Travelogue of the Weird & Out of the Way

September 2011By John Henry Crosby

John Henry Crosby is the founder and director of Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project. He is a philosopher, writer, and translator; violinist and occasional music critic; consultant on philanthropic strategy in support of intellectual and cultural projects; co-owner of Music Kids Inc., a for-profit music-education company; and agent provocateur in the cause of any initiative serving the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies.  By Gerald Warner and Stephen Klimczuk. Sterling. 272 pages. $19.95.



Books written for no other purpose than to rebut bestsellers and popular trends rarely do well. This is not because they lack content, or even that they fail to make their case. Rich in facts and figures, they generally lack in fun and fascination. Perhaps the gods allow these dour rejoinders for their penitential value — for their readers, that is.

Not so for co-authors Gerald War­ner and Stephen Klimczuk, whose book Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries has not only found a significant readership in the English-speaking world but is now beginning to appear in translation, most recently in a widely heralded Italian version, which is firmly en route to best­seller status. And the interest seems not to be dying down.

The authors make an unusual and dynamic duo: the latter is a globe-trotting corporate and philanthropic strategist with a Harvard MBA, and the former, “Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie” — to give him his full Scottish feudal lairdly style — is a popular Catholic newspaper columnist and blogger who has spent his career in the U.K.’s mainstream media, to the angry consternation of atheists and left-wingers everywhere.

Warner and Klimczuk are intrigued by the human preoccupation with what is secret, private, and out of the public eye. To quote their introduction, “What is the origin of the basic human instinct to hide away in obscure places, to seek privacy in secret sanctuaries, and to congregate in select groups in venues from which the rest of humanity is excluded?”

This question turns out to have been potent enough to have sent the authors on an odyssey across time and space in order to uncover the true stories behind some of history’s most mysterious organizations and locales. They’ve compiled their discoveries into thirteen fast-paced chapters. With Warner and Klimczuk as intrepid guides, readers will visit shrines (including such lesser-known candidates as the ancient Ise Shrine in Japan, and even that shrine to the total liberation of the self, the Esalen Institute near San Francisco); castles (notably Wewelsburg Castle, which Heinrich Himmler wanted to build up as the religious and spiritual center for the Nazis); islands (with a long treatment of Monte­cristo, made famous by Dumas’s eponymous novel); secret military installations (“Area 51” in Nevada, barely acknowledged by the U.S. government to this day; and Mount Weather in Virginia, capable of serving as a fully operational staging ground for the U.S. government should Washington come under attack); university clubs (including the notorious “Skull and Bones” of Yale, but also the tradition-rich student associations of the German universities); the inner sancta of religious and military orders, ancient and recent (Templars, Order of Mal­ta, the Teutonic Order, Masons of various stripes, and Opus Dei); hiding places (including “priest holes,” the elaborately disguised hideouts used by Catholic priests during the era of Catholic persecution in England); private banks (famous names, such as Rothschild’s, with a look at Swiss banking); and, as if to bring the reader to a restful conclusion at the end of a long and turbulent journey, a review of the world’s most distinguished private clubs (White’s in London, the Knicker­bocker in New York, and the ritziest of them all, La Caccia in Rome).

Astute readers will recognize that the authors write from an intellectually serious Christian point of view, which provides them with a much more expansive view of reality. At the same time — and perhaps this touches on the book’s more than literary value — they have not written a book preaching to the choir. Rather, they address themselves to a very broad audience, even people hostile to the Christian world­view. One can imagine that, for some of them, Klimczuk and War­ner’s offering will mark the first time they are voluntarily reading a book with a Christian worldview — and enjoying it, no less!

The strategy of writing from a Christian worldview in a robust yet delightful way is, of course, familiar to readers of the NOR, and certainly this must be a key ingredient in the universal appeal of Chesterton and Belloc. Yet, in a certain sense, Klim­czuk and Warner have taken this blend into new territory, for they have written a book aimed more or less squarely at a constituency generally avoided by Christian authors — namely, the smart, savvy, secular reader with little patience for traditional belief and practice. Yet by taking an evenhanded approach across an array of famous mysteries, sticking up for the plausible whenever possible, never hesitating to call out bunk whenever they see it, and all the while relating a brisk and engaging series of episodes, the authors have managed to create something capable of engaging the broader culture.

