It has been several weeks since I made my pilgrimage over the Kientel to the Holy Mountain, when my son, Brian, calls. He is spending a year in Munich and is on break from the University, taking advantage of free time. Do I want to go with him and some of his friends to Andechs Monastery on Thursday? “Well, …,” I hesitated. Spiritual journeys are a part-time occupation for me. I am supposed to be working at the astronomy observatory. “Yeah, OK,” I say.
I feel guilty. Trips to Andechs and the famous beer garden associated with it can appear frivolous to outsiders. “They’ll need a guide,” I reasoned. They haven’t learned yet that gestures are the way we anchor ourselves to the Universe. In their youth and inexperience, they will probably catch a bus from Herrsching to the Monastery and miss the entire point of the journey. They need someone more experienced to show the way.
So now, several days later, I sit with a large mug of the god’s dark liquid in front of me, gazing at my oldest son sitting at the far end of the table, talking and laughing with his friends. We have traversed the Kiental again, but—as I expected—I had to insist there was no way in the world I was getting on a bus for a journey of this importance before he and his friends agreed to walk with me. It is different making the pilgrimage with University students. They have the energy and enthusiasm of the children they used to be, but none of the world-weariness of someone who has to pay tuition. They are mischievous, funny, with big, exciting ideas. I see why Brian likes them. I catch them raising their eyebrows and smiling at each other as I practice my German, the lingua franca of the day.
When we arrive at the Monastery, we take a cursory peek at the chapel, but beer is our purpose today. We order and sit with our mugs at a large community table. The warm beer, the noise in the room, and my limited vocabulary conspire to direct my attention away from the conversation at the table. My mind wanders. I notice an older German man at the next table. He is nursing a beer and sneaking an occasional squeeze from his wife, who sits beside him. As I study him, he morphs suddenly from an anonymous German into someone specific. I stare, confused. This is George Seemueller, my wife’s father, Brian’s grandfather. Dead these twenty years, from before Brian was born, but looking at me now as he looked at me the last time I saw him, in his kitchen, mixing whisky sours. As German, I see now, as any of these men sitting around me. Brian carries his name as his own middle name.
Memories overwhelm me. George was once as young as my companions here, and just as likely to steal a beer mug at a place like Andechs, I think fondly. I remember the night we sat up late, telling stories, when he was still able to do so. I can hear him laughing about the Christmas he and his brother-in-law stole the Christmas tree from the top of a neighbor’s unwatched car and replaced it with a branch from the maple out back. My wife and I tried hard to have a baby before he died, so he could hold a grandchild, but we were several months too late.
But the fruit of our efforts sits there, laughing, the way he would have laughed at his grandfather’s stories, if he could have heard them. I can see both of them now, just by shifting my gaze. Tears well up in my eyes, as they do now, recalling it again. “Too much beer,” I think. But, that seems unlikely. Then it occurs to me this is why I have come to Andechs on a day I should be working.
I have come twice on foot, asking for understanding and wisdom. Prayers are being answered if I pay attention and listen closely. In an instant, I am aware that everyone in this room is going to die, as George died, as I will die, and as surely as that young man across the table from me will die. But something lives on, too. I feel it now. There is German blood coursing through Brian’s veins as surely as it coursed through George’s veins, although it was George’s grandparents who lived here.
Brian knows this, and I have never been more certain of something in my life. Somehow Brian feels this attachment, is aware on some level of the long, thin line of ancestors reaching back for hundreds and thousands of years and leading up to him, to who he is in the world. Even the gravitational pull of beer near the great mass of youth cannot explain his attraction to Germany, without this added pressure of his past weighing on him. Why else would coming to Germany be the only thing that mattered to him four years ago, when he was only 16, and he won a scholarship to spend a year here? It is why he is back here now. Brian knows in his being, in his blood and bones, that this land is his home, too.
