Christiane Wiesner, Retreat on the street

We were sitting in the St Michael Church in Berlin-Kreuzberg around Christ’s statue that gave me such an impression of helplessness … We filled the centre with symbols of the meanwhile almost past ten retreat days. A cigarette dump, two hands full of street dirt – a brown mixable from all colours, a beer mat with an imprinted crown, the pledge for two beer bottles, a paving-stone and a pebble, a pair open (empty?) hands, two curious naked feet … Nine participants and four spiritual directors, our attempts to understand our own self were just as differently as we were – in the encounter with others in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Also the bench there at the Oranienplatz, where perhaps those people had sat who had left that dump or the beer mat, became a symbol. Or the stubborn lines on the wall of that occupied house nearby East station: The border would not run between the peoples, but between rich and poor…

Edges, Borders and Transitions

I’m in the street. Do I run through the streets, as if I had lost something? – Like a straying dog? Or is there a certainty that the basis for my roaming about is a way that will lead to a goal? The places are found often simply by going. I do not need to look desperately for them. But decisions will not fail to come; otherwise I would not go ahead. Sometimes there is no in between, no middle course. The traffic lights: Stop, Stay, Go. There is often no ‚green‘, but standstill – ‚red‘. My longing is usually connected with the fear of change…

Which are the places where I can „open“? Openness implies making oneself vulnerable. How often the feeling for the borders of the vis-à-vis is missing, or there is an indifference to respect these border, not to cross them without being asked.
Nevertheless – or just therefore – I want to be and I must remain vulnerable, because nothing can grow where something has hardened. „Love“ is written in huge letters on a house wall…

The „Room of Silence“ in the Charité: We define illness by our yardstick of health, not reversely. Perhaps therefore the „normal“ is taken so closely. Then the room for saying farewell: Through the sterile-white floors I went into the open air. The people before the hospital were silent, some of them bearing the mark of sorrow and pain.
I did not feel the ‚Memory Church‘ as an area of meditation and stillness. For me it keeps in its inside too little of that painful difference of the outside reality … for me

Straussberger Platz. 17th June. Stalinallee: Enormous streets, little green, very much GDR still between the house blocks. Utopia of equality leading to egalitarianism and a levelling down of opposites and differences. „Unity“ – that most frequent used word in the GDR.
Everything else, the decadent, the surreal was seen as threat – and therefore prevented. An artificially produced harmony did not want to bear contrasts and conflicts, and did not want or could not live from them.
Asians instead of Turks: Their faces do not so much speak of distinct individualism. Ostkreuz, tasty, (a play on words: eastern-(t)asty) east wind, and -wheel. „The country where I was born does not lie any longer in this world …“, Hans Eckhardt Wenzel is singing.
The ‚No Man’s Land‘ at the former wall: In Romania I am considered as a west European, in Austria clearly as German, and I still define me, inside and outside Germany as an East German…

The difference between east and west in the parts of this city is still noticeable to me quite strongly. It makes a difference, if I go around in Prenzlauer Berg or in Kreuzberg. But nevertheless the „border“ is running today probably less between east and west – rather between rich and poor…

With Each Other – In the Middle of It

On the steps of an underground station this young beggar. He asked for a little change or an old ticket. Completely naturally I passed him, gave to the ticket automat just as naturally the called in money – and wonder. I went back ponderously and asked a little pedantically, why he sat there and for what he needed the money.
Interest, real interest I cannot demand, it cannot be provoked. It is there or not. With friendship it is similarly, and especially for love it is true. They are gifts, not projects or plans.

We engaged in conversation with each other. He asked me why I came back, and what I was doing. I answered hesitatingly, „I am looking for God – in encounters on the street, outside of church walls.“ I was surprised that I could answer something to his question at all. Time and again he meant that was „crack-brained“, and looked at me surprised, smiling.
In the morning I had been quite irresolute what direction I should take on this day. Neither way nor goal was certain for me, and they did also not appear, as in the days before, simply by going. I had asked someone for the way – hence for the way which I should go.

Now I could ask this young man, „Which places are so important for you that you would send me there? Where am I to go?“ He found the question not at all so strange, as I assumed, but mused for a long time before he answered. If I could stand something really violent, then I should go to the emergency service for drug addicts at the Wittenbergplatz. A beautiful place for him was the Treptower Park. Two places could stand for the two different sides of his life. We said good-bye, but he did actually accompany me, was a kind of „signpost“ or at least someone who gave me something – something of himself – for my way.

When I arrived at the Wittenbergplatz, I had to ask again for the way, and in doing so I got surprised, pitying looks. Eventually I found the emergency service. At the door no handle, but a knob. I would have to ring, in order to get in. „May I look around here a bit? I have spoken with one ‚customer of yours’…“ But I did not enter. I did not want to be somebody curious, with the „interest of a social worker“. Instead I sat down on the opposite side of the street and took the time for observing how hard is was for „customers“ to ring, and to cross that threshold…

I went toward Treptower Park. I set out without bag and my attitude – on the finally very long way – reminded me of somebody who goes just around the corner to the mail box. A beautiful, liberating feeling: Enormous poplar avenues, calm meadows in the midst of the loud city. A reassuring place, and I divined why it was a beautiful place for my „guide“…

The steel structure in the Görlitzer Park: From far it looked like an inclined-standing church. From close I recognized: If its side braces were parallel, it would tilt. It is standing only by its counter-resting. Hence one holds the other one – a holding each other? …

Our living together is often regulated by rules. Just as often they restrict it. If we do not get beyond the keeping of rules, the productive unrest is missing, that livliness which becomes only possible by irregularities and crossing of frontiers. The limits and rules of our retreat group were for a large part determined by us. They are differently constituted as by silence retreats. The challenge did not lie in the seclusion, but in the midst of life, just on the street.

Our group did not consist of „wire-pullers“ and those who go along. Our living together – with breakfast, dinner, morning impulse, service, rounds of talk in the evening – functioned by all our diversity outside of these usual thinking and behaviour patterns. No ‚drawer thinking‘ with its finality of judgement, and the often destroying hierarchy. Strictly speaking, we were living in the group the same life as on the street – where we meet other, different people as equals, whereby „equal“ is to be understood in the sense of „equivalently“ or „equally“, and not as abolishing of peculiarities, of being different.

At the beginning of our retreat stood the tale of Moses, who heard a voice from the burning thorn shrub. He was curious, took the time, and stopped. He listened.
I have expectations and conceptions how I should hear this „voice from the thorn bush“, and I can rarely accept, when it happens not according to my ideas.

My symbol of the retreat was therefore a pebble that had time and again crept into my shoes on the streets of Berlin. Not a huge stumbling-block that would set a Sylvester Feeling of large resolutions at the end of these days, no. A tiny stone, easily overlooked, that nevertheless were able to compel me to stop, to listen, and to look. I wanted and I had to take the time for that stone, whose friction I so often ignore in the everyday life, on which I sometimes get footsore, until, some day, there is no longer any getting ahead.

Christiane Wiesner,
December 2003 Jev-Net