PILGRIMAGE: Eger, Hungary—Watching For The Enemy Within by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Eger, Hungary—Watching For The Enemy Within by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

A blistering August sun makes the climb feel steeper than it really is.  As we trudge up a dusty approach road to the ruins at the top of this hill in northeastern Hungary, one of my three Hungarian hosts, a retired schoolteacher, tells me the story of the heroes of the siege of Eger.  Every Hungarian schoolchild knows it.

During the summer of 1552, two Turkish armies had already captured thirty Hungarian strongholds with little trouble, and figured to take the fortress of Eger just as easily.  As we reach the entrance gate at the top, it’s clear why the Turks expected to make short work of it.  Eger is in a poor strategic position: hills rise above its eastern and northern sides, offering attackers perfect placements for short-range guns and a view of everything going on inside the walls below.  And yet the Hungarian commander, István Dobo, and his two thousand brave men and women held off forty thousand Turks on this spot for thirty-nine gruesome days, persevering until the frustrated attackers simply gave up and went home in disgrace.  The heroic deeds of the defenders have been retold ever since in poetry, story, and song.

We pass through the gate and onto a dusty field surrounded by low stone walls and a few reconstructed buildings.  I can feel that this is indeed a sacred site, a place baptized in blood.

During that famous siege in the summer of 1552 the sandstone walls were pounded into rubble by enemy cannons, but enough of the ruins remain to give my imagination plenty to play with.  We stand on the north wall looking across a quiet little ravine at the facing hill that once swarmed with turbaned Turkish soldiers.  It’s as if the siege guns have just stopped their constant booming, and there is an eerie hush before the next attack.

Here they come!  Wave upon wave of janissaries, saabs, delis, and djebedjis, screaming, “Allah akbar” as they storm the walls, trying to plant their red pennants on the ramparts.  Clouds of choking black smoke belch from cannons and rifles.  The ingenious exploding devices of Gergeley Bornemissza start spewing fire and death, sowing panic in the ranks of the Turks.

The desperate Hungarian defenders have already beaten off several frenzied assaults, and enemy corpses are beginning to pile up at the foot of Eger’s ramparts.  So the wily Turkish commander has added another tactic: his men are digging a tunnel under the walls, planning to come up inside the stronghold and catch the Hungarians by surprise.  But here in the fort, commander Dobo, being no stranger to such tricks himself, suspects that the Turks are burrowing beneath the walls of Eger.  And he has a solution: all the way around the inside of the wall, at set intervals, he places simple peasant bowls filled with water to act as detectors.  Each time a sentry comes to one of these bowls he will stop and watch the surface of the water for telltale ripples.

 A few days later a breathless guard races up to his commanding officer, “Sir!  Come quickly!  The bowl in the stable!  The water’s moving!”  They crowd into the empty stall and lean over the peasant bowl to watch excitedly.  Sure enough, there in the flickering torchlight, tiny ripples, too small to notice without staring, are making ominous rings in the water.  Those little waves tell of a deadly scheme unfolding under their very feet.  Deep beneath the wall of the fortress, the Turks are busy tunneling.  The hapless diggers, planning a surprise attack, will now get a deadly shock themselves when they finally break through.

I can think of a few times when I’ve been caught completely off guard by some totally unexpected outburst of my own pettiness or plain nastiness.  I’ve seen more than one person burst out in a fit of childish anger or cruel selfishness and then look around, appalled at the wreckage they’ve just caused, and ask themselves, “Where did that come from?”  If I don’t want to be taken by surprise by my emotions and inner drives, I can learn a lesson from the heroes of Eger, whose sentries kept a careful eye on those bowls of water placed on the ground.  I have my own bowls that bear watching, signals that reveal to me something of my inner life: maybe a certain passing emotion, or an unpleasant run-in with someone, or an over-reaction to some trivial problem.

Of course I may be justified in being a little upset at finding that someone’s put an empty cereal box back in the cupboard, but this time the petty annoyance triggers a burst of furious anger.  Suddenly an image flashes in front of me: a bowl of water is sitting on the dirt floor of a fortress, and on the surface of the water are tiny disturbances.  Like those ripples that were barely visible but gave a valuable warning about what was happening underneath the fortress of Eger, my outburst is a very useful tipoff: I need to ask myself what is really bothering me – something deeper, at work beneath the surface of my life.  Maybe an incident that happened yesterday in a meeting or some bad news about a close friend last night upset me more than I realized.  My flare-up becomes both a useful warning and a clear challenge to unearth the real but hidden issue and deal with it somehow.

The Hungarian sentry had been taught the meaning of the ripples in the water and was on the watch for them.  We, too, have our own bowls of water, and like that sentry, we can make use of them in our spiritual combat.  They can alert us if, beneath the calm surface of our lives, there is an unseen problem that demands attention.  They can make us aware of some unpleasant truth about ourselves that we’ve been reluctant to face.

“Well, are you ready to go?  We’re all getting hot and tired.”  The schoolteacher’s words bring me out of my musing with a jolt.

The heat is now rising up from the dust in heavy sheets.  My friends and I agree that it’s time to call it quits.  Hot and exhausted, we trudge back down the long road the way we came, like the tired Turks of 1552.


Lent is traditionally seen as a desert season, a time for spiritual combat.  Think of what this may mean for you.  If Benedict refers several times to fighting the spiritual combat, he writes even more often about being vigilant, making watchfulness one of the fundamental attitudes to be cultivated in the monastery.  Lectio divina and honest, introspective prayer are just two of the practices that can help us to look into our own hearts.

What are the “bowls of water” in your life, that is, feelings and actions that usually warn you that something more may be going on inside you?

Sacred Scripture (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 7, “Humility,” v. 29)

Then, brothers, we must be vigilant every hour or, as the Prophet says in the psalm, God may observe us falling at some time into evil

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: