Mad Experiences with God in a Restaurant and in the JVA Nuremberg
As a member of the family of the Comboni Missionaries the so-called „religious retreats“ are something well-known for me. Up to the last street retreat in Nuremberg I had got to know only the experience of quiet retreats always connected with silence, peace and a personal listening into me, in order to discover God’s traces in my personal history and in the made life experiences. Those retreats were always a special time for me, in which I have drawn much strength for my life way. I think particularly of the 30 days retreat in stillness before my eternal vows. Those 30 days helped me to clarify all fears and uncertainties in me, before I said the eternal ‚yes‘ to the life in a missionary Order. I drove therefore to Nuremberg filled with confidence, even if the decision for Nuremberg had not been easy.
I had heard two years ago about the street retreat from my Brother and friend Juan. What I knew of it was only that it was wonderful. More I did not know. Already two years ago I wanted to take part in it, but it was not possible. I had heard from Juan and Brigitte that this year the retreat would take place in Nuremberg. But for me it was not easy to make a decision for the street retreat, because I had to write the thesis (diploma), and in addition I had two luring invitations of two groups of Pathfinders whom I direct spiritually in Rome. The one had asked me to accompany them to Yugoslavia for a ten days service in a refugee camp, the other one to Cologne to the World Youth Day. I had to make a difficult decision between these two invitations and the retreat. After a time of struggle for the right decision I settled with a great inner unrest upon Nuremberg, even if I imagined the two invitations for more luring and more bustling than the street retreat. You must know, I had fear that I would have to regret later that I had chosen Nuremberg instead of Yugoslavia or Cologne. At the end of the street retreat I said to myself: „Aye, Joseph, you did decide rightly. That has been just the experience that you needed, before you go back to the Congo!“ Now what did I experience in Nuremberg? Many mad experiences with God: in the churches and on the streets of Nuremberg among people who went shopping, in restaurants, in prison, in the mosque by the prayer with Muslims, by the experiences of my fellow participants in the exchange rounds in the evening, in prayers and songs, in the Eucharist, etc … The days of the street retreat have been filled days. I would like now to summarize only some of those experiences.
The street retreat began on Friday, 19 August, in the evening. The first two days (Saturday and Sunday) were entrance days into the atmosphere of that kind of retreat. By me the mad experiences with God began during that street retreat in Nuremberg on Monday, 22nd August. On this day Moses‘ encounter with God at the thorn shrub (Exodus 3) was given to us as a way companion. The catchwords resounding in me thereafter were two: first I realized anew that the holy ground, where one has to take off one’s shoes can be each place, and that you can find this holy ground of an encounter with God also on the streets of our restless cities; then my heart was burning by the invitation of Christian Herwartz, to answer to people who we would meet on the streets, and who might ask us, simply, „I am looking for God!“ The whole street retreat has then developed and was summed up for me in: holy ground – to take off your shoes – to look for God at unusual places, to find and meet.
1. Where Can I Meet God, Where Is the Holy Ground in Nuremberg?
The street retreat helped me to change my view of places that I in former times had seen as holy. On Monday, 22nd August, after God’s encounter with Moses at the thorn shrub had been presented to us in a new way, nothing else came into my mind as to make a pilgrimage to various churches of Nuremberg, in order to look for God there. For me churches were my only familiar holy ground. There is announced God’s word and celebrated God’s meal. I was sure that there God could be found by me. So I set out and visited St Anthony Church, Three Magi’s Church, Jacob Church, Laurence Church, Our Lady’s Church, etc. In those churches I could speak with three persons. I introduced myself to them only as somebody who is looking for God. I concealed my priestly and missionary role. I wanted to be be enlightened on God by others, who stayed in those churches.
The first person in St Jacob Church I asked the question, where I could find God in this church. She answered me – very surprised by my question – something like, „… Well … I do not know … You cannot find God in this church. One cannot see him, because he is in heaven. We come not into this church to find God, but to pray to him. I for example come always here to light a candle and to pray to God that he protects my family, that he assists the sick, etc. Here come people who have already found him. To find him you have to search somewhere else …“ The discussion with this woman called my attention to the fact that I probably looked for God only at safe places, like churches, with all the things that belong to liturgical meetings, and also that I noticed him scarcely in places uncertain for me, and that I did not go there to look for him. Hence that has been a correct answer to my question. I should find God somewhere else and then come into his house, in order to celebrate Eucharist, saying thanks, after I had met him somewhere else. But where was this holy ground of the God encounter for me?
