Returning to Europe nearly every year is a kind of spiritual pilgrimage, a ‘retreat’ to refresh and advance my spiritual life; meeting new people and catching up with old friends, sharing conversations about our lives, as well as sampling diverse cultural activities along the way is one way I learn and revitalise.
For these few weeks of holiday I am thrown into the eddies of spiritual currents that run deep in western history and continue today. In the swim of it I feel the timeless dynamics of spirituality and materialism, of love and hate, liberation and manipulative deception, forgiveness and revenge, hope and despair, hospitality and alienation. And I learn quite a bit about myself!
Boarding the plane in Melbourne I take a copy of the lastest Australian and notice a small piece on page two about latest research showing a dramatic increase in the level of anxiety felt by everyday citizens in the west. ‘A first world problem’, I think to myself, ‘considering what refugees, and those stranded in war-torn countries, are going through! Why on earth are we, who have so much going for us, doing this to ourselves?’
Is it because through prejudice, ignorance, carelessness, or just plain hubris, that we in the west have thought we can survive without placing the spiritual at the centre of concern for the sustainability of a civilisation?
I take the spiritual temperature at a street market in Angel. I was a teacher near here in 1974.
During my visits to London to see my son over the last twelve years or so, I have noted a recurring lament among more elderly Londoners. (see The Stayers posted on June 8, 2016). It is a lament about the loss of a consensus about British values that got England through the war. For the fruiterer in the photo, British identity has been so eroded that ‘anxiety’ is being overtaken by despair. For him, colourful faces and alien languages are a continuous, confronting and tangible reminder of the end of the England he pines for; and an erosion of care for each other’s welfare, in my view, triggered by a lack of hospitality to difference.
Looking over the Channel from Amsterdam, what appeared to be a great act of democracy by Prime Minister Cameron has thrown Britain into political turmoil – now opening up a power vacuum to the far right, reminiscent of the fallout from what appeared to be the great allied act of liberation in Iraq. Interesting that Germany took no part in that invasion.
In Germany, Angela Merkel is fighting to keep alive the post-war vision of a Europe at peace. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has experienced its longest period of peace and those who remember know the cost of it. Angela Merkel was an East German, so she has also had to withstand the criticism of betraying West Germany by propping up the East to help it get on its feet after the 1989 Reunification – and supporting the inclusion of other Eastern European countries into the EU as well. It is perhaps not well known that Angela Merkel is spiritually motivated by strong Christian values and beliefs – something she rarely discloses. Which perhaps explains her initial response to spontaneously opening the borders of Germany to the Syrian refugees.
Since my first visit ten years ago I have been tracing through conversations with my German colleagues how Germany has been dealing with the aftermath of the Third Reich, particularly its guilt. Some of the most interesting conversations have been with a Lutheran army chaplain, how the Germans have thought through some of the issues of ‘obeying orders’ that contributed to the brutality of the Nazi war machine. He and his psychologist wife both work as Lutheran chaplains in the area of ethics within the German army. By visiting their family over the years, they have helped me understand how the Football World Cup, held in Germany while I was there in 2006, has provided a conduit for the younger generation to draw a line under guilt, and at last to proudly fly their national flag without fear of the Nazi implications of that simple act in the past. It raises the question, when does national pride become nationalism? While the nationalists, on the pretext of national cultural purity, are on the rise (only defeated very narrowly in the recent Austrian elections), the post-war vision of cooperation and peace seems to be still holding out – just!
The common feeling here seems to be that the EU vision is right, but the EU ‘machine’ has become over bureaucratic. Feeling against the power of the EU as a threat to national interests, is growing.
In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article exploring the spread of the same spirit of corporatisation in Higher Education:
Tellingly, Pope Francis, who knows a thing or two about opaque and vast bureaucracies, delivered a warning during a recent visit to the European Parliament. Europeans, he declared, see “aloof” EU institutions “laying down rules perceived as insensitive, if not downright harmful.” The great ideas that once inspired Europe, he lamented, have been “replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of institutions.”
