What is the oldest monastery

Oldest abbey in the WestThe miracle of Saint-Maurice

War in europe. In May 1800 Napoleon marched through the Alps with a huge army. The goal - Italy. But before his army turns to the Great Saint Bernard, Napoleon's eye falls on a unique object - a building that is located directly on the roadside and that has already made history, the Abbey of Saint-Maurice.

Napoleon is fascinated. He knows that Saint-Maurice holds a church treasure that can rival the most magnificent monasteries in Europe. He has the abbey ransacked into the furthest corners in order to prepare for the plunder. But his officers find nothing. The emperor rages. "You could almost assume that this abbey doesn't even exist," he is reported to have shouted. And the abbot replied calmly: "Yes, Sire, you are right. We do not exist."

Yes, the monastery has existed - and has been for a millennium and a half, longer than any other in the western world, today equipped with an organ that sounds so unique that it is also played at concerts at the famous Montreux Festival.

Napoleon came away empty-handed because he had not counted on the abbot's cleverness. He had the treasures of the monastery hidden in the barns of the surrounding farms.

Eternal hymn of praise

The Abbot of Saint-Maurice, Jean César Scarcella:

"We have just celebrated the 1500th birthday of our abbey, which was founded in 515. The only abbey in the West that has been 'in operation' for so long. This aspect is very important to me - continuity. This abbey has been around for a very long time, and it will live for a long time to come. As abbot, I see myself as a link in a chain that goes back to our founder, Saint Sigismund, a chain that continues to this day. We want Saint-Maurice to remain what it has always been - a house of prayer, with eternal praise and a cosmopolitan house. "

Saint-Maurice is the second oldest abbey in the world. The monks have come together here for their prayer times for more than 540,000 days. The abbey has thus become a symbol of Christian permanence, a triumph over time. The "eternal praise of God" is said to have been invented here, the so-called laus perennis. God should be praised continuously, prayer and song for eternity.

"You have to imagine that there was a kind of duty roster, which group was on from when to when with the hymn of praise."

Thomas Roedder has become something like the unofficial press spokesman for the abbey. A little stooped, he leads visitors through the abbey.

"For me it is an aspect that fills me with awe to be able to continue this long tradition. Tradition is the preservation of the fire and not the worship of the ashes."

But why is Saint-Maurice so little known? A few years ago it was practically unknown - even in Switzerland. Even the inhabitants of the neighboring village of Saint-Maurice, which adjoins the abbey, had no idea of ​​the global importance of this place, which was right before their eyes. A place with European charisma on your doorstep - and nobody knows about it?

There is an unwritten social law in Switzerland. It is the prohibition to brag. Riches are not shown, you never show off your trump cards, and you are absolutely humble. Saint-Maurice has remained a secret that is still to be discovered today.

Perhaps that is the greatest miracle that the abbey still exists. Because the environment here in Valais is as hostile as an alpine landscape can be. The monastery is nestled against a sharp rock face, almost 2000 meters high, which slopes down so vertically, as if it had been poked out of the rock with a huge spatula. Opposite are the snow peaks of the Dents du Midi, a mountain range with several three-thousand-meter peaks.

"In 1611 a large rock fell over the church. It fell on the bell tower around 1942. And we sing every day: The Lord is my rock."

Strokes of fate and natural disasters in Saint-Maurice seem to be treated with nonchalance, even with humor - just like Joseph Roduit, the former abbot who died in 2015. A small, busy and downright mischievous man who until recently jogged over the mountains and shared parts the Via Francigena migrated. The Franconian Road is a great medieval pilgrimage route that leads from Canterbury to Rome, one of the most important routes across the Alps. It passes right in front of the church door of Saint-Maurice.

The monastery defied water and fire

The express trains thunder through a tunnel from Geneva to Turin, their rustling can sometimes be heard in the abbey. Nowhere is the Rhone Valley as narrow as it is here, wedged between the river and the rock. Water is a constant problem in Saint-Maurice.

