Maria Laach Monastery offers gateway to past

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, GERMANY -- Fields, green woods, a deep blue lake and a monastery. Every year two million tourists, pilgrims, art lovers and curious folks from all over the world visit Maria Laach, a popular day-excursion site. Well-posted signs from the A-61 Autobahn, left of the Rhine River, point you in the right direction. 

From the huge parking lot there are direct views of both the lake and the monastery. You're here! 

Lake Laach, measuring 2.4 kilometers long and 1.8 kilometers wide, is the largest lake in the Eifel region. It originated from a volcanic eruption and is a Maar or volcanic lake. At a time when people had already settled in the area it must have been a strong eruption. 

On Aug. 24, 1156, the abbey church was officially opened. In 1230, after the "Paradises" vestibule was built, the church was finally finished. At the end of the 15th century, the Laach monastery became a center of art and science. On Aug. 2, 1802, like many other monasteries, it was closed after the French Revolution. Thirteen years later it was given to the Prussian state. In 1862 the monastery was taken over by the Jesuit order. It was turned into a Collegium Maximum to teach young aspiring monks of the order. At this time it was given its present name "Maria Laach." In 1892, Benedictine monks from the arch abbey of Beuron on the Danube river moved into the monastery. 

Today, more than 60 monks live in the monastery. They obey the commandments of Saint Benedikt of Nursia, who in the 6th century preached a balance of work and prayer: ora et labora. The monks follow this lesson during their daily work. 

There is plenty of work to be seen in the monastery. It has its own art publishing house, a nursery, a smith working wrought-iron, a stone working stop, bookstore and hotel. The monastery -- with its 200 employees -- is one of the largest employers of the area. 

Anybody who thinks that the monks live like they did centuries ago is wrong. Equipment of the 20th century has long entered the abbey: computers, fax machines, visiting cards, etc. 

There is a new information center where the monks will answer questions from visitors. Soft music in the church provides the right background for a short meditation. When descending the wide steps of the west group, one reaches the vestibule of the abbey. Arcades open on three sides and offer charming views of the inner courtyard. Fountains of gurgling lions are found here. 

When entering the interior of the abbey church it is advisable to head for the middle of the church. From there one has the best view toward the high altar, the mosaics, the stained glass windows and the vault, built in the 13th century. In the western apse the tomb of Count Palatine Heinrich II can be seen. The crypt and the Benedict Chapel are also well worth seeing.