The Peacemaker-Der Friedensstifter: One Lutheran Pastor’s Grassroots Movement that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of Communist East Germany.

Opening of the Brandenburg Tor in Berlin 1989, photo by Sue Ream

“The followers of Christ have been called to peace…. And they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.  In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods…. His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others.  They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good and establish the peace of God during a world of war and hate.”[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Peacemaker

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? 

Bombing ruins of Magdeburg 1945

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.?”

The medieval city of Tangermunde

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.

 Subversive Spirituality

May 1981.

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.

Symbol for East German Peace Movement from Micah 4

“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 very present 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:

Peace demonstration in Berlin, 1989. Photo by DW.

“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.[2]

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!”[3]

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.’ “[4]




photoWWII By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-14898-0002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Neubert, Ehrhart. “Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989: Forschungen zur DDR-Gesellschaft,” Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 1997. (Translation by Brad Karelius).

CONWAY, JOHN S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism, 1949-89.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 36, no. 4, 1994, pp. 725–745. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.

Harris, Todd W. (1992) “The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 12: Iss. 6, Article 2. Available at:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Cost of Discipleship.” Pp. 126-127.

[2] Geschichte de Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989, Ehrhart Neubert. P. 466.

[3] Conway, John S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism,”  p. 725.

[4] Harris, Todd w. The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change., p. 34.

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Practicing the Presence of God: Contemplative Prayer, Centering Prayer

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.”[1]

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.

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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)

  1. Find a place where you can sit quietly, comfortably for fifteen minutes. I will watch the time and ring a bell at the end.
  2. Here is a short Bible passage. “As the Father has love me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” John 15:9)
  3. 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”.

Start Bell

15 minutes for contemplation

End Bell

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.


  1. Describe an experience of God’s love for you?
  2. 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:



[3] Prayer, Ron Rolheiser OMI, p. 44.

[4] Ibid, p. 45.

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Finding Gratitude, Practicing the Examen Prayer: Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone) Part Two

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?”

St. Francis Xavier[1]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”[2]

  • 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.’”[3]

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

  1. 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.”[4]

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:

  1. As you look back on yesterday: for what are you most grateful to God?
  2. 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. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises, Discernment, and More, George W. Traub, SJ

YouTube presentation on Examen with Fr. James Martin SJ

[1] The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ, p. 98.

[2] Ibid, p. 91.

[3] Ibid, p. 98.


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Prayer Forms to Nourish Men. Part One: Compline/Night Prayer

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 for yourself, 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.”

Compline/Night Prayer

Prayer Experience for the Liturgy of the Hours

(Some translations below were taken from

Compline/Night Prayer

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.

Amen. Alleluia.

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.

Short Responsory

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.


Marian Anthem

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?


Universalis iPhone app and website:

Laudate app

I Breviary iPhone app and website:

Episcopal/Anglican apps for Daily Office

The Lutheran Book of Prayers

Daily Office app

Daily Prayer app

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Latin and English, Translated by Luke Dysinger OSB

A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life, Fr. Timothy Gallagher OMV

Prayer, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI

The Holy Longing, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI

Rules for Prayer, William O. Paulsell

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Lord, Teach Us to Pray

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:

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

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Journey in the Desert: A Spiritual Treasure Map. July 25, 2020


An Online Session: Journey in the Desert: A Spiritual Treasure Map



SandDunesKelsoDunesMohavePreserve2012MikeBairdWikiPresented 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:


Information and Registration


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Home is Right Here: A Revision for our home-bound days


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.

HomeSears Catalog Homes, model 115, 1908-1914.

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.






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The World’s Best Cup of Coffee: Memories of East and West Germany

BlogHeimbsLogoThe 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.”

Thomas Merton

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.

BlogHeimbsPassportThis 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.

The Consolation.

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 (CVJM Gesamtverband), 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.

blogheimbsfactoryArriving 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.

blogheimbsaerothermA 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.

blogHeimbsCupPlatter10 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 Who Came 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.

Berlin Pergamon

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.

blogheimbsphotoCarlHThe 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 the Daughter 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.

Berline Der Dom

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)

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
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.

Praise the Lord.[a]





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Avant-Garde Priest


Father Bob Cornelison

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”

Rain beats against the bathroom window, as I brush my teeth before going to bed. The bathroom mirror reflects the crucifix hanging over our bed.  I stare into my own eyes in the mirror’s reflection, goose bumps cover my body. A deep feeling of gratitude flows from my heart, gratitude for almost fifty years as a priest, gratitude for staying on the right path, whatever that was, through many twists and turns, dense thickets of despair.  Gratitude for Grace, for the unearned, undeserved, out of left field gift of God’s subtle nudges; gratitude for one man’s mentoring of an immature, clueless twenty-five-year old new priest.

