An interview with Abbot Christian Meyer.
Engelberg Abbey celebrates its 900th anniversary in 2020. Abbot Christian Meyer looks back on the monastery’s incredible history and explains its significance for the population of the valley. He also talks about the path he has taken in life. Abbot Christian Meyer – an interesting figure.
You’ve dedicated your life to the service of God. Did you lead a slightly different life to your peers even as a child? What was your childhood like? Did you know your calling even then?
I was just like any other child, doing all the normal things. We founded a detective club called “The Red U”. Our headquarters were in the cellar of the Catholic parish office in Basel. We got up to mischief. I also had all the usual school-life adventures at the Pestalozzi secondary school in Basel. I was in the football club for six months, did a course in artistic roller skating and all sorts of other things. But I was fascinated by the legends of the saints even as a child. Unlike everyone else, I found church services enthralling and always wanted my own “tablet” before my First Communion. My mother was a Catholic from the Black Forest and my father a Protestant. There was no “calling”. I simply believed that being a pastor or a priest was and is one of the most exciting professions there is.
When did you feel compelled to dedicate your life to God and join the church? How did you come to realise that?
I was in the second year of secondary school at our monastery school in Engelberg and knew that I wanted to pass my Matura (school-leaving qualifications) and then study theology and become a priest. So I pursued this path and also organised religious events at the boarding school. I organised May devotions, Stations of the Cross, church services and looked after the altar boys while still a pupil myself for two years, as none of the monks from the monastery was willing or able to take on this task completely after the death of the priest in charge. In my seventh year of secondary school, I started wondering whether monastic life might be the right path for me? I knew I definitely did not want to do that in Engelberg. I was more attracted to the Camillians in the Ruhr area in Heidhausen near Essen. In the end, I chose Engelberg after all, after studying theology in Lucerne for a year and living in the seminary of the diocese of Basel. I had sub-consciously put down some roots during my time at school.
At the age of 27 – in 1994 – you were ordained as a priest in the Engelberg Abbey Church. To what extent did this fulfil your dreams?
It was a wonderful and very emotional day for me and my parents. But I was also plagued by insecurity – would I be able to cope with it all? Would I manage? What if I failed? I was taking a leap into the unknown hoping I’d succeed. Just like in marriage – there are no guarantees. Because as you develop as a person, everything around you also changes.
In 1996 you became parish priest of Engelberg. What were the specific duties of this role?
The pastor has to manage their financial resources carefully as there’s no church tax in Engelberg. Fortunately, I had a good parish council, which no longer exists today. They helped me with pastoral issues, financial matters and provided practical support. The key thing for me was connecting with people. Nobody would come to church just because of some young upstart. That’s how I came to join the Engelberg Yodelling Club and the Engelberg Theatre Group. The parish had no musical scene of its own: no choir (the monastery choir was only for the monastery) and no musicians of its own (the monastery provided organists for hymns). A religious education project in the secondary school at the time led to the formation of a gospel choir, which I led for 10 years. The publication of the new church hymn book led to the foundation of a singing group, which I led for 13 years. The priest of Engelberg has to be an all-rounder.
How important is the pastoral care role for you in general?
Being there for people during the highs and lows of their lives. The Rule of St Benedict says the abbot must represent Christ within the community. And that was also part of my job as pastor. To stay close to people to prevent them making decisions that are far removed from reality. To keep my finger on the pulse, so that people can also recognise that I too am a seeker of truth who still has many questions, despite the good Lord.
In 2010, you were finally appointed the 59th abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Engelberg. Did your dreams come true?
It wasn’t a dream, more like a nightmare. I wanted to remain a pastor. That had always been my childhood dream. Someone who dreams of becoming an abbot or bishop has probably not been dreaming properly. For as St Benedict says in his Rule: “the abbot must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments”. That’s very challenging: “serving a variety of temperaments” often pushes you to your limits. For the abbot is not a commander-in-chief, but a “loving father”, as Benedict writes elsewhere.
What were the specific duties of this role? Is it a dream job?
It isn’t a dream job, especially not for me. Perhaps one of the other brothers here might see it that way. What’s remarkable about the job is that, as abbot, I have ultimate responsibility for the economy of the monastery as well as its religious life. And the economy probably takes up the biggest chunk of my time, despite the fact that we employ a managing director. Because in the end, the abbot and the community always have to say yes and amen or no and amen. That means the abbot is always bound to the community. He is not outside the community, but right in the middle of it.
What are your main tasks?
