Four Nights in St. Bartholomew

by Ruwen Rouhs

The First Night

Closter Neuburg - nach einem Stich von Matthäus Merian, 1645

The Star in the Crypt

Anselm raised his head from the pillow — at least he tried to. The squealing door hinges had raised him out of a dreamless sleep. From his place in the bed he drowsily noticed the upper edge of the oak door swinging back. Then a puff of fresh air swirled around the stale air of the small room. Nothing more happened. Nobody entered the small room. While the door swung back into the lock with a slight thud suddenly the small face of a boy with a pageboy haircut bent down over Anselm, studying him anxiously.

"Glad you are back again, my friend! Do you feel better?" a strange voice sounding like a church bell asked, and relieved and dark eyes looked straight into Anselm's blue ones. These eyes exerted a fascinating anticipation on Anselm but at the same time made him feel drowsy. Exhausted, he closed his eyes, while bit by bit the events of the last afternoon came back to his mind.

Leaving the bus at the station in the shade of an old lime tree, the summer heat hit Anselm, together with the scent of dust from the country road, of water from the nearby Neckar River, and the sweet smell of lime blossoms. When Anselm crossed the road, his sandals nearly got stuck in the runny tar. The few steps to the pub, named "Abbot's Hermitage" on the opposite side, was enough to make sweat run down his back. The small terrace of the pub was crowded by visitors waiting in the chilling shade of lime trees for the beginning of the Vespers Service in the small church of the Abbey of Niwenburg on the low foothill of the Odenwald (Oden Forest). Anselm checked the crowd for familiar faces. Luckily, he could not spot a single one. All visitors seemed to be tourists attracted to the monastery of St. Bartholomew for the Gregorian Chants performed by the monks at the Vespers in afternoon hours.

Neither did Anselm join the crowd chilling in the shade of the trees nor did he climb up the steep walkway to the church. On the contrary, he searched his way around the pub past the garbage cans. A jungle-like grove sprawled from the back of the pub up to the trout pond of St. Bartholomew and further up the small glen.

Immersed in the cool shadow of wild under-brush of hazelnuts and alder, Anselm immediately felt refreshed. The cool draft coming down the glen from the pond reminded him of the opera "The Freeshooter" (Freischütz, Opera by Carl Maria von Weber) whose composer was inspired to the romantic tunes of just this glen, the "Wolf's Glen", as it was called since centuries. Anselm knew there were no wolves in this part of Germany, neither grey wolves nor werewolves. None the less, the cool air made his sun-kissed flesh crawl while he made his way to the wire mesh fence about 20 yards up the glen. There he stopped to throw his small backpack over it and then climbed himself into the enclosure of St. Bartholomew, that is straight into the realm of the Benedictine Monks residing in the monastery.

Once inside he scrambled over to the wall of rough field stones protecting the Abbey from unwelcome visitors. The high rising wall blocked the view of the monastery buildings, and only the spire of St. Bartholomew was visible from his position close to the wall. To his right a beech forest climbed up to the foothills of the Odenwald. At the level of the spire Anselm fought his way through the entangled shrubbery to the foot of the wall. Resting his back against a trunk of a beech tree he scanned it meticulous for the window-like entrance to the crypt. After a short time, he was able to locate a small wooden window shutter hidden by ivy climbing and ferns growing in the joints between the field stones. From his previous visit to the monastery he knew this small door high up in the wall had been used in earlier times as getaway for the monks in case of a siege by enemies.

Anselm heaved a sigh of relief because he had succeeded in the first part of the endeavour to discover the secret of the crypt of St. Bartholomew because he had located the hidden entrance to the crypt. Now he had to overcome the next problem. This was far more difficult, because he had to climb up the sheer wall and open the shutter to the entrance to the crypt. But this probably was not the most dangerous part of his endeavour. The most demanding part would be the investigation of the dark, murky crypt, extending from this secret entrance to the other end below the grated opening to the sanctuary just in front of the high altar.