I remember his penetrating eyes through thick glasses, handsome, thirty-four-years old, jet black hair that matched his priest’s cassock. I first met Father Bob Cornelison on the sidewalk in front of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Altadena, California in 1962. Little was I to know that this man would change my life and shape my ministry as a priest.

I was visiting the church with members of the Pasadena High School Key Club, a boy’s honorary society, as part of our monthly house of worship visits. Last month we visited an Orthodox Jewish Temple.

Fr. Bob expressed a smiling welcome and quickly made one of his joking remarks that sets strangers chuckling and relaxes the formalities. We entered the church before the service and sat in the front pew. Do not do this if you are visiting a Roman Catholic, Episcopal or Lutheran Church for the first time. Do not do this! The liturgical calisthenics will throw you off, as you will not know when to stand (to praise), sit (to learn) and kneel (to pray). Gratefully, I was seated next to my high school English Classics teacher, Mr. John Stewart, a rather stern Episcopalian, who coached us through the service.

I returned to St. Mark’s more frequently, as my new high school girl friend was an Episcopalian and member of the parish. I could spend more time with her if I went to the church.

1962 was a completely different church experience from today. My old friend, Father Richard Parker of Saint Cross Parish, Hermosa Beach, wistfully remembered: “Back in those days, you just opened the front door of the church, and people poured in.” That was true at St. Marks: the church was always filled on Sundays and lots of children were at Sunday School classes. But there were other notable differences from today.  The altar was pressed up against the east facing wall, the priest did almost all the speaking, women wore hats and gloves to church, and only men held leadership on the church council/vestry/parish council. In the Episcopal Church the language of worship was thee and thou, based on the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Spirituality at that time was more about duty and tradition.

As a Presbyterian, these Episcopal liturgical calisthenics were strange but intriguing. Previously, at Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Hastings Ranch, I sat in the pew most of the time. Communion was handed out in trays with grape juice. Body movement in the Episcopal Church made you pay attention. But I could not take communion as I was not (yet) confirmed.


Mount Calvary Monastery

I remember a men’s retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, the Anglican Benedictine community in the mountains high above Montecito and Santa Barbara. The place was packed with men and boys, the monks presenting long lectures on spirituality. But the setting was incredible, with expansive views of the California coast. A gold, seventeenth century Spanish reredos framed the high altar, enshrouded with a dense cloud of incense, as the monks chanted the Magnificat at Vespers. Some deep longing within me awakened, as the priest elevated the Host in the early morning mass.


Bloody Sunday, FBI

My life was never the same after one Sunday experience. We had been following the Civil Rights Movement in my social psychology class at USC. On March 7, 1965, in a voting rights march in Alabama, State troopers and county posse men violently attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, to become known as Bloody Sunday.  I can still recall the video images of the violence depicted on Walter Cronkite CBS News: a wounded woman lying helplessly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


March on Selma

Another march to Selma, Alabama was organized, and a call went out to religious leaders throughout the country. The following Sunday, Fr. Bob announced to the congregation that he was going to Selma to march with Dr. King. This was very dangerous, as I knew that there were deaths resulting from the previous marches. I imagined Fr. Bob implanted within the violent TV images I had already seen. I was afraid for him. The empathy within the congregation was mixed. I remember some red-faced men huddled together on the patio outside the church at coffee hour, animated in their anger and disapproval of Fr. Bob.  But off he went.  Two weeks later he returned and shared his experience of marching with Dr. King, and his own visceral feelings of fear and dread, as they marched through taunting, rock throwing crowds.

My life changed forever, because something stirred deep within me: I want to live my life like Fr. Bob. Vocation as a priest was unformed; my family had tutored me all these years to become a pediatrician.

I immersed myself into the life of the parish, teaching Sunday School to a wild bunch of third graders. I momentarily turned my back from the children, and before I knew it most of the boys would escape through the open back window. The choir became family to me, as my quivering tenor voice attempted to blend in the anthem.

Fr. Bob’s curate, Fr. Pat Tomter, was right out of seminary. I still can’t believe it to this day, but most Sundays I would go to his home after the Sunday Services and hang out with him and his wife. From my own experience later in life, this was deep fatigue time for a priest after a busy week of ministry and several Sunday services. But there I was, on the Tomter’s couch, asking probing theological questions. The approachable clergy at St. Mark’s fostered my nascent faith.