My main task is definitely putting the monastery on a solid financial footing, as Abbot Anselm Villiger did previously. That’s the only way in which the monastery can have an external impact, continue running the school and fulfil its tasks in the parish and Cameroon.
What goals are you pursuing?
To make our monastery and our town of Engelberg a vibrant place for education and living faith. Don’t worry! That doesn’t mean the people of Engelberg all suddenly have to start coming to the monastery. The monastery, with its wide-ranging challenges in the school, parish and mission, has lots of experience to offer. And since our pastoral care is becoming increasingly fragmented due to the approach of the official church, the monasteries play an invaluable key role in the grounded world of life and faith. As Abbot of Engelberg, you’re a public figure. Your words are being heard. Yes, you shape opinion. To what extent do you stick your neck out with comments on public and political events? What role are you trying to fulfil in this respect? Well, I’m not striking out into the political arena. I enjoy discussing political issues with politicians in private. But what I really focus on is faith – spiritual and religious life. But when faith or the church are attacked, that’s when I fight back. Just like I do within the church.
What, if anything, can you achieve as an abbot?
What do you mean by “achieve”? Once again, I always reflect on the words of St Benedict in his Rule: “The abbot must not be excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious. Such a man is never at rest”. So I can only achieve something if others help and support me. I’m not a “ruler”. Just today I received a request from a gentleman asking if I, as abbot, could advocate for a service to be broadcast on Swiss television every Sunday during the Coronavirus epidemic. I have no influence over this, and television ought to be aware this might be needed given the current situation. And I even think it is an ecumenical concern to celebrate together in such times and to respect each other even more.
Don’t you miss the pastoral work a little – the work on the front line of life?
Through the many confirmations I currently have, I come into contact with many young people, parents and godparents and pastoral care teams. It’s an exciting and diverse role. But I really do miss pastoral care: providing end-of-life support, accompanying young parents, showing young people that the church is much more than what is presented to them nowadays.
This year, Engelberg Abbey celebrates its 900th anniversary. What significance does this anniversary have for the monks and the Engelberg community?
It’s a return to our roots. We have to thank the founder Konrad von Sellenbüren and the first monks under Abbot Adelhelm for daring to start something completely new here. A fresh start in a rugged and challenging mountain environment. They inspire us to do the same again 900 years later, so that this place can remain a living cell of faith.
What significance does the monastery have for the local population and the region? Spiritually, culturally and economically?
I believe the latest Engelberg document provides a fascinating insight into various aspects of this. We are a place of education through our school and our monastic life. We are in contact with many different people and try to focus on both the present and future of Engelberg through dialogue. We’re also the second-largest employer in the valley which means we have a clear economic responsibility. We’re more than just pious monks, as we’re constantly faced with financial challenges.
What anniversary events are planned?
Things have been quiet so far due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Right now, I can’t say what will happen next. But there is a calendar of events called “A Year of Encounters” which lists all the events, including those that have been cancelled and those that may still go ahead. We’ll see. And then there’s always next year. If you would like to receive the festival calendar and our anniversary brochure, please contact us by post or at email@example.com.
Will you also be raising awareness about your anniversary in the rest of Switzerland? How will you do that?
Well, we have a website and our own anniversary page online. Our anniversary stamp raises our profile throughout Switzerland as do reports about past events and future ones too, I hope.
To what extent is Zentralbahn involved in this anniversary?
We were able to gain Zentralbahn as a transport partner. Engelberg Abbey has maintained a close relationship with various communities for centuries. We’re working with 13 partner municipalities in connection with the anniversary. True to our “Encounters” slogan, we’ll focus heavily on these encounters in our anniversary year. We visit these communities and they visit us. Whenever possible, journeys to Engelberg should be made by public transport. So what could be more fitting than travelling to our magnificent high valley with Zentralbahn. We’re proud and grateful that Zentralbahn is supporting us in this endeavour.
How does the monastery generally relate to Zentralbahn?
For decades, there has been very intensive cooperation, as a large part of the Zentralbahn line in the municipal territory of Engelberg ran through monastery land. Not forgetting what was once the oldest railway station in Switzerland, which was located in the Grafenort manor house and which I visited myself. And now we have a railway station at the manor house, or rather a world-class platform, if I may say so. During construction of the tunnel between Grafenort and Engelberg, we also enjoyed close relations through the annual Eucharist on St Barbara’s Day and then the official blessing of the tunnel. That was actually my first official act as the new abbot.
What relationship do you have with the villages along the Zentralbahn route? To what extent does Zentralbahn play an important role here?
