“Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore—avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about in mass, now silvery, now dark, against the gray blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.”
Owens Lake 2021
photo by Author
The silver Freightliner 18-wheel truck lays on its side in the southbound lane of Highway 395 in Olancha, California, four hours north of Los Angeles. My Oldsmobile Bravada, a heavyweight car, shakes in the hard, buffeting desert wind, as I wait in a line of cars in the northbound lane. The road is littered with hundreds of plastic water bottles bearing the logo which is on the side of the truck: Crystal Geyser Water. The bottling factory is a mile north. The beverage holder at my car console holds a half-opened bottle of Crystal Geyser. Through the cottonwood trees to my left, I can see Olancha Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which appears on the water bottle label. The truck driver sits on the ground, supported by a bystander holding a compress to the man’s bleeding head.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
Saturday morning, brilliant sunshine, 75 degrees F. Our son Erik and I begin our walk around the Big Block. I hold on to his upper arm as we begin the climb up the street that will encircle our neighborhood. Erik is alert with his supersonic hearing, responding to every distant sound: dog barking, leaf blower, car door closing, baby crying. He laughs or repeats nonsense phrases. He kicks at a wall, stomps on a dried sycamore leaf, thrusts his leg out toward a bush, laughing. Erik is alive with joy, living only in this present moment.
Erik especially enjoys stepping into the recess in a lawn where the concrete top of the water meter is placed. I tell Erik, “Now don’t step into that hole.” He heads right for it, steps into the hole and laughs. We repeat this at least a dozen times as we walk the one-mile parameter of the Big Walk, up hills, and down hills.
Erik is 37 years old, but mentally 4 years old. That is the age when encephalitis ravaged his brain. I remember when I was 37 years old, pastor of a busy urban parish, propelled by caffeine and the prioritized daily task list in the Franklin Planner. My mind frantically moved in all directions, lamenting an overdue project from yesterday, anxious about a critical board meeting tomorrow. There was no Now, especially a joyful Now. As I experience walking beside our son Erik, in these retirement years, I can give myself fully to being present with Erik, relishing his robust joy at being right here now with me.
I shared with my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon Moreland SJ, last month a nagging issue for me. “I am looking back on my life with deep regrets about my behavior toward people I have wounded. A dark, judgmental energy has been haunting me, causing me to blurt out, ‘I am sorry! I was so stupid!’”
Fr. Gordon responded, “Whoever comes to mind, pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord.”
He expanded that counsel with a more radical spirit:
“The people in your life who have died: let them know you are praying for them to have a surge of joy.
For the Unfaithful Departed, help them let go of their Capital sins (Greed, Lust, Envy, etc.) and embrace the joy of the Lord.”
I remember that Fr. Gordon expanded this counsel in his Christmas Letter:
“The Divine Trinity is the very personification of love. This is the love of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity is also an extravaganza of joy. And that joy diffuses itself by being poured forth into creation. Most especially the Trinity create other persons to share that joy. And we as human beings are the recipients of that joy. Jesus made two things pretty clear; He wanted us to share His joy and he wants our joy to be complete. This is what God wants of us, as Saint Paul proclaims in Philippians, ‘Rejoice always. Again, I say rejoice.’ (Ph. 4:4ff)
“Praying for the eternal happiness of all people means I no longer have enemies, because I no longer carry the heavy burden of resentment toward anyone. At the least, I unburden myself and I am liberated to make room to welcome joy.”
Joy is central to our life with each other and with God.
On the one-year anniversary of the breakout of COVID-19 virus, I am waiting in line at Albertson’s Supermarket (six feet behind the person in front of me). They are out of Lysol wipes, paper towels and TP again. Everyone is wearing masks. I look at the people around me, faces mostly covered, pushing shopping carts, heads down, a mother trying to herd a brood of school-age children who cannot attend school. There is no joy here, only the daily grind, trying not to get sick, trying to pay bills, trying to help children keep up with schoolwork.
St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of weeks away. In past years, celebrants would pack Patty’s Pub, Irish jigs playing as gallons of Guinness pour from wooden kegs. Perhaps the virus census will improve so that bars and restaurants can open again. Festive celebrations, vacations, reunion with family and friends can foster joy once again. But a day or so after the event, we return to routine, ordinary time.
I remember this: a mid-morning hike on a cow trail along Olancha Creek, climbing westward toward the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. In the early days of spring, an icy wind blows down from the mountains. Olancha Creek is dry as a bone, easy to cross to the other side. Enormous granite boulders and coarse gravel litter the landscape. This cow trail makes it easier to walk through dense, scratchy great basin sage and spindly creosote.
Sweat trickles into my eyes. Breathing is labored as I climb the trail. One step after another. The mind slows into No Mind. Then the sound. I stop suddenly. Listen! Water flowing over rocks. I continue climbing, move back toward Olancha Creek, which is now gushing with water.
I see a large, flat rock and collapse to rest. On the ground beside my hiking shoes, I see black obsidian chips. A Paiute once sat on this rock, chipping an arrowhead. Where I am hiking had been a substantial settlement of the Paiute people.
Breath and heart rate return to normal. At that moment, I am filled with a surge of well-being. In this desolate desert place, on this rock, gratitude pours out for my family, my friends, the priesthood, the gift of being here. My heart fills with thankfulness to God. This is genuine joy. It is more than a feeling. The sudden awareness becomes an open door to my heart to invite the Lord to be with me.
I cannot make joy happen. Joy visits us as part of the life we have been living.
Spiritual writer and monk Ron Rolheiser shares:
“Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the various versions of The Prayer of St. Francis put it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out. That is the great paradox at the center of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.”
The 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite John of the Cross echoes this counsel in this poem:
The Russian army officer in full dress uniform sits on the bench of the boarding platform of the Hauptbanhof-train station in Magdeburg, East Germany (DDR). Sitting on either side of him are twin daughters, perhaps seven years old. Each girl has large, bright yellow ribbons tied to both sides of her hair. A lovely moment. However, the officer looks unhappy. I am guessing Papa is mourning the end of his post in East Germany, where food and other products are more plentiful. I wanted to take a photograph, but that was illegal.
May 1980. I am traveling in East Germany, after a week in Braunschweig, West Germany, researching for a magazine article I was writing for the Jesuit magazine America. I want to contrast the vitality of the West German Lutheran Church with the Lutheran Church in East Germany.
I am visiting Magdeburg, Leipzig, Dresden, and Erfurt, which required advanced planning. I had to secure a visa from the German Democratic Republic and reserve hotel rooms. I was traveling alone and could not deviate from the itinerary.
After checking in at the Hotel International, I went for a walk to purge the melancholy mood descending on me in the late afternoon. Standing on a bridge spanning the mighty Elbe River, I focused on the rippling waves of the water expanding outward from passing ships.
The nervous butterfly feelings in my gut tell me something important will happen. Or am I anxious this first day living in the restrictive, suppressed country I have entered?
I could have walked in different directions, deciding to wander toward a war-ruined church, the result of the British bombing on January 16, 1945, that destroyed most of Magdeburg. I passed the ruin and came upon a war-scarred and rebuilt parish church. A strange sight: a cluster of college age persons are waiting in front of the church.
In my curiosity, I came toward the group. I noticed a large poster on the bulletin board announcing Evangelishe Studentenvereinigung (Evangelical Student Union). I asked a young woman if I might attend. She disappeared into the church. I turned to leave, when I saw a short, stocky man walking toward me, with a concerned look on his face.
He wanted to know why I was there. I introduced myself as a Professor of philosophy at a college in California, being careful about my priest identity. He greeted me with a formal Prussian bow, shook my hand, and smiled warmly. He is Pastor Georg Nuglisch. He guided me by the arm upstairs into a church meeting room, where he presided at a Wednesday night seminar as pastor to the university students of Magdeburg. He had the largest university student group in East Germany.
I walked into a large hall. A dozen tables had been bunched together to create a huge square, providing seating for one-hundred students. Feeling the energy of these young people, I found a seat near Pastor Georg
Pastor Georg began the evening with a prayer. He introduced a Roman Catholic priest from Karl Marx Stadt (old Chemnitz) who presented a lecture on the Marxist and materialist elements in the Gospel of Matthew.
After the lecture-discussion, Pastor Georg introduced me. The students’ faces lit up when they heard “California” and “America.” I was an unusual visitor. I stood up and a barrage of questions hit me: concern about America’s gluttonous consumption of energy and food resources. I responded with information about church-sponsored programs seeking responsible stewardship.
Other students probed me with questions about racial justice in America and the oppression of African Americans. Marxists see race and class struggle to be interchangeable issues. The example of Black Americans showed the dialectical struggle between the “haves and have nots” as still evident in human history.
I remember my response:
“Racism against Black Americans is imbedded in American Culture. I experienced this in my family. My parents were wonderful parents, but they had strong opinions against Jews, Black Americans, and Roman Catholics. I know that I have experienced and viewed reality through the limited lens of White privilege. My journey away from my family-rooted prejudice led me to deep friendships with persons of color who were my neighbors, fellow students, and fellow workers. I saw the struggle for life within a Black neighborhood, when I lived in South-Central Los Angeles during the Watts Riot of 1965. I saw the violence, anger, and the police brutality. We had hoped for progress with the Civil Rights Movement, but racial prejudice is still there. I live in a country with freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These are hopeful tools for transformation and social justice. The first steps are for White Americans to recognize the lens of our privilege, to confront the culture of racism in which we have been tutored, and to look for opportunities for friendship and relationship with persons of color. I am hopeful.”
At the end of the seminar, the students adjourned to the beer cellar in the church. A student grabbed my arm and guided me to join the group. We sat at small tables set up over old beer barrels. The light was dim, but the environment more gemutlich.
Pastor Georg stood beside me with his hand on my shoulder. He was pleased to have me there and assured me that no question or statement was out of place. The students opened up about their university studies. Most of them were studying heavy engineering (although most had not heard of Caltech or MIT).