I applied for Postulancy, the beginning step toward seminary and ordination. But I was rejected, as my life was in turmoil. I spent my last year of college at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. My uncle, Dr. John Trever, was my Old Testament professor. He was notable as the scholar who first identified the Dead Sea Scrolls as authentic, when they were discovered in caves by the Dead Sea. He urged me to apply for seminary without the Bishop’s approval and to go to Pacific School of Religion, the Interdenominational seminary in Berkeley, California.

The Summer of Love

 “There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move — either figuratively or literally — from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope… The thrust is no longer for “change” or “progress” or “revolution,” but merely to escape, to live on the far perimeter of a world that might have been.”

Hunter S. Thompson, The Hippies.

I was not on the normal, approved track to ordination, but I began seminary August 1967, the Summer of Love! Berkeley was exotic with flower children parading along Telegraph Avenue, past head shops, bookstores and coffee houses.  San Francisco across the bay was the locus of the counter cultural movement.

I arrived at the seminary dorm, opened the front door and Marty Murdock was rushing out the door. He gave me a quick welcome, asking:

“Want to come to a party in San Francisco?”


FrBobHaightandAshburyOff we went in his rusty grey VW, arriving at the exact corner of Haight and Ashbury. A live band blasted music from Golden Gate Park across the street. My heart was pounding. What was happening?

We walked upstairs to the second floor of an apartment building. The door opened to a lovely, long-haired women with a bright smile.

“Hi Marty. Come on in.”

I entered the expansive living room, filled with young ladies and young men. A bearded, blond fellow sat in the corner playing the guitar.

As I now remember, all the young ladies there were former Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns who had left the Order in Los Angeles after conflict with Cardinal Macintyre. They now worked as nurses at the University of California Medical Center. And the young men: novices in the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic monastic community.  At the geographic center of the Summer of Love, at Haight and Ashbury, I was probably at the most G rated party in America.

The first year of seminary involved field work out in the community. Pacific School of Religion (PSR) was a progressive school, wanting us to do secular field work.  Some worked at the Black Panthers’ food bank and community center at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland. I was assigned to the Urban League in Berkeley, working as an employment counselor with other young African American community organizers, some of whom became city council members in Berkeley and Oakland. I remember meeting many African American residents of the neighborhood, seeking work, trying to survive with dignity and support a family. That milieu of desperation pushed me to work long hours to secure interviews for the clients.

There were frequent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War at U C Berkeley, a few blocks south of the seminary. My fellow students participated in the demonstrations there and at the Oakland Induction Center. Several times at breakfast, I would hear about students who had been arrested the previous day and spent the night at Santa Rita Jail.

I spent another semester in the Clinical Pastoral Education program, requiring full-time work as a hospital chaplain. My first day I was assigned to ICU, where I helped zip up the body of a patient who had died. Shortly after, I went to the waiting room with the doctor, who spoke with the family about the death.  I wore a crucifix around my neck. I remember the man who died was a postal worker. His wife walked up to me, saw the cross around my neck, and began to angrily pound my chest, crying “Why? Why? Why?”

As I entered Herrick Memorial Hospital every morning through the ER, I took a deep breath and prayed for God’s grace. No textbook or class lecture was going to help me here.  I made the rounds to the different units, never knowing what I would encounter when I entered a patient’s room. I floated on grace: to be a listening presence and learned to pray from deep within my heart without a prayer book.

The CPE hospital program was enough evidence to show that my life had stabilized. I reapplied for Postulancy. Fr. Bob secured quick support from the Vestry to get the paperwork going. He went with me to the Diocesan Office for an interview with the Standing Committee. His gravitas with all those male priests, the Old Boys’ Network, carried the day.

Returning to seminary, I discovered a few weeks later that Fr. Bob had resigned from St. Mark’s to become Rector of St. Mary’s Parish, Laguna Beach.  He moved with his five children, LeighB, Nina, Katie, Bobby and Eve and wife Nancy, to a beach cottage overlooking the Pacific Ocean

LSD Capital of the Universe

“He used to hang out with a group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” he said. “They’d get loaded, go up to those caves and maybe spend a couple of nights up there chanting to the moon. Whoever wanted to could follow Leary up.”

Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times


MARCH 31, 2003


Laguna Beach 2020

To any young person growing up in southern California, especially my hometown of Pasadena, Laguna Beach was the idyllic beach town. It was where many of us went for spring break and in the summer, to escape the brutal heat of the San Gabriel Valley. Secluded coves and expansive beaches inspired California Impressionist Frank Cuprien, Edgar Payne and William Wendt.

At the time, St. Mary’s was a traditional village church. Father John Houser had been pastor for many years. The expectation of ministry was that the rector would be in the church office for drop ins, counseling for sacraments, and make pastoral calls at the hospital. It was a tranquil world. “You just opened the church door on Sunday, and the people poured in.”

