Living and engaging in the public sphere
Christian Herrwartz SJ (GER)
The guiding principle of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1974/75): Our identity is realised in action for faith and justice. This direction was difficult to grasp for many German-speaking Jesuits. Two new communities (Frankfurt/M and Berlin) were to put these social and spiritual objectives into practice.
After a period in the French Jesuit Workers´ Mission, we found work in Berlin in the electronics industry and moved into an apartment close to the Berlin Wall in a disadvantaged area called Kreuzberg. During the Inculturation, we discovered new dimensions to the Incarnation with our colleagues, neighbours, ex-convicts, sick and dying people and refugees in our community.
I was certain: God called us to this place. I sought to encounter Him with my colleagues; we became involved in the unions, with prisoners, we visited people in the GDR and, over time, we lived in close quarters with men and women from more than seventy countries. Their very diverse life stories and religious identities put our hospitality to the test. Friends sent us women and men in need. A network was born.
In the midst of this bustling crowd, a young Jesuit brother wanted to complete his Exercises. With us that isn´t possible: we don´t have a quiet room, we don´t have regular mealtimes, I wasn´t a director of the Exercises, etc. Nevertheless, he came and slept in one of the seven beds in my bedroom.
He meditated on the street and struggled with his inner conflict as he paced along the markings where the Berlin Wall once stood, his left foot on one side and his right foot on the other. Should he work in an AIDS hospice when he finished his studies? The next day he meditated on the wounds of his life story and on the city´s ever present wounds of war. Then he wandered to a brightly lit up commercial district. The people cast no shadows and he imagined himself in a place of inhumanity.
At our U-Bahn station he met homeless people. One of them wanted to show him our neigbourhood from his perspective. When he told us about this in the evening it became clear to him: Today I was invited to cross the limits of my perception. It was a sign of God that he had been invited into the Hospice.
Without my realising, the Exercises on the street had come into being.
Another young man came. He didn´t want to hear Bible stories. The Bible was like a schoolbook for him as a priest. After a few days he wished to spend a night in the outskirts in peace and quiet. The doorbell rang while we were at the table and a stranger came in. He sat by us. It was only the following day that I understood: He was an angel. After having listened for half an hour, he suddenly said: "Come on, let´s go". And off they went.
The next day they cleaned the house and the young priest gathered up dust in a bag and gave it to the angel. He was to throw it in the bin on the way home. "You can carry your own dirt" was the response. "Yes, I always leave my dirt for others to carry", the priest remarked and returned to reading his Bible.
Twenty years have passed since these experiences. A few years later I was convinced, along with others, that we had newly discovered the Exercises. Since then, I accompany, along with many others, spiritual retreatants from different religious contexts and life circumstances, who encounter the omnipresent God on the street.
Ignatius´ experiences, which he later recorded in the Exercises text, also took place on the street in Manresa. Likewise, Jesus lived publicly on his home streets. Many stories in the Bible give an account of this. Jesus described himself and his basic philosophy: "I am the way, the truth, and the life". So too did we encounter the Gospel on the street.
The directors of the Exercises invite the participants to close the doors and encounter God where he waits for each person. Moses found God in a thorn bush, which burned but did not perish. We pass on this image of love to the participant and advise them, confronted such an appearance, to take off the metaphorical shoes of their hearts, like Moses, and to listen to the voice of God. In the evening the Exercise group of no more than five people meets and shares the day´s experiences - accompanied by a man and a woman. We find traces of God in surprising places, in silence, or in the binding love of a couple.
At most we can cater for two groups at a time, housing them in simple accommodation. The participants pay no money. Unemployed people, homeless people and ex-convicts also take part. Ignatius himself took no provisions on his pilgrimages, even in the crossing to Israel. For ten years there has been literature in German, Spanish and French about this way of conducting the Exercises. At the end of 2015 the second stage was finalised. The experiences in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, France, Canada, and in other areas encourage us to hear the yearning voice of each human being and to follow it, like Moses, across the desert.