About a month earlier Anselm and his mother had visited the Abbey to attend a Vespers in the church. They had undertaken this excursion as he had developed a liking for Gregorian Chants, after being introduced to these solemn medieval recitations in school. After the service still singing along the chants floating freely in his mind, the friars had offered the churchgoers to take a tour through the monastery. After a short introduction in the history of the Abbey, which reached back to twelfth century they had asked the group to split up gender-wise, because the women were not supposed to enter to the enclosure of the abbey.

Being surprised Anselm had shot a questioning look to his mother. She however just smiled, "The monks still haven't arrived in modern times! Go ahead and visit the enclosure while I stay with the women. But be back in time, I don't want to lose you to the monks."

"Don't hope for that, Mom! There is no danger of it happening," Anselm answered, laughing.

While Friar Adalbert showed a rather big group of women the non-restricted part of the abbey, like the stables, the nursery, the wine cellar, and the guest house, Anselm and a middle-aged man were left in the charge of an impish-looking young monk named Pius. Soon the man and Friar Pius were engrossed in a heated discussion about the sense of monastic life in modern times. Meanwhile Anselm got bored to death. Luckily on the way to the library the three ran into Abbot Albertus who smiled at Anselm asking, "Are you bored, young man?" and then released Pius from his task to defend the Benedictine rules and took over the task himself.

Immediately Friar Pius' face lit up like Anselm's also, and he suggested, "Come on, Boy! On a beautiful day like that I do not like disputes. Let's go into the garden and enjoy that sunny day."

First Friar Pius showed Anselm the garden in the back of the abbey, then the Wolf's Glen, pointing out the origin of the name, asked him to feed trout in the pond, and then they walked back to rose garden in front of the church.

During the tour Anselm learned all about the duties of the different members of the small Benedictine community, like the one of the Abbot, of the Prior, of the Cellarer, of the Bibliothecary, of the common monks, and last not least of the Novice Master.

Putting his arm around Anselm's shoulder Pius invited him to spend some time in the monastery during the summer holidays. "You do not have to become a monk, just because you are visiting here, and you don't have to pray all the time either. As a city boy I bet you would enjoy staying here. For example, you could help me and Friar Johannes to tend the horses and cows, the pigs and chickens, and to bring in the hay harvest. That was just the way I loved to learn about living in the monastery. We have a lot of things a young man like you may enjoy, not only our animals and a library full of books, but also a swimming pool."

"Are girls allowed in the pool?" Anselm asked mischievously!

"Girls?" Friar Pius turned crimson, "No, no, it's for men only. Remember, the pool is inside the enclosure!"

In the rose garden Friar Pius pointed to a trapdoor, opened it just a small crack and pointed into the dark. When Anselm looked at him with questioning eyes, he raised a warning finger, "That's the entrance to the crypt of our monastery! You are not supposed to enter this holy place, because this is the final resting place of our brothers. Down here their bodies are resting till the second coming of Our Lord. Bow your head in awe!" When Anselm got big eyes, Friar Pius explained, "All member of this monastery are buried down here since the monastery was founded. They are not buried in soil like common Christians. Their dead bodies are put into niche graves in the wall of the crypt. They are not buried in coffins either, they are buried just clad in the habit they had used in daily live. Then the niche is closed with a stone slab bearing only the religious name of the monk and neither his birth name nor his day of birth or the date of his death."

Anselm looked startled. Wanting to get it right, he asked. "Then your grave will say only Pius, and nobody will remember your birth name or your family-name or the name of your ancestors?"

"Yes, my boy, so it is! I got rechristened after I entered the monastery and took the solemn vows. Now the members of the monastic community are my family!"

Anselm didn't believe anything that Pius was telling him. Naturally he did believe that the monks are buried in the crypt, however he did not believe that they were buried just clad in a simple habit. He had seen the tombs of princes and kings. He had visited the golden shrine of Charlemagne in Aachen, he had adored the Mummies of the Egyptian Emperors in a museum in Berlin. He had seen all the gold, the silver, the gemstones adoring the sarcophagus of kings and emperors. He just could not believe that monks, especially abbots, just were buried like common people. He wanted to check out the graves in the crypt with his own eyes.

"Can I visit the crypt? I like mystique places!" he pleaded. When the friar wagged his head, Anselm made him puppy eyes, "Please! Please, Friar Pius, I promise not to disturb the rest and the peace of the dead!"