How did Fr. Bob break into this introverted, conservative culture?

“When I came to my interview, I wore my Brooks Brothers suit and Florsheim shoes and I got them to laugh a lot.”


Timothy Leary, by Phillips H Baile, 1989

But this was 1968 and America was in cultural upheaval. Under the surface of this village of beaches, art festivals and expensive homes was a dark world. Laguna Beach was the home of LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. His cohorts were the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. They would all load up on LSD and hole up in the caves off Laguna Canyon Road and chant far into the night. Followers of Leary hung out at the infamous Mystic Arts head shop on PCH.

The year Fr. Bob began ministry at St. Mary’s, rookie Laguna Beach Police Officer Neal Purcell was patrolling late at night, turning into Woodland Drive, just off Laguna Canyon Road. A car with motor running was stopped in the middle of the road. Purcell investigated, encountering Leary, his wife Rosemary and teen-aged son John. The car was full of marijuana and hashish. Purcell’s arrest made him nationally famous. Leary received a ten-year prison sentence. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, “the Hippie Mafia,” hired the radical Weather Underground organization for $25,000 to help Leary escape from prison and go to Algeria.

Laguna Beach needed the ministry of Fr. Bob. He spent more time out of the church office than in it, on the boardwalk talking with surfers and at Mystic Arts with hippie youth. As a licensed marriage and family counselor, he established easy rapport with troubled youth, many from the old money families of Emerald Bay and Three Arch Bay.  He was one of the founders of the Laguna Beach Free Clinic.  Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words. Fr. Bob was living out his Gospel in the community.  As his reputation grew, so did the parish, attracting medical professionals, therapists and professors at University of California at Irvine.  But seeds of dissent were being sowed, soon to yield a harvest of anger and hate.

I graduated from seminary June 1970. There were no jobs in the Diocese of Los Angeles for newly ordained priests.  I found some day jobs working construction and in restaurants. By August, Fr. Bob wanted me to work with him full time, but there was little money. Dr. Neal and Meredith Amsden, in Emerald Bay, invited me to live with them and their four children. I would also receive $200 a month for my VW car payment. I started full time August 1970.

Fr. Bob said that a new priest needed to know his parish. I should make as many home visits as I could to establish relationships.  From that time on, I made home visits a priority for the next fifty years.  In those early visits I began to hear the voices of dissent:

“He wasn’t in the church office when I dropped in last Tuesday.”

“He’s spending too much time out in the community and not on church business. Someone saw him hanging out at Mystic Arts!”

As these families welcomed me, there was a clear temptation: for me to save the parish from Fr. Bob.

My seminary church music professor Fr. Norm Mealy warned me:

“Brad, when you go to a parish, people will tempt you to be a critic of the Rector. Remember, you are not the Messiah who has been sent by God to save the parish from the Rector.”

I never forgot those words and the core virtue of professional loyalty.  That which was not shared with me in Private Confession I would openly share with Fr. Bob. I never criticized him to others. I was direct with him about any differences between us.

The seeds of dissent came into full flowering October 1970.  A parish meeting was called. The Bishop’s representative Dean Gary Adams, a former Nevada Congressman, presided.  The Traditionalists were well organized, led by a local estate attorney. Shrill, angry voices cried out a litany of indictments, mostly about Fr. Bob’s ministry in the community.

Dean Adams let these furious voices beat their drum for an hour. Then he asked to hear from those who found hope in Fr. Bob’s ministry.  Articulate, thoughtful, calm voices from many community leaders shared anecdotes about Fr. Bob’s help and effectiveness.  Without seeking a direct vote, Dean Adams asked: “Is there anyone who feels the current situation in the parish is hopeless?”  The estate attorney stood up, made a last angry statement, and stomped out of the church with a cluster of his minions. The Dean invited the congregation to stand and pray for the parish and Fr. Bob’s ministry.

From that day on, St. Mary’s grew as a beacon of service to the community and a congregation practicing Christ’s inclusive love for all.

Reflecting on Fr. Bob’s innate leadership in ministry and his mentoring of this young priest, I find understanding in Chris Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership. Lowney shares Jesuit leadership secrets that include ingenuity, love and heroism.

Ingenuity: “Leaders make themselves and others comfortable in a changing world. They eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner.”

Fr. Bob encountered an introverted, sleepy village church imbedded in a milieu of significant cultural change, including dark elements of drug and alcohol addiction, poverty among the immigrant hotel and restaurant service community, mental health issues and homelessness. Fr. Bob adapted his counseling skills, fostering relationships in the Laguna community. He taught me that the church must be flexible and adaptable to different community needs.