I feel a connection, too, something beyond my own flesh and blood, maybe not to Germany, but to somewhere. I belong to something. I am part of it. Something old and permanent. I come from some distant past, and I am going to some place in the distant future that is beyond my knowing. Brian is my connection to that which I cannot see but feel now all around me, enfolding me in its power and grace.
This is why we want to have children, I think. This feeling of being a part of something is what we wanted for George before he died. I start to tell Brian how easily his grandfather would have fit in here. How much he would like this place. How his laugh would ring around the rafters, and indeed I can’t get the sound of it out of my head even now.
It is time to leave, but the effect persists. When I give Brian a hug in the train station where we go our separate ways, I feel a jolt again, George nearby, although I can’t see him now. Still, I am overwhelmed once more with love and memories. Tears return. Am I drunk on love or beer? I have no idea.
In the morning, I am not drunk, but still feel a shift in the world around me. Word reaches me from home. My middle son has apparently returned from a four or five month self-imposed exile. A foray into something so incongruous with his gentle nature—football—that his mother and I looked at each other dumbfounded when he announced his plans. He has found his way back to the theatre, a place he loves, where he can express his true nature in ways that were unimaginable to me at his age. If he has been paying attention, and I think he has, he knows a great deal more about himself now than he did six months ago.
Suddenly I see the thread that ties these journeys together for me, maybe the very purpose of life itself. Everything, I think, is a journey of self-discovery. What else can it be? What other purpose can be served? There is a thread that ties us into the world. We come from somewhere, we are going somewhere else, and we carry the thread on to the next person, all the while seeking to understand our role in the process. That’s all there is of permanent importance in our lives, it seems to me now, the love that allows us to touch the connections, to sense their presence guiding us forward.
I see my youngest son in a new light. He was given to us as a gift from the Universe, unplanned and unexpected, at what we perceived then was the worst possible moment: my wife in medical school, two other children under the age of five, money leaving our hands as fast as we could borrow it from the bank. Of course, from this perspective, 15 years on, we see that the Universe knew better than we did and his arrival was just in the nick of time, a gift that saved us from the destruction that was surely ahead on the path we were traveling.
Now he is teaching us the gift of patience. He seems determined to do poorly in school. Perhaps, from where he stands, this is an open niche in our family. Perhaps he is too much like his father, that one. Bright and kind, but preferring, as I did for most of my late teens and twenties, to hide his light under a basket.
There was a time when I was considered pretty low on the potential scale. When my wife called home to announce we were getting married and invite her parents to the wedding, her mother hung up on her. She couldn’t bear to hear her daughter was getting married to that no-account—let’s see, what was I in those days?—potter, I think. She saw nothing but unpayable bills ahead of us.
It was George who called us back. He said they would be delighted, both of them, to come to the wedding. This was just the first of his many gifts to me. Maybe he knew something about me I didn’t know myself. Maybe he was good at suspending judgment. Maybe he had enough experience with rascals and lay-abouts to know they sometimes turned out better than anyone expected. Maybe he just knew his daughter had enough good sense to get rid of me if it came to that. I don’t know. But he accepted me then and forever after.
I see today that all my children are on journeys, as I am, as we all are. We seek to know who we are, where we come from, where we want to go from here. We want to feel that love envelop us, savor those connections, experience that grace. We make all kinds of decisions in our lives. Some lead away from the path, into the dark and frightening territory beyond, and others lead us back, to the light and our true nature. All are necessary to explore the terrain fully, to come to know it as ourselves.
I can no more live my children’s lives than they can live mine. But, occasionally, we share a path, a moment together in time, as Brian and George and I did at the Andechs Monastery, when we can touch and feel the connections between us, share the pain and exquisite joy of being alive.
The Andechs beer teaches us patience, the ability to keep still in the Silence, to wait without judgment for how things will turn out in the end, as the rock waits in the desert for the cactus to bloom. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. George understood that about me, God bless him, and the lesson he is teaching today at the Andechs Monastery is to extend that blessing to others. None of us is lost forever. Eventually, we all find a guide whose love embraces us and whose light leads us along a path pointing invariably in the direction of home.