Samuel Vaught ‘ 16 – Tuesday was our first day in Erfurt. Leaving Mainz, we made the journey eastward into new territory. We left the low-lying vineyards of the Rhine for more mountainous regions, such as Eisenach, our Wednesday destination. This was our first day in the former East Germany, culturally and politically separated following World War II and under Soviet control until 1989. The difference was notable – English is spoken much less frequently, and tourists are few and far between. When we stepped out of the train station in Erfurt, I could immediately tell I was in a different Germany. It could have been my imagination, or some Western-inspired delusion, but I felt icy stares from many people as we schlepped our luggage over the cobbled sidewalks through town to our hotel. We stood out like the twelve sorest thumbs I’ve ever seen.
I soon got a sense, however, that not all of this cultural difference is negative, and I would be remiss not to point out the aspects of eastern Germany that I have enjoyed. While the population is poorer than in the west, they seem more community-focused here. Vendors filled the Domplatz – the main cathedral plaza – with fresh food, flowers, clothing, and other goods in the morning, welcoming Spring with bright colors and fragrances. The man selling the local favorite, Thüringer bratwurst, stayed open until 11 PM – we were his last customers that night. It is a nice change not to squirm our way through tourist-crowded avenues, like we did in both Mainz and Heidelberg. We don’t have to deal with the rampant commercialism that has taken hold in the west, which can lead one to believe that the streets of these German cities are no different than those of Chicago or Philadelphia. The people here in Erfurt don’t dress like supermodels, and our own clothing blends in more than it did on Sunday and Monday. I’ll let you decide if these less-Western traits are good or bad for the region. Regardless, it is a remarkably different experience.
The cathedral in Erfurt, Mariensdom (St. Mary’s Cathedral), presides over the entire city. The cathedral is a fourteenth-century masterpiece of French gothic design, built atop a substructure that dates from several hundred years before. It was founded by Saint Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon apostle to the Germans, revered throughout the country with statuary and namesake and given patronal status. It was here, at the high altar, that Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507, in the city in which he went to university and lived in as a monk for eleven years. Next to the cathedral sits Severinkirche (St. Severus’ Church), a companion to the larger cathedral but still magnificent in its own right (the organ is a spectacular Baroque creation – the most ornate I’ve seen so far).
I’m struck by the fact that these churches are the backdrop, the skyline, for so many people as they go about their daily lives. They walk to school and work, shop, eat, and socialize, all in the shadow of this majestic work of art and piety. I genuinely wonder if they take it for granted, like we often do in Crawfordsville. Do we know when we walk the brick paths of campus that we stand in the presence of the mighty Eric Gugler, who transformed Wabash in the mid-twentieth century and gave us the mall as we know it today? Do we know that the hands that sketched the plans of the President’s Dining Room in the Sparks Center also sketched the “President’s Office,” in an oval shape, in the west office wing of a white mansion in our nation’s capital? I’m not suggesting that we compare the likes of Erfurt Cathedral with Wabash College, but it is important to keep in mind how we perceive the storied and fashioned landscape that surrounds us. Erfurt taught me that.
The icing on the Wednesday cake was a stroll through the Citadelle Petersberg, an enormous fortress complex that rises off to the side of the cathedral and rivals it in height. Now a park, it was once a garrison for soldiers from a period of time I could not determine, but at least since the time of Luther and certainly much earlier. Most of the buildings on the citadel are dilapidated, excluding a few used for museum and concert space. Perhaps the old armory has been abandoned since the fall of the Soviet Empire at the end of the twentieth century. The most distressing example of neglect was Peterskirche, a 1000 year-old pre-gothic church that might be the oldest building I’ve seen this week. The entire space, however, is still in good use. A park, a restaurant with a million-dollar view of the city, and probably more tourists than we think keeping it running well, despite the decaying structures that dot the grassy hill.
Harrison, Matt, and I stumbled upon a labyrinth on one side of the park, formed into the earth with ridges and depressions. This is a spiritual tool for meditation or prayer, an ancient contemplative practice that centers the mind, body, and spirit on a circle as one walks the circuitous path around it. As I was treading the worn dirt, circling back and forth, I caught different views of the city. At one point, I caught a perfect glimpse of the Augustinian monastery in which Luther lived, marked by its turreted tower that avoided the destruction of most of the monastery during a World War II bombing raid. I couldn’t help but think that the labyrinth was the perfect metaphor for our journey to this point – the winding, seemingly directionless journey that took us to Wabash, and then to this moment – in a foreign land, assaulted with inspiration and Old World beauty, with the story of a man who changed the course the course of human history. When you walk the labyrinth, it seems hard to imagine you are nearing the center. You come close only to turn and walk further away. However, at the end, you round a corner to find a straight shot to the center, where a small stone beckons you to sit in silence. If our own journeys are like that labyrinth, we have little to be afraid of. We don’t always see where we’re headed, but we hope that peace is at the middle, that the destination exists. I wonder if Luther ever contemplated the same things, thinking those dangerous thoughts beneath the tower I now have my eyes on. Don’t we all?
I rose from my seat, and oddly calm, began my descent back into the city, ready to welcome the rest of this eye-opening experience.