Christoph Albrecht SJ, A retreat on the street

Took Place in Fribourg at the End of October (2004)

Who remembers still my report of a retreat of this kind in Basel? That was in October 2003. In this year we, i.e. Mathilde Röntgen, Maria Sinz, Christian Herwartz SJ, and I directed such a retreat in Fribourg. This time the Carmelites gave us lodgings for ten days in their four guest rooms. We were altogether twelve people. It was narrow. We had to use the rooms as dining-hall, day rooms, discussion rooms, and bedrooms, as well as room for our services. That demanded of us all tolerance and considerateness.

There were daily common times, of which only the talk with the spiritual directress was really obligating. Common breakfast at eight o’clock, at nine o’clock morning praise always arranged by a she participant, service at five o’clock p.m., thereafter dinner, and at 7 o’clock p.m. began the exchange in small groups. Apart from that the day was organized by everyone her/himself. Yes, this time eight women took part.

To direct those who made the retreat we formed again two small groups that were directed in each case by a woman and a Jesuit. Also this year the participants were gradually introduced into the Spiritual Exercises, by encouraging them first to call God together with their own longing for salvation and reconciliation, but then also when staying in the city to take off internally their shoes:

Take off the shoes – this picture is taken from the Biblical tale Exodus 3: Moses, a goatherd in the desert Sinai, saw in his everyday life something unusual: A thorn shrub burned and did nevertheless not burn up. He became curious and wanted to see the happening at close range. He ran to the thorn shrub. There he heard a voice that said to him: Take off your shoes! You stand on holy ground, because life, the prime longing, the fundamental vitality, the things not known by you, because God wants to speak with you here. Moses heard now anew about the enslavement of his people and by that also about his own repressed misery, and how an important role on the way of liberation was granted to him.

To take off the shoes is a picture for the readiness to listen with respect. The – by boots also defensive – distance of shoes is laid down, also the conceit to have the better or more beautiful shoes. The often thorny reality is touched with naked feet, in order to look there for the own injuries and brutalities, for my own and the longings of others, and for the ways to a fulfilled life. By taking off our shoes we begin, in the middle of the world of opinions and prejudices, to enter into an ‚ignoramus‘; to become more respectful before reality, and before the human beings in it – also in relation to our own history and future; briefly: to hear anew, to see, to smell, to grope at the place of attention, that has become „holy“.

It was for me the first time that I heard so violent things in a group. Not like with the direction of a single person, where the confidence necessary for openness is mostly soon there, but here the participants opened in a group that, by its dynamism, admitted totally other healing forces.

A participant told what she had experienced with the Crying Woman (a bronze statue in Fribourg’s pedestrian precinct). And how she was confronted with her own experiences in this city, where begging is forbidden, and where they explained to her in the labour office: Everybody will find work here, we have the situation under control, there is no poverty in our city … Why is this woman able to cry day and night, in a city where the problems are solved? Where have I still to cry, although I function in everyday life more than well? With these questions she discovered on the further days her own wounds.

With the attitude of the taken off shoes she approached the brothel, saw the women, most black Africans, who wanted to hide themselves before her, saw their misery, their pain not to be respected as persons by other people, and saw then her own wound, how she had been hurt as child in her own identity. A few days later she discovered the relief of a Black Madonna in the St Thérèse Church. She was just as beautiful as those women who are delivered to the greed of men. She was completely one of them. In the directed exchange of the small group it became clear that this wholesome inner experience of solidarity would become still clearer, if she could express it with a gesture.

On the last day she brought roses to the three places where crying was allowed. And this act opened again a surprise: How should she give a rose to a statue, and not pay attention to the harmonica player in the wheelchair beside it?! Hence she let herself be led by her embarrassment; she gave also to the man a rose. He looked up and smiled at her – with tears in his eyes. On the last day this woman said: „These ten days save me one year therapy.“

Christoph Albrecht SJ

From: Nuntii, 2004.4
(Mitteilungen der Schweizer Jesuitenprovinz)