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!

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.

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.

Making the Pontifex

How important it is at this moment to build bridges. We see divisions in our societies on the macro and on the micro level. Jesus encourages us to build bridges when he says: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5.9). How do we realize His task?

Often, we forget that building bridges is an activity. It is hard work. One must use hands and head, get moving and start working. You must get your hands dirty. It is a building process and not a one-strike-does-it-all thing. Which bridge has ever been built overnight? Secondly, building bridges requires our entire involvement. You cannot stay outside and be just a nice observer. Why? Because a bridge begins on one side and ends on the other. The builder must be active on both ends. As bridge builder you must listen to both sides. You need a lot of patience. At times you need much courage, especially if the parties are aggressive. You need to try to understand both sides. This includes a certain loneliness–trying to show solidarity with both parties makes one feel lonely. The parties have not walked over the bridge yet, while you are still constructing and helping them to find a way to each other. You must be compassionate and neutral at the same time.

It sure makes a difference if the point of contest does not really touch me. In this case it is easier to stay neutral and help the parties to find their way. It is their responsibility. It becomes more difficult to be peacemaker and bridge builder if we are on one side or are part of one party. We must get out of our own way to find the middle ground. I think this detachment is possible with the backing of Jesus’ promise: “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” (John 14:27) Staying in a conflict helps us to become humble as we learn that peace is a gift.

The Holy Father in Rome, the Pope, has the title “pontifex maximus”: greatest of all builders of bridges. Building bridges, however, is a job for all Christians. Each of us is invited to help bring peace and reconciliation: leaders, parents, teachers, pastors, each of us. We can try to be at least a “pontifex minor”.

Jesus, you brought peace to the world. Your presence brought understanding, consolation, clarification, truth, justice, healing. You knew how to include human beings of all ways of life. You bridged the abyss between God and man and brought reconciliation. You still do it these days in your church and in the world. Help us to help you spread peace. We are small and weak. With your help, we can do it. Let us do the work!

Can I love the Church?

“Can I still love the Church?” I asked myself recently. Having been part of the Church for many years as priest and monk, the honeymoon of the first years is over. I have seen a lot, both good and bad. It probably is similar to any relationship. There are things in the Church I love and things I really do not. There are things that bother me and others that sustain me. There is, over and over again, the moment to forgive and the joy to be forgiven.

However, compared to the first fresh view of the Church with the dreams and vision I had for her; the love, beauty, justice, and protection I expected from her; and after many years and experiences, one can feel disillusioned. I see the need for change. I suffer from her weaknesses, from her habitual problems, in parts from her dysfunctionality. I suffer mostly from the potential for evangelization and charity that she is missing out on. Knowing well that I myself am weak, I wonder: Can I still love the Church?

One could answer with Saint Benedict: love the brothers/sisters – hate the failure. In that sense: Yes, it is possible to love the Church by loving the brothers and sisters. However, what if I cannot stand some of them anymore? What if I have a hard time to love all the Church’s brothers and sisters? Pondering in prayer this question, it came to me: yes, I can still love the Church because I love Christ, because the Church is the body of Christ. It is Christ whom we love in the brothers and sisters. Not their sins certainly, but Christ in them. Christ who is present in them. Christ who constantly looks out for the good in them. Who has promised to stay with us. We love the Church because we love Christ. That is what keeps us.

Perhaps we must go even deeper: Why do we love Christ? It is because he loves us. Because he loved us first. It is his constant loving gaze that draws us in. It is his profound unconditional love and respect for us that binds us. It is his trust in us that makes us follow him.

I found the answer: our love to the Church is a response to Christ’s love for us, for me.

Dear Lord, you promised to be with us always, until the end of the age. We trust your promise. Do not leave us, especially, when we are in difficult times. Your love for us is like a “first love”. It never withers. Continue to love us, Lord, and continue to bless your Church.

Good and meek eyes

We have been in quarantine for four weeks already in our monastery at Sant’Anselmo. The new situation is challenging for us, like for everybody during the Corona pandemic. However, all monks are still healthy, and that makes us grateful and humble.

Every day I learn something new. For example, I noticed that in a crisis like this things surface that we can hide in normal times. Usually, there are many ways of avoiding in a community. Now this is no longer possible. We are – one could say – naked. On one hand, new parts of us appear–new creativity, spontaneity, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to selfless giving and support. On the other hand, our weaknesses that we do not want others to see, lie bare. I believe every relationship has secrets and that does not destroy it. Maybe in contrary. Now, however, we are together continuously, and are left uncovered. We see ourselves as we are, more aware of our bad habits–emotions erupt, perhaps from ancient tensions that were latent, but with which we could deal. In a situation of stress, it becomes more difficult.

What are the remedies? It helps me to remind myself that God is looking at us with his good and mild eyes. This is what I am also supposed to do: be good with myself, good and patient and meek. But also, be good and patient with my neighbors–To not judge them, to be merciful with them, to forgive them for how they are.

