Vera Ruettimann: Looking for God on the Street
Christian Herwartz: Seeking Out Those Places Where We Might Meet Our God
Jan Magunski: To Find God on the Street
Kirsten Dietrich: Discussion with Christian Herwartz
Looking for God on the Street
Spiritual Exercises in the noise of a large city instead of the seclusion of a monastery. A mad idea. The group 'Religious Sisters and Brothers Against Exclusion' offers exactly this: Retreats on the street.
People of different nations live here close together, many without valid papers. The place is a melting-pot, but also a multi-cultural poorhouse. In the middle of the pounding heart of this district there is a community of Jesuits. The inhabitants live directly over the tavern, which is named "Gate to the Hell". Some of the people who found a shelter here have just left the hell: young people without home, alcoholics, and homeless people. "They became our mental instructors", paraphrased Jesuit Christian Herwartz his experience.
Recently someone knocked at the door with the request to be allowed to make a Retreat here. Here? The Jesuits hesitated. The man insisted on his wish, shifted his Retreat without further ado on the street, and visited thereby drug places, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. Herwartz was fascinated of this way of Retreat. Since then he offers this kind of Spiritual Exercises also in other countries.
Retreats For Once Differently
A group journeyed also to Basel to face this experiment on the street. The participants came from Germany and Switzerland. They are open to other religions and ways of thinking. Nevertheless: for the present even Helga, a nun from Cologne, can little imagine about street Retreats. To make Retreats in the city, in the noise of traffic, and in the midst of streams of people instead in the seclusion of a monastery - a mad idea. Probably many of them thought so. Most of them enrolled nevertheless then out of pure curiosity. There is a different starting point by Retreats on the street. The challenge does not lie in seclusion and stillness, but in the middle of life: on the street. Also the sleeping place in Kleinbasel is deliberately chosen: the lane soup kitchen of the Caritas is on the floor below.
In Basel the Jesuit Fathers Christian Herwartz and Christoph Albrecht were the spiritual directors, who prepared the Street Retreat with much personal commitment. They sent the participants on their way with the Bible quotation "Take off your shoes". This picture is taken from a tale in the Bible: Also Moses had to take off his shoes, when he entered the holy ground where God called him to the service for his people. "Where God wants to meet man any ground will become holy, whether it is before an inconspicuous prickly thorn shrub or a begging homeless person", explained Herwartz. "To take off your shoes is the beginning, to enter - in the midst of a world of the prejudices - into ignorance, to become more respectful toward human beings, also toward one's own life history, that has to be analyzed by us." So the participants will go on their way with questions like: Which thorn shrub places are there for me? Which thorny topics are there in my life history, which I rather pass-by than visit?
Monica went to Basel's city center. She packed a toothbrush, the passport and the insurance document of identification, a mini knife, and a water bottle into her rucksack. "You never know", said the woman from Munich, who is working at home with the Traveller's Aid. Which she deliberately did not take along was a sleeping bag. She saw a begging boy on a bench beside a ticket automat. He asked her for an old ticket. First she passed him, gave the called in money to the ticket box - and stopped. She went back ponderously and asked, "Why are you sitting there?" You cannot force interest, but suddenly it is there. The boy noticed that this woman was not a voyeur with the "curiosity of a social worker". Cautiously a discussion developed. Later she asked him: Which places are so important for you that you would send me there? Where am I to go, in order to understand your life? The boy was puzzled, and thought for a long time. If she could stand it, (so!) she should go to the concrete niche under the motorway, where street children are living.
When Monica visited the homeless children in their draughty niche she felt icy refusal. Her look was not answered, it ran into emptiness. Day for day she visited the children - the atmosphere remained hostile. Until one of the children broke the silence, and a careful approach took place. "This was the place for me where the thorn shrub was burning. It attracted and deterred me in a peculiar way. I felt the intimacy of this area: You are not allowed to walk in simply", Monica described her impressions. For the first time she felt the pain of being rejected, but also the hardness of the walls in our society: what it means for people, to be discharged. "Those hours with them were precious hours. I had to learn to take off my shoes previously, and to get - possibly on tiptoes - nearer, in order not to wreck by awkward interest more yet, as has been done already anyway", summarized she critically.
With Naked Feet
In the evening the participants came back to the lodging and told of their ways, their looking for, and their slow approach to places which had been experienced by them as important for them personally, and as moving. They told also of the discovered difficulties, of the fears, and of the thorn shrubs in their lives. They visited in Basel the labour office, the baby flap or a grave field for homeless people. Helga from Cologne saw in this Retreat a contribution to overcome personal exclusion behaviour, even if there are sometimes connected with it painful stages of self-knowledge. "But the thereby experienced joy is a light in the midst of everyday events, by which prospects of the future will become visible." How will the everyday life continue now? "Most likely it will go on without shoes, with naked feet."
From: "Sunday" of 11.12.03
Seeking Out Those Places
Where We Might Meet Our God
Kreuzberg is a section of Berlin. While the night life attracts the crowds, it can be a frightening place. People from just about every nation have settled here. Many, without official resident permits, have no right being there. You would have to be blind not to notice the drug addicts, the homeless, and the police on every corner, on the lookout for those hoping to be overlooked. Kreuzberg attracts artists as well and at the beginning of the 20th century there were more per square foot than just about anywhere else in Europe. It is still an urban jungle, a ramshackle place, multi-colored, a beehive of activity.
It was here that a small group of Jesuits set up community more than 20 years ago. We took jobs in industry and looked for contact with the various groups in the city. We showed a preference for those with no voice in society, those in prison, the homeless and the drug addicts. We live with some of them in a 19th century building, and while they may come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures they have one thing in common: they are all needy. That is why they knock at our door, looking for a place to stay. Once they sense that they are welcome, their innate dignity, hidden from sight because of their many problems, comes to the surface. For the Jesuits and our other visitors, it is they who teach us what it is to become human. They accept us as we are, with our weaknesses and our strengths.
So often they have been the victims of injustice and excluded from society. In meeting them we come to understand how contemptuous and prejudiced people can be of cultures and beliefs different from their own. We see it in the way others treat them, we see it in the way the laws are written, and we see it in ourselves. What is the key to our meeting these strangers on equal footing? It is to answer the question: How much does God love them? God finds a way to touch everyone and He invites us to accompany Him along the way.
When we are accepted by and accepting of others, our relationships with one another are thereby enriched. Everyone benefits. So frequently we are left speechless; we have to listen if we are to understand. It is very much a contemplative step. We, too, are put to the test. Why is our union with God so hesitant when He longs to meet us in those who are hungry and thirsty, ill and in prison? It is He who, through these men and women, is continually rejected by society and forced to take the last place. As Christians, caught up in our many occupations, we have to learn to listen to the silence of a God whom we long to follow more closely so as to be one with Him. What we have to do is to cease to walk in the shoes of the powerful, the well informed and the smug, so as to be able to share in that union and that happiness God and His creatures invite us to.
Moses once took off his scandals before walking on that sacred spot to which God called His people. Every plot of ground to which God calls us becomes holy ground. Whether that be in a thornbush or in a homeless person is not for us to decide. But what could be better than to hear God's invitation and respond to it?
One day a person knocked at our door and asked to make the Spiritual Exercises in our community. It was problematic. None of us had given the Exercises and at our house people came and went at all hours of the day and night. Yet this person persisted and profited greatly from his time with us. God showed him the path to follow. Others followed and their experiences enriched our home.
The Retreatants found their own corners--a place to sleep and a place to pray. In seeking their special space they learned how to listen to their inner voice and allowed themselves to be led. Everyone experiences some anxiety in certain places. For many it takes time to be able to approach a group of drug addicts. At times we may need to keep our distance. But once we are able to take that step we begin to untie our shoes and leave them behind. We have our "compositio loci" for meditation and prayer, to borrow the words of St. Ignatius. What is it we are looking for? What are we hoping for? We may still be anxious but perhaps for the first time we feel more at ease as we sense God calling us. This always takes us by surprise. Once there is a change of heart we can step back and look at our experiences in the light of the scriptures and the fruits of our prayer ripen and mature.
The one meditating is not always called directly. And yet it isn't all that rare. An older woman chose a gathering place for drug addicts as her place of meditation. After a while a man about her own age who lived alone proposed marriage. She withdrew and left. But two days later she discovered the meaning of his words and understood that this man was, for her, God's messenger. What he proposed was that she live in communion with God. This is what he was inviting her to. She changed her mind and headed out to a soup kitchen to celebrate interiorly this invitation to be in communion with her God. Whatever anxiety she had experienced had disappeared.