Several students shared with their own litany of frustrations of life in the DDR—the poor quality of goods, the difficulty in buying automobiles which self-destruct after a year’s use, and the constant standing in long lines to purchase goods.
Most of the students came from families of practicing Christians. I remember one young man saying to me, “When I graduate, I will have to decide: if I want to have a good professional position, I cannot be a visibly active Christian.”
The next morning Pastor Georg gave me a tour of the old church, built by French Huguenots, persecuted Christians who did much to build up Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great. The back, unrestored part of the building served as an art gallery.
“Restoration of churches in the DDR is paid for by gifts of hard West Germany currency to the DDR,” said Pastor Georg. “The Cathedral in Berlin was destined for demolition, but soon monies from West German churches came pouring in, and the church was saved.”
Over coffee, he said with pride that his weekly student meeting is the largest Evangelical Student Union in East Germany. He took out a file and showed me the planned seminars for the coming year.
“I will give a lecture on Ernst Bloch, a philosopher with a moderate critique of Marxism. The Bishop has supported me on this, and I will go ahead, even though it pushes the limits of what the state deems acceptable.
“We are supposed to study within non-critical limits. Visiting pastors from the West bring in the latest writings in theology. I want these students to know something more than what they get at the University,” he said. “We cannot counter the sophisticated critiques of Christianity by the Marxist materialists, but at least I instill some process of critical thinking into the students.”
I asked Pastor Georg, “What would happen to you, should you step over the line of permissible behavior and become known as a radical critic of the Communists?”
“They could send me to Bautzen (the most severe political prison camp near the Polish border), but I doubt that,” he responded. “The authorities most likely would send me out of the country.”
The next day, I drove with Pastor George, his wife Ursula, and young son Sebastian, to the north for a day in the country to visit the walled medieval town of Tangermunde. They admired the Mitsubishi Colt I was driving as if it were a Mercedes limousine. As we drove on country roads, a traffic policeman in a white motorcycle shadowed me for a long time. My Dutch license plate tagged me as a Westerner, a target for speed trap fines that had to be paid on the spot. We passed 300 Russian soldiers marching in full battle gear along the highway, as T-80 tanks climbed over distant hills. We were 60 km from the East/West border. If there ever was to be a Warsaw Pact invasion of the West, it would happen in this area.
We drove past a former Nazi concentration camp hidden in a dense forest, yet marked by the Soviets as a memorial against Fascism.
“We knew of the concentration camps, “Pastor Georg said. “Our Jewish friends were being taken away. There were isolated strikes in factories. But what could we have done? We have the same situation today. Someone is taken away by the Stasi, and they go to Bautzen Prison. Many are never seen again. Who knows? Who dares ask?
His voice grew more intense. “I have seen students taken out of our meetings. I know of young people in my parish who have been brutally beaten by the police. You know what happened: you see the wounds and bruises. But what can you do? Is this not the same situation.?”
At Tangermunde we walked through the old thousand-year-old walled city. We enjoyed lunch/mittagessen on a ship anchored outside the city gates. Little Sebastian was excited to be there.
How odd were my feelings as we said goodbye late in the evening in front of my hotel. These persons unknown to me two days earlier had shared with me the frustrations and hopes of their lives as I had shared my own life with them. Here we were saying goodbye. They were convinced we would never see each other again.
A week later I was visiting with another pastor in West Germany. His parish was the largest Lutheran church in the community. He was an immaculately dressed, elegant man of about 45. His office bookshelves were filled with all the current theological books.
This pastor had 2,000 people in his parish, but less than 300 came with any regularity. The German Church receives nine percent of every tax bill paid by each German citizen: that fact that almost everyone pays the tax brings the sum to millions of Deutschmarks. But there is no sacrificial giving, no significant giving.
I received more insight into the West German parish situation from a director of Christian education outside Braunschweig. His evaluation of the typical Western pastor was that, after many years in the university, he is highly educated in philosophy and clerical studies, but has been given little experience in practical theology. (His own programs were trying to make up for this by providing practical training in preaching and pastoral counseling.)
Entrenched in a parish, the Western pastor can be there for many years, without having made a single parish call. His sermon usually consists of philosophical lectures since not a few of these men chose the study of theology because the medical and law schools were full. They can live well (in 1980) on an income of $35,000 a year, housing provided, and make a satisfactory life for themselves studying philosophy and theology.
As my main, original intention in this journey was to contrast the church in East Germany with the West German church, I was surprised at the result. I had discovered that the vitality of the church is most strongly felt in a milieu that lacks state affirmation and state support, and that is a struggle for survival, where the cost of discipleship is experienced with intensity.
Janice and I have been traveling for the past 21 days through the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, visiting Vienna, traveling up the Danube to Budapest, into Czechoslovakia: Brno, and Prague. Few people from the West travel in a private car in these countries behind the Iron Curtain. We have been shadowed by local police, secret police, and everything we have said in our hotel rooms has been bugged. I could use my German to communicate, as that was the dominant language in these countries until 1945.
We left Prague that morning, passing through vast, green farmlands. The road made a slow but steady climb into the dense green forests of the Lusatian Mountains.
From one country under surveillance, we entered East Germany, driving on to Dresden, still very much in ruins after the infamous bombing of February 13-15, 1945.
We followed the Reformer Martin Luther, visiting Erfurt, where he was an Augustinian monk and had his life-changing enlightenment about Grace in the Epistle to the Romans. We toured the castle of the Wartburg, where Luther, under the protection of Frederick the Wise, translated the New Testament from Greek into German, and threw a bottle of ink at the Devil.
My heart was beating hard in anticipation of our exit from East Germany when we would stop in Magdeburg and see Pastor Georg and Ulla again.
The door to their home opened. Georg and Ulla greeted us as old friends, meeting Janice for the first time. Janice and Ulla found a common connection in their hospital nursing.
We walked to dinner at our Hotel International, passing a former Luftwaffe Officer’s compound. Looking over the wall, we could see laundry hanging from windows and piles of trash.
“Look what those Russians have done to this place,” shouted Georg. “They live like pigs. This was once a lovely complex. Now the buildings are falling apart.”
Georg’s loud complaints made me nervous. I thought they could arrest us.
Georg walked beside me on a street leading to our hotel; Janice and Ulla, arm in arm, sauntered behind us. We entered the Hotel International, heading toward the restaurant to the right of the lobby. A burley man in a dark suit blocked the way, holding an armload of menus. He whispered to Georg: “What are you doing here? You should not be here!”
“Alles in Ordnung (Everything is OK)”, I responded. “They are our family.” This restaurant was off limits to DDR residents. It was only for visitors, who paid in hard Western cash, and government VIPs. I showed my hotel room key to him.
Yes, we had entered a special world of privilege: push green carpets, live piano, and violin music.
The host guided us to a prominent table against a back wall with a wide view of the tables surrounding us.
As I read the menu, I flashed back on the three weeks Janice and I had already spent in Budapest, Prague, and Dresden. When there was food available in a local market, people lined up for fatty sausages, brown-wrinkled oranges from Cuba, shriveled Bulgarian beets, and a strange meat mélange of “parts” that looked like a giant baloney, sliced to order.
This menu revealed a world of dreams: fish, steaks, Italian pasta, and fresh vegetables. Georg and Ulla ordered the beef steak. Georg had a whiskey.
“How is your ministry going with the University students?” I asked Georg.
“Last month we began peace demonstrations at the Cathedral every Monday evening. We call them ‘Peace Prayers.’ It is a small crowd; many of the students were hesitant at first. After prayers in the church, we march through the main street past the Bahnhof.”
A flash of hope-filled energy brightened Georg’s eyes as he spoke about this movement for political change. His parish and the Cathedral hosted opposition groups, who actively protested Communist Party policy. He felt compelled to preach stronger sermons against the oppressive policies and action of the DDR.
“Isn’t that dangerous: public demonstrations that could be perceived as critical of the government?”
“The Church is the only voice permitted to speak critically and openly about the government. We know the Stasi secret police come to these meetings and the peace demonstrations. They take photos and write down names. Participants can receive threatening phone calls and harassment at the university or at work. But the church is the only place in the DDR when one can speak freely.”
I asked Ulla, “How do you deal with threats and harassment? Do you feel more fearful about what the government might do?”
“We have lived with this for many years, especially as the family of a Christian pastor. When I was sick in the hospital, they put me in isolation, cut off from contact with other patients. You remember that our daughter graduated from Gymnasium last year at the top of her class, but she couldn’t go to the better universities.”
“Where do you find the spiritual ballast to push ahead like this with these demonstrations and what reactions they could spark?”, I asked.
“We pray the psalms every night. God is our refuge and strength, a verypresent help in trouble. The Word of God is our ballast. There is powerful solidarity with others, including non-Christians, who hope for a better, freer Germany.
It was a lovely, surrealistic evening with our East German friends. The food was the best we had eaten in a month. But there was an anxious ache in my gut. I was afraid for Georg and Ulla. I knew about the brutalities of the Stasi. I also identified with the urgency of this public witness and the hope for change.
Janice and I walked Georg and Ulla back to their home through the quiet, dark streets. The fragrance of spring flowers scented the night air. I was grateful for this reunion with our friends, knowing we may never see each other again.
I lost direct contact with Ulla and Georg until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had sent carefully written letters to them, but knowing now that any letter for a pastor had been steamed open and read by the Stasi agents, I suspect that they trashed my letters.
The Internet and Google Search could not help me during those years. As I created this blog, I have been back-filling information I could find about Pastor Georg and the Peace Prayers movement.
What I discovered was that these parochial gatherings and demonstrations became the foundational seeds for much larger demonstrations leading up to the opening of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of the DDR.