To the second person in St Laurence Church I put the same question, „Where can I find God in this church?“ after I had introduced myself as a simple God seeker. My question caused again surprise and embarrassment, and the church guard whom I had addressed, answered me something like, „… that is a difficult question … You are looking for a place in this church where you can meet God … I do not know, what I am to say you, and where I am to send you … I think you have to look for God in yourself, in your life history … I do not know it. If you are really on the search for God, I propose that you come to the discussion with an expert on Thursday evening, with a minister … He would be able to give you a better answer, and could help you … I could only explain to you something of the paintings that tell of the Christian creed in church history.“ Also the answer of this man, who had drawn my attention to the fact that I had to look for God in me, in my life history, and in the history of faith, showed me a holy ground of which I had not thought at that time at all. That I and my life history can be a holy ground of God encounter has been a mad surprise for me. I thought that holy ground had only to do with places where you make an extra-ordinary experience. But no, I, as every other man, can be holy soil. That was the first mad surprise of the street retreat.
The third person in Our Lady’s Church, got the same question. She answered me simply so, „… you are looking for God, well … Sit down in a pew and pray …“ By that so simple answer of the woman in Our Lady’s Church I said to myself: That it is. To look for God you need not go back and forth, but you can sit down and listen, because he is already there. I am not the one who has to look for him, since he is always there already and is looking for me. He wants to meet me, if I wait for him with new eyes and an open heart. I should give simply my blind eyes a new way to look, and hold my heart open for everybody and everything, then I had found everywhere and in all things that are and live a holy ground.
On this day I could see that I would discover and experience in this retreat other holy grounds which were completely mad and different from everything that I had regarded as holy ground till now.
2. Taking Off One’s Shoes on Holy Ground – Restaurant „White Lion“ And Prison…
On Monday I looked for the holy ground in churches, places that we all call, even without thinking of it, holy places. I looked for God on a safe and well-known holy ground. There my attention was called somehow to other things, to search especially in me and my life history. I was on tenterhooks which experiences I would make in the next days. I found then the holy ground at two very different places, where nobody would suspect that there could take place encounters with God: my holy ground, where I could take off my shoes, were a restaurant and a prison. Is that not something mad! My two special God encounters during the street retreat in Nuremberg were so:
a) Restaurant „White Lion“ – Attention, Holy Ground. Take Off Your Shoes Please Before the Entrance…
On Tuesday, 23rd August, during the Morning Prayer we heard in the gospel, how Jesus sent 72 disciples into towns and villages. In this gospel Jesus gives a concrete and clear mission: „Go! I send you like sheep into the midst of wolves. Do not take along a purse, a supply bag, and shoes! Do nobody greet on the way! If you enter a house say first: Peace to this house! And if a man of peace lives there, the peace you are wishing him will rest on him; otherwise it will return to you. Stay in this house, eat and drink, what they offer to you; because those who work have a right of their wages. Do not go from one house to another! If you enter a city and they accept you, eat what they put before you. Heal the sick that are there, and say to the people: The kingdom of God is close to you. But if you enter a city where they not accept you, then take our stand on the street and call: Even the dust of your city sticking on our feet, we leave you; but you are to know this: The kingdom of God is close.“ (Luke 10:3-11). First during the Morning Prayer this order of Jesus did not address me especially. I heard this gospel, as it often happens with me, with the thought that this order of Jesus applied only to his time, when you could do many things without money, a time, when you could get – by the esteem of hospitality embodied in customs – a meal in each house. Despite this thought I decided on this Tuesday to set out without money, in order to see what happened in me.
After some hours of going on different streets of Nuremberg’s old town with the thought to look for God in my heart and in my life history, I felt very tired. I went into the St Laurence Church, to the place where they had lighted a candle for Frère Roger from Taizé, to rest in prayer. While praying I became so hungry, I could simply no longer bear it. I did not know what I should do, for I had no money. I wanted only to drive home fast with the underground, and there look for some food.
