Holy Ground

Every church is a blessing. When we enter a sanctuary, we enter holy ground. Because this ground is healing, it wants to heal us. A ground that is free from all harmful things and influences, for we are in God’s house. In every religion there are sacred spaces. And there are traditions that make us notice that we are entering a different space. Jews put on their hats, Muslims take off their shoes, Christians take holy water to remember their baptism. It is good to have such thresholds that remind us not to just stumble into the room as if we were walking on an ordinary street.

“God said to Moses: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

Following God’s command, we humans try to keep holy places clean and intact. However, we do not succeed 100 percent. When we enter, we carry ourselves into the sacred space, bringing with us many things that are not perfect. However, the reason a sacred space is sacred is God alone. It is He, it is His presence that changes everything. The same is true for the liturgy. We celebrate it as beautifully, meaningfully, and reverently as possible, and yet it doesn’t even come close to the heavenly liturgy. Therefore, at the beginning of each liturgy, we open ourselves to God, let Him take away our sins, and “cleanse” us to be fully open to His healing power.

So what can we do when we enter a sanctuary? The threshold is our chance: stop for a moment! Notice how you are, who you are, and acknowledge God’s presence. God is here, God dwells here, he wants to heal you, he wants to do good to you. Do not let this opportunity pass. As you stand in the sacred space, God is constantly trying to draw you closer to Himself and restore your integrity, your joy and your love. As we leave the church, perhaps we can say with Jacob: “Truly, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)

Lord, I thank you for all who care for sacred spaces: sacristans, those who clean the churches, those who pray in the churches and make sure they are more than mere museums, priests, deacons, all who are committed to worship you. I ask that you help me to pass by often to greet you and enjoy your presence. Amen.

How lovely your dwelling,
    O Lord of hosts!
My soul yearns and pines
    for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and flesh cry out
    for the living God.
As the sparrow finds a home
    and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars,
    Lord of hosts, my king and my God!
Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
    They never cease to praise you.

Psalm 84:2-5

Unfeigned Love To Superiors

Many of us – in one way or another – have superiors, directors, bosses. It’s interesting how St. Benedict wants to see the relationship to superiors from the point of view of subordinates. He says, “To their abbot the monks should have unfeigned and humble love” (RB 72:10).

This makes me think that sometimes we fake our “love” for superiors in our own favor. And we have our reasons for doing so: We expect benefits. Or we want to protect ourselves by not showing what we really think and feel. We have had bad experiences with being honest with them. So Benedict’s recommendation sounds like quite a challenge.

His advice can certainly only be understood in a monastic context. Here there is a community, a spiritual community. Its leader is elected and is to take the place of Christ. It is Christ whom we are to love humbly and sincerely. But we can also learn something from Benedict in the general context. If we are not honest in our relationship with our superiors, they cannot learn, they cannot grow, the company or organization they serve cannot progress. Instead, if we speak our minds humbly and not opinionatedly, humility will protect us. I think this is especially important in the church context. How do we speak to our pastors, to our bishops, to people in a “higher” spiritual position? There are too many yes-men. There are people who cultivate a kind of courtly behavior. One says “yes” to the superior when he says “yes”, one says “no” when he says “no”. You can recognize kippers. They tip over. Their backs are not straight. The Latin word for unfeigned sincera is translated in German as aufrichtig, which means upright.

The first Christians spoke sincerely and frankly, as we often hear in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 13:46). They presented themselves with the boldness and courage that the Holy Spirit gave them. “But it is something we cannot understand how these people are so courageous, they have this boldness” (Acts 4:13). When we speak, we should have more respect for God, who really has power over us, than for people who depend on God. Benedict invites us to be genuine and straightforward.

Lord, give me the courage to be frank when I speak. Give me the wisdom to be prudent. Build your Church among us by creating a network of people who are sincere with each other. Give me and all who have leadership roles the humility to truly serve and learn from those for whom we are responsible. Send your Holy Spirit and fill us with his gifts!

Growing Joy

There are different kinds of joy. There is the exuberant jubilation. Like the soccer players at the end of the game, after the victory, jumping, dancing, splashing prosecco. The joy is so great that one does not even know how to express it adequately. I once discovered a different kind of joy in the liturgy, which I later found in reality. This, by the way, is typical and a meaning of liturgy: it opens our eyes, increases our capacity to perceive the immense richness of reality. What millions of forefathers and foremothers have expressed in their songs and rituals, we do not have to invent from scratch, we can learn from them, benefit from them and their experience with God.

