Monday, 26 May 2014

Budapest 5: Not Budapest but the monastery

How to describe the contrast betwen Budapest and the Benedictine monastery at Pannonhalma? The difference could hardly be greater. We were invited there by a fairly recent friend who is not only an excellent poet but happens to be a Benedictine monk. Generously he invited us not just for the day but for an overnight stay. We took the fast Munich train to Győr where he and a fellow monk collected us in a car.

I must add a small note of appreciation for Hungarian transport here. Being EU citizens over the age of sixty-five we travel free almost everywhere and, in the case of the fast train - much more comfortable than any in the UK - we just pay for the speed and the reserved seats. The journey to Győr speeds by in about an hour and quarter.

Friend V greets us on the platform and introduces to fellow monk F who does the driving. It takes less than half an hour. The word Pannonhalma means Mount of Hungary (Pannonia being the Roman name for the country). It is more a prominet hill than a mountain but it is in the middle of flat country so it stands high above its surroundings. The Benedictines originated in Montecassiono about 1500 years ago and were given a royal charter in Pannonhalma in the 11th century. That stated that the Beneditines were not answerable to other local orders or to the archbishop but directly to Rome, so Pannonhalma keeps a certain distance between itself and the rest of the Catholic church in Hungary which tends to support the government. It is in effect an ancient independent order.

I don't want to reproduce the guide book so will give only some personal impressions. Set on top of the hill the community comprises many buildings from the 13C to today. There is a school but also extensive grounds where they cultivate chiefly herbs and a great variety of exquisite wines. There are gardens and sports pitches. The places is dense with silence. Our room was large, simple but far from austere. Swallows nested in the eaves and swooped in and out of the courtyard and above the the whole monastery. At night the frogs croak in loud chorus along the road.

When we eat lunch we eat in a special guest room set for the three of us. V's role is to organise cultural events and there is an annual festival where international contemporary composers are paired with a classical composer climaxing in concerts. But there are also plays, exhibitions, commissioned installations, films and dances. All of this is secular in nature and people come a long way to attend.

V shows us round. We do a tour of the monastery stopping to examine various buildings and looking out over the surrounding landscape. He points to a single tall factory chimney. That was Radnóti's last place of work in forced labour he says. The prisoners were starved and enfeebled and many, like Radnóti were shot on a long march along the way.

We visit the extraordinary wine cellars where there just happens to be a wine-tasting in progress. The wine is produced gravitationally over three or four floors, the vats gleaming, ultra-modern, more like dreams of laboratories than traditional wine cellars. The result is a range of exquisite wines that are exported all over thw world and are probably the finest white wines in the country. We taste some six and seven then sit down (maybe we have to sit down) and talk. Then we attend the evenig service in the very plain church, the entire service sung.

Next day we visit the archive and are shown ancient manuscripts dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, complete with the royal seal. Most wonderful is a tiny 15th century fully illuminated breviary. It is given to us to hold and leaf through. It is so beautiful I am on the edge of tears. The library holds some three hundred codexes bound into eighty volumes.

After the archive we went to the Gregorian mass then went for a steep walk down to the lavender fields, returning through a copse, followed by lunch in another private dining room, then were taken back to the station by V driven by F.

I am not reflecting on all this here but will do so separately in another post later. My thoughts during the mass dwelt on the following issues: the contrast between the human figure Christ and the vast edifice of church and ritual, on the psychological or personal context of ritual and religion generally, on the existentialist aspects of such uncertainty and faith, on the eschataoligal sense of mortality that draws humanity to consider its own ephemerality and on the balance between meaning of any kind and absurdity.

Chiefly I reflect now on the sheer beauty, silence, and evident liberality of the institution, on the balance between fine wine and plain monastic rule (on the ora et labore of the Benedctine creed) and on the kindness, spirit and intellect of our friend who is recognised by many, especially among the young, as one of the best of contemporary poets. He has been a monk here for thirty-four years, after compulsory army service. He is completing a PhD on religious kitsch.

Meanwhile back in the city the conversations go on. I will write one more post about them as soon as I can.

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