The day is glorious. There is no other word for it. This morning the temperature was cool and it is the first time in a while I’ve seen people walking the neighborhood streets in jackets. That was not the day’s wonder, however. I would have preferred the heat of an August day when it came to the temperature. Its wonder rested in its appearance….azure blue breaking radically through cloud cover to bathe the streets in sunlight and give the city the feel of big sky country.
It was a day I could just get in the car and drive and my fantasy did just this. I could go west into sacred geography or east to sacred community. That I was in neither that place or among these agitated and perplexed me, but that I was between the two made the day what it was. It was a day of beautiful appearance and a reminder that I was between grace filled places.
I thought of how the mountains would look this day and at what play the gentle may be engaged in. How easy just to get into the car and drive and find these things out.
What I would not give today to be in the Pfalz or Colorado. What I would not do to be in the arms of reprieve.
Often I have been in high places and in the comfort of the gentle; my life having been inundated with such things. But frequency can make one selfish until one thinks of having the charmed life and having this in a certain abundance and also realizing the abundance can bring you to a complex place. After all many would trade much to have even one of these potent experiences to which I have claim. Who would not want these secret mercies to which the azure blue of the skies have made me want to run to.
I cannot share these things in such a public way, but I suppose I can share a few and today I can divulge at least one.
Why mention the Pfalz? It is not a place I could run to today and it is was not what I thought of in thinking of travelling east or west, but the story was long ago and it is told often enough to be at least a little public.
I wrote about it once and I even spoke of it to many in a testimony of sorts. I lost that account and this was unfortunate in that I was asked if I would be willing to share it again in a public way, which I was hesitant to do as it was as much a message of forgiveness as anything else. But I do think often of that day.
It was the summer of 1976. I was away from my home as I was most of my youth. I remember my disappointment that summer as I was not in America for the bicentennial and would not be seeing all those grand displays that most American children would enjoy. And I was still a child, though not so much, having just turned twelve. I did not understand the nation’s distress or the need to be far from my home. And I did not entirely understand my father and how much like him I could be.
He was after all a pragmatic man who did what he had to do though he was not always comfortable with this. I can share these things with him. His great regret, however was one I did not share having been called away from his children to fight in a war with no clear intentions. It is odd, but I think he could have handled being on the wrong side of history; he just could not tolerate being in a place that had no clear good or evil. I keep in a metal box a letter from Danag when he asked that I forgive him for his absence in light of the fact he could not understand the place he was called to be in. For years I did not understand what he meant and I had no reason to forgive him for anything for he had always been my shelter.
A few years later it was 1976 and the year was difficult. We had travelled overseas again and I did not understand this constantly being uprooted as I had been yet again, this time to return to the village of my birth. And as my father was often taken from my presence, I did not understand the stability of having him there. I was not accustomed to the idea and I was not even sure it could entirely be trusted. But at some point you take the leap of faith and you come to terms with your parents and their plight. And in this you simply find the joy of their presence.
So on a summer day, having grown accustomed to his absence, I was able, in his presence, to wander through the Pfalzerwald from Munchweiler to Merzalben to the ruin of the Grafenstein castle.
The hike was only about five kilometers and I wonder why he suggested it. It could have been that I was fascinated with castles and the stories I attached to what were now often vast ruins.
The ruin at Grafenstein had a story, though not entirely remarkable for a German keep. It was erected by the early 13th century, but the upper castle existed earlier. It was owned by the Elector of the Palantinate and destroyed in the Peasants War of 1525. It was rebuilt only to burn again during the Thirty Years War, probably from carelessness as the Imperial Army garrisoned there as they lay siege to the Palantinate. From this point it was only sporadically refurbished and most often in some sort of ruin.
It was only he and I that day. I remember that. I do not know what my sister was doing and my mother often stayed away from these wanderings. Years earlier, I had walked with him up a low hill in Fort Clayton to get a view of the Panama Canal and that walk established for me his love of looking down on places that recall who people are to one another and the land to which they belong. From a path carved from the jungle we could see our home and the massive workings of what is arguably the world’s greatest feat of human engineering which laid claim to more than 6000 lives.
I do not know the human cost of Grafenstein. I do know now it did not have the nobility of the Canal as the warfare that brought it to ruin was one that used religion as a thinly veiled excuse for political gains bringing the Holy Roman Empire from a population of 20 million to 13 million and leaving more than Grafenstein in ruins.
That day I did not think of that, besides my accounts of warfare were much more modern and I was happy to be done with those. Also at twelve one is too old to have a fascination with knights and castles and too young to understand that historically Grafenstein could not have less to do with the accounts of medieval goings-on.
The story of Grafenstein was not about knights and ladies. It was a modern story, but I could not know that at my age. Perhaps my father did. He knew a lot of military history. There was never at Grafenstein a lady giving a banner to her champion who would ride off to the Holy Land. Grafenstein was about a much more costly and less acknowledged part of history. In the politically correct climate we would come to chastise the world of the knights (as we should to an extent) while ignoring the fact the bloodiest conflicts are civil wars and the brutality we visit on those most like us.
Of course I did not think of those things either, but I had seen the pictures on television. Men would return from conflict to be spat upon by their fellow countrymen who cared more about their wrongs than the reasons that led to Vietnam to begin with, as if we were fighting an innocent people.
