“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Every time I travel far from home, it awakens a strange dichotomy in my nature: a love of adventure, of exploration, of seeing new sights and having new experiences, but at the same time an awareness of how much I love being home, of how much I like being surrounded by the familiar and being near the people I know and love. I love going away on adventures, but I also love coming home again. I suppose this is one of the reasons that I have always related so much to Bilbo in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo often pines for his armchair and his books and regular meals at his own kitchen table, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking out further adventures.
I just returned from spending about ten days traveling through Germany, Austria, and Hungary, with a brief stop in Slovakia as well. The trip was a religious pilgrimage, focusing on the churches and religious sites of those areas, led by a priest of my local diocese. We stayed in Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Budapest, while also visiting Altötting in Bavaria, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Esztergom in Hungary, which is quite a lot to pack in to ten days and made for a very full itinerary. There were so many days that left me so overloaded with information and new impressions that all I could do was make notes on what to look up when I returned home, because the thought of trying process all that I had seen and heard that day was enough to make my brain just shut down entirely. We saw basilicas and cathedrals, castles and palaces, breathtaking buildings that ranged in history from the 9th century to buildings that had to be reconstructed after the bombings of World War II. The history was powerful everywhere that we went and spanned more than ten centuries; you could feel the weight of time in those places.
But even more for me, this was a pilgrimage to the lands of my heritage. Two of my great-great-grandparents met on the boat coming to America in the 1800s, one from Munich in Germany and the other from Linz in Austria. On both sides of my family tree, we have come from that small part of the world covered in thick forests and within sight of the Alps. Thanks to traditions passed down from her grandmothers, my mother raised me on the comfort food of sausage, sauerkraut, German potato salad, and goulash (all of which I ate almost exclusively while there). This call of my ancestry was the main reason that I decided to go on the trip in the first place, and, true enough, by our first day in Munich it truly felt like I had come home.
It’s a strange experience to feel so at home in a place that you have never been before.
The forests of Bavaria spoke to my story-loving soul, evoking the spirit of the Grimm fairy tales and the mysteries to be found in those deep and ancient woods. It’s easy to see why in the German folk tales the forests feature so prominently and produce such strong imagery of the supernatural, as the trees loom over you and stretch for miles and miles in every direction. Of course, having spent a couple decades now at the foot of the Appalachian mountains and their endless forests, I tend to take comfort in the embrace of trees all around me. It’s flat horizons that make me nervous. But dark, deep, old forests? Mountains rising up around me? A hint of ancient things hiding just around the next tree or curve in the path (if there is a path)? That’s my jam.
I expected to enjoy the food and the scenery (which I did), but what took me by surprise (which it really shouldn’t have) was the rich religious heritage that spoke so strongly to me. I have had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary ever since I joined the Catholic Church, and it was inspiring to see her honored so highly everywhere that we traveled. In Munich and across Bavaria, Our Lady seemed to be everywhere, highly venerated as protector and intercessor for the faithful. In Hungary, we learned how St. Stephen gave the very crown of Hungary to Our Lady and she is still considered the patron of the country. Many of the sites and devotions dedicated to Our Lady in that part world can be traced back a thousand years or more, and even the increasing secularism of our world have not erased their significance.
The most spiritually powerful site that we visited was the shrine of Our Lady of Altötting in Bavaria. The town of Altötting itself dates as far back as the 8th century, and was once the capital of Bavaria, but it has been popular pilgrimage site for the last 500 years and currently attracts about 1 million pilgrims every year. In 1489, a drowned boy was brought back to life after his mother laid him before the image of Our Lady and prayed for a miracle, and since then countless other miracles have been granted to pilgrims there. Even before the Christians came, the site was considered to be a spiritual place by the Celts, and that sacredness is still felt strongly when you visit there. Ringing the small building of the main chapel, there is a covered walkway and on every inch of the walls and ceiling are images that pilgrims have sent back in thanksgiving after having their prayers and petitions answered. Babies conceived, miraculous healings, peace granted in difficult times. Our Lord is still working His grace and mercy in the world, and the evidence can be seen in this tiny little town in Bavaria.
The first “religious experience” that I ever had was in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. I was nineteen years old, overseas for the very first time, and had almost no familiarity with religion at that point in my life. I wasn’t raised going to church and had never had even the vaguest curiosity about it at that point in my life. But when I walked into that basilica in Venice, I was overwhelmed by emotion and brought to tears that I couldn’t explain. I had this same experience in Altötting, but now I knew the source. The power and grace that filled that place couldn’t be expressed in words, but I could feel it in every muscle and nerve in my body. As we celebrated holy mass in the tiny Chapel of Grace, tears streamed down my face uncontrollably and it truly was a gift from Our Lord to be in that place. The entire trip was a gift, for so many reasons, and I only pray that I am able to continue carrying that grace with me.
In my true hobbit nature, I’m grateful to be home again; one can’t go adventuring all the time. I like my own bed, I like cooking my own meals in my own kitchen, and I like drinking my coffee (in silence) in the morning without having to be anywhere by a certain time. But getting a taste of how much more is out there in the world makes it hard to stay put for too long. I’m an avid reader, after all, and that partly comes from the desire for new knowledge and experiences, a desire to adventure. I know that wanderlust won’t stay satiated for very long, and who knows where the next adventure will take me?
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