(my photo, one of one of the reliquaries inside the Kammer)
I had intended to write about my unexpected Marian pilgrimage today but I’m sitting here in front of my ancestor shrine far more in the mood to write about visiting the dead, so that’s what I’m going to do! I still have one more stop on my ancestor pilgrimage to write about after all, and it was a most unique stop: the Goldene Kammer (Golden Chamber) at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne.
When I had initially done divination to see which ossuaries I should visit, my ancestors were most insistent that at least one be in Germany (I have a lot of German ancestry). I chose St. Ursula’s because the bones were used to spell out Latin words and I thought that interesting, it was in Cologne and I figured it would be easy to end our trip there, catching a flight home from Frankfurt, and oddly enough, I was very nearly named ‘Ursula,’ it being my Lithuanian grandmother’s name. Hey, for a diviner that’s as good enough reason as any to consider it! Ironically, I’d been to Cologne before, but had not known about St. Ursula’s at the time.
Now, this is not one of my favorite German cities. It’s not a pretty city, having been bombed significantly during the war. It does however have a rich history, dating back to Roman times when it was founded in the First Century AD as capital of the region. One can see extensive Roman ruins in the main square (where the Cathedral is located), and even St. Ursula’s is situated above a Roman Pagan cemetery. There’s a great Germanic-Roman museum that has one of the few (perhaps the only) existing images of Nehellenia and then of course there’s the Big Cathedral (which is worth seeing – there is a lot going on inside! More about that later in the Marian portion of my write ups). We arrived late on July 23, walked around a bit, listened to street musicians, took a quick peak at the Cathedral, and had a quiet dinner.
Early the next morning, we set out for St. Ursula’s, which turned out to be only a short walk from our hotel. I was really, really nervous. It was painful and I kept wanting to run the few blocks we had to travel. Thank the Gods MAG is an awesome navigator. I never would have actually found the place without her! We made it to the church right at ten am, after morning mass and the time the Kammer was supposed to open. I felt propelled in and aspersed myself with the holy water (if the Catholics will make it, this Polytheist will use it) and started pacing the church to find the bone room. I found St. Ursula’s body. I found lots and lots of candle stands and lit lots and lots of candles. I couldn’t find the Kammer but I found a nice German man who told me to knock on the office door, that the Kammer should open soon and who tried to be helpful. I was nearly in tears at not being able to get to the bone room that I could so powerfully sense.
I knocked at the door of an in-church office where I’d seen people going in and out earlier (while MAG tried to find someone in a second church office around the corner) and a sweet little elf-like woman came out. When I told her we were there for the kammer and begged her to tell me how to get in, she told me she’d open it in just a minute but the priest was holding her up with his chatter. LOL. She was delightful! She didn’t speak a word of English (my German is rusty) but we managed. She let us into the Kammer and oh it was breathtaking.
(my photo, of one wall of the Kammer)
Firstly, there were two lucky women working high on ladders in one corner, doing restoration work, so we couldn’t get clean photos of the entire room. I suspect that would have been difficult in the best of times anyway: the room is not large, nor is it brightly lit. We did our best before we left to get at least a few photos but I couldn’t do anything but gape at first though, and for a long time, and then weep. Their presence is strong. (I have my doubts about whether or not they are Christian, mind you. My own opinion is that we’re venerating some Roman Pagan women. Either way, the site is amazing and holy and more than a little overwhelming. MAG commented that it was the most feminine site we’d visited, and I suppose that’s true. It was certainly true in sense of presence).
(Mary Ann Glass’s photo from inside the Church)
From top of ceiling to about three quarters of the way down the wall there are bones (St. Ursula is said to have been martyred along with either eleven or eleven thousand companions – people kept finding bones from that Pagan graveyard I’d warrant…) woven into patterns that spelled out in Latin “St. Ursula, pray for us.” And “Mary, pray for us.” The lovely docent took the time to make sure we knew the words were there and what they meant and allowed us to stay as long as we wished. There were reliquary busts containing bones, and discrete niches in the wall housing skulls. It was extraordinary.
(my photo, a close up of the bone patterns)
(my photo, one of the skull niches)
In Czermna I was jarred into what this pilgrimage meant. In Sedlec, I was completely overwhelmed and humbled by the presence of the dead. In Brno I received their blessing. In Cologne, that blessing was extended into all of my work. I felt evaluated and given a renewed approval on my work. Of all the dead that I visited, it was Ursula and her retinue that I felt most strongly upon tending my shrine at home (one of the first things I did was honor all the dead that I’d visited).
In many respects I also feel as though I have a guide, many guides now in my ancestor work, in addition of course to my very own dead. These places have been tremendously nourishing for me, repairing some of the exhaustion and damage of the past few years. The bones in the Goldene Kammer were discovered in the mid twelfth century, they are far older, and the wisdom they carry older still. Some things must be experienced in situ, again and again, and some experiences have the power to transform, to shift forever the course of one’s life and work. Engaging with the dead so powerfully, so directly puts so much into perspective. It renders; and more than anything else, I’m finding that to walk in humility and partnership with the dead is the greatest blessing of living.
(photo by Mary Ann Glass, close up of the main altar in the Kammer; note that the busts are actually reliquaries containing bones.)
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