I found St. Norbert already

We started the morning with breakfast at the hotel before boarding the bus. The breakfast spread included hot dogs, which I thought was pretty interesting. When the bus arrived, I was surprised at how nice it was. Gunther, the bus driver, has it stocked full of beverages and there are about 2.5 seats for each of us which has already lent itself well to napping.

Today’s visit to Strahov Abbey was really interesting. When we arrived, our tour guide Marek met us. He is a Norbertine who resides at the abbey. His vocation is a nurse and a chaplain at a local Catholic hospital. Consequently, he said that he spends more time there than at home. The abbey church at Strahov is done in the baroque style and is overwhelmingly beautiful. Everywhere you looked there was gold, gold and more gold. To top it off, the church was filled with fresh white carnations. I had to touch the flowers to make sure they were real because they were everywhere.

Exterior of Strahov Abbey
Exterior of Strahov Abbey

Before we toured the abbey with Marek, we celebrated Mass in the chapel where the tomb of St. Norbert is housed. Originally, the chapel was a Gothic-style structure dedicated to St. Ursula. In 1627, when the remains of St. Norbert were transferred from the Magdeburg Abbey to the Strahov Abbey, the chapel was converted to the richly decorated Baroque style we saw and was renamed in St. Norbert’s honor. I must say it was a little surreal being near the tomb of the man who started it all when he founded the Norbertine Order.

Mass at the tomb of St. Norbert of Xanten
Celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Norbert of Xanten

For a little St. Norbert history before we embarked on the tour, Fr. Xav passed on an account from a book called “The Order of Prémontré: History and Spirituality,” written by Bernard Ardura. O.Praem. The book by Ardura said that  “as soon as the coffin was opened, the sepulcher revealed the entire body of St. Norbert, apparently intact, the head still covered with skin, arrayed in a splendid cope of red damask held by 3 copper clasps.”

On December 4, 1627, St. Norbert’s remains left Magdeburg Abbey of Germany and arrived on December 11 to the nuns at the convent of Doksany who covered the remains and tied them together with gold and silver thread and interlaced the whole covering with gems before they were transferred to Strahov. St. Norbert was finally transferred to Strahov on Sunday, May 2, 1627. His remains entered the city in a wagon drawn by 8 white horses and followed by a procession of a couple hundred coaches. It seemed like quite the celebration. If you’re interested in learning more, you read more on the Norbertine Vocations web site.

I got some great photos of the chapel that I can’t wait to share. Bill Hyland, the director of the Center for Norbertine Studies (CNS), took a photo in front of the altar that I’m sure will find its way into the center as soon as they take up their new residence in the Mulva Library.

View of Prague from Strahov Abbey
View of Prague from Strahov Abbey

Following the Mass, we toured the rest of the abbey. With the exception of the library at Strahov, the abbey is not open to the general public for tours. Marek said that the Czech Republic has such a problem with looting that they require people to call and request a tour if they’re interested. He said that in a rural parish where he worked prior to coming to live at Strahov, they were looted by locals more than five times and had to replace the lock time and time again. It worked out nicely for us because we got to connect with the place in a way that you can’t always when there are droves of people everywhere.

Marek giving a tour of the abbey gardens
Marek giving a tour of the abbey gardens

The Strahov Abbey had an interesting history in that it was suppressed by the Communist regime beginning in 1950. It wasn’t until 1989 that the political circumstances changed, and the Norbertines retook possession of their abbey.

The library at Strahov was incredible. It is the Czech Republic’s second oldest church library and the country’s third most valued one. The library was the only part of the abbey that wasn’t suppressed by the Communists. There are over 250,000 volumes housed in the library and the oldest dates back to 860 B.C. The library is comprised of 2 halls, the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall. Marek referred to an area of the library that was once known as the “forbidden books,” books that only properly trained confrères could have access to because their content focused on witchcraft, the zodiac, etc.

Library at Strahov Abbey
The Theological Hall of the Strahov Library

When the tour was all said and done, we had lunch at the Strahov Abbey restaurant. It’s pretty typical of European abbeys to operate restaurants. The St. Norbert beer they brew and served was a big hit. Many people on the tour bought t-shirts, coasters and glasses that said St. Norbert on them. I thought the coasters would make a great gift for an SNC grad, so I picked some up too. The practice of abbeys operating breweries stems from the Middle Ages, it was begun in part as a way to fund their works and in many cases continues today.

After lunch we boarded the bus and headed out of the Czech Republic and into Austria to visit Schlägl Abbey. On our way out of Prague, I learned a new word, “botel.” It is exactly what you would think, a boat that is a hotel. There were a number of botels lining the Vltava River on our way out of town. I think they would make for interesting accommodations. As soon as we got out of Prague it began to rain and many people on the bus found it to be perfect napping weather.

When we entered Austria things got noticeably tidier and many of the rural homes were well kept with flower boxes on the windows. The terrain changed too. As we crossed into Austria, the area was full of green rolling hills.

I knew when we got to Schlägl because we passed the Schlägl Brewery trucks on our way in. The abbey at Schlägl was huge and painted a pastel yellow color. Not something you see everyday in America.

The Schlägl Abbey
The Schlägl Abbey

Lukas, a Norbertine of the Schlägl Abbey, welcomed us when we arrived. We got our room keys and dropped our stuff off in our rooms at the abbey. The rooms were so inviting and very clean. We attended vespers with the Norbertine community of Schlägl once we got settled. All of the singing was done in German and the organ music was beautiful. As it turns out, Rupert, the Norbertine who provided the organ music, is a renown musician in Austria who teaches at the university in Vienna.

Again, the church was in the Baroque style. I thought the most striking piece was the pulpit. Anyone who climbs up into that oversized, gilded structure better have something moving to say. The three organs in the church were a close second.

Altar at Schlägl Abbey
Altar at Schlägl Abbey

We had dinner as a community and got to sample the Schlägl brews and fruit sodas.

Following dinner, we all gathered together in a meeting room and talked about the structure of the abbey, what community means to these particular Norbertines, the demographics of the surrounding area and the future of the order in Austria. Abbot Martin who has been the abbot at Schlägl for 20 years joined us along with Lukas, Paulus and 2 others. It was interesting because although the primary religion in Austria is Catholicism (85% of people) and the majority of the people are baptized, very few people are attending Mass regularly. Someone in the group asked the local Norbertines if they don’t get discouraged. Paulus said that he does not get discouraged because he follows the suit of the apostle Paul. He sees it as his job to proclaim the Gospel and he just has faith that people will follow. The Norbertines at Schlägl put high importance on the notion of community. The men of the abbey have many different vocations. They are primarily teachers and parish priests but in addition to their individual roles, they spend much time together as a community in contemplation and prayer.

For the record, Schlägl Abbey has the best showers I’ve ever seen in Europe and I’ll let you know how the beds are in the morning.

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