, already established in 1089, and has been a center of development and reform of the catholic church in the once huge Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. It became renowned for its extensive sacral art collection. In the 15th century the abbey was the center of the ”Melk-Reform movement” which reinvigorated the monastic life of Austria and Southern Germany.
It is almost half a century ago that I had seen Stift Melk for the first time. Although already impressive, it was rather gray and run down then. It has been extensively renovated in the meantime. I happened to meet an old guy in one of the coffee houses in Melk (in his upper 80s, I guess), who actually went to school with the abbot of the abbey who carried out this enormous renovation. While he was dribbling coffee on his jacket and slowly spreading pieces of his cake over his face, he told me fascinating stories about the abbey. How it was spared by the Nazis due to delicate negotiations, how an extension of the infamous concentration camp Mauthausen near by was beginning to be installed in the strange building complex you can see not far from the abbey, just when the war ended (see the top picture of this message). He occasionally broke into tears, obviously helplessly overwhelmed by sudden memories – (does this lie ahead of us when we get that old?). He told me about the best time of the day to see the church when the late sun penetrates deep into the building and caresses the huge pillars.
I always refused to subscribe to any belief system or even an organized church. I still like to stay with my Buddhist friends. Mostly because they never asked me to believe anything and rather discouraged me to believe at all and see and observe instead and really care for what is and not what I may believe there is.
However, I happened to grow up in a Christian environment, and who knows what kind of havoc it has caused in the obscure, dingy vaults of my unconscious mind.
Right next to the so overwhelming central church is a little room in quite a different style: Rather simple, plain, and almost austere. It also belongs to the same church. It seems to remind us to not get carried away by the grand story appearance can tell, not confuse the messenger with the message, and come back to our senses.
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You can think about religion and about Catholicism in particular what ever you want, this Stift Melk is still a fantastic piece of art far beyond any concepts, any ideas, any –ism at all. Art, good art, always contains a message that goes beyond ideas, that, ultimately, cannot be corrupted by ideas. Real art overrides thinking, it speaks to the senses directly. Art inspires and informs about the truths we already know but can rarely express and tend to forget. I have my greatest respect for those Benedictines who managed to create all this.
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Here are some other churches we have seen along the Donau – sometimes in quite different styles:
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Am I a Buddhist? Sometimes people ask me this question.
Here is a little story:
In the garden I looked for Klaus and found him stacking up firewood. “Are you a Buddhist?” I asked. Klaus, quick on the uptake, he is not stupid: “I?” he asked innocently, “I study Buddhism a lot, and I practice Buddhist meditation for a long time…” “Yes,” I said impatiently, “I know. But are you a Buddhist?” “You know, that I don’t exist.” Klaus said, “I change all the time. Every moment I am different. I exist in the way a cloud exists. A cloud is a Buddhist too. You call me Klaus and pretend that I was yesterday what I shall be today. But that’s your business. In reality there is no Klaus. And how can an unreal Klaus be a Buddhist?” “Don’t be so intricate,” I said. “All I ask is whether or not you are a member of the Buddhist brotherhood.” “Is a cloud a member of the sky?” Klaus asked in return.
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… to be continued.
Klaus August 2009