Recently, I found a resource that revealed the important peace work that Pastor Georg continued after my last visit:
“The working groups for peace and ecology were founded in Magdeburg under the student pastor Georg Nuglisch. They established networks with other activist groups. They took part in the environmental meeting in September 1981 in Halle and in November 1982 in the working meeting of the ESG (Evangelical Student Association) peace groups. Nuglisch also disseminated the Ten Theses on Possibilities for Nonviolent Actions.” 
Pastor Georg’s grassroots work with his student ministry and peace activism linked with other student groups in the DDR, developing into a populist movement, drawing in hundreds of thousands of citizens in massive demonstrations.
John S. Conway summarizes this liberation process:
“The churches’ courageous stand against political corruption and the misuse of power was hailed as a significant factor in undermining the credibility of the regime. So too was the readiness of church-led ‘basis groups’ to challenge the ubiquitous secret police, commonly known as the ‘Stasi.’ These were valiant demonstrations of the popular demand for fundamental rights to freedom of expression, and for liberation from the oppressive structures which had for so long characterized the Marxist-dominated society. The image of a small indomitable band which refused to bow the knee to Baal, but instead defied the might of the all-powerful atheist state, received widespread acknowledgment and approbation. A large banner paraded through the streets of Leipzig said it all: “Kirche, wir danken dir!”
This year, 2020, Germans celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Reunification. There is a renewed popular regard for the Christian churches in Germany and their prophetic voice amidst new struggles for peace and justice.
“One Berlin pastor put it, ‘We can’t just say, ‘Now we’ll be pious again.’’ The church cannot afford to change its character as a forum for thought and political or social innovation. It must continue its role as public educator and must endeavor to continue its role as a dialogue partner to the government on behalf of the people. Perhaps most importantly, said the same Berlin pastor, the church must not stop being ‘the speaker for the weak.’ ‘After all,’ he said, ‘that’s what we’ve always been.’ “
This is the third and final section of the workshop I presented on 29 August 2020: “Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone)”, from the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, Sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange.
I am sitting on a wooden bench in a garden. This is my third day on retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, in the foothills above Montecito, California. Each day I have prayed several of the monastic offices with the monks, including daily mass.
In the late afternoon, before Vespers, I sit on this wooden bench in a garden, overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon; the shimmering Pacific Ocean is in the distance. The sun will set soon. A gentle breeze carries the scent of sage and juniper up from the canyon below. Creatures scurry and rustle about in the underbrush.
My mind emptied of all the distracting voices that chattered in my head as I drove 150 miles from my home to this retreat. Those voices are now mostly silent, as I invite the Lord to be present with me. I am listening to the sounds around me, natural sounds, speaking in the rhythm of a day transitioning into night.
There is a warmth penetrating my body that is not the sun. It fills my body with welcome heat, gentleness, sweetness. Is this what God’s embrace of love and peace feels like? I let go to it, closing my eyes.
I did not fall asleep, but this encounter held me tight on this wooden bench in this garden. A bell rings in the distance; a faint sound at first, then it becomes louder and clearer: the bell calling the monks to Vespers. I had been sitting for over an hour, but it seemed like five minutes.
Hours later, lying on my bed in the monastic cell before sleep, I remembered this embrace of God. It was a visitation unconjured, unexpected, and unmanipulated.
The feeling of peace and God’s love stayed with me into my sleeping hours.
Today, as I remember that experience on the prayer bench at the monastery, an image came to me: I had been on a wooden bench at a bus stop for the Holy Spirit. There is no schedule, therefore no expectations. But I had to show up for this encounter to have happened.
I shared this experience with a friend. She asked me an important question: “How do you know you are really praying or just talking to yourself.”
It is common when we pray to talk to ourselves instead of God.
I have tried to approach my prayer with God in this way:
I want to pray as if I am having an encounter with a real person, which I am. I am speaking with God. I begin my prayers by asking God to be with me, to touch my heart, not just my mind. I ask God to remind me again that God loves and forgives me.
Saint Teresa of Avila said, “A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he/she is speaking to….I do not call prayer, however much the lips move.”
How do I know if God is talking to me in prayer?
One way is from the insight of Ignatius Loyola: our experience of consolation, when God touches our soul and allows it to be comforted and strengthen by an awareness of God’s love.
Another way is when I am doing spiritual reading, or praying Lead, Kindly Light, Cardinal Newman’s hymn in Compline. Sometimes I read words that touch my heart deeply with an awareness of God’s power and goodness.
I am concluding our time together this morning with an experience of Contemplative Prayer. I have this thought: does the discipline of faithfully praying portions of the liturgy of the hours and the Examen open our soul toward Contemplative Prayer?
When I think of contemplative prayer, I remember one of the great spiritual masters, Thomas Merton.
Every semester when I taught the Christianity portion of my college class on world religions, I presented a powerful video on the life of Thomas Merton: Merton: A Film Biography (1984). In my class were many students who had not grown up in a spiritual tradition, but I found that this video was transformative for them. It connected with their own restless, searching souls.
Thomas Merton was a writer who was a typical “party animal” in his college days of the 1930’s. Yet he had a Holy Longing that eventually led him to be a Trappist monk, one of the most severe forms of monasticism. He found serenity and deep connection with God in his practice of contemplative prayer.
As you read Merton’s journals, that restlessness, that Holy Longing, was relentless. He became the first Trappist monk given permission to be a hermit, living alone on the monastery property. His restlessness pushed him to seek more isolated locations. He went to New Mexico, Arizona and Northern California seeking the right spot.
Father Thomas Keating, a fellow Trappist, met many young people who came to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, for retreats. They had no understanding of Christian contemplative practices. To help these spiritual seeks of communion with God, Centering Prayer presents specific techniques.
I had the same experience, teaching my college classes on world religions. My students practiced, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, Zen, Tai Chi, but knew nothing about the Christian contemplative traditions. I recommended Centering Prayer to the students because it does bridge Eastern and Western mystical practices.
Father Basil Pennington shares some of the steps for practicing Centering Prayer.
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor. Let go of every kind of thought during prayer.
Merton was a master of world mystical traditions. Yet he found that contemplative prayer was not a kind of altered state or blank consciousness, emptied of feeling and thought. There is no special technique to master.
For Merton, contemplation is a way of being present to what is going on within ourselves.
Father Ron Rolheiser helps us to understand this, when he wrote: “We are in solitude, in contemplation, in prayer, when we feel the warmth of a blanket, taste the flavor of coffee, share love and friendship, and perform the everyday tasks of our lives so as to perceive in them that our lives are not little or anonymous or unimportant, but that what is timeless and eternal is in the ordinary of our lives.”
There was a man who struggled with his faith in God and could not pray. He spoke with a Jesuit priest about this and received this advice:
“Make a promise to yourself to sit in silent prayer for half an hour a day for the next six months. If you are faithful to that, you will recover your sense of God.
The man rejected this suggestion, but his Jesuit friend persisted:
“Just do it! Show up and sit in silent prayer, even if you feel like you are talking to a wall. That is the only advice I can give you.”
Six months later, the man’s faith in God had returned.
There will be more boredom and restlessness than warm fuzzy feelings when we pray. But God invites us to show up and God will work with us.
Let us conclude this section on Prayer Practices to Nourish Men by spending fifteen minutes in silent contemplation. In my written communication with you a few days before our time together today, I advised you to find a quiet place where you can go through our different prayer forms.
I drove 150 miles to sit on the prayer bench at Mount Calvary Monastery. Thomas Merton searched and searched for the best place for solitude and silence for his contemplative prayer.
The place where you choose to pray with the Lord is always the perfect place for you.
(From “Resting in God’s Presence”, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI)
Find a place where you can sit quietly, comfortably for fifteen minutes. I will watch the time and ring a bell at the end.
Here is a short Bible passage. “As the Father has love me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” John 15:9)
Close your eyes or focus on a candle flame or the icon on this screen. Imagine yourself in the presence of God, a God who yearns to be close to you. Some people find it helpful to silently repeat a simple word or phrase: “Jesus”, “Blessed be God”, “Hosanna,” “Lord Have Mercy.” If you worry that you are not doing it right, listen to this advice given to me: “I just look at God, and I let God look at me”.
15 minutes for contemplation
I must admit to you that I have times when I sit in silent contemplation, but the dark spirit pulls me down. Echoes of recent conflict, lingering depression or a health crisis in our family create a void, a dry desert wasteland. But I show up, while God seems far away. A reminder from St. Teresa of Avila has helped me:
“Love is two people sitting in a room, talking to each other. Neither knows what to say, but they recognize each other.”
I do not want to pray right now. But the Holy Presence is somewhere in this room with me. I know this.
Describe an experience of God’s love for you?
What have you found this morning in our time together that will help you in your prayer friendship with God?
Merton: A Film Biography (1984). Prime Video.
Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, Ronald Rolheiser OMI
Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton.
In the School of Contemplation, Andre Louf.
Centering Prayer led by Fr. Thomas Keating at Folsom Prison:
The following comes from the second part of a workshop on spirituality for men that I presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, August 29, 2020.
“Twice a day, or at least once, make your particular examens. Be careful never to omit them. So live as to make more account of your good conscience that you do of those of others; for he who is not good in regard to himself, how can he be good in regard to others?”
When I was five years old, I attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Altadena, California. I remember informing my mother one day that I thought that my teacher, a woman, must be Jesus. Why? Because she embodied the love, compassion, and presence that I experienced in Jesus when she read Bible stories to us.
Our teacher, Mrs. Heaton, (I still remember her name), asked the children to close their eyes and imagine with their senses all that was going on when she read Bible stories. Many of these stories were the classics about the patriarchs and prophets.
At one point, after a story about Moses complaining to God in the Exodus Wilderness, my eyes suddenly opened, and I blurted out: “How come Moses always forgets what God had already done for him. God helped him find water and manna? Why does he forget?”
Today, we can imagine someone complaining to a friend who had been helpful in the past: “” Yes, but what have you done for me lately.”
Forgetfulness about all that God has already accomplished was a chronic spiritual problem for the prophets and patriarchs, and I believe that forgetfulness is a spiritual problem for you and me here today.