When I was at the exit, suddenly Jesus‘ order came into my mind, „If you enter a house then says first: Peace to this house! And if a man of peace lives there, the peace which you wish him will rest on him; otherwise it will return to you. Remain in this house, eat and drink what they offer you; because those who work have a right of their wages.“ And before me was the „White Lion“, a restaurant with the advertisement: „Young Frankish kitchen with a large selection of freshly tapped local beers.“ Without thinking much I went into this restaurant. I was received by a waitress and explained to her my problem: my wish to eat without having money. She said to me I should talk with her boss. She called the boss, who asked me what I wanted. I said to him that I were on the way on Nuremberg’s streets with a group of eleven people, and that we made so-called „street retreats“, by looking for God on the street. I explained to him my hunger, and that I was there without money, and asked him for some food. Without asking me any other question, he said to me: „I can find something for you. Please, come and take place. I will serve you …“ That was a mad answer that I had not expected. Mr. Zuonko Beric served me as an honour guest. I ate and drank in his restaurant without having money. Is that not a miracle! After I had eaten and drunk so well, I thanked him and by saying Farewell I said to him, „God may bless your work!“
When I left, I was amazed at the unbelievable experience with Jesus‘ order to his disciples: I was allowed to experience actually that the order of Jesus‘ time can also be experienced today, if I take off the shoes of arrogance, pride, wealth, and inhibition, and come to know myself as someone who looked for help of fellow men in all areas. That was something mad. I looked for God in the safe and familiar places. He met me in a restaurant which became holy ground for me. This is street retreat.
b) JVA Nuremberg: God Experience in a Jail…
Friday, 26th August, was for me a special day, because I have been ordained priest on this day four years ago. I wanted to spend this day completely quietly and in meditation, to make a personal evaluation of the four years lived as priest before God. I wanted to meditate anew the formula of my eternal vows, and to draw new spiritual strength for my further way as priest and Comboni Missionary. That was my program for the forenoon, because in the afternoon I should visit with Comboni Sister Assunta a home for mostly African refugees. I had made this program on Thursday for Friday.
In my small exchange group was Bram from Holland, who wanted absolutely to visit the prison. On Wednesday, 24th August, he wanted to visit some Dutchman, who could be in prison. He had tried and done everything possible, in order to get into that prison, but did not succeed. On Thursday 25th he had gotten from Juan the name of Frank Leibl, because you can visit the prison only with a concrete name. He was lucky to be able to visit finally someone in the prison of Nuremberg during the street retreat. Unfortunately for Bram – just on Thursday visits are not permitted. And worse still, he had to go back on Friday to Holland. So he did not succeed in coming into the prison. Therefore he had pressed the name of Frank simply into my hands, and had said to me: „Joseph, here is the name of Frank. I could not visit him, but maybe you can do it for me…“ Just on the day of my ordination I should go into the prison, so then run the thought that was there in me. Despite this thought I said to Bram, „I will go into the prison.“ Thus my whole program, which I had prepared for the day of my priesthood, was brought into disorder.
Immediately after the Morning Prayer led by me, I set out to the prison. Since I did not know at all that there were different entrances (for men, women, and young people under 18 years), I took at once the first entrance. I was received completely friendly from the woman officials. When all the formalities (name and identity documents) were almost finished, the police woman asked me if I visited a woman. I answered that I visited Frank. She said to me I should go to the men, and explained me very friendly, how I could come there. I went to the entrance for visits of men. Now I was excited. I got inside without any problem. It seemed as if all the so strongly locked gates of the prison opened before me simply so. Nobody asked me, why I visited Frank, and if I knew him personally … Everything went so smoothly, as if this place was no prison.
I entered the waiting-room, sat down, and only there I got quite excited. I began to think about the encounter with Frank. I asked myself how he will react: some unknown person visits him, who is black and who did not announce himself at all. I began to get frightened. With me in the waiting-room were other people who visited relatives, friends or acquaintances. I could not enter into a talk with them, since I was nearly haunted by my thoughts about my encounter with Frank. Almost all visitors went in, also those who had arrived after me. This waiting made me mad. Thank God, there came a black pretty girl. I asked her immediately, from where in Africa she originated. She said to me that she was American, and visited her brother. When we began the talk so, I was called. Frank was there and waited for me.