"There is water between the graves because around 1858 they made the railroad and those great locomotives from the 19th century destroyed the underground aqueducts. Suddenly the water in the monastery sprang up, flooded, through the graves, through the church, through the city. Every day the water runs out of there. We are here with our feet in the water as in Venice. "

Water and fire: the abbey was also a victim of fiery conditions several times. It was looted and sacked by the Lombards and the Saracens, among others. The church was rebuilt again and again, a total of seven times. With always new styles and floor plans.

"Despite all the destruction, it is remarkable that the canons never gave up and never made up their minds to go anywhere else."

"Here we are in the martyr's chapel, where the soldiers were buried at the beginning. The current chapel is from the 18th century. But at the very beginning this was the real place of martyrdom."

The real place of martyrdom

An allusion by Abbot Joseph Roduit to the 3rd century. At that time, riots broke out in the area around Lake Geneva. Christianity is spreading rapidly here, and the Roman colonial power is alarmed. An officer, General Mauritius from northern Egypt, is dispatched to quell the uprisings. Instead, Mauritius professes Christianity itself. Rome then sends new troops to liquidate Mauritius and its breakaway unit.

Faced with the choice of serving the emperor or the Christian god, Mauritius opts for martyrdom. 3000 of his men and himself are said to have been massacred in a meadow called Veroli, which means "The True Place". How sure is this story? Maybe just a legend? Abbot Scarcella:

"You have to answer with the sentence of Jesus: The stones will scream. The stones here speak. That is clear. The abbey is mentioned again and again in the chronicles.

We have commissioned 20 international experts and historians to research the history of Saint-Maurice. Everyone agrees: Saint-Maurice is historically based, it is not a made-up story. "

There are C14 examinations of the remains of Saint Mauritius that prove the bones are male, they date from the 4th century and belong to a person from North Africa - the historic home of Mauritius.

"Love and do what you want"

But such evidence is not important to the new, current abbot. In the small wood-paneled conference room, he receives books and historical maps on the walls, the view of the cloister and the fountain in the middle. He has only been in office since August 2015. Like its predecessor, it does not have a magnificent cross around its neck, but a simply carved crucifix made of cherry wood.

Jean Scarcella was already 30 when he entered the abbey - after long doubts. He was a world famous pianist at the time. For a long time he hesitated whether to become a monk.

"Certainly there is a spirit among us that comes from the Rule of St. Augustine and from Augustine himself. The song of love, freedom and self-discovery. When I came here, I was impressed by this good mood, the pleasant one Life between the brothers. It is certainly not always easy between us, but we correct one another, we read the gospel and we can say things to each other. It is a sign of health, we feel good. "

It is enough to spend a day in Saint-Maurice to notice that there is no trace of musty dustiness and ideological stubbornness. There is nothing heavy and gloomy about this abbey - there is a strange lightness between the monks, a spirit of liveliness that one would hardly expect in a community of men within old walls.

This is related to the Rule of St. Augustine, says Cyrille Rieder, one of the 43 Augustinian Canons:

"The rule is: 'Love and do what you want', there is no easier way to put it."

Cyrille Rieder, 73 years old, works as a pastor like many of his brothers. He almost forgot the interview - but then Rieder is wide awake. He has an almost sociological view of the abbey. Saint-Maurice has a double face, inward and outward, vita activa and vita contemplativa, as St. Augustine prescribed. The canons take on pastoral care in the neighboring parishes, some also teach in the grammar school, which is next to the monastery.

"That is insane. You can have a sense of humor and like to celebrate a festival somewhere and have close contact with the people, the canons are above all living people."

With his round glasses, the many wrinkles and the smile while he rolls a cigarette, you cannot look at Cyrille Rieder's monastic life. A beer at the hotel bar? No problem. He is well known in the hotel. He takes the Augustinian leitmotif to heart: "Ama et fac, quod vis"!

"It can be summed up in five words: 'Love and do what you want.' The moment it is carried by love, it cannot be wrong.

Huge excavation zone

Saint-Maurice is a huge archaeological area, it has only been fully developed in recent years. The view on it is breathtaking. The graves of Saint Mauritius and his colleagues lie in a wide field, surrounded by light-colored stone. Above it is a suspended roof that is more reminiscent of contemporary museum architecture.