The challenge is “to remember,” from the Hebrew word Zakhor.
Zakhor appears 200 times in the Hebrew Bible: remember the Sabbath, remember the covenant, remember the Exodus from Egypt.
Zakhor, remembering, is crystalized in the Jewish Passover meal, the Seder. In a sacred meal that involves all the human senses, participants hear the story from ages past when God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery. In the Haggadah, the verb tense changes from past tense to present or subjunctive tense, as stated in the Passover Haggadah: “In each generation, every person should see himself as if he/she personally came out of Egypt.” Zakhor brings the past into the present and forward into the future.
In the Sabbath and all their sacred holidays, the Jewish people are involved in a performance of memory—through deeds, actions, and speech—in the process of not forgetting.
In his classic book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill contends that it is the Jewish people who gave to the modern world the concepts of progress and future hope. The classical world was a world of repetitive cycles where nothing changed. In the Jewish experience of their sacred history, history is linear, leading forward to fulfillment of God’s promises.
In all the pogroms and violence that the Jews have suffered in their long history as a people, how in the world could they sustain hope? Liturgically and sacramentally, they remembered with gratitude what God had already done. Thus, they could look to the future, as bleak as it may seem, with faith in God’s grace.
Zakhor has important meaning for Christians. As the Passover Seder was probably the precursor to the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish idea of Zakhor: not a remembering as a memorial of an event long ago. It means that even today, in the breaking of the bread, Jesus is fully present with us and we are fully present with him. We remember: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Gratitude is foundational to Hope. Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.
In this introverted world of social isolation and political polarization, how can you and I find hope that is not wishful thinking?
Five hundred years ago, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, became conscious of interior movements within him that shifted from an awareness of God’s close presence and a sense of the absence of God. He noticed that event within the celebration of Holy Mass, these interior movements shifted dynamically.
One day, after a strong, consoling sense of God’s comforting presence, Ignatius returned to his room only to be overwhelmed with desolation. In his own words:
“When the mass was finished and I was in my room afterward, I found myself utterly deserted and without any help, unable to feel the presence of my mediators or of the Divine Persons, but feelings so remote and so separated from them as if I had never felt their presence and never would again; on the contrary, thoughts came to me at times against Jesus, at times against another Person, finding myself confused with various thoughts such as to leave the house and rent a room in order to get away from the noise, or to fast, or to begin the Masses all over again, or to move the altar to a higher floor in the house. I could find rest in nothing, desiring to end in a time of consolation and with my heart totally satisfied. (380-81).”
A cloud of confusion enveloped Ignatius. To center himself, he broke down these individual interior movements in his notebook. He longs for the consolation of God’s loving presence.
Ignatius discovered the key to moving out of the web of desolation. He should work at moving his heart toward God’s desires.
“With this, the darkness gradually began to lift and tears began to come. And, as the tears increased, I felt all desire to say more Masses for this purpose disappear.” (382).
The cloud of confusion lifts as Ignatius seeks to bring the desires of his heart toward the desires of God’s heart.
You and I experience these dynamic movements toward and away from God every day in our life, but we do not intentionally notice them.
“Our exploration of even a single half-day in Ignatius’s spiritual experience manifests plainly why he considered prayerful attention to interior spiritual experience and the effort to respond wisely to it to be the key element of the spiritual life, the one ‘spiritual exercise’ that must always be present in a day that seeks to be a lived ‘yes’ to God’s will. Such ongoing prayerful attention to our spiritual experience and our response to it is the practice of the Ignatian examen…”
The Examen Prayer, Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV (pp. 51-52).
The invitation to you and me to practice the examen prayer is to recognize our desire to know God’s desires for us and to grow in awareness “that our hearts are an arena where many different movements stir.” (Spiritual Exercises 32).
The spark that draws us into practice of the examen prayer is our Holy Longing for communion with this loving God, who is always close to us.
The Examination of Consciousness can seem like a simple prayer format with five action points. But as you pray it, it grows in rich complexity. The prayer can awaken profound and important life-changing events that will call out gratitude to God.
The Examen reveals a map with marker points: not leading forward as much as looking back on your life, those crossroads, those grace-filled moments, when you were at the end of your resources, in a corner, in grief or panic, God’s grace broke through. Mapping those marker points of your own sacred history in your life up to today can show you that you have not been alone in your life. The Lord has been beside you all the way.
Gratitude is foundational to Hope
Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.
I read somewhere that we men define our self-worth by what we do, what we accomplish. Multi-tasking can lead us in many distracting directions and away from our best self and our connection with God.
To live more consciously in the presence of God, Ignatius gave us the Examen prayer. In this brief, five-part prayer we spend a few moments reviewing our day, paying attention to when we felt God present with us and times when we felt separated from God. The prayer helps us live in gratitude for those people, situations, and events in our day when we are most grateful. The Examen reminds us of God’s forgiveness.
In a few moments, I will invite you to pray this prayer with me. I pray this prayer every night before I go to sleep. Here is a description of the steps (with thanks to Fr. James Martin SJ).
Prepare: I invite God to be with me now as I pray.
Gratitude: I recall two or three good things that happened today. I look back on any good news, precious moments, perhaps an encounter in nature. I focus on thanking God. A caution: do not rush through this. Savor and relish this revisiting of events for which you are grateful.
Ask for the Grace to know your sins. As I look back on this day, where did I turn away from my true self, the deepest part of myself. Where did some curt remark or rudeness happen? Listen to your Conscience and that deep voice leading you to be more loving. Do not beat up on yourself but own your need for God’s grace.
Anthony de Mello said, “Be grateful for your sins. They are carriers of Grace.”
Review your day. This is the heart of the prayer. I imagine a video camera playing back my day, from when I first got up. I want to pay attention to where there was joy, confusion, conflict and moments of peace and love. Do not rush through this.
Forgiveness. Ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful done during the day. Look for the opportunity to make amends.
Ask for God’s help tomorrow. Close with a prayer.
This is another structured prayer that takes only fifteen minutes but can become transformative in your life with God. Remind yourself as you pray the Examen: this is not a dialogue with your self; you are doing this reflection of the past day with God as present with you.
This Examen prayer helps us to see the presence of God as we look back on our life.
Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ tell this story about looking back to encounter God:
“There was an abbot in the Middle Ages who would speak to his monks every day “on finding God, on searching for God, on encountering God.” One day a monk asked the abbot if he ever encountered God. Had he ever had a vision or seen God face-to-face?”
“After a long silence, the abbot answered frankly: no; he had not. But, said the abbot, there was not anything surprising in this because even to Moses in the Book of Exodus God said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God says that Moses will see his back as he passed by him.”
“’Thus,’ Father Kolvenbach wrote, ‘looking back over the length and breadth of his life the abbot could see for himself the passage of God.’”
“’In this sense, it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by Him in all of life’s situations, where He does not cease to pass and where He allows Himself to be recognized once He has really passed.’”
Let us now pray this Examen prayer together. In our communication with you before today, we invited you to prepare for experiences of prayer this morning by doing your best to find a quiet and comfortable place in your home.
I will announce each section and give a little reminder to what we do in that section. Some of you may want to write down what comes to you. I have found it most helpful to close my eyes and visualized the face and places of the day. Since it is only morning here, let us look back on yesterday.
Let us invite the Lord’s Grace to be present with us now.
Begin with Bell
Gratitude: let us recall the good things that happened yesterday and give thanks to God.
Ask for the Grace to know our sins.
Let us review yesterday from the beginning of our day.
Let us ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful we did yesterday.
Let us ask God for help during the rest of this day.
We close with the “Our Father.”
Here is a testimony of how the Examen has helped one man:
“For me, the daily Examen provides a prayer structure that enables me to remember that my relationship with God needs intention, time and attention each day, and that the experiences of my daily life direct me to know the ways that God calls me and forms me in my life as a Christian. Through the conscious practice and discipline of this prayer, I can better learn to recognize God’s presence in my life, and I can be more discerning and responsible to God each day.”
An app that has helped me is Examen Prayer: detailed guidance for praying this prayer. There is a tool for creating a daily journal of your reflections after praying the Examen.
Questions for reflection:
As you look back on yesterday: for what are you most grateful to God?
As you look back on the events of your life: for what are you most grateful to God?
The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, Timothy M Gallagher, OMV
The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, Fr. James Martin SJ.
An Ignatian Spirituality Reader: Contemporary Writings on St. Ignatiusof Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises, Discernment, and More, George W. Traub, SJ
YouTube presentation on Examen with Fr. James Martin SJ
 The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ, p. 98.
We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together.
St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule 20:3-5.
(The following is Part I of Prayer Forms to Nourish Men, a workshop I presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, CA, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange)
Welcome to Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Prayer Practices to Nourish Men.
I am grateful this morning for the coordinating help of Sister Karin Nuernberg CSJ, Sonya Longbotham, and Steve Bruce. We are presenting from the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange California.
I begin with this question to myself: why in the world was I asked to be the presenter on this topic? We are near the Mother House of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. The psychic-spiritual energy of this religious community, their faithful daily prayers, surely has the collective ability to power the entire city of Orange, California. This Center for Spiritual Development through the years has hosted workshops with some of the most gifted, inspiring, and prayerful people in the Church. Why in the world was I asked to present Prayer Practices to Nourish Men?
I believe I have an answer. As I was asked to work up the presentation this morning many months ago, I believe the Holy Spirit sparked the Center to prod me into this project, because I need to be more attentive to my prayer friendship with God. My daily prayer for the past several weeks has been: Dear Lord, please let me know what your desires are for our workshop on prayer this morning.
I have been a parish priest for fifty years, but this is no qualification for faithful prayer. It has been a distracted, multitasking career in which I have not been faithful to the haunting pull of God’s desire for communion with me.
After two different bouts of cancer and several decades of care for our disabled son Erik, the patient, persistent caresses of the Spirit have worn down my resistant distractions, turning my face toward God in Prayer.