This was my story and the damnation visited on my family. And it was the story of Grafenstein too which was no launching place for crusading knights, but a keep that saw the violence of fellow countrymen turning against one another and making Europe into a slaughter bench of history.
It was 1976 though and Europe was no slaughter bench. The Pfalzerwald was green and the sky azure blue. It was the blue that belonged to this morning and to places and people which and who are very, very few in number.
It was a Saturday and the trails were filled with those who loved the wandern kultur. Fortunately when we arrived at Grafenstein, my father and I were the only ones there and in the brief time we spent at the stone ruin overlooking the village of Merzalben and the surrounding forest, we had only the company of one other hiker.
I said that day I started to understand him. I don’t know why entirely, but there was something about being high above Merzalben and Munchweiler with their tiny homes and churches as well as their American bases in the presence of my father that made me realized I have never really known abandonment, that even in the absence of another, presence can be very real. I suppose it was then I knew the meaning of “belong,” to be neither possessed nor dispossessed by another. And I understood that my father had never really ever left me and no place was more real or joyful than the castle, with its unfortunate fate, nestled atop a mountain from where we could recount our history.
Five kilometers behind us was birth village which could have been no birth at all. All around lay the stories of thousands who too were fortunate to be alive as their own nation had recently embarked on the greatest of barbarities. Every village below also had two churches to remind us of God’s goodness as well as the reality that ruined Grafenstein and killed off thousands of the ancestors of those who were peacefully nesting with one another in the homes below the mountain. Yes anyone of us is fortunate to be alive and more fortunate still to be in the presence of another.
I had gone to the top of a high place. In a way I picked up one who had always held me. You don’t get the story often. You are not permitted to always touch the azure sky and could not always do so anyway. You could not abide, in this life, the tremendousness of that grace. The perplexity that would be united to the joy would leave you overwrought. That it is given to you at all is what is meant by giftedness.
I came down that day back to the little valley where Munchweiler sits. I was glad to be where I was knowing the year would not be all bad. And indeed the year was not. What is was was very good. That day I was reborn on the mountaintop. After all that is why creation has peaks….to be our reminders of Eden. Were it not for the high place and the time with my father, I am not sure if any of those other moments could have been born.
And they were born. On another walk I met Mother Mary whose statue was everything Grafenstein was not. She too was in a high place and if it is true a mother is only as happy as her saddest child she must have wept in heaven as her children bloodied one another in the valleys below as they invoked the name of her Son and again when more than 400 years later the place she stood was ruled by the edicts of a madman making it necessary for my nation to destroy the nation of my ancestors. She may have wept, but she was also very kind and meeting her that day made me aware of that which is called perplexity…. the altogether joyful and altogether uncomfortable encounter. More than three decades later and that is the only place I have stood that has unnerved and delighted me more than those very few other high place encounters. (And if grace is what makes beautiful ugly things, then perhaps Grafenstein’s ugly history prepared me for this encounter.)
The year was good. In Munchweiler I watched falling stars with my sister in a grassy field next to the base chapel. It was the last moment of childhood. My family moved to Worms and I trembled toward adulthood and I thought of adult things. I would sit on a rooftop with my friend eating sandwiches and drinking flavored water as we talked about girls. His mother was German and he wanted to marry a German woman when he grew up. He thought I should do the same. In sixth grade one can have a very active imagination. We were still children, but one day we could be together as men with women not eating sandwiches and drinking flavored water but consuming wurst and the beers of Saxony or the wines of the Rhineland on a rooftop overlooking a German town. I guess you lose touch with childhood friends even if you keep the realities they point you to.
But the mountaintop encounter was too real to be only my adulthood; it was the totality of my life. And though it opened me to the Catholic statue and the rooftop, it also brought me into the encounter with the feminine that is very real for us who have sisters. In Worms, Tina and I would wait anxiously for Saturday when we would each collect 5 marks from our parents or if the exchange rate was good, we would accept our parents dollars and trade them at the BX for deutschmarks. (It was quite the ruse to leave with a little American money and turn it into 6, maybe even 7 DM.) We would go to candy stores or an ice cream shop off the Bebelstrasse where for a mark we could get five small scoops of an ice cream that is unlike any other.
That mountain in the Pfalz was surely holy. It opened me up to other experiences that year. There were the walks along the Pfrimm in the closing hours of summer days and the trip on the Rhine and the stay in Heppenheim when I spent five nights in a castle atop a mountain with school friends away from the protective eyes of my parents. The stories are too numerous to recall here, but their beginning must have been the mountain on which Grafenstein sat.
And the stories did not end there. There have been a few. They are the stories of the wonderful perplexity, the encounter with grace that is rarely played, but when it is…..”If only there were more moments such as these.”
I say that, but who can stand it? How long can any of us be fascinated and overwrought? I came down from the mountain that day, but not really. It invited me again and again to think on things. And it invited me again to its encounters, each ending with the fading of the azure blue sky as day becomes night and the summer fall. It showed me over and over again an ecstasy that, cannot in this life, be tolerated for more than a brief time even as it points to that which is eternal. And it showed me that even when we come away from the peaks and back into the valleys we are never far from a presence that can lead us out of the low places and back to great heights.
Image: Pfalzer Wald, Creative Commons license by Ralfe Schulze