"I told you already, you are not allowed! As a layman you must have a special permission by the abbot." When Anselm looked disappointed Friar Pius tried to cheer him up, by telling him more about the history of the abbey. "The monastery and the crypt are very old. This crypt is even older that the present buildings, like the church, the refectory and the dormitories. Maybe the crypt was excavated more than 900 years ago. I do not know exactly when, but maybe the first were put to rest as early as 1104!"

Anselm pressed again, "This old? There must be gold, silver, pearls and armour in the graves, a lot of precious items like these. In cathedrals and museums, I saw big sarcophagi and all the precious things the nobles were buried with in older times. Did you know the Egyptians buried their kings with all they may need in the next world, with food, with servants and horses, sometimes even their wives have been put into their tombs? Are you really sure the niches of the former abbots just contain their bones? I can't believe this! No, Friar Pius, I just can't believe you!"

"You have to, Boy! It holds true for Benedictine monks all around the world since our order was founded in 800. Benedictine monks have sworn the vow of poverty since ever. Believe me or ask the abbot! Understand it my dear young man, monks are buried in the crypt without any wealthy goods."

Anselm couldn't believe this and secretly decided to visit the crypt as soon as possible and clandestinely. Therefore, the rest of the tour he tried hard to come to know all the entrances to the crypt. Besides the trapdoor Friar Pius showed him the grated opening in the sanctuary of the church just in front of the main altar. He also pointed out there was a small entrance to the crypt high up in the wall surrounding the monastery. "It's not in use anymore. In medieval times, however, it was used as an escape during sieges by enemies."

Friar Pius and Anselm separated as friends, or nearly as friends, because monks are not supposed to have friends. They are not allowed to entertain personal friendships at all. When he shook hands with the friar at the door, he knew he had to visit the crypt, to visit it by himself, unhindered and unwatched.

Anselm studied the ivy-covered wall thoroughly. Some of the ivy vines were thick as an arm, other thin like spider-legs. Once at a friend's house he had tried to climb up the thick green coat covering the house-walls to his friend's window in the upper floor. His friend had warned him, "You'll fall down!" but he didn't because the plants were cemented to the roughcast with their root's plugs. He hoped this would work today also!

He put on his small headlamp, fastened his Swiss pocket tool to the belt and checked for the keyring with home-made lock picks. He was proud of the picks especially, as he had to spend nearly all his birthday money for the rugged Swiss tool and the sturdy lock picks. These had been fitted to suit old locks especially. Expecting the crypt to be cold he put on the dark-blue hoodie he had carried around his middle, strapped on his backpack, and slowly began to climb to the small entrance high up in the wall.

Some of the vines yielded under his body weight and his heart nearly dropped into his gut. But finally, he made it to the wooden shutter covering the entrance, his heart pounding like mad. Tearing away the ivy twigs in front of the shutter he found the old-fashioned lock. He tried out one of the picks after the other, but none worked. Like an expert burglar he concluded that the lock was rusted. Having prepared for this possibility in advance he had brought along a small can of silicon oil. Spraying an ample amount of the oil into the keyhole he waited impatiently. After several minutes and many trials, the bolt gave way and he was able to pull open the door.The air flowing out of the dark crypt smelled cold but clean, neither the stench of death nor the hint of withering flowers hit his nostrils.

Switching on the headlamp he detected a steep ramp, moist and slick with algae, leading down into the dark. He had expected some kind of steps but not a smooth chute. The light of his headlamp seemed unable to hit the floor of the crypt. A velveteen blackness devoured its rays completely.

A shiver was running down Anselm's spine. For the first time he felt uneasy about his endeavour. Should he abandon it, close the door and retreat without having achieved his goal? He closed his eyes for a moment, swallowed down his fear and decided to slide down the ramp feet first.

Bracing his arms and legs against the side walls he tried to slow down his decent into the blackness. In vain! Neither with hands nor feet could he slow down his plunge into the darkness. The last picture he remembered later was the pavement of ragged stone slabs of the floor. Hitting the bottom his mind went black. Later, much later, he concluded he had crashed to the stone-floor foot forward and banged with the back of his head against the wall, because the steep ramp suddenly changed into the upright wall of the vault.

