Bavarian lore, as in Britain, suggests that fair or foul weather on St Swithin’s Day will determine the weather for the rest of the month of July. Many Bavarians believe that the “weather saints” regulate the heavens – and not in a wholly orthodox way.
I noticed this over Pentecost when I was home for our village’s annual Whitsun Beerfest. Pouring rain for the opening night’s procession and the subsequent cold weather did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the celebration. Instead, the rain was met with stoicism and sage head-shaking.
“It’s the fault of the ‘ice saints’,” someone kindly explained after the brief hour of sunlight which held for the outdoor Mass was followed by a rushing of wind and a darkening of the skies.
“Ice saints?” I echoed, hoping that someone would explain. “Before St Boniface is gone, summer will not come. After cold St Sophie is passed, the frost will not last.”
It turns out that medieval Bavarian farmers were wary of the Ides of May. The ice saints are Servatius, Pancras, Boniface of Tarsus and Sophie, whose feast is on May 15.
The superstition seems to have a nice meteorological foundation, however, which was that polar winds had a tendency to sweep down in the middle of May after the weather had already become quite temperate. The ensuing frosts would ruin any crops that had been planted. Whatever the case, it is a rather lovely reminder that the church calendar used to be the one that governed everything. I’m told that the summer crops are now ready to be planted this week.
Whenever I am home, I think of the incredible legacy of the British Benedictines in Germany and the truly European face of the Church. St Boniface, not the icy one mentioned earlier but a native of Exeter whose name was Wynfryth, left his home in the Kingdom of Wessex in the early 8th century to become the Apostle of Germany. Despite what must have been terrible infrastructure and excruciatingly slow travelling, he managed to cover large swathes of Europe, even travelling to Rome several times to report to popes Gregory II and III. It was Gregory II who gave him the name Boniface, after the martyr at Tarsus, and sent him back to Germany to convert pagans, reform the existing Church and appoint bishops. Thanks to him, we have Christianity, Benedictines and episcopal sees.
The Benedictine monasteries were the communications hubs of medieval Europe. Messages and news would pass from monastery to monastery in a sort of relay system, with one monk travelling ahead and the other returning to his monastery with the news he had just learned. Some of the most ancient ones in Bavaria lie nearby: the Abbey of Metten, which lies north of the Danube, nestled against the Bavarian Forest and border to the Czech Republic, and Niederalteich, which lies between the Danube and the Isar. Both are still active today and Metten is celebrating its 1,240th anniversary this year.
Part of the joy of reading about the medieval Church is the profusion of strange names. Metten, for example, was founded by Blessed Utto, godson of Gamelbert of Michaelsbuch in 766, only 12 years after Wynfryth/Boniface was killed by vengeful Frisians while proclaiming the Gospel on the feast of Pentecost 754.
From Metten and Sankt Ottilien and the monasteries of Bavaria, the Benedictines sent monks in the 19th and early 20th centuries to establish new houses in America and Asia. I just read recently that the two monasteries in Korea – Tokwon in North Korea, which was dissolved, and Waegwan in South Korea – were originally founded by the monks of Sankt Ottilien.
The Mettener monk Boniface Wimmer founded the first Benedictine monastery in America and more than 120 parishes. I like to think of all these things as a sort of continuation of the missionary work of the English Benedictines back in the Middle Ages.
Sadly, even Catholic Bavaria is beset by the problems that face the rest of the Church in the West: falling attendance, disillusionment among the faithful, a lack of vocations. And there are familiar demographic issues. The Abbey of Metten, which has a secondary school with an excellent academic reputation, is struggling to fill places as there are simply too few children in the rural areas that surround the school.
I’m sorry to end on a sad note. Perhaps a quotation from the indomitable Abbot Boniface Wimmer will help: “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward. We must not be held back by debts, bad years or by difficulties of the times. Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.”
Anna Arco is editor-at-large of the Catholic Herald