What might Klimczuk and War­ner have to say in response to questions that may well arise for a reader of Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries? I recently had the opportunity to interview the authors; our discussion ranged over such topics as the Holy Grail, The DaVinci Code, pirate treasure, Wikileaks, and Facebook. What follows are the authors’ candid responses to my queries.

What was your intent in writing Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries?

As readers of the NOR will know, we are living in a particularly fertile time for quacks, frauds, and false prophets, many with an anti-Catholic tinge. In recent years there has been an explosion of popular interest worldwide in conspiracy theories: Templar myths, gnosticism, “alternative history,” and the like. The scandals in the Church have only added fuel to the flames. We thought someone needed to step forward to try to set the record straight across a wide spectrum of subjects that are actually fundamentally related on some level. At the same time, we didn’t think the treatment of these matters should be dry as dust; in some cases, the stories are quite ridiculous — or hilarious.

How did we get here? Unfortunately this is no passing fad. When you combine rapid societal change and disorientation, a deep natural impulse for the spiritual, and a low standard of religious and historical literacy, what you get is a kind of “full-employment act” for spinners of bogus myths. What started gradually with the rise of the New Age movement and such precursors to Dan Brown’s books as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (with its phony claims of “proof” that Christ married and left descendants), picked up a very full head of steam with The DaVinci Code. This is now a multi­billion-dollar industry, and a substitute for religion for tens — or perhaps hundreds — of millions of people.

We thought that the right kind of compendium could provide a robust and skeptical debunking of esoteric nonsense, while highlighting potentially authentic mysteries of real interest — on the principle that truth is actually more interesting, satisfying, and even entertaining than falsehood. Along the way, to quote one reviewer, we traverse “a myriad of shrines, holy sites, unholy sites, citadels, secret government installations, curious islands, totems, Swiss banks, secret societies, and private clubs.” The NOR has been called “cheeky,” which might be an appropriate descriptor of our book too.

Give NOR readers a sample of your book. Can you summarize your findings on one or two of your most interesting topics?

Perhaps the most important site we cover is one of the least known: Wewelsburg Castle in Germany, which was Heinrich Himm­ler’s “Black Camelot” and “Nazi Vatican” — the centerpiece of the Nazi pseudo-religion that brought so much suffering to the world. When visitors to Auschwitz ask, “How could they do it?” we think the answer lies at least partly in this too-little-known Westphalian castle. The details make one’s flesh creep, as this is the place that was literally designed to be the “spiritual” center of a new, Nazi-run world. Imagine a kind of Arthurian castle remodeled in the 1930s to be a neo-pagan, even Satanic, religious headquarters for the SS, complete with richly detailed ritual chambers and a round table for the highest SS generals. A novelist could hardly have invented it. But this was not the meeting place of some obscure and insignificant cult: It was the mystical shrine of a movement that conquered and ruled most of Europe for several years in the twentieth century.

On a less macabre note, we couldn’t write a book of this kind without covering theories of the survival of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. It is just possible that the Ark has survived and is kept in a small chapel in Aksum, Ethiopia, where a priest (who is its guardian for life) guards it. However, since no other person on earth is allowed to see it, it’s not possible to verify the claims.

As for the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, the most plausible existing object among the various cups we researched is the Holy Chalice of Valencia in Spain, with which Benedict XVI offered Mass when he was there. The Church makes no claims about its authenticity, and it is not associated with any mystical, supernatural, or miraculous phenomena. We take the view that this is not surprising, given that — in some sense — every chalice used at a Catholic Mass (or an Orthodox divine liturgy) is the Holy Grail, as time and space are rendered obsolete in the mystery of the Eucharist. That would arguably make the original holy cup, should it still exist, no more or less exalted than any other consecrated chalice used around the world today.

What do you think of Dan Brown, author of

Although Dan Brown writes at the beginning of The DaVinci Code that his novel is based on genuine facts about the Priory of Sion (itself a colossal hoax cooked up in the 1950s by a convicted French fraud­ster), Opus Dei, and various secret rituals, it’s actually hard to find anything that passes any reasonable test for historical accuracy. It’s just possible to ascribe some limited authenticity to the distasteful sex rite depicted in the book, as similar rituals have had a place in some pagan and neo-pagan rites.

Our treatment of his work is in line with our general approach: The facts are always a good starting point. But one doesn’t have to be a Catholic or indeed any kind of practicing Christian to exercise discernment given the avalanche of bizarre theories that have hit the world.