Father Ron Rolheiser, in his book Holy Longing, describes the challenging situation you and I face as we consider prayer practices that nourish men.
The Holy Longing.
“Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”
“We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.”
“Spirituality is about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings. Augustine said: ‘You have made us foryourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”
Our innate Holy Longing is for experiences of communion and connection with the Lord Jesus.
Are these words speaking to you this morning? I believe you and I are here together this morning because we do recognize our deepest longing is to be in communion with God in our Lord Jesus Christ.
My desire for you this morning is that you will find some practical assistance for your prayer life to nurture your Holy Longing for the Lord.
What forms of prayer might be especially suited for men? Here is an approach suggested by Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI that we will take this morning to answer this question:
Prayer has the power to transform our inner spirit and how we experience God in the movement of everyday life. Sustaining a daily life of prayer that does not demand of us energy we cannot muster, includes familiar and repetitious ritual that is clearly defined and time limited.
With this in mind, we will learn about and experience three forms of structured prayer in order to foster a discipline of daily prayer:
The Daily Office/Breviary: as a way of praying throughout the day and reflecting upon the word of God.”
The Examen of Consciousness: a daily practice of gratitude and discernment of God’s movement in our lives
Contemplative prayer: practicing the presence of God.
I think it was Henri Nouwen who said that the essential thing about prayer is you must show up for prayer regularly. Sometimes my heart is deeply moved by a sense of God’s embrace; much of the time I am bored, distracted, looking at the clock. But I stay with my scheduled prayer, mostly. Here is an analogy that has helped me:
When my 97-year-old father was alive, he lived in a board and care home a few blocks from our own home in Laguna Niguel, CA. Of his three children, I was the only one who lived close. I faithfully visited dad every day around noon. I helped him with his lunch. We talked about the news and the golf games. He could precisely remember PGA golf scores from the day before. We went back to his room and the trivial banter continued, usually nothing too serious. Occasionally, he told me a story about his work adventures in South America. I glanced at the clock to see when I had to leave. These daily visits continued over months and several years. I had the privilege of knowing my father more deeply, and he got to know me more deeply. At a deep level of our relationship, the actual connection between us took place below the surface of our conversation. We came to know each other through simple presence.
Prayer is like that: praying faithfully every day, through weeks, months, years, bored, looking at the clock. But under the surface between you and me and God, a deeper bond is growing.
Praying the Liturgy of Hours
As we live through this Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are at home, in our monastic cell, if you will, minimizing social contact. How can Christian monks help us through these days of isolation to grow our life with God? I have found that a detailed schedule for the day has given me a sense of order, sanity, and control as I try to avoid latching on to this or that distraction, junk food or entertainment that may float by. Finding a contemplative practice is part of this order. Some days I pray the Examen, or contemplative prayer, or the liturgy of the hours.
One of the gifts from monastic culture to us are the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary, the Daily Office, the Lutheran Book of Prayers.
These canonical hours were influenced by the Jewish schedule of daily prayers. Early Christians adapted this practice, and it moved into the deserts of Syria and Egypt, where the desert fathers and mothers created the first Christian monastic communities.
Monasticism flourished, but discipline broke down and conflict was common. Saint Benedict of Nursia (AD480-550) lived in those turbulent times, creating in 516 the Rule.The Rule became a guidebook for sustaining religious community, still used 1500 years later.
The Rule gives guidance to how to live a Christocentric life on earth and how to administer a monastery efficiently. Benedict’s golden rule was Ora et Labora, pray and work. A structured schedule of prayer for eight hours, sleep for eight hours and manual work or sacred reading for eight hours.
Benedict gives us direction, as we ponder what prayer forms are best suited for us. In his plan for scheduled prayer, men do not have to come up with their own words to pray. The dominant use of psalms brings men in touch with the feelings and emotions percolating within as they pray. The prayer services can be said within ten to fifteen minutes.
Chapters 8-19 of the Rule regulate the Divine Office with eight canonical prayer hours. Here is the original schedule proposed by Benedict.
This Horarium began at Midnight with Matins.
Lauds at 3am (before wax candles of the 14th century, the monks had to memorize the service to pray in the dark).
Prime at 6am
Terce at 9am
Sext at noon
None at 3pm
Vespers at 6pm
Night Prayer, Compline at 9 pm
Several variations of the schedule have developed over time. After Vatican II, a new arrangement of the Liturgy of the Hours was updated.
The Anglican Church radically simplified Benedict’s prayer schedule in their Book of Common Prayer, combining the first three services into Matins/Morning Prayer and the latter two into Vespers/Evening Prayer.
However, Anglican religious communities revived the original Horarium of Benedict.
I remember forty years of retreats at the Anglican/Episcopal monastery of Mount Calvary of the Order of the Holy Cross, in an old Spanish style hacienda, in the mountains above Montecito, California with a view up and down the California coast.
A brass bell rings outside at 5:45 a.m. in the cold darkness of December. I jolt up from the bed in my cell, pull on a thick hooded sweatshirt and shuffle down the hall over the creaky wooden floor toward the chapel. Dawn is breaking in the distance as I gaze through the huge chapel window, observing the twinkling street lights of Ventura. I find a seat in a long pew on one side of the altar, behind the monks, who seem to have their own personal seats.
We stand as the Prior enters and Prime begins. We sit for the chanting of several long psalms. The words are printed in a special breviary with pointed marks where the tone changes and there is a dot at the end of the first half of each sentence. In this way one side of the chapel chanted the first part of the sentence, the other side responded antiphonally. Praying these long psalms together, I took a deep breath to chant my part and found that everyone on my side eventually breathed in and out together. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the chanting and the breathing. These monks have been chanting and praying the Liturgy of the Hours for decades. Each of the eight prayer services spread out over the day takes only 10-15 minutes.
I made several retreats to Mount Calvary Monastery during low points of Erik’s health. I felt numb and my muscles ached all the time with the internalized stress. I had great difficulty reading or chanting the prayer services. But the communal voice of the monks lifted me up within their own praying and chanting.
Roman Catholic priests and deacons pray all the hours of the Breviary. The laity are encouraged to pray Lauds (Morning Prayer) and vespers (Evening Prayer). The Anglican and Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Prayer also have these daily liturgical prayers, all coming out of the monastic tradition.
When I first tried to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, this is what I encountered: a lot of confusion colored ribbons to mark readings and prayers that change every day.
Ron Rolheiser shares this helpful understanding:
“We are no longer just a private individual praying: we are the voice, body and soul of the earth itself, continuing the high priesthood of Christ, offering prayers and entreaties, aloud and in silent tears, to go do for the sake of the World.”
We can imagine the earth slowly spinning on its axis, turning from day into night into day into night. If someone in Denver, Colorado prays the Vespers tonight at 9pm, an hour later the ball passes to you: the world turns on these continuous prayers of the people of God.
I thought about a selection of the Liturgy of the Hours for today, and Morning Prayer would fit this hour, but where I find solace and connection with God every day is in Compline, which I often pray at night.
Imagine another day of isolation, your concerns about your friends, family, maybe work, finances, health, the future, and we begin Compline as our last activity before we go to bed:
If you have trouble quieting your mind before sleep, even after a disturbing or troubling day, this is the prayer setting for you. Some psalms appointed sound like they are coming from a dark place, others sing out joyfully in thanksgiving. As you get into the habit of praying them, you will find that they become your own voice to God. Often there is mention of plague, disease, serious illness, calamity, troubles. The psalms reflect the variety of human moods and emotions. They help you get in touch right now with what is moving within your own heart as you pray with God. The prayers invoke God’s embrace of benevolent, protective love, enshrouding you and all those you love as you sleep into the night.
It is complicated to find your way through all those ribbons. Thank God for my iPhone, as I found 2 helpful apps: I Breviary and Universalis. When I want to pray one of the hours, like Compline, I click it and the whole service appears with the psalms and lessons for the day. There is even an extra embellishment that allows a voice to lead you in the prayers. Another setting chants the entire liturgy of Compline in Latin.
This sounds inviting, but I find it hard to bring up the energy to do this every day. You do not have to pray all the hours. You can bundle a few together to try them out, as you also consider the Examen of Conscience and Contemplative Prayer that we will explore together soon.
At lunch time, sitting outside in a garden, maybe you want to click afternoon prayer. If you pray Compline as I do every night at 10pm and you fall asleep in the middle of prayer, you are OK resting in God. The choices can change. The important thing is to show up for prayer friendship with God.
If you want to try the Liturgy of the Hours, I recommend the IBreviary app. Find a time of day that works for you. If you want to use the physical breviary, please ask someone to help you. There are lots of online resources to guide you, but I recommend practicing the prayers and it will grow on you.
Remember, you are not praying alone. You are joining the voice of the Church, which is praying around the world, 24/7, constantly.
Benedictine sister Joan Chittister shares: “We go to prayer to be transfigured ourselves, to come to see the world as God sees the world, to practice the presence of God, to put on a heart of justice, of love and of compassion for others.”
Prayer Experience for the Liturgy of the Hours
(Some translations below were taken from universalis.com)
O God, come to our aid.
O Lord make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Examination of Conscience
I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.
May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou Shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path; but now Lead Thou me on! I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still Will lead me on. O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till The night is gone, And with the morn those angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
St. John Henry Newman
Psalm 142 (143) A prayer in time of trouble
Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.
Lord, listen to my prayer:
in your faithfulness turn your ear to my pleading;
in your justice, hear me.
Do not judge your servant:
nothing that lives can justify itself before you.
The enemy has hounded my spirit,
he has crushed my life to the ground,
he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.
So my spirit trembles within me,
my heart turns to stone.
I remind myself of the days of old,
I reflect on all your works,
I meditate once more on the work of your hands.
I stretch out my arms to you,
I stretch out my soul, like a land without water.
Come quickly and hear me, O Lord,
for my spirit is weakening.