I first noticed this while practicing the introit of Easter: “Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum.” The melody is very measured, almost timid. One wonders, “Hey, it’s Easter, rejoice! Why so hesitant?” The answer is, because you have come from a journey. Because you have a story. Jesus came from the experience of exclusion, betrayal, suffering, torture, crucifixion. You don’t just get up and jump. The rising “needed three days.” Communicating the good news also takes time: the disciples didn’t get it right away, the joy of Jesus’ resurrection took time to be understood, time to be celebrated and expressed.

When we go through deep sorrow, when we are confronted with severe problems, and when God finally – unexpectedly – delivers us from this distress, we need a little time; our body needs time, our soul needs time to understand, to let it sink in. The joy comes slowly – but: this is the greatest, most complete, deepest joy of all. This silent joy, which is ready to grow, cannot be stopped. It is like a small flower that begins to grow tenderly and subtly, but becomes large.

Dear God, I look forward to the next experience of joy. I look forward to when you surprise me with either jubilation or quietly growing joy. I pray for all who are in great need, who are suffering, who are grieving, who are sad. Deliver them and let their joy return, slowly but surely. Thank you, dear Lord, for the joy of Easter, for the joy of the risen Lord.

In Temptation: Fight, Flight, Freeze

Animals and humans have learned how to react adequately in a dangerous situation: Fight, flight or freeze. This can also be applied to any temptation. In temptation, something is near that wants to harm our lives and puts our lives in danger. One way is to escape from the temptation. This is the first reaction of the monk, because he “flees the world” (fuga mundi) in order not to be exposed to temptations. We know what he finds in his deserted place: new temptations. So fleeing is a good method, but there are other instruments that can be used. Fighting temptation is also a suitable tool. The monk does this with words, good words, words that he takes from the Holy Scriptures, and he throws them at the demons, trusting that these words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will overcome the evil thoughts and feelings.

Finally, there is a third way to respond to strong temptations. I found it impressively depicted in a painting of Domenico Morelli. It shows St. Anthony the Great, the first Christian monk and hermit, suffering a carnal temptation in the desert. It threatens him from all sides. No escape possible, fight hopeless. Instead, he falls into frozen mode. He seeks the closeness to the Lord, his cross, which overcomes all evil and even death, and keeps still. He goes on “autopilot,” so to speak. Knowing how weak he himself is, he surrenders himself entirely to the Lord, clings only to Him, and leaves to Him the struggle against evil. It is as if Anthony wanted to say: I am no longer here, it is only the Lord.

I don’t know what your typical temptations are. If we are awake enough, we discover things that want to harm our health, our relationships, our lives. God has given us means to respond, to say “no.”

Dear God, surround me with your guardian angels. Let me practice always being attentive to your presence. That way, I don’t have to be afraid. Let temptations become an opportunity to draw closer to you, to surrender my life to you, who protect me and who love me dearly.

From Psalm 91:

Say to the Lord, “My refuge and fortress,
    my God in whom I trust.”
He will rescue you from the fowler’s snare,
    from the destroying plague,
He will shelter you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you may take refuge;
    his faithfulness is a protecting shield.
  For he commands his angels with regard to you,
    to guard you wherever you go.

“Because he clings to me I will deliver him;
    because he knows my name I will set him on high.
He will call upon me and I will answer;
    I will be with him in distress;
    I will deliver him and give him honor.
With length of days I will satisfy him,
    and fill him with my saving power.”

Giving Compliments

Recently a friend said to me: It is part of a good partnership to give each other compliments. Sometimes to say, “You’re beautiful”. “You’re gorgeous”. “I’m so lucky to have you”. “You’ve done so well.” “What would I do without you?” We don’t always have to use superlatives, a simple compliment is already balm for the other person’s soul and a sign of love. If you never compliment your beloved, something is missing.

I’ve been thinking about how we can do the same with the Lord. To compliment Him. We do it in the Liturgy of the Hours, “You are great” “You do wonderful things” (Psalm 86:10). “How deep are your plans!” (Psalm 92:6). “Wonderful are your works” (Psalm 139:14). In this way we express our love for Him. Does He also compliment us? Yes, He does. In the very beginning, when we were created, God “looked at everything He had made and found it very good.” We also see Jesus complimenting people: “In no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21). “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17).

It does us good to hear compliments. It makes us happy, it gives us strength. Even if we already know that the other person loves us, sometimes we want to hear it. God himself doesn’t necessarily need our compliments, as a preface to the Eucharist knows: “You don’t need our praise; it’s a gift of your grace that we give you thanks.” But we do need the compliments. It is a grace to receive them, and it is a grace to give them. We shouldn’t wait to do it. It’s a small thing. It can be done at any time. Not as empty rhetoric, but as a true expression of our friendship and love.

