Schetzel's cave in the Grünewald forest / © Vum GilPe - own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71091901
A report by the Cistercian monk Achardus is the only written record about the Luxembourgish hermit Schetzel. Reading through it gives us an idea of just how venerated and respected the Holy Man from the Grünewald was throughout the Greater Region.
Schetzel is perhaps one of Luxembourg's most enigmatic historical figures. We have already covered him twice here on RTL Today, once in article form and once as part of our video seriesOnce upon a time… zu Lëtzebuerg. If you have never heard of Schetzel, both of these pieces are excellent places to start.
In this article, however, we will delve a little deeper. You see, while many Schetzel stories are based on rumours and hear-say, there is one single written account about him that we know of: The eyewitness testimony of the French monk Achardus of Clairvaux.
Dissecting this report entitled De Schocelino agri Treverensis eremita ("Of Schetzel, the Hermit of the Land of Trier") gives us the unique opportunity to "meet" this spiritual seeker from Luxembourg and get an understanding of just how extraordinary the people of his time considered him to be.
'We can admire his life but not imitate it'
The retelling presented in this article is primarily based on two translations of the original text, which were published on 1 March 1940 in the cultural magazine Jong-Hémecht and on 11 August 1959 in the Luxemburger Wort, respectively.
The encounter between Achardus and Schetzel is thought to have taken place a few years before the hermit's death. St Bernard of Clairvaux in France (not to be confused with the very similarly named Clervaux in Luxembourg) sent his fellow monk Achardus to visit Schetzel on his next trip to Trier and offer him robes and a pair of shoes as a token of respect.
Achardus begins his account by expressing his admiration for Schetzel, describing him as "a holy, rich, and blissful man." Rich in the spiritual sense, of course, since Schetzel had "resolutely spurned the riches of the world."
And Schetzel really seems to have taken renunciation very seriously, as Achardus notes that he had "the sky for shelter, the air for clothing, [and] the fodder of animals for food." We even get some more details on the hermit's diet from the French monk, according to whom it consisted of raw grasses, herbs, and roots, as well as "occasionally" acorns and beechnuts, which Achardus describes as "special treats."
Schetzel lived in complete isolation for ten years. However, in the four years leading up to his death, he "softened his way of life somewhat," probably due to illness or just old age. When he was unable to find any grass or roots during particularly harsh winters, "he remembered that he was human," as Achardus puts it, and went to seek alms from nearby villagers. Schetzel usually received "a piece of bread made of bran or barley," but would never enter the house, preferring to stay "in the hall or in the courtyard on the hard ground, so that he could return to his cave at sunrise."
Scheme of the hermit's cave. Print of architect Charles Arendt (1860). / © gfn.lu
According to Achardus, Schetzel had no trouble obtaining these alms as the locals venerated him to the point that "no one dared to speak to him, nor to disturb him from his contemplation, for fear that he would not return."
While Schetzel never wore any clothes while living in the forest, he did have the common decency to wear "a belt around his abdomen and a haversack around his neck," whenever he appeared before others.
Achardus explains that St Bernard sent him to seek out Schetzel and present him with a tunic and a pair of shoes, requesting that he wear them as a favour to St Bernard.
When the monk discovered that Schetzel was spending the night at a specific house, he hurried there early in the morning in the hopes of meeting the hermit there. However, when Achardus arrived, Schetzel was nowhere to be found.
The host revealed that Schetzel had left at midnight because he was aware that some monks wanted to come see him "and he did not want to show himself to them." Achardus deduced from this that the hermit "had the gift of prophecy" and that he would need to obtain permission to speak to him.
Achardus therefore asked the host to go see Schetzel and request that he reconsider. He did so and even accepted St Bernard's gifts. However, after briefly putting on the tunic and shoes, he immediately took them off again. And here, Achardus actually gives us a direct quote from Schetzel himself:
"[…] I can no longer wear them, since I have no need for them and St Bernard has not commanded me to do so, for I confess to you, my friends, that nothing would be more onerous to me than to burden myself again with this weary load from which I have been free for a long time."
Achardus then goes on to ask the Grünewald hermit if he is ever tempted by the devil, to which Schetzel replies "if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and […] the truth is not in us."
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Schetzel shares a story of one such "temptation" in which he woke up blanketed in a foot and a half of snow after sleeping naked on the ground outside. The warmth of his breath had melted the snow slightly, allowing him to breathe through a small opening near his mouth. Looking for shelter, a hare was drawn to the warmth and settled down to rest just above the opening. For a split second, Schetzel considers killing it "or at least grabbing it," but he restrains himself, "and when I had come to my senses, I condemned my recklessness and reproached myself for the loss of time this frivolous thought had caused me." Instead, " I let the timid animal rest with me as long as it wanted, until it went on voluntarily."
Schetzel describes this as "one of the most significant temptations" he has faced in a long time but admits to being annoyed that "many vain things disturb me, such as the mosquitoes flying about, which often distract me from the contemplation of heavenly things."
This is where the encounter between Achardus and Schetzel ends, with the French monk describing the final moments as follows: " Then he bade us farewell, blessing us, and departing like a deer or a bird escaped from the hands of man into the thicket of the forest."
Testimony or Catholic propaganda?
Something that is worth keeping in mind when reading accounts like these is that they may have been written with an ulterior motive in mind.
After all, Achardus was a monk, and it is widely known that the adoration of saints is actively promoted by the Catholic church in particular.
So, whether a man who ran naked through the Grünewald forest for 14 years actually expressed himself in the way we just saw is something we will never know for sure. However, it is fairly evident that Schetzel really was revered and respected: He was laid to rest in Altmünster Abbey and ceremonies in his honour attracted sizeable crowds well into the 20th century.
In that sense, Schetzel still is what he was back in the 1100s: A true mystery from the lands of Luxembourg.