Do not hide your face from me,
do not let me be like the dead,
who go down to the underworld.
Show me your mercy at daybreak,
because of my trust in you.
Tell me the way I should follow,
for I lift up my soul towards you.
Rescue me from my enemies:
Lord, I flee to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
Your good spirit will lead me to the land of justice;
for your name’s sake, Lord, you will give me life.
In your righteousness you will lead my soul
away from all tribulation.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.
Short Reading – 1 Peter 5:8-9
Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith.
Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
You have redeemed us, Lord God of truth.
– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
Canticle – Nunc Dimittis
Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.
Now, Master, you let your servant go in peace.
You have fulfilled your promise.
My own eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples.
A light to bring the Gentiles from darkness;
the glory of your people Israel.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.
Let us pray
In your mercy, Lord,
dispel the darkness of this night.
Let your household so sleep in peace
that at the dawn of a new day
they may, with joy, waken in your name.
Through Christ our Lord,
The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
Loving mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.
I am wondering if our experience of Compline/Night Prayer changes as we age? I am 75 years old. As I pray Compline at night before I go to sleep, I can understand how my need to rest draws me into the mystery of the Lord’s death and my own death. I am completing my daily dying to self in order to rise with Christ.
The hymns that are used in Compline ask for God’s gift of rest and protection through the night. The psalms evoke trust in God. The response to the short reading is “into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit:” words I may say again when I am close to death.
The highpoint of Compline is the Nunc Dimitis, with the antiphon: Protect us Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.
The tradition of a Marian hymn at the end of Compline, such as the Salve Regina, connects with a tradition of the Eastern Church, the Dormition of Mary, her falling asleep in death.
Compline is the prayer of our dormition, of our falling asleep in Christ at the end of this day and at the end of our life. At Compline we grateful acknowledge Christ to be our constant companion.
What are you asking from God today?
What did you find within this first presentation that gives you hope for a more intentional prayer schedule?
An invitation to men seeking to develop their prayer life:
I will be offering an online spirituality program for men:
Lord, Teach us to Pray, on Saturday, August 29, 2020, from 9am to noon.
This session is part of the “On the Road” spirituality series for men, presented from the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Fr. Jim Clarke of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has presented other sessions in this series.
The Angelus by Jean Millet, 1857
We will explore three forms of prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours/Breviary/Daily Office, the Examen of Conscience and Centering Prayer/Contemplative Prayer.
Here is the link for more information and registration:
An Online Session: Journey in the Desert: A Spiritual Treasure Map
Presented by: Fr. Brad Karelius
Join others online as we explore treasures of the desert experienced by Jesus and the monastics- solitude, silence, and surrender, using the American Southwest and the travelogue of Fr. Brad Karelius, author of Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, as a backdrop. Fr. Karelius will present his own desert encounters after his life fell apart in the catastrophic health crises of his son Erik. We will discover resources for our own journey within desert wisdom and Ignatian spirituality, with significant time for personal contemplation and group discussion. This online workshop was part of the men’s series and due to great popularity is now offered to the wider community.
Note: Registrants will be provided a Zoom link on July 24, 2020 via email, to join the workshop the following day.
The link below will take you to more information about the Online registration:
Hancock Homestead, Montana, 1910, Bureau of Reclamation
Home is right here!
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man.
More than anything else, we long for home. Our deep ache for intimacy, security, and comfort is, in the end, a longing for home, nothing more. We are forever restlessly searching for someone or something to take us home.
“Home—the Place from Which to Understand”, Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“Home is where one starts from”
T. S. Eliot
The huge, orange October moon rises above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, streaming soft light through the window of our travel trailer onto the face of our sleeping son Erik. Gusts of gentle wind rustle pinyon pine branches in the dense forest surrounding us, five miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This childlike face of our 31 years old disabled son Erik reflects peace and serenity. I sleep on a sofa bed next to him, because sometime during this night he will have a seizure, not as bad as many years ago, but strong enough to wake my protective presence to keep him from falling out of bed. My wife Janice and I surround Erik in a circle of love, in this mobile home in which we have traveled these past three weeks.
In the morning after breakfast, I walk with Erik on a forest trail. I have to hold on to his hand, as he can easily trip. Nevertheless, he does like to walk and the morning mist is perfumed with pinyon pine scent. We walk around a bend in the path and I can see our trailer in the distance.
“Erik, where is our home? Is home our house in Laguna Niguel, California or is our home that trailer over there?”
Without missing a beat, Erik points to the ground of the space between us, responding, “Home is right here.”
Home is right here, in this place where we stand, hand in hand, in the circle of love and care. Home is right here!
Home is right here.
Sears Catalogue Homes, Model 115, 1908-1914
On another day, I am driving alone on the 210 Freeway passing through Arcadia, California, toward my hometown of Pasadena. As the freeway off ramp passes over the site of our first family home, I drive three blocks north, toward the Sierra Madre Mountains, to the site of our second family home. There is a warm visceral feeling that hits me as I drive these familiar streets imbedded with deep memories. At Mayfair Drive, I turn left. Halfway down the street I pull over under a gnarled, bent linden tree to catch sight of our old family home. Here was home.
My father, now 96, sold the home years ago after the death of my mother and moved to a mobile home village in Huntington Beach. Other families now call this place home.
I have dreamed of this old home over the years since my father moved. At first, the vivid dreams brought me to the house. I would use my key, open the side door, and walk in, as I did in the past when I visited my dad. Suddenly, I see strange faces and I chastise myself for disturbing the family. I had this dream for many years.
Now that my dad is nearing the end of life, the dream has changed. In the last year, at least twice a month, I dream that I visit the old home. My dad still owns it, but doesn’t live here. In the dream, I visit the home with my dad and there are squatters living there, in the quasi-abandoned building. The plumbing does not work, paint peels from the walls. However, it is still home. Frequently, my deceased mother appears in the dream and we hug and talk as if she has been away somewhere. In each dream, I now experience more deterioration of the house, more damage; the roof is beginning to fall in. How strange the journeys our unconscious take us on. One friend suggested that I am going through some early grief about the end of life for my father. Nonetheless, when I go to the old house in my dream or in an actual drive by sighting, I feel I have arrived at home.
In all the twists and turns of my life up to the first years of marriage, travels in and out of state and in and out of the country, this house on Mayfair Drive was home. It was where I experienced unconditional love and I always felt that no matter how many mistakes I made in life, I had a welcome there.
I know that as you read this, you are remembering your own experiences of home and for many people those are not pleasant memories. One priest colleague with whom I worked for many years had to move every two years, because her father was an Army chaplain.
Where do you and I find home?
There is a deep longing within each of us for something, some place, some one where we will experience, love, joy, peace and hope. Some will believe they can create that place through success, accomplishment, and money. However, the Buddha warns us that all such “homes,” even if we are fortunate to arrive at that place at some point in our life, are illusionary and temporary. All that we hold dear will eventually pass from us. Home is in this present moment, this present breath. As Erik reminds me, home is right here.
There is another answer:
“Home is a place in the heart, not a bloodline, building, city, or ethnicity. Home is that deep, fragile place where we hold and guard what’s most precious to us. It’s that place where, in some dark way, we remember that once, before we came to awareness, we were caressed by hands far gentler than any we’ve met in this life and where we were once kissed by a truth and a beauty so perfect that they are now the unconscious standard by which we measure everything. Home is where things “ring true,” where what’s most precious to us is cherished, the place of tender conscience, of intimacy.”
Ron Rolheiser OMI, “Home— the Place From Which to Understand”
That foundational, innate memory of God’s loving embrace and kiss is our homing beacon.
For the past two years, Janice, our son Erik and I have been attending St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church two blocks from our home in Laguna Niguel. I have been an Episcopal priest for 44 years and not a Roman Catholic, but our family began to attend the Sunday evening youth mass. The pastor, Monsignor John Urell, is a good friend. That friendship and the proximity guided us to the church.
For 43 years, I have worked hard as a full time pastor, most of those years within the challenges of a Latino barrio congregation in Santa Ana. Three masses every Sunday, incredible multitasking. Now in retirement, in this contemplative period of my life, I have experienced a sense of spiritual homecoming at St. Timothy’s. How would I describe it? The words and music that draw the soul deeper into communion with God; Monsignor John’s contemplative homilies full of his own honest walk with the Lord and hope and encouragement. At the time of communion, I am often brought to tears with a powerful embrace of the Holy Spirit. I look around and the voice within me says, “I am home.” We only receive a blessing from the priest at communion, but still Janice and I agree, this is home. Not necessarily the building or the congregation, but in the words, music, aesthetics of liturgy, a doorway opens into a place in our heart. I am grateful for this grace and gift.
Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2013, Vivaverde
I walk in desert space somewhere in New Mexico near sunset. There is a unique way the sun sets there: the sky above the horizon tinted yellow, crimson and finally purple. The air is still and dry, perfumed with sage, juniper and pine. There is stillness in nature before darkness covers the landscape. My skin prickles, not a cold wind, but some invisible touch, God’s enveloping embrace. I feel it and I am home.
“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.”
June 2016. I am traveling the Autobahn toward Berlin with our daughter Katie. We left our hotel in Braunschweig this morning after a five-day reunion with Ernst Heimbs, Jr. and his family. After traveling thirty miles, I see the familiar sign “Helmstedt/Marionborn.” A visceral discomfort rises from my gut as I remember that I passed through here several times in 1966, transporting Heimbs Coffee to West Berlin.
This was Checkpoint Alpha. I remember passing the welcoming sight of American and British soldiers. The freight truck entered an intimidating space of high fences, watch towers with flood lights and East German soldiers with machine guns. We stopped the delivery truck beside the inspection yard. Guards opened the back of the truck to inspect the coffee, as I entered the building to present invoices and my passport.
