The Hermitage of Einsiedeln
by Zsolt Aradi
There is no country in Europe where the great monastic orders have not performed almost miraculous deeds: teaching people not only to worship God, but to love Him and through Him, their neighbor. Monasteries were centers of worship and education, both spiritual and practical. The monks taught men to write and read; throughout many regions of Europe they helped to till the soil, fell the timber, and to fight disease. The Benedictines, being the first monastic order, were in front line everywhere. They knew that the Christian ideal is a balanced life, that is, to serve the needs of the spirit and of the body equally. Accordingly, the sons of St. Benedict who founded in the early seventh century the abbey of Richenau in that rugged and mountainous area of present-day Switzerland, were motivated by this twofold purpose. The Benedictine monastery at Reichenau thus became, as did many other of its brother houses, a beacon leading to an ardent Christian life.
But it was not unusual in those days for one or two of the brethren to take an even harder life upon themselves than had been recommended in the Rule of St. Benedict. The members of the community who felt that they were called to lead a more solitary life of prayer, contemplation and penance, usually withdrew into the mountains. They did not retire in order to escape from the world--in fact, this would have been almost impossible to achieve because of the turbulent political and social conditions of the Middle Ages. But the accentuated solitude of the hermit, whose life was spent primarily in prayer, helped the efforts of the community to obtain greater perfection in monastic life, for the glory of God and the salvation of men.
Brother Meinrad, who began his monastic life at Reichenau, left the monastery to become a hermit in 840. He hid himself in a cave in the thick woods of the mountains. But since the times of antiquity people have sought the aid and help of the solitary, of the holy men. Brother Meinrad was no exception; soon his solitude was broken as hundreds trudged up the mountain to seek him as their confessor. This, however, was not the mission of the solitary; he knew that he could be of more help if left alone to pray. So, taking his meager belongings and cherished statue of the Beloved Lady, he retired even more deeply into the wilderness, where he lived for more than twenty years in the greatest hardship, conversing only with the trees, the flowers and the wild beasts, which accompanied him and ate out of his hands. Though the people around the valley who venerated him knew that the hermit was the poorest of the poor, there were still those who suspected his motives for isolating himself. In 863, two robbers braved the rugged road, which led up to Brother Meinrad's mountain hideout in the belief that they might find gold and incalculable treasures. They killed the hermit, whom they thought defenseless. But, according to legend, he did have two guards, two crows. The assassins were surprised when they found no treasures. Then, suddenly, they were terrified because two candles lit up the lifeless body of the saintly man. The two crows flew around the heads of the robbers, pursuing them wherever they went, thus constantly identifying the murderers until they reached Zurich where they lived.
Meinrad's cell in the mountain became a place of great popular devotion and people were convinced that all the spiritual favors and healings that occurred there were granted through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, whom Meinrad had venerated with such deep filial devotion. In fact his cell was to become known as the Lady Chapel. Very soon, a community of hermits was founded at the place and in 940, less than eighty years after the martyr's death, a new Benedictine monastery was erected to enclose the cell of Brother Meinrad. This monastery is the present abbey of Einsiedeln.
The small and dark cell of Meinrad the hermit gained importance in almost every decade both in spiritual and sometimes in secular matters. When in 948 a church was built to enshrine the Lady Chapel, Bishop Conrad of Constance conducted the consecration service. He was accompanied by St. Ulric of Augsburg. The day before the consecration ceremony, September 14, 948, the church was suddenly filled with a blinding light and Conrad saw Our Lord on the altar. When Bishop Conrad entered the church the next day to start the consecration ceremony, he heard a clear voice saying that there was no need to perform the service because the church had already been consecrated by God. The deposition of Conrad, dated 948, is still intact and preserved at the Abbey.
Less than a hundred years later, the Abbot of Einsiedeln was elevated to the Princedom of the Holy Roman Empire, thus leading to considerable secular power in the surrounding regions. The second Abbot of Einsiedeln was Abbot Gregory, the eldest son of King Edward the Elder of England; the Abbot's sister, Princess Edith, became the wife of Emperor Otto. The Abbey was showered then and later with honors and gifts from all over Europe, but the monastic life was undisturbed by this wealth and fame. For seven hundred years, the monks here, as well as those in Reichenau, Brother Meinrad's original monastery, continued their spiritual and material endeavors for the people. They taught the inhabitants of the region carpentry and cabinet making, which were to be their principal trades to this day. During this time, Our Lady of Hermits, the statue cherished by Saint Meinrad, remained the center of veneration and pilgrimages.
Brother Meinrad was canonized in the thirteenth century. Unceasing has been the flow of the devout ever since, from all parts of Europe, particularly from Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Today, Einsiedeln draws the faithful to its peaceful shrine even as it did over the centuries. It still emanates the same spirit of Our Lady, whose spirit presides here more than anywhere else as the Sign of Tranquility.
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