Well, I have a relationship with almost every village. For Grafenort, that’s clearly due to the manor house. Wolfenschiessen, Dallenwil, Stans because of confirmations; Niederrickenbach through the convent, which also comes under my remit. And in all of these places, there are people with whom I have a relationship.
What significance does Zentralbahn have for you personally?
It’s a connecting element right through our entire valley to Lucerne. It takes me to Lucerne, and from there to Basel or wherever else. The rail connections are currently excellent.
Can you think of any anecdotes related to Zentralbahn?
This anecdote has more to do with the Lucerne–Stans–Engelberg Railway. Back when trains still went through the steep cogwheel section at Obermatt, the longer trains had to be split up. As youngsters we enjoyed watching the many tourists in the coach with their drinks and snacks on the tables. Then, all of a sudden when the train went up the steep mountain, there were always funny moments as the tourists tried to stop their drinks and snacks from sliding off the tables. That doesn’t happen any more since the steep ramp through the tunnel was installed.
What do you most value about Zentralbahn?
You can get to Lucerne with no stress or parking problems. But to other cities too. For a few years now, I’ve found the routes to Basel even more attractive than they were five years ago. And that’s something that can’t be underestimated. Zentralbahn runs through some beautiful landscapes.
In your opinion, where does Zentralbahn still have work to do?
What I’d really like to see is trains every half hour! Otherwise, it’s great: pleasant staff and good infrastructure from what I’ve seen. I must be honest: I’ve been driving more recently. I have more peace and quiet in the car. And my commitments sometimes take me to remote places on Sundays that I can’t reach by train at that time of day.
What do you still want to achieve in your life?
Oh, I’d like to follow in the footsteps of St Don Bosco: “Be cheerful, do good and let the sparrows sing”. I think this is something we as humans have to relearn. For me, it’s not about a career, but about life in and of itself and making it meaningful and good.
“Listen – seek – create” is the guiding principle of our anniversary year. What does this mean for the monastery and you personally?
This triad of principles comes from the Rule and monastic life experience. “Listening” always means being prepared to be approached again, to get involved in something new. Not to stand still, but to scrutinise and examine oneself. According to St Benedict, “seeking” must be a fundamental virtue of the monk. For the monk must be a lifelong seeker, otherwise he will miss his monastic vocation and ultimately not follow the will of God. This “seeking” is also a sign of “listening”. It means that you are open to what is familiar yet so alien to you. The “creating” is putting it into practice in the here and now. Listening and seeking need to be put into practice. It’s a “manifestation” of the response to what moves a monk inwardly.
The brothers and fathers don’t normally like to be in the limelight. How enthusiastic was the community about the planned anniversary year?
The enthusiasm was very contained. The great fear was that the anniversary might overwhelm the community. That’s why the plans aimed to avoid disrupting the community. There are 13 partner locations helping us to celebrate and revive the old connection so many of the events will be held outside Engelberg. Covid has slowed things down a lot, especially for me. And then we had to think about exactly what we should be celebrating? The number of 129 monks at our peak in 1951 is gone for good. Are we dying out?! I reject that kind of thinking. Because it contradicts our 900-year history and goes against the Easter faith.
Our 900-year history hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Which periods were difficult for the monastic community?
The first setback came after the first abbot, Abbot Adelhelm (he was abbot from 1120-1131). He was followed by three abbots who did the monastery no good at all. Then came reform-minded abbots from St. Blasien Abbey who sought to revitalise Engelberg. Abbots Frowin and Berchtold did an excellent job, both theologically and through their own scriptorium. The times of the plague: on two occasions, the monastery was left with a single monk. The three monastery fires: the last one on 29 August 1729, as a result of the pupils making ceremonial rockets with their chemistry teacher and doing test launches. One of the rockets hit the church roof and started a devastating fire. Then came the French, who were kept at bay, however, by the clever actions of the abbot. The constant customs disputes with Nidwalden, the alpine disputes with Uri, the attempted pillaging by the Bernese in 1712 and so on... and so on... Yes, there are many more events and of course now the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our way of life is both a search for God and a means of shaping the world. How does that work? What does this way of life look like day to day?
Look... we’re actually “struggling” with the same everyday problems as you: where will the money come from, how can we organise this, how do we design that, etc. But the difference is that we gather in church five times a day to pray and celebrate together. That’s three hours a day together in church before God. And even prayer is not always without tension: he’s singing too fast, he’s lagging behind, he’s flat again, he’s too over the top... But that observance of prayer reminds us again and again of another dimension of life rather than just the business side.
Until 1615, Engelberg Abbey was a double monastery – for both monks and nuns. In 1615, the nuns moved to Sarnen. Why did they split? Wouldn’t it be good for the monastic community if nuns were to live here again?