Border Crossing Alpha into East Germany
After the guard gave the OK sign, we proceeded on the Autobahn through the German Democratic Republic, 115 miles to West Berlin. There would be a rest stop halfway to Berlin, where we stopped for coffee and a snack and to relieve ourselves in the woods. That is where the Communist East German tick embedded itself in my leg. I removed most of it when I arrived in West Berlin, but the bug would become an ongoing source for night fevers.
As Katie and I passed the still standing guard towers into Unified and Free Germany, I saw another sign designating the old check point Alpha as a memorial to those dark days of division and the Wall.
Fifty years ago, June 1966, I arrived in Braunschweig. A family friend secured a summer job for me with her cousin Herr Carl Heimbs, as a way of enhancing my study of German.
When I arrived on June 24th, I was enshrouded within a cloud of deep despair. My application for postulancy to begin the process toward priesthood in the Episcopal Church had been denied. I had been dismissed from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for misconduct: I had stolen books from the University library. I lost my full-tuition scholarship. This trip had been planned for the past six months. I arrived in a north German town where I seemed to be the only one around who spoke English. Twenty years previously, October 15, 1944, British RAF Bomber Group Five destroyed ninety percent of the medieval historic heart of Braunschweig. The city was still in ruins with the scars of a violent war. My life was in ruins.
Herr Heimbs reserved a room for me at the local YMCA (CVJMGesamtverband), a tiny space with a bed, card table, chair, and a wash basin sink. It reminded me of the monastic cells at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. I had rarely been alone like this. I usually had a roommate, at home with my brother or in the dormitory at USC.
My return ticket was for mid-September, three months distant. In this town I had never heard of, I had no access to TV, radio, or telephone. I was planted in this strange place. The Dark Spirit was strongest at night, reminding me of the damage I had done, the hurt I had caused, and the possibility that when I returned, I could be prosecuted and sent to jail.
I woke up at 6am every weekday for work, walking downstairs to the dining room. White jacketed waiters brought a soft-boiled egg, wonderful fresh brotchen, Heimbs Kaffee and juice.
Every morning seemed to be misty and dark, as I walked toward the Oker River, which surrounded the medieval center of the city as a protective moat. Walking past the ancient water mill, I strolled up a path through the park, near the burned-out ruins of Alfred Löbbecke’s mansion. The city was coming to life, with clouds of diesel smoke from delivery trucks and Mercedes automobiles. To this day, when I smell diesel exhaust, I am walking through the morning mist in Braunschweig.
Arriving at the loading dock of the coffee factory, I found a blue work apron, climbed three flights of stairs, and opened the heavy metal door into the coffee roasting room. The minute I opened that door, warm air heavily scented with the smell of freshly roasted coffee brought my senses alive.
Within a pile of hundred-pound burlap sacks of green coffee beans, I looked for chalk numerals, codes for the type of beans. I had to learn the European numerals for 1, 4 and 7. I found the right sack, and dragged it toward a large steel grate in the floor. Ripping open the sack, I carefully poured the green beans down into the grate.
I rushed downstairs with the empty burlap bag to the next floor, where I managed eight machines. I attached the bag to a machine. The beans were guided into the machine, where a photo-electric cell image of a “perfect bean” matched the beans flowing through that machine. An occasional rush of air ejected a bean of poor quality, which flowed into a big red bucket. I had to keep a close eye on the eight machines so that each sack of processed beans did not spill over on to the floor. That did happen and the Kapitan/floor manager blasted me with his anger. I emptied the rejected beans from the buckets into a large steel barrel. These beans were sold every Friday to the U S Army of Occupation.
I checked the numerical markings on the sack of processed beans, tied it off securely. Soon, another worker carried the heavy sack to another steel grate. There was a recipe for which type of beans mixed with other beans, effecting the market grade of the final product.
A rush of hot air grabbed the beans and moved them through an extensive network of steel pipes hanging from the ceiling throughout this floor of the factory. This was the unique Aeotherm roasting system invented by Herr Heimbs in 1954. The green beans circulated through an indirect heating air stream, roasted gently, avoiding the hot metal parts. Floating in this hot air, the beans roasted evenly from the outside in. The normal roasting process in the USA involved heating the beans on a hot steel plate. “You Americans burn your beans on those hot steel plates,” remarked Herr Heimbs. The Aeotherm process continues to this day, which is why Heimbs Kaffee is the gourmet coffee of Germany and I believe to be the “world’s best cup of coffee.”
If you were drinking coffee in America in 1966, the best taste you could have might be canned Yuban brewed in a cone filter. 1966 was when Peet’s Coffee opened its first store in Berkeley. Peets would tutor the founders of Starbucks in the art of making fine, European style coffee.
On the other side of my machines were large tables, where more green beans were hand-sorted. All the people seated there, working carefully and chatting, were persons disabled from the violence of the war. Herr Heimbs was intentional about hiring as many disabled persons as he could.
10 am. A friendly waiter in a white service coat brought me a silver platter with a kannchen of fresh coffee, a cup, and a brown paper bag, which had a sandwich of German rye bread with thick local butter and liverwurst, made for me by Herr Heimb’s housekeeper. Coffee was also delivered to my workmates sorting the coffee beans. My supervisor was Herr Schmidt, about six-feet-four, erect, blond, blue eyes. He must have been a soldier in the Wehrmacht because he shouted orders to us like a military officer.
At noon, all the machines stopped, and we all walked downstairs to the huge dining hall. As I walked toward lunch, everyone was saying to one another “mahlzeit”, which is “have a good lunch.” This was my main meal of the day: always a soup or salad, main dish of meat, vegetables, potatoes and dessert. I found myself sitting most often with students from the Technical University, who received free lunches. They would not speak much English with me as everyone was intent on improving my German. A colorful mural filled the main wall of the dining room depicting a Prussian calvary charge in the Franco-Prussian War.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons there was a solemn procession of some of the company management toward the Probzimmer, where coffee beans would be tasted, and orders made. One day, Herr Heimbs invited me to join them. I walked into a long, narrow room with glass windows and doors. Small envelopes of coffee samples from plantations in South America and Africa lay on the table. Each was opened and individually poured into a small roasting machine, ground, placed in a small beaker with filter, and lukewarm water poured through. A cup of coffee for each sample formed a line on the table. We dipped our spoons into each cup, sucked in the liquid with some air, and let it roll around in our mouth. We spit the sample liquid into a large spittoon in the middle of the room. No one spoke. Each person had a note pad to record reactions to what they tasted. At some point, with consensus, decisions about future orders were made, which could be an order of many hundreds of pounds. All the raw coffee came in through Bremen.
After a few weeks, I felt more at home here. It was a friendly place, where the workers seemed to be well paid and valued.
I walked home through more drizzling rain and dark clouds. As I walked away from the factory, the heavy feelings of loneliness and despair returned.
Instead of returning to my room/cell at the CVJM, I made a habit of visiting St. Andreas Church, a thousand-year-old Romanesque Basilica next door.
St. Andreas Church before the War
As I approached the side door, I looked up to see ancient gargoyles that spit out rainwater from the gutters high above. Delicately carved images decorated the high outside walls: the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the martyrdom of St. Andreas. Construction of the thousand-year old basilica was funded by affluent, disabled local merchants. Two high bell towers marked the west entrance. One tower was the highest church tower in Germany for centuries.
Braunschweig after the Bombing
Visiting the church dozens of times in the weekday afternoons, I never saw another person inside. I walked up toward the high altar and sat for an hour every day. In 1944, all that remained of this church after the Allied bombing were charred walls. The roof and interior were gutted; the colorful medieval stained-glass windows exploded. By 1966, the church had been restored with new roof and plain glass windows, but most of the interior decoration built up over a thousand years was gone. There was a strong smell of new cement and a hint of burnt wood.
The Dark Spirit spoke frequently: “You are a thief, a liar, a complete disappointment to your parents. You lost your scholarship. You have been kicked out of the University, and even the church does not want you. This is who you really are, do not fool yourself otherwise. Your life as you wanted it to be is over.”
Another Spirit urged me to look around for a prayer book to center myself. I found one, opened it to the psalms. The text was in the old, formal German, “thee” and “thou” of Martin Luther’s translation. I found some psalms that I already knew, used some of the German words to get me on the right track. This is what I found:
Psalm 51 from Luther Bible 1545
Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz und gib mir einen neuen, gewissen Geist.
Verbirg dein Antlitz von meinen Sünden und tilge alle meine Missetat.
Laß mich hören Freude und Wonne, daß die Gebeine fröhlich werden, die du zerschlagen hast.
Psalm 51 NIV
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
As I read the German words out loud, the distance between the original composer and my own soul collapsed. This was my psalm crying out from this empty place.
Frequent night fevers began a week after the East German tick infected me and lasted for several months. The fever would rage at night, soaking the bed sheets. I was in my Purgatory; I yielded to the painful muscle aches. This was my punishment. I did not have the sense to seek a doctor.
As I look back on this difficult time fifty-five years ago, I can see God’s benevolent presence. My life had crashed, and I had come to a unfamiliar, foreign land. Communication back home could only be through letter writing: very thin onion paper that folded into an envelope for air mail. But in Braunschweig I would find seeds of hope and consolation that would set my heart in openness to whatever awaited me when I returned to California.
Within these summer months that I spent working and living in Braunschweig, most of the time I felt like a zombie, with Novocain injected in my brain. But there were two times when I did come alive for a while. One was my work in the factory among friendly people and that wonderful incense of roasting coffee.
St. Katherine Church
I was also revived on Sundays. I met Herr Heimbs at his home parish, St. Katherines, for the 10am Gottesdienst. I waited for him outside of the church. When he arrived, he was treated like a revered patriarch. We sat together in his pew as we prayed the liturgy. So many of the hymns were songs I remembered from the Episcopal Church, but we were singing the original German setting, composed for example by Bach.
After Church, Herr Heimbs drove me to his home, a mansion on Fallersleber Tor beside the Oker River. There was a splendid Sunday dinner with wine. I had to learn to pray the Grace in German from my heart.
