California Dreamin’: The Spiritual Exercises of an Expatriate German

California Dreamin’: The Spiritual Exercises of an Expatriate German

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by Alexander Niessen

Where do I begin?  How is it that I ‘m surrounded by all these men who do not talk to each other? Instead, they listen attentively to a man with a strong French accent who lectures us on primary responsibility and the basis of human life.  I am a expatriate German living in California, a lay Catholic who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s —  ‘Generation X,’ I suspect  — and I have never heard of these things.

What is ‘Sin’?

There's something in your heart of hearts that screams that you're doing something fundamentally wrong with your life. It seems like it is human nature.  Theologians would call this the “Moral Law.”

First, it’s a small discomfort that you can still easily ignore, like a spider's web that you simply wipe away. But it always comes back, this discomfort and it is growing every day, until you finally realize that what is bothering you is not a discomfort but, ‘sin.’

Sin.  Every morning you wake up with the feeling.   It was not there before in your life and now it troubles you every day. Many people in Germany or indeed all over the western world are perhaps not even aware of this damage – the small and large scratches on your once so-pure soul.

We do not talk about sin in the Western world. Sin is medieval. Sin is in the past. Sin cannot harm us; we know everything — science and vague feelings keep our lives in balance and so can explain everything and make life bearable.

We moderns have a motto: Everything is Possible. Just carry on everything as usual. Only do not be disturbing, it is better for you and your fellow man.

photo(6)We do not talk about sin in the Western world. Sin is medieval. Sin is in the past. Sin cannot harm us; we know everything.

Difficulties on the Way to the Heavenly Spa

But how should I deal with my own guilt? Where should I look for help? My wife?  My friends from football at my favorite pub? Maybe I should just buy a glass pyramid or get a tattoo. Maybe that would help restore my inner harmony.

Here in California, we have the opportunity simply to change our religion until we arrive at the one that says “Do not worry, everything is good.”

Really? I think many have lost both their inner harmony and their awareness of their transgressions — both given to us by God. These feelings can be ‘worked out’ in so many ways today. You can start drinking, go to a psychologist, fitness-train like crazy or just go shopping.

I think that many who still believe in God today think that He is a God of great love, and that they'll ‘be fine’ with God.  They think that their lives are not bad – they keep more or less to the law – and that at the end of their lives God will be waiting for them in heaven and welcome them into His Heavenly spa.

But these people probably will have difficulties with the assumption that everything will be OK. They are grounding their hope in the faith that this God of great love will say, “Well, I accept that things did not work out so good with you; but anyway, that was reasonably good.”

But if God is pure love, I do not think that there is ‘reasonably’ a chance for us to be in His presence and not connect 100 % with him and emulate His infinite love.  Can we ever reach this goal? I would say “no” simply because we are human — but we can try to aim as close as possible.

Perhaps a driving metaphor will work for both Germans and Californians, who love their cars. If you drive away from the light, you cannot see the dirt on the windshield. Only when you drive towards the light is it very obvious that you have accumulated a lot of dirt on your glass.

photo(6)Perhaps a driving metaphor will work for both Germans and Californians, who love their cars. If you drive away from the light, you cannot see the dirt on the windshield. Only when you drive towards the light is it very obvious that you have accumulated a lot of dirt on your glass.

At this point in a person’s life, everyone must determine for himself. It may be earlier for some; later for others. For some, it may never happen. Fortunately, I was brought up Catholic. By the grace of my parents, I was baptized into the One, Holy, Roman Catholic Church.

When the time came where I could no longer live under this burden of guilt, I had to put my whole conduct in question. I soon discovered that I was far away from my so-beautiful, original baptismal purity.  So I decided to align my life anew. I never left the Church, though I was a typical “gray Catholic.” But now I felt the need to change my life.

The Spiritual Exercises of a 16th Century Basque Saint

The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola have since the 16th century brought peace and healing to generations of Catholics. I set out to search for them as all moderns would – on the Internet. By American standards, the place was not so far away. For Europeans the ride was certainly very long, as was my own way back to Christ.