I worked with Fr. Bob in developing the resource of the extensive parish property to serve the community and generate innovate programs, which included:

*Human Options: a comprehensive program for abused women.

*A day labor center.

*HUD Senior Housing

*Friendship Shelter housing for the homeless.

*alternative school for creative high school students.

*settlement housing for two Vietnamese refugee families

*Drug and alcohol recovery programs

Fr. Bob and I tried to involve some of the more traditional Laguna Beach churches in these community programs, but we were told, “First, we want people to be immersed in the Word of God. After they know the Word, then we can work with the community.”

However, I am reminded of St. Pachomius, the third century founder of cenobitic communal monasticism. He was a prisoner of war in Egypt.  The early church’s core ministry was working in the slums and prisons. Christians brought Pachomius food and healed his wounds. After several visits, he asked, “Why are you doing this for me?”  They responded, “We are Christians. This is what we do.” “Tell me about who you are.” And so, the witnessing and teaching began.

Many unchurched people joined the church and grew into deep faith in Jesus Christ because of the witness of Fr. Bob and St. Mary’s parish.

Love: “Leaders face the world with a confident, healthy sense of themselves as endowed with talent, dignity, and the potential to lead. They find exactly these same attributes in others and passionately commit to honoring and unlocking the potential they find in themselves and in others. They create environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection and mutual support.”

Fr. Bob shared many aspects of ministry with me equally; he did not pigeonhole me into being only a youth minister or curate. He empowered me to act on his behalf. He is someone I came to love and with whom I honestly shared my struggles. It was not difficult to be loyal and trust his leadership.

Heroism: “Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them. Heroes extract gold from the opportunities at hand rather than waiting for golden opportunities to be handed to me.”

In the 1970s, Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, was the traditional Spring Break, when hundreds of young people and college students flooded Laguna Beach. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar was on Broadway. The soundtrack to the music was a popular LP Album. Fr. Jim Friedrich, an inspired genius with visual media, developed a slide show of classical art and contemporary images integrated into the entire soundtrack of the musical. The movie had not yet been made. On Good Friday night, a 12 by 12 projection screen was positioned in the sanctuary. Jim had two slide projectors with filters. Word was spread throughout the town and the local head shops. The church was filled to overflowing with hippies with long hair fragrant with incense and jingling beads. Most of these folks hadn’t been in church for years. And here they were, thoroughly enjoying a presentation of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday via a Broadway musical.

Every Good Friday evening through the 1970s, we presented a different film based on the Gospel of Jesus, including Godspell, Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew, and the Greatest Story Ever Told.

I married Janice Ellen Breed in 1971 who worked in Emergency Medicine at South Coast Community Hospital.  Her own health ministry complimented our work with the homeless and addicted, as these persons were also her patients.

There are no Outcasts

 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:28 NIV

Two experiences at St. Mary’s Church changed my perspective of the Episcopal Church forever.

On July 29, 1974, eleven women were “illegally” ordained priests by three bishops in Philadelphia, PA., two years before the Episcopal Church would officially authorized ordination of women.

A month later, while Fr. Bob was on vacation, one of the new priests, The Rev. Carter Hayward, visited friends in Laguna Beach. Some women approached me to ask if she could celebrate Eucharist at the Thursday healing service.  Looking back, it’s hard to engage with whatever hesitation I had about that. I needed some time to think about it. I said yes and attended the service, but The Rev. Hayward celebrated the full liturgy. It was not up to me to think or feel this way, but I remember experiencing her competency and priestly authority at that service.  The Anglican Communion continues to painfully struggle with this movement of the Holy Spirit.

Later, when I became Rector at Messiah Parish, Santa Ana, I made it my mission to recruit and empower other women priests to work with me as equal colleagues. I know that the successful growth and enrichment of that parish was greatly due to the ministry of those six women, all of whom became rectors on their own, including one bishop.

A year later, 1975, a young man called me and asked if I would do some couples’ counseling. I agreed. A few days later the young man appeared in the church office with another man, his partner.  Laguna Beach had been a welcoming community to the LGBT community for decades.  But this counseling was a deeper engagement for me with two gay men.

We had several sessions together, working on conflict management. What has stayed with me ever since is my impression of their long-time commitment, care and love for one another. Surely, God was working and present within the love between these two men.

By 1975, Fr. Bob had been rector for seven years. Remarkably, many of the conservative traditionalists who stomped out of the church October 1970, had returned. The estate attorney become the clerk of the Vestry/Parish Council. The parish welcomed this diversity of voices and values.