Right next to it, just a few steps away, the heart of Saint-Maurice, the treasury, with the reliquary of Saint Mauritius.

"All of these objects on display here are gifts from pilgrims. Among these pilgrims you will find emperors, kings, dukes and bishops."

Even Saint Martin is said to have traveled to the founding of the monastery, or so the legend claims. After all - the vital dates are correct. And Charlemagne is said to have brought the sardonyx vase. That is not historically certain. What is certain is that it has a bluish shimmer and fine, natural veins, as if the light was coming from within.

"You have one of the most beautiful collections in Europe, from the 1st century BC to the 20th century. Almost every century is represented."

Only once was all of this shown outside of Saint-Maurice - in the Louvre, in spring 2014. Back then, two years ago, Saint-Maurice was preparing for the 2015 anniversary year.

Tourist destination once a year

The anniversary year is over, with a few newspaper articles and a few TV reports. A CD is sold, there are a few books. But why is Saint-Maurice still so unknown?

Because, the abbot says, the monks do not want to be a tourist destination. You want to pray in peace, that's all. The canons had no interest in suddenly seeing 15 buses parked in front of their door. You have to understand that, says Scarcella, many of his canons are already over 80. You don't want to be bothered day after day.

But once a year, always on September 22nd, the day of Saint Mauritius, the abbey starts moving. Everyone is on their feet. Then flags that are a thousand years old hang everywhere, then the monks carry shrines through the village.

"Inside are the remains of Saint Mauritius itself, these shrines are carved from wood and covered with silver."

Things get really lively in June when the Africans come - often colorfully dressed people from Switzerland and all over Europe, but also from North Africa. Mauritius is traditionally considered to be the first black man to be depicted in churches. He is considered the most important saint for African Christians. And when they come here with their drums, bongos and trumpets, the little town in the Rhône Valley shakes in the most beautiful way.

The "Imperial Saint Mauritius"

Saint Mauritius had another miraculous career - as a political figure. Otto the Great was convinced that he owed his victory over the Hungarians on the Lechfeld to Saint Mauritius. Up until the 19th century, German armies carried the lance of "Imperial Saint Mauritius" with them during war.

In 961 Otto had some of the Mauritius relics transferred to Magdeburg. One of the most beautiful statues of the Middle Ages is enthroned there in the cathedral: the figure of a black man in chain mail, created around 1250. A statue that can rival any Renaissance statue in terms of expressiveness. Mauritius or Moritz churches were founded throughout Germany. Cities like Coburg have the image of the "black saint" in their coat of arms.

And yet Jean Scarcella, the abbot, thinks:

"If Saint Mauritius had not existed, if Saint-Maurice had not existed, that would not change anything. Because the essential thing is the blossoming of faith, what matters is what we live and what has been transported through the Church."

SMS for the Pope

Saint-Maurice is unlike any other abbey in the world. There are very special forms of communication here. If Abbot Scarcella wants to communicate with the Pope, he can do so directly, based on an ancient agreement, without going through the Curia, the ecclesiastical administration. The abbot used to send letters, today SMS and emails. The monks have iPhones and laptops. Scarcella has called the Pope before, but he only does that in an emergency, he says.

Saint-Maurice remains a place of European charisma - and an extremely lively, lively abbey. In an era of global violence and religious extremism, in which Christianity is on the decline, especially in the Middle East, where churches are burning and monasteries are being reduced to rubble by the so-called "Islamic State" - in this era Saint- Maurice remained a peaceful bastion of the Christian faith, an exclamation point and a lighthouse.

Because only one monastery in the world is older than Saint-Maurice: the Catherine's Monastery on Sinai - where, according to biblical tradition, Moses saw the thorn bush burn. As a refuge for marauding gangs and Islamist fighters, the Sinai is politically hardly controllable any more and is beyond the control of Cairo. It is not certain how long the Catherine's Monastery will last to mankind.

Despite all worries - the monks of Saint-Maurice want to live their convictions for another 1,500 years. Some are drawn out into the world. And so there is still a strange energy emanating from Saint-Maurice. That is probably what the visitor takes away from there.