When I saw the house for the first time, I felt very uncomfortable. It was early in the morning, gray and rain-driven. A big house, a little run down. I sat there in the rain on the large gravel parking lot surrounded by wooded hills. Fog lay over the whole area and I felt like I was in a Stephen King book.

Should I really go inside and introduce myself? I still have time to say goodbye to the whole project. But I am by nature one of those people who once I have begun, I work very hard and perform to an end. So I walked into in the house.

A nice older nun has greeted me warmly. She then asked if this was my first Ignatian Exercise; it was. So we went over the rules: no talking during the whole retreat, no cell phone and no computer. One can only talk with the priest during the Exercises. Let the Holy Spirit work in you.

OchsenfurtI sat there in the rain on the large gravel parking lot surrounded by wooded hills. Fog lay over the whole area and I felt like I was in a Stephen King book.

No Talking, Please

OK, simple enough, I thought, though somewhat to my surprise these rules turned out to be in earnest. No “good morning” for breakfast. If you would like salt and pepper, you must indicate this by gesture only.  In the event you need something urgently, you must write it on a piece of paper and give it to the nice nun, who will then address your concern. For me, this is not a big problem. I’m okay without conversation.

We began at noon on the first day, and I was surprised. First, we had lectures about God by a Jesuit who is very holy and passionate. The classes are divided into two sections. The first phase explains the doctrinal viewpoint and its implication for human life and the second section is then the life and actions of Jesus Christ. These two classes are in harmony.

After each three-hour class, we returned to our wooded cabins. Mine, which was wonderfully situated in the forest, was called ‘Cecilia,’ for the Saint of Music.  Here, I began with a prayer and then reflected undisturbed about what I’d learned.

After 25 minutes, there is a bell announcing the beginning of the next session. After the second meeting, the day is then interrupted for a silent lunch and then we continue with the sessions three and four in the afternoon.

After dinner, there was Mass. All Masses are in Latin and so bring Christians to respect the Sacrifice of Christ far more than the normal Mass. A gorgeous liturgy which has survived, luckily for all of us.

So the days go by fast and each day is divided into specific aspects of life and work of Jesus.

On the first day, I found myself setting myself apart from my personal sin and its consequence – namely hell for my soul. But here there is not the slightest impression that everything is OK.

On the second day, we covered the imitation of Christ and intimate knowledge of how God is working through Jesus. On the third day, the saving grace of God, through the death of Jesus on the cross for all sinners who believe in Him. On the fourth day, we had contemplation on the joyful mysteries of Jesus in life. On day five, we followed up on the Apostles after they went out into the world to spread the Good News.

On all days, the priests used concrete examples. How would you behave – would you even sit with Jesus at the table of the Last Supper? What would you do if you could be with Jesus before his arrest in the Garden?

Featured2On the first day, I found myself setting myself apart from my personal sin and its consequence – namely hell for my soul. But here there is not the slightest impression that everything is OK.

Crying in the Confessional

On the third day was the time of confession. The priest whom I liked the most heard my confession. Wow, I cried. Not tears of sorrow, but tears of joy about the special grace of God which was given to me.

What a blessing these retreats are. The experience has changed my life and the lives of the people with whom I share my life. Now I know what the main responsibility and foundations are in a human life.

What is my primary responsibility? What is my earthly goal? First, to save my soul. Man is created to honor and serve God, and so his soul can go back to God. Second, all other things on the face of the earth are created for man to serve him in achieving this task. One can make use of them, insofar as they help one to attain one’s heavenly goal. Otherwise you have to renounce them, insofar as they represent an obstacle in the way of this.

Unfortunately, many people in Germany and in the Western world no longer know what the goal of human life is.  But there is a 16th Century Basque who can tell them.

koln4 Unfortunately, many people in Germany and in the Western world no longer know what the goal of human life is.  But there is a 16th Century Basque who can tell them.

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