Faint Gregorian chants aroused Anselm from a long blackout. He found himself curled up on his left side in fetal position. He could move his left arm with pain only. A throbbing headache made him squirm. After a short glimpse around he closed his eyes again, because he couldn't even stand the faint light seeping in through the opening high up in the wall.

Slowly he began to feel his head with the fingers of his right hand. His forehead and temples seemed uninjured, but the hair at the back of his head was soggy and the hairs sticky. Sniffing at his fingertips they smelt like rusty iron. The soggy stuff at the back of his head had to be blood! His head was cut!

His backpack was still in place. He wanted to look up the time at his watch at his left arm. However, when he finally was able to move his arm he couldn't read the time, because the glass of the watch was shattered. Now he noticed his head-torch was missing also.

Anselm listened into the darkness resounding with soft Gregorian chants. After some time, he was able to locate the origin of the chants. They came from the opposite end of the vaulted crypt where he assumed the grated opening to the nave of the church was located. He tried to identify the Latin chants, at first in vain. However, when the chants finally faded away, he remembered the words of the last one. "Alma Redemptoris Mater" the monks had performed, "Mother of Christ! Hear thou thy people's cry, star of the deep, and portal of the sky!" Anselm took the song for a sign of encouragement. He was not lost in the dark!

With his sharp eyes Anselm tried to penetrate the darkness. He needed to know more about the crypt. The walls on both sides of his place on foot of the window curved slightly indicating an approximately rectangular room with the window on the narrow edge at the wall surrounding the monastery and the opening to the nave on the other end.

He tried to rise. When he had straightened himself up, he staggered and had to crouch down on his heels to avoid falling over. The sharp pain in his left arm caused him to cry out. This stabbing pain was even worse than the one of his head and made him close his eyes for a moment. When he had recovered all the noises coming down through opening to the of the church had finally died away. Silence filled the darkness.

He pulled himself together again, rose to his feet and looked around. The late afternoon light dimmed from the trees in the Wolf's Glen illuminated a small circle of the ground close to the window only and the feeble rays were not able to penetrate the darkness in front of him. Shakily he searched the stone paved ground for the lost headlamp. He found it, but the back holding the batteries had broken away from the head with the LEDs and the batteries had dropped out. Feverishly he searched the ground for the batteries and the back cover; finally, he recovered them all. Reassembling the parts, he happily found that the light still worked. All eight LEDs worked but their light was too weak to penetrate the darkness up to the other end of the now silent crypt.

Suddenly Anselm's head started spinning and everything went black again. He tried to keep upright but fell forward and fainted. After an unknown period, he regained consciousness and felt recovered. Pulling himself together he considered what to do next. Recalling his original intention, he decided to investigate the crypt according to his plan while he waited for the Compline to begin, which should be around seven in the evening.

He dimmed his headlight to prolong the power of the batteries. Neglecting the pain in his bruised head and arm, Anselm felt his way along the left wall where the entrance to the crypt through the trapdoor should be located. On his way to the staircase to the door he counted twelve rows of niche graves. In each row there were three graves above one another each one sealed with a tomb slab of reddish sandstone and marked with a name and a date. The ones closest to the small entrance high up in the wall seemed to be the youngest, as the engravings were of a rather modern style.

Climbing up the staircase Anselm found that the iron-bound trapdoor was blocked by a latch from the outside and all his trials to open it were in vain. He started pounding against the door and called for help till his voice got hoarse. However, nobody heard him.

Disillusioned, he continued his survey of the niche graves. Where the long side met the short side of the vault, Anselm came upon a single tomb slab halfway up the wall. The surface of this tomb slab was polished and adorned with a star only. It was marked neither with a name nor a date. Becoming curious and agitated he tried to pry open the grave. At first glance the slab seemed to be inset into the wall seamlessly. He tried to push the slab back, but it didn't move. Therefore, he decided to continue with the investigation of the crypt.