Having read your book carefully, I consistently get the impression that your aim is not primarily to set the record straight on any given mystery, but that you are trying to make credible a certain point of view of reality — an optic that takes ordinary rationality seriously without being closed to the possibility of the supernatural. Am I onto something?

You are. Human beings crave the numinous, and, as Christians, we believe there is a supernatural reality beyond the material reality of our day-to-day world. At the same time, there can be a dark side to our attraction to the shadows, as one writer has put it, especially when people try to get in touch with that ultimate supernatural reality other than sacramentally or by prayer. We think of the words of the late Fr. Walton Hannah, an Anglican clergyman who emigrated to Canada in the late 1950s and became a Catholic priest: “[Given the elimination of] most of the colour, glamour, and ceremonial from Christian worship,… When the soul is starved of these elements in religion, it will naturally tend to compensate itself in less desirable ways.”

Did your research lead you to any unexpected conclusions?

Here’s a fun one: Of course people are fascinated by pirate stories and legends of buried treasure. We think it is quite possible, for reasons explained in the book, that the greatest undiscovered treasure of all time remains concealed on the island of Montecristo in the Mediterranean. It is an Italian government total-exclusion zone, and even sailboats and fishing vessels are forbidden from getting too close. All this makes for a very good tale, and one that has the ring of plausibility.

We have to say that we have a great fondness for the Montecristo legend. We have been pondering it for years, our interest first fired by Du­mas’s famous novel. We knew that Dumas often based his novels on true facts that he distorted to fit his plots. It is, as we demonstrate in the book, a historic fact that treasure hunters, beginning with Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany, a very hard-headed man, had been searching the island since the sixteenth century. But what never made sense was the notion that they were looking for the treasure of the very modest Camaldolese monastery that had existed on the island. Its few precious vessels and revenue in gold would not have been worth the trouble.

Then, when Gerald was researching his previous book, on the crusading Order of Knights of St. Stephen, we discovered that the most successful pirate of all time, the Barbary corsair Dragut Rais, captured the island and massacred the population in 1553 and used it as his secret base until his death in 1565.

We are convinced the treasure being searched for was not, as previously thought, the monks’ few sacred vessels, but the loot of Dragut. Dragut, in the course of his career, stripped eighty cities, towns, and islands of their wealth, besides capturing innumerable treasure ships at sea over forty-five years. Allowing for increase in value over four hundred fifty years, it’s safe to say that anybody who found that booty could afford to hire Bill Gates as his bag carrier.

Your book touches on some secretive religious groups, yet one wonders what you would say about the secrecy that veils so much of the dealings of the Catholic Church. Having become rather expert on secrecy, what do you think of the perennial calls for the Church to operate in greater transparency?

No government, commercial company, not-for-profit group, or even doctor’s or lawyer’s office can function properly without some legitimate degree of confidentiality regarding its records, activities, decision-making, and lawful internal affairs. The same is true of the Church. In fact, the Church privileges the secrets told by penitents above all others; not even a pope may ask a priest to break the seal of the confessional. New cardinals take an oath that includes a solemn promise not to reveal those things confided in secret, and not to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to the Church. This last bit is the part that requires especially prudent judgment, as it is not a blanket injunction to sweep serious problems (or criminal activity) under the rug.

Bureaucracies of every kind have a bad habit of treating everything as secret or confidential — but if everything is “secret,” nothing is. There must be some appropriate balance. It’s worth recalling the quip of George Santayana: “The working of great institutions is mainly the result of a vast mass of routine, petty malice, self-interest, carelessness, and sheer mistake. Only a residual fraction is thought.”

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has challenged the very ability of government and business to operate in secrecy. Will Assange and his allies change the way we view secrecy?

They already have. It seems that no private document is safe from the risk of being anonymously posted on some self-proclaimed whistleblower’s website, even if obtained illegally or under very questionable circumstances. Your mother was right: Never write anything you wouldn’t want the world to see.

If Assange is forcing governments and businesses to become more transparent, what do you make of the voluntary phenomenon of tell-all social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter? Will we look back in a generation and realize that we gave up more than privacy? 

In our epoch that combines stressful “busy-ness” and hectic living with an inner, spiritual void, some grasp at esoteric straws while others gravitate to the squalid “open kimono” of posting revealing photos or videos of themselves in the hope of being noticed. On the other hand, if Facebook is your low-cost medium for staying in touch with far-flung family members and friends, who are we to quibble about that?



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