What Is Heaven Like?

Of course, we cannot know for sure what heaven is like. How could we? But the Bible and our faith give us images. I just mention two here. A beautiful image for heaven is the wedding feast, the supper of the Lamb, the banquet.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” (Is 25:6)

If you are someone who loves to eat, or let’s better say feast; if you love to be with people, to savor every course, to enjoy every detail that the cook has put into a great meal: then you know what heaven could look like. Only better!

Another beautiful image is music: the choirs of angels around the throne of God are singing. With them – we hope, by the way – the monks. “Music in the air”. If you love music, if you love to listen to it; if you love to make music, to sing, to play – then you also know what heaven is like – only better. Many walk the streets with headphones because they want the music with them all the time. When you’re surrounded by music, you see the world differently. It makes things easier, more pleasant. But how is that going to work in heaven? Because there are very different tastes in music…. Okay, everyone has their “apartment”, if we go by Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) So I could listen to my favorite music without disturbing my neighbors? But is that heaven, sitting in my own room, isolated from others? I want the music to be heard everywhere, in public…. How God does that – I have no idea. That’s why we call it heaven or the Kingdom of God. Because we can’t make it. We can’t even imagine how to do it. God will be in control. But it will be wonderful, for me, for us, for all of us. We wouldn’t interfere with each other, on the contrary.

If you’re not so much into music or food, I’m sure you’ll have something else you love. This will be heaven for you. And much more. Well, are these thoughts too anthropocentric? What makes the difference in heaven? “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3) That’s it: Heaven is where Jesus Christ is, where He is with me and with all His friends, His brothers and sisters. He turns to us, He turns to me as I am, He wants to be with me.

Receive me Lord, as you have promised, that I may live; and disappoint me not in my hope.

I chose the painting by Brueghel only because it contains both music and food. It may not fit with your idea of heaven…. Maybe you immagine rather silence? How do you dream about heaven?

New Skins

In times of change, when we have to decide what to keep and what to let go, we can learn from a word of Jesus. He said:

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”  (Luke 5:37-39)

Jesus speaks of a blessed moment: new wine is available. New possibilities open up in our lives, a new path lies before us. We should not spill this moment. While Jesus honors this situation, he also does not devalue the old: the old wine is good! If we bless both, the future and the past, each in its own way, it will go well.

What could the wineskins stand for? They could represent patterns and expectations. The old wineskins could be our habitual behavior, our typical limitations, our fears, our unhealed wounds, our memories. If we hold on to them, we will not be able to move forward. We will not be open to the new. The new wine will be spilled. We need to frame the new in a completely new way. We must let go of the old skins in order to preserve the new. We may have already made changes, but we have found that we have stumbled over our old patterns. Therefore, we doubt whether we are really able to embrace the new. For example, when we embark into in a new relationship. Jesus encourages us: Yes! New wine. Fill it into new skins!

The old wineskins could also be our own expectations. If we hold on to them, we will end up where we have been before. We are invited to find new ways to evaluate the new differently, to judge it with new standards. Perhaps, after all, the new goes far beyond my expectations. If I constantly compare the new with what I used to expect, I am still carrying the new wine in old wineskins.

Lord, you invite us to convert. You encourage us to true inner renewal. With our baptism, You have opened the door for us: We can enter into a new life, together with You. A life in fullness. You believe in us. People CAN change. I can change. I can be healed. The good remains, the new is truly new. Thank You for the freshness of this good news!

Greedy Communities

Community life means giving and taking. But some members give more, others less. That’s fine, depending on each person’s abilities. It becomes problematic when certain people have to give more all the time. The sociologist Lewis A. Coser speaks of “greedy organizations.” Such organizations depend on “sucking” their employees, their strength and energy. They are greedy; they never get enough.

Sometimes the Church is in danger of being a greedy organization. This is a real temptation, because Christian spirituality is based on self-giving. How could you complain about giving too much when your model is Christ, who gave himself completely? This is a trap.

Here is the great difference: our High Priest Jesus Christ was able and willing to give Himself, even in great pain and sorrow, because He was God. We Christians are called to give ourselves freely; but we are not called to be sucked dry; either by other individual Christians or systematically in a community. The abuse crisis of the Church originates here: it does not begin with sexual abuse. It does not even begin with the abuse of power, which is the root of all sexual abuse. It begins with the exploitation of people, with the “using of people,” in everyday life.

What is the way out? To correct those who exploit. To protect those who have too much on their shoulders. To accept the reality and the limits of the community.

Let’s look at the problem from another angle. Benedictine monks in an African monastery hung a sieve in one of their common rooms. The story they tell about this sieve goes like this: If each member of the community holds a hole shut with one of his fingers, even water can be kept in a sieve. But if one – or even some – pull back their fingers, the water – that is, the power of the community – gradually runs out, even if the others keep their holes closed. For the African monks, this is a symbol of solidarity within a community. The Christian community could be a group of people trying to “keep the water in the sieve”. It is a community task. The finger of each individual is needed.

Lord, strengthen our communities. Grant that we may be of one heart and soul. Let us care for one another. Grant that no one will be overwhelmed. Grant that we have the courage to address problems. Let us set an example of how to live together in love and respect. And lead us all together to eternal life.

Peter denied Jesus, and was one of those who could not “keep the whole shut”. In fact, in the end, everyone withdrew his finger. None of the community of apostles defended Jesus.

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.