In paradise, we were naked in God’s eyes, but we did not notice it. When we let us be looked at by him, in these days, we can discover a new and good way to treat each other.

Lord, look at me. If I don’t like to see myself, look at me. If I don’t like to see the others, look at them. Your heart is so much bigger than ours. Cleanse me during this time, make my heart wider, my eyes milder and my faith deeper. Forgive me as I forgive my neighbors.

Being contemporaries

I remember the theologian Karl Rahner in an interview speaking about “Zeitgenossenschaft”. Even though Germans are used to long words, I had never heard this particular word before. It means “contemporaneity”, occurring simultaneously or concurrently, having a “contemporary communal presence”. Rahner dropped it in a melancholic kind of way, stating that over the years one develops this sense of contemporaneity together with those whom we share the same time. Living at the same time can create a bond of familiarity and love. Our journeys of life may change; we meet each other, we walk together, and then – for professional, or personal, or whatever reasons – our ways part. But still, we are of one generation and we experience the same world, even when we are at different places. We experience the blessings and the crosses of the same time. I guess one reason for our fear of death is that we don’t want to leave our companions with whom we have walked.

There is a silent tenderness in being contemporaries, in coming from the same time. This is because God has blessed the time by the birth of his Son. God wanted to be our contemporary. We celebrate this at Christmas. God became man and the companion of many. They walked together; He went with them through thick and thin. It is touching to know that God wants to be my contemporary too. He wants to share my time. He wants to walk with me. Over time, the familiarity with Him grows. We don’t have to be in contact every minute, just walking together connects us.

Thank you, Jesus, for being my companion. Thank you for walking with me. Thank you for being interested in my life – my simple, limited life. It is good to know you as my contemporary. You want to grow old together with me. In turn, I want to love and honor all those who are my contemporaries.

Being contemporaries

Lord, You Know Me

It is wonderful to have a friend who knows you well, with whom you have walked for many years. With whom you can share everything; who knows your story. With whom a conversation does not start at zero, you can just jump into it. To have a person who understands and who knows you, is a great gift of God.

However, sometimes not even a friend can reach my heart. This is an odd experience. Sometimes we are just left with ourselves, left alone. We cannot find a partner that adequately responds to our feelings, our story, our thoughts, situation or needs. But these moments that can be filled with darkness and sadness can also turn into a very precious experience. The situation breaks us open to realize that our loneliness is not an accident, but the reflection of our deepest call as human beings that goes beyond what another human being can grasp or understand. We realize that our loneliness touches the dimension of God; it is a result of the fact that we are immediate to God. This is the monk’s moment. The term monk stems from the Greek word “monachos” which means “single, solitary”.

Through God’s grace, we are able in these moments of aloneness to talk to Christ or to God and find his ear. And his response is always exactly what we need. We realize: HE understands, HE knows. His presence resonates with everything I utter and express. I feel understood, appreciated, loved. I feel liked by him as by a good friend. But even better, and in a perfect way. Nothing is missing.

One of my favorite Psalms comes to mind:  Lord, you know me. You understand my thoughts from afar. You formed my inmost being. My very self you know. (cf Psalm 139).

As we leave this our inner “cell”, which is more than a room, we become open for any kind of God-filled relationship. We feel connected with the world and with everybody or everything that crosses our way. Because we are connected again with ourselves and with God.

Lord, you are my best friend; you are better than any friend ever could be. Give me good friendships and help me to maintain them. Open my heart to you when I feel lonely. Let me not give in to despair or sadness, but instead make me seek your presence. You know me. You understand me. How precious this is for me to know!

Irland2 003 - Copy

Gather Together

There are some words in our prayers that I just love. Words such as “gather together”; we monks chant them regularly in a hymn. These words resonate with my longing for unity and peace. In these times when our countries and our world seem to be more torn than ever, this longing is even stronger. It moves me to strive for unity and collaboration, in our small worlds, in our communities, in our families, and in the teams in which we work. When we live and work together as one, things flow better and we are happier and more successful.

However, one time while praying the hymn, I paid closer attention. It says, that all things are gathered together in Christ. Both the original Greek and Latin have a term that comprise the word “head” (recapitulare). The gathering happens in Christ, who is the head. He does the gathering together. This immediately gave me relief. I cannot do it. He will do it. He will gather us all. But, how does he do it?

“In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up (gather together) all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:8-10)

Our temptation is we want to sum everything up before its time. We tend to force others into what we think would be unity. We don’t have the patience that God has for us, that he has for everybody, without excluding anybody. Rather, we should allow him to wash away what is not in his favor within us, which separates us from him and others.

Lord, I can’t wait for the new heaven and the new earth. Make it come faster. Help me to accept you as my head. This will help to bring us humans together. I don’t have to gather everybody, but I have to let YOU gather everybody. You can do it. You suffered for us. You forgive us. You are gentle. And you are just.

recapitulare - gather together