Ignatius of Loyola, writing the Exercises at Manresa, recounts several similar experiences. He fought against his way of doing things, frequently doing the very opposite of what he had previously done. Little by little he untied his shoes. His confidence in God increased and he began to speak with Him. For Ignatius the Exercises were a period of probation, much like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, teaching the children in the street, visiting and caring for the sick. During this spiritual period, when he sought to discover how to tread on holy ground, Ignatius came to a realization of his solidarity with the poor--and how difficult it often was to identify them--and his hunger for a poverty consecrated to God grew steadily.
When a group of people expressed a desire to make the Exercises at Kreuzberg, we asked at the parish. They have a cellar where the homeless sleep during the winter. It was available and our Retreatants lived there.
Throughout the 28 years when Berlin was partitioned, the faithful of this community were unable to visit their church on the other side of the wall. For that reason a makeshift church was built close to the wall. Berlin is now unified once again. The two halves of the community, given what they went through at the time the city was divided, have yet to come together again. Many other wounds caused by the division and the tyranny of war are still visible. For some of our Retreatants those places which were places of horror have become holy ground. It is there that they were able to enter into their own history and their own wounds.
During the time of the Exercises each one went for morning prayer and breakfast to either a quiet or a noisy corner of the city. In the evening, after Mass, they shared their reflections with one another and told their directors where it was that their hearts had led them to pray. We jotted down the names and places on a sheet of paper which has turned into a large book of experiences.
One example: one woman chose a spot nearby a temporary prison for those to be expelled from the country as her place of prayer. She spent considerable time there, noting how these women lived behind those walls. They had left their own countries for many different reasons and now they were going to be expelled. At the time of the Nazi dictatorship many people were forced to flee Germany. What did we learn from this painful time in our history? What does the way we treat strangers say about us? These and many other questions crossed her mind and touched her heart. After a while she began to stop people passing by the prison to ask them what they felt as they went by. Their brutal, racist replies made her feel ashamed for these prisoners and she was taken aback by her own ignorance. Those about to be expelled had yet never touched her life; she had never once raised a question as to the inhuman decisions decreed by the State.
Now she longed to visit the prisoners. When a woman left the building she followed her and spoke with her. This woman did pastoral work at the prison and she gave her the names of several of the women and the next day she went to visit them. Now she knew how they were being treated by the guards. She was able to speak with them behind a pane of glass. She met a mother who had been separated from her husband and her eight-year-old child in Berlin and was about to be expelled. They had told her child that her mother was on vacation. Her husband would most probably be shunted to some other country later on. Children without any family are frequently sent back to their native lands at 16, even if they are unable to speak their native language.
The Retreatant, now that she knew what was really taking place, felt as concerned as the prisoners themselves. It was a grace for her to be able to speak with them and she would be back again to see them. After her visit she went into a church, sat down before the enormous crucifix over the altar, and thought about her visit and what a shock it had been. Just then two young girls came in and sat down nearby. The younger girl pointed to the figure of Christ on the cross and said: "He's alive." Then she turned to the woman praying nearby and asked: "He is alive, isn't He?" And with the experience of the day behind her she replied: "Yes. He's alive!"
In a real sense the Exercises continue under the direction of these women in prison and this young child. The Retreatant's heart is filled with gratitude because of God's call. The piercing question now is: "How can I remain open to all of this? Perhaps I could write to these women behind bars?" After completing the Exercises in Berlin, perhaps she will visit the prisons in her own country? The desire for the Word of God takes on a new enthusiasm.
Already--and especially during those days immediately after completing the Exercises--there is the fear that this new inner way of life become public. Her former friends would turn their backs on her, just as others had done with the prisoners. Does she really want to set out on this path, cross social and cultural boundaries, and become God's pilgrim, if this will mean that she is mocked and scorned?
But let us go back to the beginning and the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius of Loyola begins with the "foundation," a consideration that comes out of his own experience. It is the Retreatants way of thanking God for the gift of life, and of saying "yes" to God's invitation to become His sons or daughters. Every human being, in crossing this threshold, takes stock of his various experiences and places his life in the hands of God. What is it that will remain unshaken no matter what? What is it that will allow a man or a woman to say "yes" to God again and again?