Lord, beloved Son of God. Thank you for showing us the Father’s love. Not only in words. But also by healing us, comforting us, guiding us, protecting us, forgiving us – even suffering for us. Let us never forget your love. Blessed are you.

Old Or New ?

The Church is changing constantly. Yes, it is her task to reform herself again and again, as the Second Vatican Council expresses it (ecclesia semper reformanda). But what can this change look like? Is it change just for the sake of change? New things grab our attention; we always want to hear or have the latest. But do they really bring progress? Some things are new on the surface, but not really better. Frequent change can also be boring or tiring.

Once I had the chance to visit the Redwood forest in California. I was thrilled to see these old trees that have lasted for centuries. Some of them are 2,000 years old, which means they were alive at a time when Jesus was on earth. How could they have lasted so long? I stood before them in awe, just fascinated. Our world is changing rapidly. Economy, climate, technology, politics. That the world is changing is a given. That the Church is changing in the world is a given. In this situation, I am even more interested in what remains. That is even more exciting. What has the power to endure, what is worth keeping instead of throwing away? How should the Church handle change? The Rule of Saint Benedict has a good guideline for change management in a monastery (the Rule is 1,500 years old by the way…). St. Benedict states:

“The abbot ought to be learned in divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring forth things both old and new (Matt 13:52).” RB 64:9

What is most exciting here is the simultaneity of the new and the old. The abbot is to bring forth both at the same time. With the old comes the new, with the new comes the old. One could conclude: If you only change, if you cancel, it looks new, but it is not. It will not be lasting and sustainable. If you only cling to the old, it is not really old, because the contact with today is missing. The old helps the new to be. The new helps the old to be. In this sense, people who want to conserve and people who are creative and wish to change should work together. It is not “old or new”, it is “old AND new”.

Dear Lord, guide us through these times. Strengthen our creativity. Give us courage and joy to face today’s reality. But also give us faithfulness to our tradition. Give us respect for what our ancestors created. You have blessed your Church with a rich tradition. It is exciting to discover what the tradition holds for us today. Help us to keep its fire. Let your flock not be divided, but remain united. Amen.

The Heart of Man — An Abyss

Psalms have always given me comfort. In a strange way, I was recently comforted by a very dark verse from Psalm 64.

“The inside of a person and his heart – they are an abyss!”

Most English translations do not put the verse so drastically: “For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep.” (Psalm 64:7) However, the context of the psalm shows that “depth” here really means “abyss.”

We know that every human being is created in the image of God; we know that every person has dignity. We encourage each other to see the good in others and in ourselves. This is a very helpful approach. But sometimes we discover abysses in other people, not only in times of war. People we thought we knew suddenly show another side of themselves that we could not have imagined before. I don’t want to open the list here: Hatred, aggression, violence … It is like looking into a yawning abyss, dark and impenetrable. Here we might have the dark side of our freedom. I am not advocating cynicism, rather realism. The psalm encourages us to have a kind of detachment that does not hinder us from loving and trusting. It rather invites us to take a sober look at what human beings are capable of; myself included.

The Psalms take seriously what I experience in this world. As God has accepted this world, so may everything have a place in my prayer. Starting from this acceptance, we can stop looking into the abysses and rather turn to the good. It is better to look to Christ.

Dear Lord, you created me as a free being. I thank you for this wonderful gift. I ask you to always choose the good. I ask you to protect me from the evil that may come from my heart or from the hearts of others. On Holy Saturday, you descended into the underworld. You stretched out your hand, even into the abysses of our existence. There, where we would rather not look – there you are with your healing, saving and life-giving power.

When God says NO

Have you had this experience? You wanted something, but God said no. You asked for something, but you did not get it. Sometimes you might only realize later that it was God who said no—that it was not the people, not the circumstances, neither your own unworthiness, nor your failure. Why does He say it?

When Saint Paul was on his mission trip, “the apostles had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6) One could  wonder why. Paul was just in full flow, evangelizing and preaching, why not in Asia? The Holy Spirit knew. Historically we do not know why the circumstances did not allow the apostles to go into the province of Asia; the Scriptures do not tell us either. It is only clear that the apostles interpreted the situation by thinking: this did not happened by chance, it was the will of the Holy Spirit.

People are wishing for a child, but do not receive it, wishing for a partner, but don’t find one. People have dreams regarding their professional career, but never get there. Why? Is it their “fault”? It might be a relief to find out that it was the will of God not to receive this or that, even if it still hurts, especially when the no touches an important topic in my life. However, it can be an act of faith to “blame” God, rather than people, circumstances, or ourselves. First, because He can take it. Then, because often we experience that God’s no is transitory. Maybe it is too early yet. And finally, we realize that God, in fact, has the overview over our lives and knows much better than we do what is best for us.