Herr Heimbs always took a nap after this mitagessen. His son Ernst Heimbs, Senior, brought me to the local airport with his wife and daughter. We drank a curious but refreshing German summer drink: Berliner Weisse mit Shuss, Weissbier mixed with raspberry juice. Weissbier on its own is very bitter and dry. We watched wide-winged gliders take off and land. Underneath the wings of each glider was the bright red and black logo for Heimbs Kaffee.
Friedrichstrasse, East Berlin
One Friday morning, Herr Schmidt and I drove a freight truck load of coffee to West Berlin and spent the weekend. On Sunday morning, I walked up Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous Cold War crossover point into East Berlin. If you saw the 1963 film The Spy WhoCame in from the Cold, with Richard Burton, the East Berlin I was visiting looked like the backdrop to that movie. I left West Berlin, which seemed like a lively, Technicolored world, walked through the intimidating gauntlet of East German border guards, into a stark black and white world of war ruins and empty streets. I walked up Friendrichstrasse, before the war a densely populated, busy urban neighborhood. It was now a street devoid of buildings. As I came closer to Unter den Linden, I saw the spire of St. Mary’s Church, my destination for the 10am Gottesdienst. I entered the church to an organ prelude, found one of the last empty seats at the very back. The church was packed. The people sang the hymns with fervent, energetic voices. I knew I was in an East Berlin Church in a Communist Country where religious participation was discouraged. Remembering worship at St. Catherine’s Church in Braunschweig, the hymns were slow and ponderous. Most of the parishioners were senior citizens. But here at St. Mary’s, faith and worship were lively, the congregation multigenerational. After the service, I spoke with the pastor.
“Why is it that a church in East Berlin is packed and alive with worshippers, while churches in West Germany are half-empty?”
The pastor responded, “One reason, I think, is that most of the churches here in Berlin were destroyed in the war. The East German government is not interested in restoring churches. So, the ones that remain are indeed packed with people.”
A young man seemed to be waiting for someone outside of the church. He saw me, walked up and began talking right away. He noticed my accented German, asking if I was English or American, then continued in his own, clear English. He was very friendly and walked with me, offering information about the area. We walked down Unter den Linden, just in time to witness the changing of the guard at the Neue Wache, the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. The Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment goose-stepped to music from a military band, reminding me of old newsreel films of marching Nazi soldiers.
I asked my new friend
“The soldiers seem very much like the soldiers of the old German Wehrmacht.”
“Yes, that is true. Here in the GDR we kept a style of uniforms like the old German uniforms and some of the Prussian military traditions continue. This is a highly disciplined army.”
I was being careful in my questions and responses, as he could be a plant from the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, one of the most repressive secret police organizations to have ever existed. If he asked me to exchange my Deutschmarks for a generous ratio of East German marks, which is highly illegal, I knew it was a trap. But he did not.
Berlin Cathedral Ruins
I wanted to see the famous Dom/Cathedral. He guided me to the location. We entered the main door, walking into a ruin. The high domed ceiling over the altar had collapsed in the war bombings. Pigeons flew in and out; a huge heap of debris lay where the high altar would have been.
Ishtar Gate, Babylon c. 500 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
My guide brought me to the Pergamon Museum nearby. We entered a vast collection of middle eastern antiquities. One encounter took my breath away: a three-story high colorful blue and gold ceramic tiled ceremonial Ishtar Gate from Babylon of the 5th century BC.
We had lunch in the cellar of the East Berlin Rathaus. My friend said he was a university student and he told me about his childhood in the ruins of postwar Berlin. He hoped to visit the West some day.
At the end of our time, he walked back with me to Checkpoint Charlie. It was sad to say goodbye, with an awareness of that Wall that separated us. He gave me his address but cautioned me to be careful what I said in a letter, because all mail is inspected and read by the Stasi. I did write to him soon after, but never heard from him again.
Saturdays were a break from work, as I spent the day walking the city. Founded in 861, Braunschweig was ruled by the powerful Henry the Lion, married to the daughter of King Henry II of England. During the Middle Ages, Braunschweig was an important trade center and a member of the Hanseatic League.
The center of the city, surrounded by the Oker River, was a picturesque, quintessential Medieval German town, with narrow streets lined with the largest ensemble of half-timbered (fachwerk) buildings in Germany until 1944. The bombing gutted much of the physical history of the town, but I could still discover stunning survivors of the firestorm.
Historic Fachwerk Houses c. 1500
I visited the five sectors of the medieval town: Altstadtmarkt, coal market, wool market, Hagen Market and the St. Magnus Quarter. The latter still had a few remaining fachwerk buildings from the sixteenth century. Each quarter had a specialty market and a thousand-year-old central church.
Braunschweig was an early supporter of National Socialism. A coalition of local merchants and politicians facilitated Austrian Adolf Hitler’s qualification for German citizenship, giving him a civil service appointment. As a German citizen, he became a candidate for German Chancellor. The Dom/Cathedral was turned into a National Nazi Shrine and the former Ducal Palace became a SS officers training school.
When I worked on genealogy recently, I discovered a family connection to Braunschweig. All my relatives come from Sweden. My mother’s father, Abel Burman, was a graduate of the Swedish Royal School of Music, piano construction. He came to Braunschweig to work for Steinweg Pianos, later moving to New York City to build pianos for their sister company, Steinway.
I also discovered that my 19th generation cousin was Magnus II “Torquatus”, Duke of Braunschweig-Luneburg-Wolfenbüttel (1328-1373).
I made several bicycle trips to Riddarshausen, a Cistercian monastery five km. out of town. The Imperial Abbey was founded in 1145. The architecture is simple and utilitarian, with limited iconography. That austerity must have changed after the Reformation because the pulpit and baptistry are outstanding examples of ornate woodwork.
Surrounding the monastery are ponds that support a bird sanctuary.
The monks left after the Reformation; the Abbey is now a Lutheran parish church. Side chapels have the names of dozens of local citizens who died in the bombing of 1944. Herman Goering had a hunting lodge here.
After six weeks I noticed that the night fevers were going away as well as the haunting voice of the Dark Spirit. One afternoon in Riddarshausen, sitting on a bench shaded by ancient elm trees, beside a lagoon where hundreds of birds took off and landed on the green-blue waters, a deep feeling of solace and peace settled within me. I realized that after the catharsis of these weeks, Braunschweig had become a foundational spiritual home to me, preparing me to walk into the future of God’s grace.
The weeks went by as work in the factory and visits with the Heimbs family lifted my spirits. On my last day of work, I visited Herr Carl Heimbs in his large corner office. As I entered, I noticed an elderly woman in a silver suit sitting in a far corner. I sat in a chair facing Herr Heimbs at his desk, presenting to him a set of Kennedy silver coins. Tears came to his eyes and he held my hand in a lingering handshake.
He stood up, in that erect perfect Prussian posture, guiding me toward the lady sitting in the corner. She stood up and smiled.
Herzogin Viktoria Luise von Preussen, 1913, painting by George Reinacker
Herr Heimbs said, “I want you to meet my dear friend, Ihre Konigliche Hochheit, (Her Royal Highness) Herzogin (Duchess) Viktoria Luise von Preussen.
I bowed, kissed her hand, as was the protocol, and these words blurted out of me;
“Ich habe viel uber Ihre Vater gestudiert.” I studied a lot about your father.
I had never heard of the Herzogin/Dutchess until that moment. But to help me, she gave me a thick copy of her new book, My Life as theDaughter of the Kaiser, telling her life story as the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Princess Viktoria Luise, 1903. as Honorary Colonel, Prussian Life Hussars
She married Herzog Ernst August of Braunschweig in 1913 in Berlin, the last royal event in Europe before World War I, which began a year later. In the book are several pictures of that royal wedding. Princess Viktoria Luise was the Princess Diana of her time. At the wedding dinner, I could see in the photograph the Czar of Russia seated next to her and the King of Great Britain across the table: the Kaiser’s cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
For the next fifteen years, I sent birthday cards to the Herzogin every September and she always sent me a new photograph and personal letter. Her husband had died ten years before we met. In 1966, Herr Heimbs was her protector and close friend.
After a side trip to visit family in Stockholm, Sweden, I returned to California. USC confirmed that I could not return to school but decided not to prosecute me. I sold my car to pay for damages. A week later, my Uncle Dr. John Trever, got me in the back door of Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, my final year of college, and a new life chapter.
I returned to Braunschweig again in 1975 with Janice, in 1980 to research an article for the Jesuit Magazine America, and 1981.
The trip to Germany and Braunschweig with daughter Katie in 2016 was a fiftieth-year reunion for me at Heimbs Kaffee and with the Heimbs family. I never thought I would return. With great joy I embraced Herr Carl’s grandson, Ernst Heimbs, Jr, his colleague Grete Wallner, his sons Heiner and Peter, and several of his grandchildren. I visited the coffee factory again, which the family had sold. I walked with Katie, Ernst, and Grete through the modern factory. The wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee still filled the space. The eight machines I managed in 1966 had been replaced by one computerized automatic machine.
Ernst had a medical issue at the time and could not drive. Katie and I took him to his favorite country inns outside of Braunschweig. We passed through a farming village where Ernst lived as a youth during the war. It was here that he witnessed the bombing of the city in 1944 and the horrific firestorm.
Katie and I continued on the Autobahn to Berlin, this time to experience a unified city. I brought her to the Cathedral, which had been in ruins when I visited in 1966 and 1975. The majestic building was now completely restored in golden splendor.
Restored Berlin Cathedral, 2016
As I sat in a pew in the Cathedral, remembering my journeys in Germany over the past fifty years, I opened another prayer book to Psalm 116:
Psalm 116 (NIV)
1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy. 2 Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”
5 The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion. 6 The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
8 For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling, 9 that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
10 I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”; 11 in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”
12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord. 14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants. 16 Truly I am your servant, Lord;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
17 I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the Lord—
in your midst, Jerusalem.