Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 11.6.1998: Gold and Incense, Whispers of Mist

Just back from the Fronleichnam procession in Hiltersried. Because of rain, the outdoor procession was canceled, causing everything to be held in the church.

Quite an experience. The tiny church (but larger than a chapel) was full to the brim with short, stocky Bavarians, for whom the absolutely torturous pews may have been a wee bit more comfortable than for Steve and me: they had extremely short seats, with no leg space, and a shelf atop each pew that thrusts itself into one’s back just below the shoulder blades.

The Mass was a high, high Mass with incense and gold vestments and children carrying flowers. Men sat on one side of the church; Steve and I made the mistake of sitting in the women’s side, where there were only a few boys in addition to all the women. A woman here and there braved convention and sat on the men’s side, including one stolid Oma with headscarf.

Before the Mass, a woman who may have been a sister, or a lay catechist, brought two little girls in chasubles and albs around the church, smiling, I thought, a little defiantly at the parishioners as she did so. The gender gap was pronounced, and made more apparent by the fact that many of the men were in some kind of uniform, and sported macho earrings in their left ears. Only one man received communion, whereas quite a few women (though by no means all) did so: another accentuation of the divide.

The songs were sung at full volume by priest and women, and many were familiar tunes whose titles in English I couldn’t think of. During the procession from altar to altar, with gospel readings, prayers, songs, and blessings at each altar, a little boy fainted and had to be taken, ghost-white, out of the church.

Though the liturgy was fascinating in a way, I also found it rather repulsive, and felt as I watched from another planet. This Corpus Christi feast is in and of itself so Counter-Reformation, so tied to kingly splendor and overt, in-your-face public piety, that it seems to belong to another world.

And when one adds the nationalist dimension with which Bavarian culture overlays the feast, it’s hard not to feel one is watching a spectacle that celebrates culture and culture Catholicism as much as it celebrates authentic religiosity. At the altar (alongside it on either side) were uniformed men holding flags of various kinds, which they dipped and waved at various points in the liturgy. The omnipresence of these uniforms, and the male domination of the band that played music for the Mass and procession, were positively oppressive.

One wonders how much Bavarian young people today participate in such piety, and when they do, whether they do so more out of familial obligation and cultural affiliation than out of real conviction. The feast does seem to be very family-oriented. After Mass was over, Steve and I drove to Tiefenbach, and found the village shut down tighter than a drum, as families gathered for a celebratory Mittagessen to be followed by naps and chatting, capped by Kaffe trinken and spatzierengehen.

The countryside seems more beautiful every day here. For the past two days, it’s been cool, overcast, with occasional rain. The fields glow green and gold beneath the clouds, giving a bit of light to the landscape. The dark tree-clad hills in the distance are shrouded in fingers and whispers of mist. One sense, in such weather and such a landscape, the deep Ur-roots of Germanic culture in the damp, dark forests of middle Europe. Little wonder the propensity of the people to huddle together in villages, with forest and mountain in sight, and not to seek the hillsides and hilltops, as the Celts so often did (or were forced to do).

A jumble of impressions, too many to record after several days of silence. Yesterday in Regensburg, for Steve to do research in the archives. I can’t say I enjoyed the city. I awoke tired, headachy, and out of sorts after a late night at Steve’s Schindler cousins’ (both Hermann in Hiltersried and Karl in Katzelsried), and the day was oppressively warm and muggy, in advance of the cold front.

The cathedral, with its famed west doors and beautiful windows, is undergoing work, with the doors being precisely what are covered by scaffolding, and unseeable. And with the gloom all the scaffolds created and the cloudy weather reinforced, the interior was so dim one could hardly see, and the windows dull. Still, it was possible to see why they are famous: where a bit of light shone on them, the colors were clear and pure, and the artistry of the designs very apparent.

The only other place we visited was Emmeram’s church, which we quite liked, with its radiant Baroque interior, after the cathedral. Here, I could glimpse why Baroque has so captured the Bavarian imagination: even on dark days, of which there must be many in southern Germany, all was light, light upon light, pink overlaid on white and gold streaming and swirling through both. If one can get around the fusion of church and empire that Baroque celebrates even more explicitly and emphatically than does Gothic, one can see why those who first saw these churches felt that heaven had opened for them.

For Steve, much of interest. Herr Ederer of Waldmünchen, a cousin of our Gasthaus host Herr Braun, has been superbly kind and helpful. He’s really a celebrated local genealogist, and has gone out of his way to give Steve copies of his records and extend the Schindler line back to a 17th-century miller of Schlademühle.

And his wife is also such a charming woman. Today, they had us over for coffee and homemade kuchen, tortes, and Quarkbällchen. They’ve been to Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and are obviously intensely proud of what their American cousins have accomplished.

Another impression: it’s a cliché, but I’ve never seen such immaculate, shining houses, in which everything smells so clean and fresh. And the yards and small gardens of flowers and vegetables are equally well-cultivated, as are the neatly laid-out fields. The German obsession with planning and order, with having everything just so, can be maddening, but it also makes life flow along very pleasantly, and creates vistas pleasant to behold.

The guesthouse owners have also been really kind. Because we were late yesterday, we ate en route from Regensburg in Roding (a Bavarian hunter’s platter for Steve, asparagus and ham in hollandaise sauce for me). This morning, Herr Braun insisted that we make up for the lost meal by having a midday meal of roast pork and knödels—with coffee and kuchen afterwards, both at the Ederers’ and the Hermann Schindlers’, we’ve eaten a bit too well today.

But there is the other side—dark stares from men at the Hiltersried church today, and giggles and gossip by a young couple who ate behind us the other evening, here at the guesthouse. I was sure I heard the man say, “Fremden Schwule,” and Steve said that, when I passed my plate to him to finish, he heard the oaf whisper about this to his girlfriend. She turned around several times and stared rudely, and he stared superciliously and with crude amusement all through dinner.


elderyogini said...

William, your blog is lovely! I could imagine the Mass through your beautiful writing. My daughter and I experienced Corpus Christi celebrations in rural Poland (where my maternal ancestors originate)last year and the German version sounds very familiar.

I appreciate these posts about your time in Waldmunchen and visiting with historian Georg Ederer. I am descended from Ruhlands who came from Waldmunchen and settled in Buffalo NY. Next June I am planning to visit Waldmunchen and hope to meet some cousins, see the original records, and learn the culture of the area.

Wondering if you have any recommendations?

William D. Lindsey said...

Elderyogini, it's great to hear from you. I'm very sorry I hadn't seen your comment until today, and so I hadn't replied to your question about Waldmünchen. One recommendation I think I'd make is that if you want to see the parish records, you might want to contact the parish priest ahead of time to get permission. Otherwise, I think there are parish-level and diocesan-level records in Regensburg. We did some research in the archives there. I think there may be a small fee for researching in the archives in Regensburg. In general, we've found that accessing the Catholic records of Bavaria is harder than accessing Catholic records in the rest of Germany. If you haven't traveled to Waldmünchen yet, I wish you a good trip. The Oberpfalz is a beautiful area of Germany.