Every Hour

In my home monastery there was the old tradition of praying every hour. As soon as the bell rang, you had to stop your work and say a prayer. I remember some monks who did this very faithfully, in the garden, in their workshops, wherever they were. Even our abbot would stop in the middle of a conversation, and we would spend a short time in silent prayer. At first, I found this a bit awkward. But today I see this custom differently. Because it is St. Paul who tells us to pray without ceasing:

Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thess. 5:17-19)

How can we pray without ceasing? How should that be possible? Isn’t that just an ideal? Perhaps it is more a matter of adopting an attitude of gratitude, all the time, an attitude of praise, of attachment to the Lord. The psalm says we should pray at least seven times a day (Psalm 119:164), which would cover the whole day symbolically. Most monks pray their Divine Office five times a day. That makes almost 3 hours a day – that’s something! Of course, you can pray at any time. You don’t have to pray by the clock. But I have found that thinking of God at least once an hour helps to lift our hearts.

God does not need our prayer. As a good parent, you don’t need to hear from your children all the time. They can come to you anytime, and that is enough. Similarly, it must be with God. We can come to Him at any time. But it is good for us to be in contact with Him. It is good for us not to lose the connection. The longer we are out of touch, the further we can get away from Him. It becomes more difficult to return, but certainly not impossible. But as I said, once an hour seems to be a good start. Looking at a crucifix, spontaneously thanking God for a grace we have just experienced, asking in prayer for someone who is suffering. Simply a sign of touch. A little “hello, God, here I am”, a thumbs up, a smile, a prayer from the heart.

We don’t have to set our timer for this, although the bells in a monastery can really help, as can the bells in the parishes. In the end, we want this to become our attitude, so that from within there is a desire to be in contact with HIM.

Lord, when I am no longer by myself, bring me back. When I forget you, remind me. When daily work or worries occupy me, knock on the door of my heart and invite me to pray. Let me pause and pray. Amen.

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?

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.

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.