Women are always good for male society. Well, the main historical reason is twofold: the Swiss Benedictine Congregation was founded in 1602. Engelberg was forced to dissolve or relocate the convent. This was because double monasteries were always considered slightly suspect, although such doubts were unjustified. The second reason was that there were seven nuns in the convent at that time. The building was in poor condition, but it possessed great treasures. The then Abbot Benedikt Sigrist wanted to dissolve the convent, auction off the valuables and use the proceeds to establish a priory, a branch of Engelberg, at the grave of Brother Klaus. The “Mater Magistra”, the head of the convent, wasn’t having that and resisted fiercely. Our shared history clearly shows how the “cloister”, the closest living quarters of the monks or nuns, to which only they had access, was increasingly spiritualised in order to keep the women under lock and key. All based on male ideas of spirituality.
Until the French Revolution, the Abbot of Engelberg was the spiritual and secular lord of the valley. To what extent did the monastery shape the Engelberg Valley?
As Engelberg was a separate monastic state within the Confederation and had its own court system and militia army, it occupies a special place in Switzerland’s history. The abbots were always keen to bring work to the valley. They commuted all death sentences passed by judges in the valley to pardons. In the first centuries after the foundation of the abbey, the abbots were also called to Hungary to mediate between conflicting parties. They also performed this role during the Reformation at the second Baden Disputation. The current riverbed of the Engelberger Aa in Engelberg was created by Abbot Barnabas Bürki in 1515 with the aim of making the valley floor safer and more habitable. The monastery had a well-developed support system for the poor. The rest was the old tradition that was still practised until Abbot Leonhard Bösch: the abbot could be asked to be the godfather of a first-born child. In return, we received a wheel of cheese and a modest sum every year.
Does today’s monastery miss the influence it used to wield in the Engelberg Valley?
I don’t think we miss that. We are well integrated into life in the valley, and we’re in dialogue with our key partners, such as Titlis-Bahnen, Brunni-Bahnen and the municipality, both the residents’ municipality and the citizens’ municipality. It’s nice, but also challenging, not to be alone on our path or to have to decide everything on our own.
Engelberg Abbey has the largest organ in Switzerland. To what extent can you tell from visiting that the organ is very significant?
Groups always request an organ recital when they book a guided tour. It isn’t always possible, because an organist isn’t always available. There have been several requests from organists to play on the organ. But we keep those enquiries to a minimum. Otherwise we’ll get no peace at all. Besides, it is not a musical instrument for everyone.
Strangers, guests, friends. Benedict also took in visitors when he founded the first Benedictine monastery at Montecassino. To what extent does the hospitality play a role for the monastic community?
In St Benedict’s time, there was a great migration of peoples in Europe. The monasteries were islands of peace, education, knowledge and pilgrimage. Engelberg and countless other monasteries are still islands of contemplation today and offer moments in which to see the world differently. From a transcendental perspective. Not all of our guests are polite. It’s good they sometimes question our way of life. It stops us from becoming complacent.
Originally, the monastery was to be built in Buochs. Why did this not happen and why did it end up being built in Engelberg?
Well, the good Lord probably didn’t want the monks in Buochs to enjoy the lake and beach too much. That’s why he sent his angels to demolish the building during the night. Our Lady then invited the founder Konrad von Sellenbüren to have his ox drag a tree trunk. Wherever it stopped would be the site of the new monastery. This is the legend, as depicted in the chapel of St Mary in the parish church of Buochs. The reason was probably that the Sellenbüren family and the Muri Abbey in Argau, from which the first monks came, owned alpine settlements and land in the high valley.
What relationship does the monastery have with Buochs today?
A friendly one. We know each other well, and two years ago I was permitted to act as assistant pastor to the pastor of Buochs during his sabbatical. From time to time, I still send temporary staff to Buochs, as do some of the other brothers in the event of emergencies. The monastery has links to various places along the Zentralbahn railway network.
What is the historical relationship between the monastery and Stans? Do you have any interesting facts, legends or anecdotes?