Meanwhile, in Australia, the far right are using the Australian flag to promote their own brand of racist nationalism! These are global issues. Travelling helps me appreciate that what may appear to be novel developments in my own home locale may actually have been imported from elsewhere!
Any visit to Berlin underlines these deep histories of calculated brutalities in the name of oppressive control, but also inspirational bravery in the name of freedom. Each time I have visited I have chosen to stay in Kruezberg in the East. I prefer the underlying ethos, an earthiness, a poverty struggle, yet a vibrant ethnic life that completely overshadows its grottiness and infinite grafetti. Good cheap food and coffee and a good laugh seem guaranteed! It’s alive, without pretentions! A contrast to the more formal, prim and proper western Berlin neighbourhoods and classic upper-class German cafes (which are nice in their own bourgeios kind of way).
I had planned to take up a long time invitation to stay with my colleague in Munich and, in particular, to have conversations about the refugee influx and the relationship of the churches to it, both humanitarian and also religious. A younger person who visited me in Oasis recently, at my colleague’s request, has been heavily involved in Munich as a volunteer in their welcome. So reconnecting would have been great! Unfortunately my colleague was away on sabbatical. So as I was stopping in Prague, I decided to visit nearby Dresden and then on to Leipzig before catching up with my good friends in Bonn.
I now know why people talk about the beauty of Prague. It seems to have largely escaped the ravages of modern war. So the massive multi-storied apartment blocks in all their different hues of pastel colours create a continuous backdrop of centuries past. Here Einstein drank with Kafka in the intelligencia social set – much like the Impressionists in Paris.
The ‘coffee culture’ continues! And it’s interesting to reflect on how much it has taken off in Australia. Why is this? A sense of belonging in the public space? A place for ‘edge’ conversations away from the psychological strictures of the work environment?
It is interesting that participation in these cafe conversations gave Einstein the courage, the confidence, to step out into the dark with what he intuitively felt was true- which later gave us the theory of general relativity. This illustrates to me an important spiritual dynamic for a university chaplain- it is part of a chaplain’s role to ‘give courage’ (encourage) – so vital in a university setting, which is so committed to asking questions that have never been asked before.
Unfortunately, for Kafka, he didn’t have that confidence, and asked for his writing to be destroyed when he died. But fortunately for us, his best friend denied his request and we are now the beneficiaries of his writings.
Aware of this role over the years, I have given courage to all kinds of university staff and students, who have, through accompaniment, taken a more daring and productive path. Encouragement to overcome fears is a vital spiritual gift to give; in fact, essential to human flourishing.
While in Prague I had the chance to visit Wenceslas Square – the place where the people gathered to ‘let off steam’. (https://www.pragueexperience.com/places.asp?PlaceID=605)
This was the place, in front of the statue that looks down on the long avenue, where students held demonstrations of resistance to the bullying of the occupying Soviets.
In August 1968, the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček‘s government during what was known as the Prague Spring. Prague-born Palach decided to sacrifice himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square, on 16 January 1969.
According to Jaroslava Moserová, a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach at the Charles University Faculty Hospital, Palach did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the “demoralization” of Czechoslovak citizens caused by the occupation.
“It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.“
The funeral of Palach turned into a major protest against the occupation. A month later (on 25 February), another student, Jan Zajíc, burned himself to death in the same place. This was followed in April of the same year by Evžen Plocek in Jihlava, and by others.
Led by the visionary poet-philosopher Vaclaf Havel, and with the support of the west, the Czechs overcame Soviet occupation and later, Czechoslavakia became the Czech Republic. From 1989 (the fall of Communism) to 1992, Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia. He then served as the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003) after the Czech–Slovak split.
This history gives me hope that courageous young people will continue to name and overcome bullying and oppression in all its guises.
Probably the most extreme of these guises was coopted by the Nazi Germans in their quest for racial superiority. The spiritual dynamic of hope was effectively abused by the Nazis in Poland as they rounded up Jews to be sent to the gas chambers. The Nazis generously offered them hope, by convincing them that they were being taken out of harm’s way and that they should take their most treasured possessions with them on the journey, in the hope of return. The Jews gratefully obliged and the Nazis got all their treasure.