A few years later, one of the matriarchs of Emerald Bay, a vocal opponent of Fr. Bob’s ministry with troubled youth, drug addicts and mentally ill, would herself graduate with a marriage and family degree. For many years, she led a wonderful non-profit that provided services to the very population that previously had been outcasts to her.

These experiences crystalized a vision I had of what the church must be: an inclusive community in Christ, where there are no outcasts.

Jesus gives us a radical vision of the Kingdom of God: there should be no liberal or conservative, anglo or person of color, new or traditional, feminist or antifeminist, pro-life or pro-choice, Democrat or Republican or any other ideological pocket that should matter in terms of who is welcome and who can be part of the Church.

John Shea wrote “The heavenly banquet is open to all who are willing to sit down with all.”

“The task of church is to stand toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart with people absolutely different from ourselves—but who, with us, share one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God who is Father and Mother of all. To live and worship beyond differences is what it means to have a bosom that is not a ghetto.

The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser, p 131.

I shared ministry with Fr. Bob for eleven years. Many people told me that was too long; I should have moved on to my own parish before that.  I was very choosy about where I wanted to go; the Spirit hadn’t grabbed me yet. But the physics of human relationship took their natural path. For mentor and mentee that often means a fracture in the relationship.  I felt that tension building up for the past two years. It got nasty sometimes. But the Spirit did speak, and I was led to a declining parish in downtown Santa Ana, fifteen miles away. What had once been an affluent supply town for surrounding cattle ranches had become a densely populated, Latino dominant urban center. The church was on the verge of becoming a mission. The leadership knew that they had to engage with the surrounding community if the parish was to have a future: a perfect fit for my education with Fr. Bob about becoming a spiritual lighthouse to the city and a church where there are no outcasts.

Fr. Bob and I had little contact for several years. In his retirement, he entered an alcohol recovery program. The Twelve Steps became an essential compliment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fr. Bob ran a sober living home that guided and supported many persons into recovery.

A week before he died, I visited Fr. Bob at his home. I stood at the side of his bed. That beautiful smile was there and the penetrating eyes within a frail thin body. I held his hand, reminding him that I loved him. It was brief, as I kissed him and said, “Bob, I will see you again on the other side.”


Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Yeard-Old Company that Changed the World.

Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times


MARCH 31, 2003

Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”.




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Singing Sand Dunes of Death Valley


Eureka Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. […] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.

 What is the meaning of the enticing allure I feel in my gut, as I gaze at the rippled, curving waves of endless sand dunes, ever changing, that spread out before me?

I stand at the edge of the parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes off Highway 190, the main road through Death Valley National Park, about a mile east of Stovepipe Wells.

For the past two hours I have driven eighty miles from my base in Lone Pine, over two mountain ranges, with hair-pin turns, watching for reckless motorcyclists, who sometimes veer off the road to their death. Fighter pilots from China Lake fly low overhead, buzzing the highway, their afterburners shake my car. It took intense concentration to make it here safely as I wait for my soul to catch up with my body. Busy, numbed mind. Dry mouth. Fatigue.

At 4 pm, at the Mesquite Flat parking lot, most tourists are leaving the area. No wind, clear skies, 75 degrees on a spring day in March, two hours before the sun begins to set behind the Sierra Nevada to the west.  I cannot resist any longer as I walk toward the highest dune.


Eureka Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

The ground is hard, cracked clay or playa, which retains the pools of winter rain until the radiant sun evaporates the water, and the dried mud creates a mosaic of cracked clay, reminding me that the floor of the dunes is an ancient lake bed.   The loose, deep sand comes quickly as I climb into the dunes.

Here and there are spots of green: creosote and mesquite, whose dried pods were a life staple for the resident Indians.  Water has seeped deep into the sand, creating occasional pockets of life. Small burrows emanate out the sides of the brush, home to kit fox, scorpions, snakes and jack rabbits. When summer sun heats the dunes in the morning, a lounge of lizards dart about, including the whitish-gray foot-long Desert Iguana.

I follow a well-traveled trail to the highest dune, from the top of which I see a vast sea of undulating sand.  I carefully walk the rim of the high dune to the left for a good distance and notice that there has been no recent foot traffic.

I must take my mind off the highway and focus awareness right now to what is in front of me, the steep edge of dune, like walking on a tightrope. My body wants to lean to the side, which means tumbling down the sandy slope. Focus on this step, now the next one. I let go of that last step and focus on this one. I look around me at the expansive mountains of sand, and begin to slip and slide down the dune, falling to my knees, losing control and tumble down. I press down harder with my hiking boots, trying to climb back up the steep slope. “Pause and regroup.” I remember that from Bobbi Patterson’s ten-day journey in the Sinai Desert in Egypt:


Sand Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

’Pause and Regroup,” become aware of where you are and what’s happening. That reset of my awareness helped me discern the angles of approach I needed to slowly make my way back to the group at the top. But each step brought its own tipsiness. ….Like riding a rip-tide. I learned to go with the line of fall on the dune rather than fight it.”

Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice.

As I focused intently my awareness of each step, I arrived again at the crest of the dune.  Moving westward for several hundred yards, I descend slowly down into a deep hollow, a high circle of dunes surround me.  The intense exertion, the adrenalin of focusing each step, has purged my busy mind.

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.

Silence. No wind. My wobbly, fatigued legs pull me down upon the soft, cool sand. No Mind.

Awe, vast emptiness, silence. The Lord seems very close to me now, as this circle of sand surrounds me, God’s love enfolds me. The busy mind, following map directions, listening to music on the car radio, thoughts about yesterday and tomorrow, that busy mind now rests. Awe, emptiness and silence.


Mesquite Flat Dunes, Wing Chi Poon

Empty desert landscape like this heighten my senses, focusing on Now. I remember what pulls me out into these desert spaces.  For many years, during Erik’s health crises, retreats like this were a respite from the intense daily routine of his care. Now that his health has stabilized to some extent, the feelings of anxiety and fear about his future have changed to gratitude for how the Lord has been with us all along.

Visitors to desert spaces like this have various perspectives as they walk and contemplate.  Sitting here on cool sand, a warm winter day, protected from wind by the encircling dunes, the foggy veil of consciousness fades. The gracious, loving Presence is beside me. As I write these words, many months after this experience, this foundational remembering enlivens my sense of God’s care and love.

I lose a sense of time, but time has passed, as the sun is now just above the crest of the Sierra Nevada, darkness is less than an hour away.

A thought arises: a memory from the world religions class I taught for 45 years: the haunting insight from Rudolf Otto of the Numinous, the deeply sensed encounter with the Holy that is beyond words. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Unique life encounters with awe and wonder can evoke a sense of a merciful and gracious Presence.  We do not conjure this, it just happens. We are drawn into the gracious Presence by an innate holy longing, and at the same time, aware that this Presence has great power, and in our awareness, we step back in fear and dread.  Drawn forward in awe and holy longing, stepping back in fear and dread, Otto’s classic insight describes the ineffable encounter with the Sacred.

Landscape like this endless sand does evoke an inviting awe.

But sand dunes are also deadly, as recent events remind me.

Visitor attendance in Death Valley peaks in the summer, the most brutal season, when temperatures range from 115 F to 125 F.

Recently on an early June afternoon, a tour bus stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the passengers to step out and take photos.  The dry 115-degree heat would have taken their breath away, as they exited the air-conditioned bus.  The driver warned the patrons that they must return to the bus within ten minutes.

French tourist, Guy Brossart, must have become captivated by the allure of the sand dunes.  The bus driver waited for an hour, then called the Death Valley Park rangers, who began the search. Brossart’s body was found four hundred yards from the parking lot, succumbing to heat exhaustion.

Mammoth Times.


Mesquite Flat Dunes, Tuxyso

In August, when Death Valley has broken world heat index records, a Japanese tourist exited the bus and walked into the dunes to take photographs.  You only have a few minutes in this intense heat before the sun fries your body, sucking out every bit of moisture, leaving you quickly fatigued, disoriented and unable to walk.  The hypnotic draw of the dunes has power to pull you further and further in: “just a few more steps and I will turn around.” But the brain stops working as the sun beats down upon you.  The body of the Japanese tourist was found at sunset a mile away from the parking lot.

The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them, and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So, it happens that the surface of the desert is far from being a permanent affair.”

The Desert, John C. Van Dyke, p. 28.

Of the five sand dunes within Death Valley National Park, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the easiest to visit. Cottonwood Mountains to the north are the likely source for the grains of quartz and feldspar that have created these dunes.

The dramatic fluctuation between freezing winter snow and melting summer heat wear down the rocky heights of the mountains. Monsoonal summer storms beat upon the barren slopes of the mountains, creating violent flash floods, breaking loose the rocks, grinding them into sand, dumping the debris into alluvial fans, which spread out from the narrow canyons unto the valley floor.

It doesn’t take much of a breeze to move the sand particles. But the wind is often intense, creating blinding sandstorms.

Once sand begins to pile up, ripples and dunes can form. Wind continues to move sand up to the top of the pile until the piles is so steep that it collapses under its own weight. The collapsing sand comes to rest when it reaches just the right steepness to keep the dune stable. This angle, usually about 30-34 degrees, is called the angle of repose.  Every pile of loose particles has a unique angle of repose, depending upon the properties of the material it’s made of.”