Clearly, Stans is the mother parish of the entire valley. Children had to be baptised in Stans because the baptismal font was there. In 1144, the parish of Engelberg was officially founded and the abbey church also became the parish church. The abbot is also the actual parish priest of Engelberg, although he delegates this task to one of the brothers and appoints him parish priest. The relationship between Stans and Engelberg has also seen turbulent times. The parishioners once rejected a priest from the monastery whom they did not want. The abbot fought back with all means at his disposal because Stans was a good sinecure. However, Brother Klaus admonished the monks of Engelberg in no uncertain terms to respect the will of the parishioners, which the monastery did. There is also the story of the “chapel under the earth”. The abbot imposed an interdiction on Stans. This meant that no sacraments could be administered: no masses could be celebrated, no confessions heard, no baptisms, no confirmations, no weddings. The parishioners of Stans and the abbot simply could not come to an agreement. There was intransigence on both sides. The abbot therefore imposed the interdiction to punish the parishioners. This is why they built the “chapel under the earth” and celebrated the sacraments there. By doing so, they were exploiting a loophole in the interdiction that forbade sacraments “upon the earth”. A living church. The important thing is that the two parties have reconciled.
… and with Stansstad?
That is where the monks landed by ship before travelling up to Engelberg. In addition, Stansstad already had a major problem when the monastery was founded – there were no more fish to be found in that part of the lake. The people of Stansstad then asked Abbot Berchtold of Engelberg to come and bless the lake. Abbot Berchtold did so and the fish returned immediately. Because of this, Stansstad owed the monastery a fish duty, I believe until 1855, but it was not struck from the land register until 1966. Stansstad was of course an important transit point for goods destined for Engelberg.
… and Sarnen?
The relationship is fundamental, as the nuns were moved to Sarnen in 1615. The relationship grew closer a little later, however, thanks to Abbot Karl Stadler, who campaigned for Engelberg to move from Nidwalden to Obwalden. The people of Nidwalden did not want to recognise the Treaties of Vienna. And the abbot wanted to prevent bloodshed in Engelberg resulting from punitive action. As a result, Engelberg became part of Obwalden in 1815 and Sarnen became the cantonal capital for Engelberg. If I remember correctly, Sarnen had more to do with Einsiedeln Abbey than with us.
… with Lungern?
The parish of Lungern was incorporated into Engelberg Abbey in 1303/05. This granted the monastery easement rights in the parish. In return, it was required to appoint a pastor. The monastery had to pay for the pastor’s upkeep, whether it was one of its own brothers or a lay clergyman. But Lungern became an independent parish as early as 1450. The abbot merely retained the right of presentation. This means the abbot proposed (presented) the new pastor to the bishop. This was important in times when the bishop was not a man of pastoral care and of the faithful. The bishop was not allowed to impose his own candidate against the will of the abbot. Incidentally, the right of presentation in the various parishes often put the Abbot of Engelberg on bad terms with the papal nuncio. This is because the abbot often shielded the faithful from the bishop. This might be the Bishop of Constance or of Chur. Despite their differences of opinion, the Bishop of Constance instructed the Abbot of Engelberg to take over affairs for the original cantons of Switzerland for two years when he was unable to travel there himself.
… with Kerns?
The situation was similar to that for Lungern. Our ties lasted from 1307 to 1464. Engelberg Abbey acquired the parish from Beromünster Abbey, which owned Kerns. The abbot sold the parish rights to the parishioners of Kerns and has retained the right of presentation to this day. The only abbot of our monastery in Obwalden, Abbot Benedikt Sigrist (1603-1619), also came from Kerns. He wanted to build a dependent monastery of Engelberg at the grave of Brother Klaus. See also the explanations under the keyword “Engelberg double monastery”.
… and with Brienz?
This is an old love of mine, if I may say so. Brienz was first officially confirmed as the property of Engelberg Abbey by Emperor Frederick II in 1212 and remained under the care of Engelberg until the Reformation in 1528. Engelberg Abbey provided the parish priest during this time. The “Brienz regalia” – green velvet regalia with embroidery – which can be found in our exhibition room, is well known here. Relations between Brienz and Engelberg were revived somewhat during the Second World War, as the then Abbot Leodegar Hunkeler donated a stained-glass window to the newly built chapel in the choir in 1941. Wood sculptor Mario Fuchs from Hofstetten near Brienz designed the statue of St Adelhelm for the current monastery anniversary. As soon as possible, it will adorn the meeting area in the monastery courtyard for the anniversary. It depicts Adelhelm striking the ground with his abbot’s staff to cause a spring to bubble up.
What role does Engelberg Abbey play for tourism?
The monastery is a place of culture and education. Through concerts and liturgical celebrations, we are an important place of living culture and faith for many people. The guided tours of the monastery and the exhibition of art treasures are always an immersive cultural and historical experience for tourists. Then there is the monastery school. Many former students remain loyal to Engelberg and have a flat or holiday cottage here.
In general, what role would the monastery like to play for Engelberg and the valley community?
To remain in dialogue as partners and help to make this a place that is meaningful and good to live in for the entire population.
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