Switzerland: On the Path of the Pilgrims
Rapperswil, Pfaeffikon and Einsiedeln
The Way of St. James or Jakobsweg in Switzerland is the destination for Magic Carpet Journals as we visit Swiss portions of the pilgrim’s pathway.Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Switzerland had many surprises to offer this visitor. I was amazed to find that even today, people still go on pilgrimages, following the same paths as those trod by pilgrims many centuries ago. Several places my friends and I visited were on one of those ancient historical routes. It is said, ‘Pilgrims pray with their feet,’ and they do so seeking out places believed to have holy connections. The route through Rapperswil, Pfaeffikon and Einsiedeln is part of the Way of St. James, or Jakobsweg as it is called, because it ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, believed to be the burial place of St. James. While the act of making a pilgrimage is essentially thought to be religious, there are also cultural, social and economic components in the journey. For this reason, the European Council declared the Way of St. James, or Jakobsweg, to be the First European Cultural Route.
Rapperswil, on Lake Zurich, was our first introduction to the pathway of the pilgrims. Rapperswil is on the Way of St. James, and is sometimes used as the starting point of a pilgrim’s journey. While walking the streets of this well- preserved, old town, we came across a house of pilgrimage, where pilgrims are given soup and bread to help sustain them, also they have their pilgrim’s credentials stamped or signed there. We were told that pilgrimages are gaining popularity again. Some people will begin a pilgrimage during their vacation one year, returning the following year to take up where they left off the year before. Valuing the tradition of the pilgrims, an 840 metre, wooden bridge, once used by pilgrims to cross Lake Zurich from Rapperswil to Hurden,, was rebuilt in 2001 at a cost of several million Swiss dollars. The only part of the old bridge that still remains is the Heilighush, the historical bridge chapel dating from 1551. Known as the Town of Roses, Rapperswil has two roses on its crest. One of the public rose gardens in Rapperswil was unusual. It was specifically designed to be enjoyed by the blind. The flowers were all chosen for their distinctive and pleasing aroma, while the small signs identifying each rose were written in Braille. A fountain in the midst of the park has a copper-tooled stand, so that the design, in relief, can also be appreciated by the blind.
Leaving Rapperswil we spent the night in one of the most modern hotels I’ve visited anywhere in the world. The Seedam Plaza in Pfaeffikon was open, spacious, a mass of chrome, glass, and white walls with accents in bright, contrasting, primary colours throughout the building. You can imagine my surprise when I walked into my room to discover a copy of Leonardo DaVinci’s sketch of man, full size, in all his naked glory, at the head of my bed! The manager later told me that I had the only one in the building. I’m not quite sure why the honour was mine! Although the market for the hotel is specifically aimed at the corporate world, with the most modern technology and facilities for corporate training available, it is interesting to note that they also recognize the need for accommodation for the pilgrim. During the centennial year they had special packages available for pilgrims, now though I am told that they offer guided tours for groups, “always only on request.” The hotel staff make good use of their own modern technology too. I happened to be in the hotel on my birthday and much to my surprise, the staff at the desk greeted me with, “Happy Birthday” first thing that morning. Then at breakfast we were served champagne and a candle-lit confection was delivered to my table.
Einsiedeln is an important stopover on the pilgrim’s path. Shortly after our arrival in the town, Mona, a petite, little lady with long, dark curly hair tumbling from her jaunty tam, came to take us out into the country. We drove through the rolling hills of this farming area, coming to a covered, wooden bridge on a bend in the road. As we crossed the bridge I was astonished to see a small enclosure built into the side of the bridge, enclosing the life-sized statue of a saint. Mona explained that this is the saint for bridges, St. Nepomuk, obviously in another bridge chapel or Heilighush. As we climbed the hill coming off the bridge, we came to a modest chapel dedicated to the Holy Hermit, Meinriad, on the site where he first lived in the dark forest. The story of his life is told in paintings on the ceiling of the chapel. It seems he was murdered by two robbers, and the ravens that he fed, were the only witnesses to the murder. His murderers escaped to the city of Zurich, however the birds followed them and attracted so much attention, cawing noisily over the robbers, the culprits were caught.
The Abbey in Einsiedeln is outstanding. It really is a massive community unto itself, with an order of Benedictine monks having lived there for over a thousand years. The baroque, abbey church is ornately decorated, with a multitude of heavenly angels adorning the golden cornices and arches, perched amongst the shiny pipes of the organ and festooning all the nooks and crannies in the upper portion of the huge room. It is noteworthy to mention that all the ornate stuccos and fresco works of this very elaborate, architectural design are in the upper portion of the room, symbolizing the heavenly area. A beautiful little chapel, inside the abbey church, was built on the site where St. Meinriad lived and died. This chapel is known as The Lady Chapel. It has a very rare, Black Madonna, much revered and very much prized. No one knows for sure how the Madonna came to be black, however there were several theories discussed. Since 1600, the elaborate fabric garments on the statue have been changed with the seasons, the dress being in the traditional style of the Spanish court. This chapel was consecrated in 948 AD. We were fortunate to be able to witness the monks celebrating the Gregorian Vesper at 4:30 on the afternoon of our arrival. Afterwards they moved on into the Lady Chapel, where they sang the Salve Regina, a four-part chant. This is a daily tradition that they have carried out since 1547 AD.
Judging from the number of people I saw around and about the massive complex, this abbey is still a very viable religious centre. In keeping with the Benedictine practice of labour and learning, this community produces as many of its essential commodities as possible. Agricultural and forest lands are administered and worked by the Benedictine community. Also, there has been a school in the abbey for many centuries. A large stable occupies part of the south-east corner of the abbey buildings. Here the abbey’s horse breeding programme has operated since around the 1400’s.
The Abbey has a remarkable library, the Stiftsbibliothek Einsiedeln, that has been preserved by the monks since the inception of the Abbey in 934 AD. We were quite privileged to be taken through this library. Its most prized possession is a transcript of the Role of St Benedict, which was brought to nearby Finstern Wald in 861 AD by Meinriad. The earliest books were all meticulously written and bound by hand. Each page is a work of art. Many of these works were produced right here in the abbey’s scriptorium, during the period from the tenth to twelfth centuries, the monks intention to preserve their knowledge of liturgy and science for posterity was obviously successful. It is quite amazing to see the remarkable preservation of these books. This library contains almost 140,000 volumes, including a large collection of book-printings done between 1450 and 1500 AD..
In the town several exhibits are noteworthy. The Panorama Crucifixion of Christ shows the town of Jerusalem as it was at the time of the crucifixion, nearly two thousand years ago. This circular painting gives one a fairly accurate impression of the proximity of various sites mentioned in the Bible, as they were at the time of Christ, including the scene of the crucifixion. The Diorama Bethlehem is a depiction of the Christmas story. You can follow the progression of events from the angels giving the shepherds their message, the three kings following the star, the Nativity scene, then continuing on with the story until the flight of the family into Egypt. Both of these exhibits are very well presented and were worth the visit.
For a person living on the North American continent, with a history of only five-hundred years, or more precisely someone from the west coast, where it was only settled in the mid- nineteenth century, I find it amazing to discover traditions that have been kept in place for so very many centuries. I thought European pilgrimages were a thing of the past, forgotten after the middle ages. I did not realize there had been a resurgence of interest, especially in the past twenty years. It was surprising, and somewhat reassuring, to discover that pilgrims in the twenty-first century are still walking (or cycling) those ancient paths looking for a new spiritual dimension.
Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
For more information about Rapperswil, Pfaeffikon and Einsiedeln you may contact:
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