Bonhoeffer at Ettal

I’ve just returned from my church’s annual European Chaplains Retreat at the Catholic Benedictine Abbey in Ettal, Germany. Ettal sits on the old Roman road which ran through the Alps from Italy to Augsburg. The tiny village is just up the mountain from the famous Alpine market town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Our little group stayed at the Kloster Hotel Ludwig der Bayer which belongs to the monastery and is immediately across the street from the abbey church. As we sang hymns in the hotel during our worship together, I was reminded of this picture that I first saw when I visited the Flossenbürg concentration camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.

This is a photograph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his friend and later biographer Eberhard Bethge, and some young members of the Dohnanyi family, all singing Christmas carols in 1940 at the Kloster Hotel in Ettal.

Bonhoeffer stayed at the Ettal monastery from November 1940 until February 1941, not exactly hiding from the Nazis, but staying out of the spotlight that shone on him in Berlin. The Catholic Benedictine monks of Ettal welcomed this dangerous Protestant pastor and sheltered him, even though it exposed them to the Nazi threat.

My wife asked one of the priests at the hotel if he was familiar with the picture of Bonhoeffer playing the piano at the Kloster Hotel at Christmas, and he said that he believed it was taken in the lobby area, possibly in the room that has the fireplace.

While he stayed in Ettal, Bohnoeffer worked on the material for his book, Ethics.

I also spoke with one of the monks about my favorite Bonhoeffer work, Life Together (or in German, Gemeinsames Leben). He said the book reminded him of a modern Rule of Saint Benedict for Protestants.

A memorial in the abbey church recalls Bonhoeffer’s time at the monastery.

The text at the top of the marker translates (loosely):

For Christ’s sake
he pursued resistance against the Nazi Regime
and tarried in Ettal

The text below Bonhoeffer’s name is a poem and translates:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
confidently waiting come what may.
God is with us night and morning,
and certainly every new day.

As the young pastor struggled with his response to the Nazi powers, I wonder how much of what I experienced in Ettal would have also touched his thinking.

As Bonhoeffer entered the monastery church, this is the old inner portal through which he would have passed. The tympanum is one of the oldest parts of the monastery. It depicts Christ’s crucifixion, with the cross flanked by Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian (died 1347) and his wife Margaret. Ludwig’s reign was marked by wars with rival princes and conflicts with the pope. Ludwig founded Ettal Abbey in 1330 as the result of a vow he made during a conflict-ridden journey to Italy where he claimed the title “Emperor.”

Inside the church, he would have looked up into its beautiful baroque dome which depicts the clouds of heaven – both literal clouds and a cloud of witnesses.

During the winter months, you’ll feel like you are freezing to death if you sit too long in the monastery church, but the hills and fields of the Ammergau are great for walking and thinking. Even in winter, Ettal is a good spot for long walks through the mountains and along the meadow paths. Today, many of the Wanderwegs are plowed in winter, so taking a hike is like walking on a groomed ski slope. Groomed cross-country ski trails connect Ettal with Oberammergau and other spots in the Ammergau region. World-class Alpine skiing is also available nearby in Garmisch. Of course, while Garmisch had already become famous for its winter Olympics in 1936, Bonhoeffer did not come to Ettal for the winter sports.

I want to end by saying a few words about the Kloster Hotel Ludwig der Bayer itself. I imagine that Bonhoeffer and his companions received the same warm hospitality that we receive every time we stay there. The rooms are comfortable, the staff is friendly and accommodating, and the food is plentiful and delicious. Also, the monks brew some pretty fine beer and liqueur.

If you find yourself in the Garmisch area or the Ammergau, there are many good reasons to stop in Ettal. For me, the Bonhoeffer connection is one of the best.

Bonhoeffer at Flossenbürg