Soon Anselm was standing below the opening to the sanctuary. He peered through to the grated opening and was able to discern the colourful painting on the ceiling of the church. He listened, but there was neither the soft mumbling of visitors nor the shuffling of feet to be heard.

Examining the graves on the other side of the vault he wasn't surprised to find the same pattern of niche graves he had encountered already. So far, he had counted about thirty-two rows of graves closed with decorated caps and eight open graves, just deep holes line with stone slabs extending about two meters into the underground. The open holes were swept clean and neither a bone nor another relict was left. Anselm guessed the crypt would house the bones of at least 100 deceased monks. So far, he hadn't detected anything of value. Not even an altar, a mural or a statue was in the crypt, nothing he remembered from the gravesides of Egyptian rulers.

Something was preying on his mind. Some unknown power seemed to draw him back to the other side of the crypt. Was it the trapdoor? About half-ways to the staircase the unknown power urged him to a stop. He tried to walk on, but now the power pulled him back and caused him to study the corner of the crypt with the single grave again. It was the with the star instead of a name on the closing slap. He inspected the tomb slab again and finally decided to scrape the dust of the centuries out of the nearly invisible furrow surrounding the plate with his Swiss tool. Little by little Anselm was successful. Finally, he was able to ease the point of his blade between the plate and the rough stones surrounding it.

After some rocking, the slab came loose. Anselm pushed on its left edge and it moved away slightly and gave access to the interior of the tomb. The crack was just a hand breath wide. In the light of his headlamp the burial cave seemed to be empty. On the second glance however he spotted a small cord thick as a straw running further into the dark. With two fingers he got hold of it. Pulling it out he found a small medal tied to a string of leather.

The oval medal had the size of a two Euro coin and was tarnished black. At both sides of the pendant he could feel strange engravings. Were these Arabic or Hebrew or Indian or Korean characters? He could not discern. Scraping away some of the black tarnish on the edge of the coin it started to shine like silver.

Suddenly something strange happened. Pictures began flowing through his mind freely, pictures of a town built at the foot of a sky-high rock, surrounded by battlements with crenellations, studded with towers, besieged by men on horses with shields and swords. Before his eyes he saw assailants with wooden ladders approaching the sky-high walls, battering rams drawn by horses ramming the town-gates, four-wheeled siege towers approaching manned with archers shooting flaming arrows across the wall into the town. In his mind Anselm saw crossbowmen trying to hit the defenders behind the crenellations. He saw spear-men, pike-men, and swordsmen waiting to be close enough to seize the mural crown and the turrets. He saw people fleeing the city in terror, women, children, young men and old men. They were attacked by knights on horseback and by foot soldiers brandishing clubs. Nauseated Anselm tried to chase away these pictures of dismay. Hiding the enchanted medal in the pocket of his hoodie he walked over to the opening in the ceiling of the vault to the sanctuary and waited for the monks take to the choir stalls in the nave.

Because of the nightmare Anselm had lost track of time. Therefore, the ringing of the bell of St. Bartholomew and the chants of the monks at the beginning of the service alarmed him.

"Hello! Hello! Hi, I am down here! Here I am, in the crypt! Can you hear me? Please! Please! Help!" His shouts were echoed by the vault. They resounded. The sound was horrible. After a long, seemingly endless time, the chants ceased. Anselm saw dark shadows bending down to the opening in the church floor. He got frightened and relieved at the same time. Remembering that he was hidden by the dark, he made himself visible by shining the head-lamp on himself while he shouted, "Friar Pius, it's me! It's Anselm, please help! I am down in the vault! Please help me, save me! I am scared to death!"

After a seemingly endless time he heard the trapdoor creaking in its hinges and then light footsteps coming down the staircase. Out of the dark men in black habits closed in, one of them panning a feeble spotlight. When Anselm was hit by the beam of light a voice the asked, "Is it you? Are you the student wanting to know all about our monastery and the crypt?" Then the voice added with a scarcely audible snicker, "I expected you earlier my friend, but above ground!"

In the light of his own headlight Anselm recognized the round face with the dark stubble on his scalp. It was of Friar Pius! "Thanks God, it's you Pius, Friar Pius!" That was all Anselm could exclaim before he collapsed on the ground.

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