Today I visited the abbey of Melk, Austria’s biggest monastery. I had never heard of it before and had no idea it was waiting on me today. When walking along the Danube, it slowly revealed itself through the fog that surrounds the hills on the river banks for days now. It’s a majestic building and walking towards it pulled me back in Medieval times. I imagend being on a pilgrimage to this church with some business to do there, like William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
The moment I was at the gate people started to take pictures of me. As if I was no tourist… The whole complex was huge, rebuilt in the 18th century and very well maintained since then. I’m no Christian, and don’t believe God wants to be venerated by the building of these extraordinary buildings, but I was impressed by what I saw. Knowing it to be a Baroque church, I couldn’t wait to go inside. The only thing was, the entrance fee was 10 Euros. I’d never payed that much money to see a religious building. But I decided to go for it, I didn’t walk all this for nothing.
Its the fourth monastery I visit on my trip and the second for which I had to pay. In the German Eifel I visited the Mariawald abbey in Heimbach. The second was kloster Bronnbach in Germany, privately owned, so I paid an entrance fee as well. I also visited kloster Weltenburg, the oldest monastery brewery in the world.
When in Bronnbach, and today in Melk, I asked myself; what signifies a church? When one has to pay an entrance fee, is it not just a museum? In all churches I light a candle but in only two it felt real. In those cases the churches were still in use as places to find God. In the other, paid-for churches, it felt different. Those churches are mainly still standing because they make money. Does this matter? Does it matter were one lights a candle? Is one place more effective than the other?
Rationally I would say no, a candle is a candle, no matter where it is light. It’s the intention that counts. But if one believes that God is nearer in churches, does it matter if the church is still in use as such? Or is the ontological being of the church enough to make stuff work? Monasteries need to survive. I do understand they need to make money in order to keep existing. But when the monastery earns money by turning into a museum instead of making candles, beer, wine or cheese, how valid is their relation to the divine? Doesn’t it just become a spectacle? I somehow feel so, for I strongly agree with the philosopher William James when he states in his Varieties of religious experiences that religion “shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
Seeing all the outward splendour of this church, all the gold on display, I knew where my money would go! I suddenly realised how Luther must have felt in his days when he decided something had to change. This abbey played a central role in the counter reformation, so everything had just that little extra. But the church was noisy, people were talking loud and taking photos. I tried to sit quite for a while but quickly gave up. Not my kind of church.
Let silence be my church.