I am just back from three days in Germany with an old student friend. We were both students at an international business school near Paris in the 1970s, he the son of a German wartime pilot, me the son of an English pacifist. We went parachuting together, and he broke his foot on his first jump. The friendship started at his hospital bed. After school, we both lived in Frankfurt, he in advertising; me in banking. I l pulled to the side of the business world after ten years, he dived in deep, brilliantly selling products that feature low on my essentials list: cigarettes, beauty products and high quality lavatory paper, ending up running a thousand-man business. Now retired, his main occupation is investing his gains from that period and his main toy a large Mercedes driven at great speed.
To do me a pleasure, we visited, in the bitter cold, two religious sites, Kloster Eberbach and the Russian Orthodox Church in Darmstadt.
Kloster Eberbach is an old Cisterican monastery, founded in the 12th century and disbanded in 1805. It now doubles as a wine centre, including cellars with huge wooden vats where they shot parts of the Name of the Rose. Monasteries are always difficult to visit, as I am constantly trying to feel my way through beyond the tourist version of the story to what life really was like there, and the spirituality of the place. For a few fleeting seconds, looking across the cloister to the church entrance, I ‘got’ it.
The Russian church in Darmstadt, dedicated to St Maria Magdalena, is tiny: like similar churches in Wiesbaden and Weimar it marks a German-Russian aristocratic marriage, this time of Tsar Nicolas II to Alix of Hesse (Empress Alexandra Feoderovna). The church is small, but it was warm, clean and had a cared-for feeling. The mosaics above the altar are not bad, the icons on the iconostasis pure late 19th century ‘standard issue’, the other icons, apart from a passable modern Maria Magdalena, pretty frightful.
And we talked, and talked, and talked. Of business of which he knows a lot, of politics, where he has strong views, and religion, where his confirmation class Protestantism left him nothing serious to hold onto. He darkens church doors only with me and for funerals.I don't try to convert him, just to give adult, sensible answers from experience when I can.