“The repeating cycle of sand inching up the windward side to the dune crest, then slipping down the dune’s slip face allows the dune to inch forward migrating in the direction the wind blows. As you might guess, all of this climbing then slipping leaves its mark on the internal structure of the dune.”

  1. S. Department of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey.

Sand avalanches moved by compressed air can cause the sand to sing! Yes, the sand dune can produce singing or booming sounds.

Here is the sound of a singing sand dune:

Conditions must be just right: sand grains 0.1 to 0.5 mm in diameter, silica within the sand, and the right humidity and heat. Researchers have found that the best chance for hearing singing sand dunes in Death Valley is with intense heat, the most dangerous time to walk in the dunes.  The sound can be started by wind or a person walking on the crest of a high dune. While the dunes of Mesquite Flat don’t sing because of the water that is present, the Eureka Dunes, at the far eastern end of the Park can sing.

“Since at least the time of Marco Polo, desert travelers have heard the songs of the dunes, a loud — up to 115 decibels — deep hum that can last several minutes.

Scientists already knew that the sounds were generated by avalanches but were not sure how. One thought had been that the force of an avalanche could cause an entire dune to resonate like a flute or a violin. But if that were true, dunes of different sizes and shapes should produce a cacophony of notes instead of one characteristic tone.”

The Timbisha Shoshone Indians have lived in Death Valley for a thousand years.  It is hard to imagine how a people could survive here, but they worked intently as hunters and gathers, moving to the cooler, higher elevations in the summer heat.  The mild winters gave time to store up pine nuts and mesquite beans, their main staples. Mule deer, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and chuckwalla lizards provided meat. Death Valley to them has been a land of abundance, until outsiders invaded during the 1849 Gold Rush and Borax was discovered. This changed everything. Moved off their land, survival has been a struggle. It was not until 2000, when President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, that 7.500 acres would be returned to the tribe.

In my writings on desert spirituality, my life has been enriched by connections to scholars and others who have found meaning in desert explorations.  I have a new friend in Fred Mercadante, campus minister at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit University in Pennsylvania.

I discovered recently that for several years Fred has led desert retreat experiences for students in Death Valley during December.  Inspired by the school’s Jesuit foundation, the students spend five days practicing contemplation while they explore different desert landscapes, including the Eureka Sand Dunes.

In the Christian tradition of Desert Spirituality, the desert is a place of discernment and prayer. Fred offers this retreat experience to help the students not be complacent on their faith journey but “go to deeper places, perhaps even places that feel uncomfortable at first.”

This desert retreat guides students to pray in nature, build community among one another and fosters personal growth. As Jesus experienced his deepening connection with the Father in his forty days in the desert, these students come closer to their true selves, their Christ selves.

One participant, Bryan Gorczyca, shared: “The week spent in Death Valley tested every member of our group physically, mentally and spiritually through many tasks and challenges which brought us all to a new outlook on ourselves, others and Mother Nature. At no time in my life have I experienced such peace with the world as I did in the silence of reflection on this retreat….I have come out a better version of myself”

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2018.

“The sand dunes again! Clear, soft, blown clean by the wind, rippled as by shore waves, rising from the desert in long smooth rounded slopes, climbing and swelling and mounting, curved, scalloped, knife-edged, lacy, exquisitely silver, on and up, alluring steps toward the infinite blue!”

Zane Grey, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story.

Death Valley National Park has five sand dune locations.

Mesquite Flat Dunes are the easiest to visit. You can access from parking lot off Highway 190, near Stovepipe Wells.  Covering a vast area, the highest dune is about 100 feet.

Eureka Dunes is accessed from Big Pine, off Highway 395, via 28 miles of paved road and 21 miles graded dirt. Most autos can travel this road, but avoid stormy weather

Saline Valley Dunes have infrequent visitors as the area is remote. The dunes cover a large area.

Panamint Dunes are off Highway 190, five miles down an unmarked dirt road, followed by a three-mile hike. Because of the slope of the dunes, there are dramatic views of the valley.

Ibex Springs are near Saratoga Springs but hidden behind desert hills. About one-mile hike.

The best time to visit the dunes is between November and April. Avoid summer and other hot days. Carry two liters of water per person for short hikes; one gallon for longer.


Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.

 Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice: A Field Manual for Helping Professionals and Volunteers., p. 52. New York: Routledge, 2020.

 Death Valley National Park: Sand Dunes.


Loc 2728, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story, Zane Grey. 1928, renewed 1954, New York: Skyhorse Publishing.




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