The "foundation" is present not only at the outset but at the beginning of each of the stages of the Exercises: the Kingdom mediation, the Last Supper, the Resurrection and when Jesus appears to His Mother, Mary. And after the completion of the Exercises the Retreatant will discover the "foundation" in every aspect of life as he or she strives to live the "Contemplation to Obtain Divine Love," returning to it time after time, rediscovering it and beginning all over again. In this sense this "contemplatio" is what makes it possible for the Retreatant to continue the pilgrimage, to follow God's attraction so as to discover Him there where He waits for each one of us.
Shared manual labor with those with whom we collaborate is where we Jesuits at Krenzberg find that very special soil in which we discover the divine presence. It is there that we come to an understanding of the dignity of mankind. That is the soil from which we learn, which keeps us humble, and which gives us the strength to fight. In the midst of many difficulties we are able, at any given moment, to go back to our foundation stone: our desire to welcome the stranger in our midst and to dream of a world that will one day be more just.
It is Jesus who invites us to God's table. We can be His guests and invite others to join us. To invite others is to make them feel welcome. The disciples on the way to Emmaus experienced much the same with their guest when He broke the bread. We, in turn, have rediscovered the basis of our faith when, in the dust of factories or out on the sidewalk our colleagues or those without a country have shared their bread with us.
Day by day we are all able to observe those spiritual signs Ignatius refers to as experiences. Each experience should bring us to ask the question of the Exercises: What is God asking of us?
Isn't it to give up positions of power and dominance so as to become poor in the eyes of God? Those who are excluded, handicapped, or scorned are those who can best give us that hunger for the fullness of life and we, in turn, can set them on the path.
Christian Herwartz, S.J.
translated by William Russell, S.J.
Yearbook of the Society of Jesus 2002,
Rom September 2001, 108 - 112
To Find God on the Street
Many go for Retreats into a monastery. When the Jesuit Christian Herwartz invites to Retreats, whole Kreuzberg becomes a "holy place", and homeless people and refugees become prophets.
An apartment in the middle of Ber1in-Kreuzberg: Here the Jesuit Father Christian Herwartz (60) lives together with a Jesuit Brother in a small community. "But actually we are never only two", he told me, "actually here are living always much more people in our four rooms."
Beside his own bed stand not in vain seven more beds in his bedroom: Accommodations for homeless people, alcoholics, punish-dismissed, refugees, and drug addicts: people who would otherwise not know where to go.
"For twenty five years I've been living now in Berlin", told Christian Herwartz, who as Jesuit finished his noviciate 1969 in Münster, and studied afterwards philosophy and theology. Following an idea of the Jesuits, he worked moreover quite practically as truck driver, furniture carrier, and as turner - for a long time also in France. "I know what it means to be a foreign worker", he remembered. For twenty years he was together with people of various nationalities in Berlin's electric industry - and got to know little by little the stories behind the faces. "Kreuzberg", the Jesuit Father summed up, "is a large city jungle, a multicoloured, turbulent poorhouse."
Some years ago in this alleged idyll a young Fellow Jesuit from Frankfurt wanted to make his Ordination Retreat: That "Religious Retreat" which should bring last clarity whether he was destined for priesthood or not. "He did not want an intact world; he wanted the everyday disorder of our city, in order to look here for holy places - and for God!" By his meetings with people the young man had been so affected that he said to Father Christian Herwartz, "I have discovered God's presence in them. Now I know finally, for what (people) I let me ordinate!"
When two other priests made similar experiences and talked about them with Father Christian and the present guests at the evening meal table, the idea sprang up to offer this special possibility to meet God also to other seekers. "In summer 2000 we invited the first time to a Retreat on the Street." The then developed conception exists in its crucial parts still today:
For ten days the participants come to Berlin and live during that time in the parsonage of the parish St Michael in the suburb Kreuzberg. The cellar, which is available in the winter months for homeless people as emergency accommodation, offers a simple lodging to them - with mattresses, camp beds, and a small kitchen. Here the participants begin and end the day. From Morning Prayer, breakfast and service until evening meal and common round of talks in the evening, everyone is for her/himself on the way on the streets of Berlin - and on the ways of her/his life. Some use the public means of transport; others go, as far as their feet will carry them.