In the Catholic cathedral in Dresden there is a stark memorial to the deportation of the priests and activists who opposed the Nazis. There is also a striking memorial to the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies in February 1945, an act that should go down as as big a war crime as any. When victors write the history, its good, if not shocking, to hear the other side of the story! For examplw, it was news to me that the Americans did as much looting as anyone, but they eventually gave back what they stole. Not so the Russians. Angela Merkel recently cancelled her acceptance of an invitation by President Putin to open an art exhibition in St Petersburg when she found out that it included art stolen by the Russians from Germany during the war. The repercussions continue!
On the top of a hotel in Dresden there is a huge line of letters: Ein Leben ohne Freude ist weite Reise ohne Gasthaus. (Literally – A life without Joy is like a wide travel without a place to stay).
I have no doubt that the visionary who built this hotel sincerely meant these words. They were meant to convey the spirit of hospitality that undergirded his vision for his hotel. But if subsequently the management of the hotel deduced that the signage was translating into profit, then it becomes advertising and it is only a short generation before the staff have lost the passion and vision of hospitality of the founder; and then the hotel becomes just another comfortable, efficient, but soulless space to lay one’s head at night, like the rest of them. A guise for true hospitality.
Fortunately the priority of cultural endeavour in Europe mitigates against such a deadening. Investment in the arts – music, opera, sculpture and visual arts keeps reminding the people of their history and the significant myths and freedoms that enliven the human spirit.
On a national and international scale, this is what churches do, Sunday by Sunday, reminding people of who they are by holding up the mirror of the great stories of the Bible and relating their meaning to the present.
Such was the role St Nicholas Church in the centre of Leipzig, when the US escalated the Cold War in Europe in 1979 by deploying medium range ballistic missiles in West Germany. In the DDR the ecumenical youth movement instigated a ten day celebration of peace in November 1980. The symbol chosen was the beating of a sword into a ploughshare, a reproduction of the Soviet monument located in the United Nations Park in New York, based on the Bible verses of the prophet Micah, 4 verses 1-4. The GDR persecuted the young people wearing this symbol. They had not anticipated pacifism!
This prompted a more powerful momentum for reform through peace services held in St Nicholas every Monday at 5pm, instigated and organised by grassroots action groups, protected by the church.
By the end of the 1980’s the movement had swelled to over 70,000, well beyond the punitive power of the DDR security forces and documented on film smuggled to the west.
In the end, November 1989, the DDR admitted it had lost the battle to control the lives of its citizens and the Berlin Wall fell. Prayer meetings for peace and freedom, candle-lit vigils and demonstrations, the Peaceful Revolution, changed the course of European history! And it had its genesis in this Leipzig church, which has as its motto, ‘open to all’!
Fortunately, the peace leaders were able to stop the destruction of the records of the Stasi (secret police) and we are able to visit their former headquarters to marvel at the extent to which they sought to control every aspect of the lives of the DDR citizens.
My pilgrimage has impressed upon me, that whether from the Nazi right, or the Stazi left, or anywhere in between for that matter, we must always remember the cost of the freedoms and justices we enjoy and be vigilant to name and object their erosion in any guise.
‘If the world were only pain and logic (and ‘management’), who would want it? Mary Oliver. (my italics)
‘The planet does not need more ‘successful people’. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.’ (The Dalai Lama)
The overwhelming conclusion I came to on my pilgrimage is that it is the quality of spirituality that is at the heart of the flourishing of any community. And the great danger to western civilisation is the uncritial acceptance of materialist reductionism that places commodification and consumerism as essential qualities for its growth and subsequent survival. The consequence is inevitable division between elites and the remainder, the haves and have-nots, and the cultivation of a seedbed for greed, inequality, authoritarianism, exclusion and ellimination of any impediment by self-entitled elites.