Humanizing Hungarians

IMG_0538 (800x594)I knew little, if anything, about Hungary before I moved here. Gradually, as I met more and more people, my list of places to visit grew longer. It’s still growing. PM was the first to mention the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma to me but it took a while to make my way to  the town in western Hungary, in Győr-Moson-Sopron county, about 20 km from Győr, home of the famous painting of Our Lady that allegedly cried tears of blood.

IMG_0516 (600x800)History tells us that the first Benedictine monks (who had arrived from Italy and Germany) settled here in 996. They have a series of firsts to their bow: the first to convert the Hungarians to Christianity, the first to found a school, and in 1055, the first to write a document in Hungarian. It’s been in continuous use for more than 1000 years – no mean feat given today’s disposable society.

When the monks arrived, the locals were Bavarian and Slav farmers, who had settled here in the wake of Charlemagne’s armies. The monks apparently came to help Prince Geza and his son Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, in their efforts to humanize the Hungarians, who were terrorizing the settled peoples of Europe and sacking the towns and monasteries of northern Italy, Bavaria, and Franconia. I read this on the Unesco site and stopped to wonder at the translation. Humanizing Hungarians seems such an odd term to use.

IMG_0515 (800x576)Pannonhalma is also the smallest, but oldest wine-making region in the country – the monks did more than teach and convert. They, too, had their hobbies. Today, they’re cashing in on the tourist dollar and the gift shops are full of  lavender, chocolate liqueurs, soaps and creams, natural remedies, herbal teas, wine and liqueurs. If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour, Petern66 has an excellent blog post that’s worth a read.

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We made it in time for mass. And while part of me had been really looking forward to this, I came away disappointed. Is it right to be disappointed in a mass? The church was beautiful – the singing exquisite – but the reverence was missing. I found myself comparing it to mass at the Abbey of Timadeuc, in France, and found it sorely lacking. It seemed to me that the celebrants were more interested in who was in the congregation than in offering up the mass.

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IMG_0530 (800x600)IMG_0520 (600x800)Tourism seemed to have usurped the religious rite, the distraction it offers proving too strong. Yes, there were screaming babies, and kids running around, and cameras going off – enough to distract Job himself – but still!

Not for the first time, I wondered at the commercialisation of the church and the pros and cons of places of worship becoming places of attraction. I strongly object to paying to enter a church as a tourist when all I simply want to do is light a candle and say a prayer and yet can see the need for entrance fees to maintain the premises.

In fairness, unless you’re taking a tour, you can wander the grounds freely – which is nice. And nice and all as the grounds are, that lack of reverence left me feeling a little empty. It wasn’t quite the spiritual experience I’d hoped for.

Paying for prayers

Before it became a Camaldulian heritage, the monastery at Majk was a Premonstratensian provostry. And yes, I had to check the dictionary. Twice. Once to see what a Premonstratensian provostry was and again to see who or what the Camaldulians were/are. The former is a priory that followed the teachings of St Norbert at Prémontré, near Laon, Île de France, c1120 (also called Premonstrants, Norbertines, and, from the colour of their habit, White Canons).The latter are bald, bearded monks in white robes that follow the teachings of St Benedict and take vows of silence.

Situated in the northern part of the Vértes Mountains (NW Hungary) the hermitage was originally built in the twelfth century and was significant for its notarial functions – the monks were authorised to issue deeds and wills. When the Turks arrived, the monks left, and the monastery was subsumed into the Tata Castle estate. When  Count József Eszterházybought Tata and all the surrounding villages, he also got the monastery, and having little need for it, gave it over to the Camaldulian Order who arrived in Majk at the turn of the century.

The Camaldolese were established by an Italian monk by the name of Romauld around the begnning of the second millennium. A student of the teachings of St Benedict, Romauld wanted to mix the eremetical tradition of monastic life with that of the cenobium, in other words, living as a hermit while living in a community. The mind boggles.

Construction lasted from 1733 to 1770. Each of the 17 houses was sponsored by an aristocratic family and took two years to build. The family crest on the outer wall  makes it easy to identify the patrons… if you’re up on your crests, that is. Each house (80 square metres) has five rooms – a living room, a private chapel, a workshop, a pantry and a kitchen. Stairs lead up to the attic and down to the cellar. The 17 monks took vows of silence and twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, could join the rest of the community in the refectory and talk three times a day for three days… this must be when the  eremetical tradition of monastic life [met] with that of the cenobium. Of course, it could also be that the houses are laid out as in a village, surrounded by a stone wall, with the church in the centre.

The monks worked their gardens, growing vegetables, fruit, herbs and medicinal plants, which were processed at the monastery’s pharmacy. The rest of their time was spent praying and making intercessions on behalf of their patrons. Before a monk could be housed, he had to spend three years in training – on probation as it were. Once he made the cut, he took the vow of silence. Those who didn’t make the cut continued to serve as lay people in the wider monastic community.

It is a truly lovely place and well worth a visit if you find yourself in the neighbourhood of Majkpuszta, near Oroszlány, in Komárom-Esztergom county. The monks have long gone [photos here are photos of photos and could even be from a similar monastery in Poland… can’t rightly remember]. What with the monks being silent and so not doing any useful work like nursing the sick or educating the poor, Emperor Joseph II, one of Europe’s enlightened despots,  had the order dissolved. Back once again in the  Eszterházy family, this time it was Móric who found a use for it, converting it to a hunting lodge. After the Second World War, it was used to house the miners from the nearby mine. Now it’s a museum… testament to a life once lived.

Some of the houses are available for rent. Mind you, it’s hardly a quiet life these days with the bell tower playing one of 17 aristo tunes every 15 minutes.  Forget any thoughts you might have of aimlessly wandering… if you’re not resident, you need to be on a guided tour. Nonetheless, the experience will stay with you long after you leave. If nothing else, reflections on the rich of the eighteenth century paying for prayers might dominate conversation on the drive home…