One of the participants went nearly all ways barefoot. Thus he took the impulse at the beginning completely literally: At the start of the Retreat Father Christian will always tell the tale of the burning thorn shrub: the story of Moses, who was visited in the middle of his everyday life by an appearance that at the same time surprised and confused him.
"Fortunately Moses did not run away", the Jesuit interpreted the text passage, "but took his stand." And he reminded of the fact that God wanted to talk with his prophet, but first he formulated the condition on which Moses had to agree to it. "You are standing on holy ground", God said. And therefore Moses had to take off his shoes.
A strange sign! But the Retreat Director explained the meaning: "To take off your shoes means: to face reality, to give up escape possibilities, not to rise above others or to insist upon an appropriate superiority. And therefore", he continued, "we too have to take off the shoes of the powerful, the know-all, of being better, in order to become those who we actually are: children of God - and sisters and brothers of the one mankind family."
That seemed completely easy for the young man, who from now on went barefoot through Berlin. For others it was harder. They needed some days, until they too were able to go to places which they had bypassed in the past - in a real sense, but often also figuratively. "The thorn shrub", remembered one the participants, "is at first not a simple or beautiful thing, rather something that can also hurt, and from which you will run away actually."
"Each human being is frightened at certain places. Some can only slowly approach a group of drug addicts", said Christian Herwartz. "But if you then nevertheless stay, you will begin to open your shoes and take them off. Ignatius, the founder of our order, would say: You will look at the scene of meditation and prayer. Your fears will still be there, but you will become calmer, and curious about the things that will be seen by you, and how you might be addressed by God. If something moved in your heart, you will come back or will consider the experience anywhere else again - perhaps also with the help of a Bible story."
Some participants need time to find their place; others know immediately where God wants to send them. And those who have no idea where to go, Herwartz gives a list with "holy places" in Berlin. There are written down: soup kitchens of the city, social welfare office, labour exchange, different prisons, social focuses, and hospitals. A man was drawn into the early birth department of the gynaecological clinic. Before the newborn child window he began suddenly to cry. A for many years repressed episode of his own life history came up - and the man learned in those days to make peace with himself.
A woman, while meditating at the baby flap, discovered how hard it is for her, to let go her own son - who is long since over thirty. And a sixty-year old minister shared his lunch-time bread with a homeless person on the underground platform; in him he had found after all the interlocutor who did really understand him: On an empty pizza box the two philosophized with each other about God and the world.
Whereas in summer firm dates for Group Retreats are offered, single persons can lodge during the whole year in the Kreuberg apartment and venture on the streets of Berlin, also in these days before Christmas, perhaps straight now.
"God is waiting for us where we do not expect it", says Christian Herwartz. That has been so then in the stable of Bethlehem, that can happen today on the streets of Kreuzberg. And therefore the homeless people, the punish-dismissed or drug addicts are for him "God's messengers" and "assistants of the incarnation".
From 'Church + Life' (church newspaper Münster) 14. 12. 2003
Discussion with Christian Herwartz
Christmas 2004 RBB info radio, Berlin
Kirsten Dietrich: Christmas, that is the time of plenty and abundance. Things that sparkled in the last weeks in shop windows, lie now, well wrapped up, under the Christmas tree - or also not: because in the Federal Republic poverty - the actual one or also the only felt one - is growing, and that
leaves traces also on Christmas. Because abundance, comfort, a good feeling, spirituality seem to go somehow hand in hand at Christmas.
With me is a guest who is used to find warmth and
spirituality or perhaps also simply "God" in those places where you would normally not assume such things. Christian Herwartz, Jesuit, priest, learned turner, worked for a long time by Siemens, and has been living for 25 years in a community in Kreuzberg - one could say perhaps casually: in a flat-sharing community with a special claim.
Mr. Herwartz, how does one celebrate Christmas in a community that devotes itself wholly consciously to people who are living at the margins of society?
Christian Herwartz: In not knowing how to do it. I never know how to celebrate Christmas. You have to see it when you get at it, because this social situation, addressed already in the introduction, does often prevent us to notice what Christmas really is.