Even Jesus had to experience a no from God the Father when he asked him to let the chalice pass. This no of God was actually in line with the “no’s” Jesus himself had said throughout his life: when people wanted to make him king, and he withdrew (John 6:14-15); when Peter wanted him to be kept from being killed, but he sharply rejected him (Mt 16:23); when Jesus was mocked and challenged to come down from the cross, and he did not “help himself” (Lc 23,35-37).

God knows us better than we ourselves. This is sometimes not easy to understand and to accept. When we believe that God loves us unconditionally, when we believe that whatever Jesus did, he did for the sake of the people and out of love for us, even when he said no, then we may believe, too, that a no from God is a gift.

Lord, you asked us to pray: Your will be done. This is what I ask for. You cannot say no to this request I guess? I believe that this is for my best.

There Is Blood

Kelch_Mauritius Wilde

When I became a priest, I had the longing to never get used to what I was going to do. My chalice should help to be remind me. Years before my ordination I had been in Auschwitz. I could hardly bear what one is confronted with at this place of suffering. I retired a bit from the crowds and–kneeling on the ground–my fingers played in the soil, and unexpectedly found an isolator. It had probably served on one of the deadly fences around the camp. Having it in my hands, I immediately thought this piece could become the node of my chalice. – Years later, shortly before my ordination, I carried the isolator to the goldsmith of our monastery and he was able to create a chalice out of it. The broken piece is now completed with mountain crystal as sign that God heals what is broken, in life, and especially during the Holy Eucharist. God completes what is not finished, He takes the broken and heals it. He does so by the shedding of the blood of his own Son.

I am trying to imagine how much suffering, pain, and injustice this isolator “has seen”. It is a witness of the injustice that cried out to heaven, of the blood that was shed innocently. Also, Jesus was killed innocently. We believe that during the Holy Eucharist the wine is changed into the blood of Christ. We should not forget: what we have on the altar and what we receive is blood. When we lift the chalice towards heaven, we are reminded that God heard the cry of his Son. He came to take the sins away. The liturgy is not just a nice spectacle. It is about life and death. It celebrates that life prevails. That the dead will be raised. Jesus himself suffered and was killed. But he was raised from the dead and is alive now, with God. This is my prayer for all who died in the concentration camps. It is my prayer, with each Eucharist, that wounds are healed, especially those of the generations of families whose loved ones died in the Holocaust.

It does not take much to see in this chalice also the suffering of today’s times. There are enough people who suffer; who are afraid; who are oppressed; who are sick and don’t get help; who are treated unjustly; who are sidelined; who are persecuted; who are kidnapped; who are killed. Unfortunately, the suffering on earth did not find an end after Jesus’s death; although he wants us to live according to the new rules of the Kingdom of God. At least–that gives me hope–God looks at the suffering of his people. And, finally, he will bring everything to a good end.

Lord, in silence we stand before you holding the suffering of our world and our own suffering up to heaven. Look on us in your mercy. Look at the blood of your Son. Let us not become too tired to cry out to you, to celebrate your Son’s death and resurrection, to celebrate the drama of his life and the new hope you have given us.

Isn’t She Lovely?

“Isn’t she lovely?” Stevie Wonder sang, stunned by the birth of his first daughter, adoring her when he first saw her. “Isn’t she pretty? Isn’t she lovely made from love?” Looking at his baby made him proud and humble and happy. And he started to praise God: “I can’t believe what God has done. Through us He’s given life to one.” So it is true for every father and mother what the Psalm says:

“I will sing of your majesty above the heavens with the mouths of babes and infants.” (Psalm 8,2-3)

How fascinating that Wonder was inspired by his daughter to write this song. Isn’t that an incredible phenomenon that a parent can be inspired by his child? Honestly, I have never seen a parent who was not inspired by his child. And even if he would not love his own – something you can hardly imagine – he would still be inspired.

If it is true that God, the Father in heaven, is an even greater and more loving father, I dare to think that He also is inspired by the birth of each of his children. I dare to imagine that He, whose love is abundant, starts singing, full of happiness and love whenever a human is born: “Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t he lovely? Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t he precious?” And he continues to sing.

That God not only created me, but that I also inspire him is breathtaking. It is his love that makes this possible. His love comes to completion when he sees us. I am lovely because I am made from love. The history of men and God has proven it. God did not just create us and throw us into this world. When He saw us “the first time”, he fell even more in love with us–so precious were we, so wonderful. Because of this he can never let go of us.

Lord, it touches me deeply to think you sing a love song for me like Stevie Wonder did for his daughter. I am precious to you. Nothing and nobody can cancel that out. Let me live in this love. Let me hear your song for me. The song of love you are singing for me.