The Irish Monk, the Abbey and the Library

This was not where he planned to stay. His ambitions were grander, this valley was meant merely to be a pitstop, but Columbanus had to move on, and there was no way he could follow the great man on his evangelizing mission in this physical state…

A gaunt and pale Gallus sighed from his bed. That was all he could do, his limbs felt lifeless, every minor exertion wore him out. This fiendish illness pervading his body made it all the more worse, “Is this your will God, that I should be here in this place – that these pagans in this valley are my mission field?”

“Let this illness pass from me, but your Will be done.”

Gallus did not plan to even be in the country of arrived in the land of the Alemannia. He had accompanied Columbanus to the an abbey in Gaul but was exiled together with Columbanus to Alemannia because the leaders of the land were opposed to the Christian religion. Irish missionaries and Ireland used to be considered a beacon of Christianity, it’s pastors travelling far and wide to preach the gospel to the millions of non-Christians (pagans). This despite the fact that the Roman Empire never ever reached Ireland but was brought to it by an itinerant monk called Patrick, what we know today as St Patrick (the name behind St Patrick’s Day).

It is the way of Christianity and its very evangelical nature that nations full of religious fervour would have a sizable popuation that end up as missionaries. Ireland and France for example were rich in overseas missionaries. The story is vastly different today with missionaries from Asia and Africa moving to Europe instead to (in a dramatic sense) sort of ‘re-Christianise Europe’, the Catholic Church for example calls it the New Evangelisation.

The illness changed Gallus from a companion of Columbanus to a campaigner of Christ. He was a hermit, but not fading wall flower. Gallus was a powerful preacher and a very charismatic introvert too with the holiness to drive demons out of people and the power to preach to the beasts of nature.

Legend has it that Gallus recovered and was traveling around the woods when he was attacked by the bear. Most people would have attempted to flee and end up mauled by the bear, Galls however rebuked the bear and the bear in sheer shock and awe of Gallus ceased its attack and retreated to the trees where it gathered firewood and created a fire for St Gall to settle. The bear became a disciple and followed Gallus around. He settled near the Lake Constance, and with a few companions who also stayed behind built an abbey to be hermits.

A century after his death and after Gallus had been proclaimed a saint, another preacher Othmar arrived and rebuilt the hermitage installing the relics of Gallus that were venerated in the hermitage. Othmar was appointed the first abbott of the rebuilt hermitage and placed the monks in the place under the rule of St Benedict, also called the Benedictine order, an order that still exists today and follows the same rules laid down by St Benedict.

Many people soon joined, especially noblemen, and the abbey grew and grew. It’s religious prominence brought to it financial prosperity as more people arrived for stays and religious direction and people moved in and set up services to service the religion industry, including guest houses, stables, a hospital, a market… the works. In time a whole city grew around the monastery, a marvelous architectural plan called the Plan of Saint Gall was even drawn up – the plan was never accomplished but remained the only architecutral plan within a 700 year time span from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the 13th century to remain and is a work of vital historical and cultural significance.

Plan of Saint Gall (Source)

It’s prominence drew invasion from the Hungarian Magyars and the abbey was raided on a number of occasions. While the original abbey was destroyed one structure stood the test of time, till this very day – the library. The power of the library was not in its struture, but in its books. The physical buuilding was redesigned in a beautiful Carolingian rococo style and is home today to one of the most comprehensive collection of medieval texts in the German speaking world, with more 160,000 books (2100 handwritten). Of these books, some 80,000 of them were written in the middle ages (400 to 1000 years ago).

The maximum I could take pictures in the library

The Abbey Library (Source)

As its prominence grew, so did its political influence. The abbots of the church were preachers in the initial founding of the church, but evolved over three centuries into Prince-Abbots, wielding political power in temporal matters as well as religious influence. This was similar to the de facto power held by the abbess of the Fraumunster in Zurich, and was clearly an untenable, unsustainable situation which would end at some point.

That point arrived in the late 1400s and was complete with the protestant reformation. The people of the town of St Gallen, numbering some 70,000, has decided to adopt the Protestant Christian faith, but the church remained staunchly Catholic. This difference in worship broke the serfdom on which the townsfolk were once under.

The monastery stood in its place for almost 1000 years, the abbey church and library rebuilt once during the 1600s in the Baroque style before it was secularised (meaning made accessible) to the general public in 1805 and later became the Cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of St Gallen.

The Abbey of St Gallen (Source)

It is still an active Cathedral, the heart of the city still centres around this church and it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1983.

Gallus did not plan to even stay in the area, but the seed he planted in what is today his namesake city, has certainly bloomed, standing tall as the heartbeat of a city, and the heart of the church in the area.

Perhaps this was God’s plan all along.

ON THE MAP

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