D: What does that mean actually in this year? Do you buy nothing, no gifts, is here no Christmas tree?
C.H.: No, a Christmas tree we had only once, when a refugee family lived with us. I am living together with Muslims, with Christians and Non-Christians; there a tree would rather be disturbing. It is more important that we look into each others eyes, that we eat together, and that we go there where need is. That will not necessarily be with us at home.
D: Is then Christmas for you a festivity where you - with modest means - get something like abundance, or rather a time in which you keep consciously distance to the abundance that is set loose for this celebration?
C.H.: Maybe I know rather what it is not, i.e. it is no celebration of locked doors. Not the lodgings in which Joseph and Mary were rejected and sent into the stable, when pregnant Mary arrived at Nazareth. The inn closed the door. And often I feel the Christmas celebration like the life in the inn that has no place, no place for surprises. And God can, I think, in our middle only be seen as disturbance. And if I am unable to embark on a disturbance at Christmas, then I do not know at all how I am to celebrate Christmas.
D: That means, by you everybody can drop in at Christmas?
C.H.: Well, we are not an institution that opens a door somehow, we are a normal dwelling. But certainly, there will come somebody whom I did not expect, and then Christmas can begin.
D: What was so the most surprising Christmas visit you can remember?
C.H.: Last year it came into my mind in the afternoon that someone had not visited us since two days, someone who normally often came, and then I got the idea: Could he be sick!? And then I looked for him, and he was sick. I said: "You, there is cooked a meal, does you not want to come along?" And he rose and came along. And on the way there happened something very crucial. He told me that he became fifty years old, and that he suffered because he could not celebrate this birthday, for he had no money. And then I said: "You, when is it? Then come nevertheless along, simply to the breakfast, and invite your guests." And he was somebody who was actually everywhere kicked out. And fifty people came to the breakfast, to his fiftieth birthday. Hence I think, to be open for that, and to see how incarnation really happens is important. That it is not an abstract term, which is said only in churches, but we may experience that incarnation.
D: What does incarnation mean to you?
C.H.: There is the level where one assists each other, where one does something. But that is for me actually the last level - a consequence. For me incarnation comes into being, when I am able to be amazed about the things that happen; when I accept as gift what I see - for example a small child; or when people do something that takes away my breath. But beneath that there is for me the level where I enter into ignorance - I would like to say with Buddhists; i.e. to enter into something unknown to me where I become curious. Where I am somehow not the knowing, and enter into something opposite that is greater than I am. Yes, in the long run it is God whom I meet, who cannot be encircled by my thinking; and to enter into this opposite of man, yes, of something new - well, there happens incarnation, there I will become man.
D: In the encounter with things that cannot be planned before?
C.H.: Exactly, things that cannot be planned. And we make exercises and also courses several times in the year, where we go into this looking out, and we call it then: "To take off our shoes." Hence those shoes, by which we are protected from the environment, by which we stand out. That we for once take off these shoes simply, and then the world will look suddenly completely different.
D: To search such encounters, to look for something that cannot be planned, happens in an event named "retreat on the street": i.e. the meeting with faith just not somewhere in a fully air-conditioned office, and also not somewhere in a church, but somewhere on the street. What is hidden behind it, which a meeting is that?
C.H.: For this we have a story from the Jewish Bible. Moses was a herdsman who tended his sheep in the desert. In the middle of his field of work he saw something that amazed him. And he described it so: There was burning a thorn shrub, but it did not burn up. Now, with the distance of time, we can say: That Is Love. Love does burn, but does not burn up. And Moses became curious and went to that thorn shrub, and then was said to him, "Take off your shoes. Feel the ground on which you are standing, because there someone wants to speak with you." And exactly this is the advice: Go through the streets and look just so, where your heart is moved, and where you should stop.
D: Are there no further descriptions, no assistance?
C.H.: No, there are many stories. One participant went into a hospital, in a gynaecological clinic, and in front of the window with the babies he began suddenly to cry. Afterwards, if one goes then two or three times there, one will notice: That was the remembrance of the stillbirth 18 years ago, which had been depressed, and should now become sound. And he was healed of his inner trauma which he had always avoided. And so everyone has a different history. The one will find it under drug addicts, the other in a mosque, another one in the soup kitchen where he lines up not as helper, but in the file of those who ask for food.