I entered the room and looked after someone who sat alone. I went to him and asked if he was Frank. He said, yes. I introduced myself, and said I had come to visit him. He was shocked, and could not grasp it. Our meeting was for him and also for me a shock. At the beginning he could not understand it to be visited by an unknown black man. He could not believe it, and he noticed that also to me the words were missing, in order to explain to him, how it happened that I came to see him. He looked totally surprised at me, and asked how I got his name, and why wanted I to visit him. I did not know what to say to him. Often he repeated only, „that is madness; it is not to be understood“. The idea came into my mind to ask him of whom he had thought, when the authorities announced to him that he had a visitor. He seemed to become calmer. I too had calmed down. He replied that he had imagined it would be his friend, who had birthday today, or that it would be his former wife with his daughter. We remained some minutes in silence. It was so difficult for me to put further questions. I sat in front of him – wordless.
After some minutes of silence I got the idea to ask him, which from his experience was the most important thing for people in prison. I saw that I got slowly his confidence, and that he had become completely gentle to me. So he answered me that it was love. For it was only the love of his new girl friend that gave strength to him, so that he expected full hope that the eight months he had to spend in jail yet, would pass quickly. He told me that he, when he would be outside again, would try simply to learn to love. I was wordless again. What could I still ask, after I had talked in jail not about hatred but love with a prisoner? He asked me for cigarettes. In my excitement I had unfortunately forgotten to take along enough Euro coins. I could not give him cigarettes, because I had only three One Euro coins with me, not four, as are needed to buy cigarettes here in prison. I was very sorry about it. He comforted me, shook hands with me and said, „Never mind!“ The last question I asked him was, if he could get still visits. He said to me, once in a month a visit was allowed. Since I was by him in August, he could get a new visit only in September. After his answer the time was already over. I had to leave Frank. I should return into the so called „liberty“, and Frank into his cell.
When I was outside, I had an indescribable feeling. I thought that I had to write a letter for Frank about this indescribable feeling. In the centre of that letter were the questions which I could not ask Frank after he had spoken to me of love. I wrote: „Yes, Frank, tell me, what is love, when one is living there inside the jail for two years already, and is only surrounded by thick walls. What does love mean, if you are treated only as a number by the authorities. What does love mean, if one is allowed to get only once a month a visit. What does love mean, if you cannot experience compassion and forgiveness. The fact that you talk at such a place still of love and believe in it is for me a real miracle.“
Yes, that is the miracle of my street retreat. At a place of unworthiness, where „the human dirt of the society“ is thrown into a dust bin, where, according to my opinion, only hatred can develop in the hearts of people, there I have talked about love, about the hope to learn to love better. Tell me whether that is the gospel of Jesus or not. Tell me whether that is the summary of the theological virtues: Faith, hope, and love or not. Yes, tell me whether that meeting with Frank has made the JVA Nuremberg to a holy ground for me or not. Yes, there I had to take off my shoes, the shoes of prejudices and of judging about fellow men. I wrote Frank: „I did not come as an attorney to you, who would come to investigate about the misdeed that led you into prison. I did not come to remind you of what had happened and due to which you are imprisoned. I came as a seeker to you, as somebody who is just looking for God on the streets of Nuremberg. In the past days someone replied to my question, „Where can I find God?“ I should look for him in me. I have looked for God in my life history and have found his traces. It has been wonderful for me to become aware of these traces of God in my life in a new way. But then I thought, to look for God in me is not something new. I longed for a new and different kind of encounter with him. That was my daily prayer. I think he has given me the answer. From the experience of our meeting I know that he is to be found particularly there where men are treated as dirt, as number.“
That was something from my street retreat but not everything. I could write a book, if I wrote down single experiences. At the end I would like to say thanks only. Thanks at Alois, Andrea, Birgit, Bram, Brigitte, Jutta, Klarissa, Laura, Maria-Anna, Susanne, Christian, Juan, Renate, Urban, and Veronika. With them I could make these mad experiences. And they know that I need their hands, to grow always as a true and authentic servant of God.
Rome, 15 September 2005