PILGRIMAGE: Fulda, Germany—Being Prepared by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Fulda, Germany—Being Prepared by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The snow outside is rushing past the train window in those tiny flakes that promise a lot more to come.  Central Germany is covered with a white blanket three inches deep.  The table in front of me is covered with my things: paperback book, breviary, notebook, travel guides, and a small bag of pretzels.  Buried under the debris is a single sheet of paper provided by the German railroad company, listing the time of arrival for each town, as well as the main connecting trains that can be met at each of the stations on our route.  We’ve just pulled in for a three-minute stop at Fulda.

I peer out the window into the cottony whiteness and can’t see much of anything.  But my mind’s eye goes to work with no trouble – the name Fulda evokes all sorts of history for a Benedictine.

I imagine I can see the cathedral built originally as the Benedictine abbey church in the early 1700s.  Then there is the monastery itself, which became famous when Saint Boniface, “the Apostle of Germany,” lived here as a monk for ten years before his martyrdom in 754.  In the next century the abbey would grow to more than four hundred monks, and would boast a renowned scriptorium and an influential monastery school.  For three hundred years, it was the most important imperial abbey in Germany, producing masterpieces in manuscript illumination and murals, in gold work and sculpture.

I stop staring out at the snow, and my eye wanders down to the table in front of me.  I notice the corner of the train schedule peeking out from under my red pencil case.  I pull it out and start to read it in an absentminded way.  Let’s see.  Here we are, Fulda – right on time.  There are even a couple of connecting trains you can catch at Fulda.  Hmm!  An express train for Munich comes in five minutes, and arrives in Munich at 5:30 p.m.  That’s funny, that sounds like the time I’m planning to get there myself.  I need to catch the 6 o’clock train from Munich to Plattling.

Suddenly I get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach – something’s not right here.

My eyes jump quickly to the bottom of the sheet, and I gasp when I see that this train that I’m on gets to Munich at 7:05 – an hour too late!  The awful truth hits me like a fist: I’m supposed to change trains here at Fulda.  I’ve got to get off this train and onto the other one!

I start shoving everything from the tabletop into my knapsack.  Pencils, prayer book, paperback, and pretzels all vanish with a sweep of a hand.  I’m on my feet, shrugging into my blazer while pulling my suitcase and my winter coat from the overhead rack.  I have to get off the train before it pulls out!  Any second now it’ll start to move, and I’ll be in a real mess.  With barely a glance at my empty place to see if I’ve left anything behind, I stagger up the aisle toward the nearest exit.  I toss my suitcase ahead of me into the entryway by the open door, hoping that the conductor outside will realize that there’s still someone planning to get off.  I’m in the vestibule looking down at the conductor who is standing peacefully on the platform, his breath making big puffs of steam in the frosty air.  Clutching my suitcase and my knapsack with its half-open zipper, I clamber down the steep steps squeezing my overcoat under one elbow, its collar dragging at my ankles.

I step noiselessly onto the cushion of new snow that carpets the little station platform and ask the conductor if there is indeed an express for Munich due in here in five minutes.  “Ja wohl!” he assures me.  Right on this same track, in fact.  I just have to stand right where I am for a few minutes.  I thank him as he signals the engineer that all is ready and climbs back up through the doorway.  The snow-speckled train glides silently away from the station to continue its journey without me.

I’m alone on the white-blanketed platform whose tiny roof offers little protection from the driving snow.  As I turn my overcoat right side up and slip it on, my pulse still racing from the excitement, I hope my frantic calculations were correct.  I wonder if the next train really will come along and take me to Munich.

Over time, the Abbey of Fulda became richer and richer, until by the thirteenth century it owned enough land to become a territorial state, and its abbot held the rank of a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.  By this time only noblemen could be admitted as monks, and Fulda, once famous for its scrupulous observance of monastic discipline, began to grow lax.  The monks led a very comfortable existence, hardly appropriate for religious men whose founder once wrote that “a monk’s life ought always to be a little Lent.”  They could no longer hear the call to holiness.  Although in real need of renewal, the abbey went untouched by the great monastic reforms happening elsewhere in Europe, and the monks continued their worldly ways for a few more decades.

A fuzzy point of yellow light appears in the distance, getting larger as it emerges out of the gray afternoon.  The familiar throb of a diesel locomotive mixes with the hiss of wind and snow as the Munich-bound express rumbles in right on time.  I climb aboard and I work my way down the aisle.  I slump into an empty seat, my heart still thumping from my narrow escape.

As the colorless scenery starts sliding by the window again, my pulse starts to slow down at last.  I begin to realize what a close call I have just had: what if I hadn’t looked at that schedule when I did?  What if I’d waited one more minute before glancing at it?  I had been sitting there quite at ease, with all my things spread out for a long leisurely trip, when suddenly I had ten seconds to scoop up all my belongings and beat an undignified retreat.

All Christians ought to treat life as a journey that may end at any time.  Monks especially are trained to live in such a way that they are ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  It is dangerous for a monk – or for any Christian – to begin to “settle-down,” becoming attached to material comforts or entangled in the quest for possessions, power, and prestige.

So what about me?  Do I get so wrapped up in my everyday work or in my worries that I no longer think much about God?  Do I ever, like those noblemen-monks of Fulda in the 1300s, get too distracted or too comfortable, and forget that I’m on a journey to somewhere else?  Inevitably, though, someday the Lord is going to say, “Wake up, Albert!  This is Fulda, and you’ve got to get off – right now!”

Outside the window night has fallen, and the frozen snowscape of Hesse is rolling past unseen.  As the train clacks its way south I pick up the schedule from the seat beside me and double-check the arrival time for Munich.  Just making sure.


During Lent we try to be more conscious than usual of being prepared for the Son of Man to come “at an hour you do not expect,” (Matthew 24:44).  If someone were to look at the way you use creature comforts, food, or money, would they have the impression that you are on a pilgrimage, and that your permanent home is in fact somewhere else?  Or would they conclude that this world is in fact your home, and that you don’t plan to move on?

Look at the various things you’re attached to.  Is there something which you can do without during Lent just to remind yourself that you’re on a journey?

Sacred Scripture (Hebrews 13:14)

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 4, “The Tools for Good Works,” vv. 46-47)

Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire.  Day-by-day remind yourself that you are going to die.

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