A Monastery on a Hill

The first time I saw Pannonhalma Monastery, you couldn’t see it. No, it’s not like Shangri La, hiding from the world. It sits atop St. Martin’s Mount, a 250 m or so tall hill, and low clouds in that part of Hungary had eaten everything more than about 5 m tall. From the visitor’s center I walked up the long trail through the woods to the monastery in mist, and emerged in fog so heavy I couldn’t see the top of the church tower. Yes, I had my head in the clouds. The buildings, made of cream-yellow stone, sort of appeared out of the trees and then vanished into the grey. As you would expect of a monastery on a prominent hill in the marches, Pannonhalma has been damaged and rebuilt multiple times over the millennium, so most of it is Gothic, Baroque, and neo-Gothic with modern touches here and there, on Romanesque foundations. 

It was founded by the Benedictines in 996 and is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. He originally came from what is now Hungary and served in the Roman army on the Pannonian frontier before accepting Christianity and eventually, against his will (according to tradition – the geese ratted him out) becoming Bishop of Tours in Gaul (now France). The first buildings burned and were rebuilt. Then the Mongols chased the monks out in the early 1200s but the Benedictines returned. King Mathias Hunyadi (Matias Corvinus) sponsored rebuilding the abbey in the Gothic style two hundred years later. The Turkish wars led to another temporary abandonment while the hill became a fortress. When the Habsburgs drove the Turks out, the monks came back, survived the dissolution of the monasteries by Josef II, and outlasted the Nazis and Communists. Pannonhalma, now an arch-abbey that supervises all Benedictine monastic communities in the region, is a teaching institution and includes a boarding school (boys only) as well as providing oversight and faculty for a second boy’s school. It also answers only to the Pope and (formerly) to the foundation house at Monte Cassino.

I found the self-guided audio tour of the church, library, and grounds quite well done and enjoyable, and the temporary exhibit comparing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox icons and art styles was fascinating. I got a book and some other things at the little gift shop, and descended in light rain and heavy cloud back to the valley.

That night storms cleared out the clouds, and come dawn, the sun lit Pannonhalma, turning the walls gold. Indeed, you can see it for quite a ways from all sides of the hill, and it sort of followed the bus until we crossed the Balkony Mountains on our way to Veszprem and Tihany Abbey on Lake Balaton .

One of the other people in the group shook her head and made a comment about the abbey dominating the region. Psychological intimidation I think was the term she used, but I could have mis-transcribed it. She did not approve, or at least had grave doubts about the power of the abbey in its heyday, and of the Church in general. I’m not certain if she had a bad experience with Catholics (or another flavor of Christians) at some point, dislikes large institutions generally, or is a free-thinker and spiritualist.

In contrast, I found it a comforting sight, the golden walls high above the Raab River floodplains and the Danube floodplains. It stood solid and reassuring where it had been for over a thousand years, surviving invasions, governments, storms, and the other turmoils of Christendom. The library holds the oldest known document to use Hungarian words along with Latin, among other treasures. Love or hate the Catholic Church, it helped keep learning and culture alive in dark times and still provides a beacon for many. I suspect over the centuries some people in the district looked to the abbey as a nuisance and resented its presence and riches. I suspect others found it reassuring and helpful.

I’m not Catholic, far from it, but I have a great respect for the power of the monastic tradition at its best. Pannonhalma strikes me as being part of that best, a symbol that civilization can survive if people are willing to work to keep it alive.