D: So it is not about doing a good deed and to become so a better man?
C.H.: Exactly! I regard that as a total twist of faith. To do a good deed is not faith yet. Perhaps good deeds are a consequence of faith, of incarnation, of this entering into ignorance, into astonishment. But that is not yet what makes us men. To do good deeds is action. It is important for man, it is well that way, but it is not the core of incarnation.
D: And how can one prevent then, that such a faith which then develops, circles around the own person only, and becomes something quite self-absorbed?
C.H.: It seems to me that you need actually not do that at all. But leave open the door, and take off your shoes. And everyone has a different idea, where the surprise that is there in his life, will actually be noticed by her/him. And for that I have to set out on the street, and feel so from inside: Where then? And there these places to which I go are a great help. Simply by going to these places from which I know perhaps not at all consciously that they are helpful in my life. So, to sit down, for example, among homeless people, and then to notice what fear I have perhaps of homelessness, how I am blocked by it. And how many decisions are made by me out of the fear to be made homeless. And how I then, slowly, by releasing this fear, am also able to hear better how God wants to meet me by people who are homeless. Because that is quite clear, that Jesus said to us also plainly, "You gave food to me, and you gave me to drink. You gave me shelter. You have visited me when I was ill or in prison." This presence of Jesus or of God among us is possible, but we have to set out on the way. We have to ask: "Where are you waiting for me?"
D: How do those react who are visited there? Do they not feel exploited for some self-experience trip of people who actually are living in much better life conditions, and who will go back after a week to their secured existence?
C.H.: Also homeless people make this Retreat. It is not limited to people who enjoy secured material conditions. But we deal with that matter quite openly. Often the participants do not know where they are to go, and then they ask simply a homeless person or somebody else: "You, where I am to go? I am looking for God." And these discussions are fascinating. They do not intrude themselves, but if a homeless person asks: "What do you want here?" they will answer, "I am looking for God!" And if one gets then the answer: "If I look into your face, then I see him" or "I would go to the drug advisory board. I believe, there you will find him!" So the participants let themselves be led on by their inner impulses, but also by such from outside, to go to certain places, and to tell later what they experienced there.
D: Is there something like a special spirituality of poverty?
C.H.: I think in the gospel is said: "Blessed are the poor" and by that word is meant, at least for me: Blessed are those who do not in front of God as if they were great, those who can get rid of all these roles, in which we are hanging, and who play before God no role but are just poor. There is not meant a material poverty only, this too can actually make barriers for us, but also the many other things, where we believe to be better than other people. All these things do not count before the life, before the God who became man. And those who set out a bit on this way, who go on this way of letting go, of poverty, will get presents. That is my experience through my whole life.
D: Why then leave so few official church representatives, so few ministers and priests really their churches, and enter into the life and working sphere of individual men?
C.H.: This is a difficult question. In other countries it is different. Well, there is our church with its wealth, with its church tax etc., it is a blind mark of the Germans. In the world church it is already different, but also in the Order in which I am living many Jesuits go out. Perhaps not to manual work, but they go out and work at different places in the society: in schools, among refugees, in prisons - because it is important to get to know the people there, to find Christ where he is: not only in a church, or particularly by Catholics in a tabernacle, which, in the last analysis, is a prison - but to discover him in life. And I do not say that he is not in the church. There is no place for God where he is not present. But we have just to open our eyes, to see him everywhere there where individual men or woman may discover him.
D: Is Christmas as a time of outside abundance for you a difficult time?
C.H.: It is no longer so difficult, because I do no longer gall myself on it. In former times I chafed about it, but I would rather like it, if this festivity on 24 December were abolished, and the original Christmas would be celebrated, which is January 6th, and which is celebrated by the Orthodox Church also further at this date. Indeed, then Jesus became visible in the temple, then he opened himself to the public, then he began to work also socially. And I hope that we resist this temptation, to which we in the last 150 years became addicted here in the free market west: to hold Jesus often imprisoned in a mentality of small families; that we so release him again, in order to be able to meet him freely. Because the God of the Christmas tale, who became man, does not support lodging rules which block up, but appears before the public. And with each human being that we exclude, I think - yes, I am sure - that we exclude Jesus thereby.