The final 100 yards feel as though they are straight up, my thighs burning on steps that are cut into the mountain. I have been walking for nearly an hour, from the village of Herrsching, and my shirt drips with the effort of the final push to the summit. No visit to Munich, Germany is complete, I had been told, “without a pilgrimage that traverses the Kiental to the Holy Mountain” and the Andechs Monastery.
I have been in Munich for nearly a month, visiting the European Southern Observatory on a sabbatical. But, my sponsor’s wife has had a baby and I have been left to fend for myself. I have spent most of my weekends alone.
So, when Sunday dawns bright and sunny after nearly two weeks of grayness and rain, I consult my U-Bahn map and see I can buy a train ticket to Herrsching, on the other side of Munich entirely. From there a footpath leads the pilgrim over the Kiental to the Monastery at the top of the mountain, a traverse of some two or three miles. I pack a light lunch, fasting being the order of the day, a couple of swallows of water, enough books to make me feel the weight of the cross, and I am off. Later than I want to be, but I drank too much beer at Oktoberfest the night before and I am still doing penance.
I don’t really know where I am going. My guidebook is vague. But this is a spiritual journey and I trust I will know the way when I am there, on the ground. To make matters worse, in my haste to get ready I have forgotten my German dictionary. I am without a net, spiritually and linguistically open to whatever presents itself. “Discover the possibilities,” it says on my business card, which I am using as a bookmark in one of the novels (novels?) I have brought with me. I consider this a sign.
The downtown station where I switch trains is loud and crowded with last night’s revelers, finally heading home from the Big Party. But the crowds thin as I go further south, the countryside becoming more rural and inviting. By the time I reach Herrsching, I am alone in my car, except for a woman and her golden retriever, who reminds me of my two office companions at home. The woman eyes me suspiciously, pulling her dog closer, as I keep smiling at her. But, I am thinking of dogs, nothing more.
I debark at Herrsching and step into a true Bavarian village. There is a grandmotherly feel to the place. I can almost smell cookies baking. The houses are beautiful, with flower boxes on every window, the flowers blooming in a riot of color.
I have no idea which way to go, but there is a tourist office across the street from the train station. Closed, of course, because it is, well… Sunday. The Germans believe pilgrims can do their business between 10 and 3 weekdays, like any other civilized person. There is a large map next to the tourist office, but I am not the only pilgrim here and there is a crowd in front of it. Anyway, it is written in German, and will not be of much help to me. There is a mountain in front of me, however, so I head in that direction along a winding, tree-lined street with plenty of shade on this warm day.
Eventually, I come to a post with two signs, both pointing to Andechs, but in opposite directions. I am reminded that there are many paths in a spiritual journey. “I took the one less traveled by,” I whisper softly to myself, and off to the left I go along a dirt path. The left one is the right one, it turns out, an insight that both amuses and comforts me.
There are many of us walking along on this nice day, mostly in small groups of twos or threes. I am not the only solitary pilgrim. Ahead of me, an elderly woman, mid-70s at least, with ancient boots and a smooth walking stick, marches resolutely on, wearing her Sunday dress. I pass by her without a greeting, already learning the German custom of reserve around strangers. I’ve since learned that it is permissible on rural paths such as the one I am on to offer a simple “Gruss Gott!,” but with my Tex-Mex German accent and broad smile, the Germans believe I am deranged when I offer it and smile warily before pressing quickly on.
There are young and old, and everyone in between. Several women are pushing strollers, but the young riders are on the shoulders of their fathers, instead. Those of us going up-hill are sweating and breathing heavily. Those returning from the top are walking with a particular gait I’ve seen somewhere, but can’t place at the moment.
“Pay close attention to the altered state of those who are on their way home,” I was advised. And I gaze now more carefully at those returning. Sure enough, their eyes are slightly unfocussed, and I realize this is the look and gait of someone who has seen the Holy of Holies, who has been stunned by the presence of Truth.
When I arrive at the top, out of breath, mopping the sweat out of my eyes with my handkerchief, I see I am late. Several hundreds of pilgrims have arrived at the Monastery before me. And, except for the dozen of us spread haphazardly around on the green grass surrounding the Baroque chapel, seeking shade and mumbling prayers, most of these haven’t suffered at all to get here. They have just strolled onto the grounds from the parking lot on the far side of the large beer garden attached to the Monastery, for which Andechs beer, I learn from a fellow pilgrim flopped on the cool grass beside me, is world famous. “Ah,” I say, enlightenment slowly diffusing in the humid air.
After a while, dismayed by the shallowness of human devotion and the long lines to buy beer, I wander off for a look at the ornate chapel and the small passageway where pilgrims can leave notes for the Virgin Mother with requests to answer their prayers. I’ve forgotten my pen in my eagerness to get here, but I touch the wall and whisper my request for understanding and wisdom, and move along to a small shop attached to the chapel where pilgrims can buy religious medals, two for a Euro. I immediately find a Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers. But I search twenty minutes before I find a Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. I can really use some help with my German.
This is the first of a two part article recounting my trip to the Andechs Monastery. Read the second part, The Holy Beer Teaches Patience, too.