Sanctifying Travel: How the Goal Transforms the Way

Sanctifying Travel: How the Goal Transforms the Way

View from the train tracks to St. Ottilien.  The blue you can see behind the abbey, even with the top of the trees, is the Alps in the distance.


For the past month, I have traveled regularly from our apartment in Munich out to rural St. Ottilien Abbey, a Benedictine monastery about an hour’s train ride from us.  I go to meet with one of the monks there for spiritual direction (in German it is called "spirituelle Begleitung" – spiritual accompaniment, a much better description).  Sometimes I stay for the night, sometimes I return the same day, but every time becomes a pilgrimage.

If you want to travel out of downtown Munich for a break in the countryside, and do so on a weekday afternoon, be ready to find yourself fully in the press of urbanity.  The subway from our university district to downtown (3 stops) and then on to the main train station (2 more stops) was packed.  The kind of packed you see in videos of Tokyo where they push people into the soon-closing doors of the train.  I was one of the last ones in, and needed to open the door by reaching around behind my back – there was no room to turn around.  

When I arrived in the main train station, there also were lots of people, and no sign of refugees. (There is a hidden corner in the station to receive them, but you must know where it is. I am not telling.)  As the train reaches the landscape that encloses St. Ottilien Abbey, the scenery becomes more peaceful – passing horse stables and fields interspersed with the occasional village train station and its parked rows of commuter cars.  One sees well-kept wood paths with a pair of hikers in mud boots and then the next village.  A pack of school children get on at one village and then dwindle as each village stop claims a few. 

St. Ottilien Abbey was founded in 1887 and in that year also sent its first missionaries to German East Africa.  Some of its monks were martyred in China during the Boxer rebellion and the Abbey was suppressed in 1941 by the Nazis.  It reopened in 1945 and soon served as a hospital for Jews recovering from the concentration camps.  There is a Jewish cemetery on the grounds.  It has founded several other abbeys, has a school, a retreat ministry, a publishing house, and a regular internet broadcast of its prayers at

Then on the left, the fields begin to fall away and one can see the mountains, the north edge of the German Alps, as a jagged blue line on the horizon. Their massive size makes them appear closer than the required hour and a half drive.  And soon after, silhouetted by the blue mountains,  St. Ottilien Abbey flies by as you hear the first screech of brakesfor the train station.  On the platform there, one inhales the cold air smelling of cows and fields and the forgotten corners of train stations. 

Only now can one feel the pilgrimage begin.  A short walk out of the village and under the train tracks and one is on a tree-lined path that runs straight up a long hill to the Abbey.  Now using this most ancient form of transportation, I walk slowly toward my goal, between the rows of trees and the plowed fields.  As a farewell, another train passes in the evening light, behind me.  And I am a pilgrim walking to a holy place. 

But first, I must pass the Abbey Grocery Store, selling the produce from the fields around me: vegetables, salad, squash, potatoes, many different kinds of unidentifiable meat, varieties of cheese, wine, liqueur, vinegar, noodles, all locally made by those associated with the Abbey.  There is usually a line of locals there too, buying for the evening meal.  They mostly arrive by car - only a few walk in the chilly evening. 

And then down the enclosure wall and past the Abbey bookstore, with products from all over the world where the Abbey has sent missionaries, Africa, Korea, China.  And of course more wine. And then books, many written by the monks, and carved wooden manger sets and incense and candles.  This is the age-old mingling of monasticism and merchandise, souvenirs and incense, that one can find in the Desert Fathers or in the Canterbury Tales.  It is, I think, a healthy sign.  Today, I cannot stay at the Abbey, but I can bring some of it with me, to remind me of what I have learned there.

My conversation with my monastic spiritual companion includes some psychology (Jung) some scripture (Isaiah, Psalms, Gospel stories), and some monastic practice (listening).  And also some deep and challenging talk of spiritual search, home and community.  As usual, he recommends (at least one) book: The Sacred Art of Listening.  “Listen” is the first word of the book that is the basis of Benedictine monasticism, The Rule of Benedict. We do not pray and this seems right. The whole experience is a prayer: the train repeats it, the walk deepens it, the stores compliment it, and lighting a candle before the talk focuses it. 

The wall of fresh vegetables in the Abbey Grocery store.

After the conversation, I drink a “Willi” in the Abbey’s restaurant (a Williams pear brandy), and then head home in the dark, back down the long pilgrimage road to the train station.  After the evening lights of the Abbey, the darkness of the fields enfolds me.  The walk under grey trees leads me to the tracks where trains illumine the path in front of me with the twinkling yellow light of passing windows.  I begin my transition back to urban life, though many villages lay yet between us. 

         What way are you traveling these days?


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