‚Take off your shoes;
because the place where you stand,
is holy soil‘
Some day Moses saw during his work an unusual phenomenon: A shrub was burning without burning up. He approached out of curiosity, and was then requested to take off his shoes, because the place where he stood was „holy ground“.
Christian Herwartz, a Jesuit from Berlin, unemployed worker priest is living in Kreuzberg, a suburb disadvantaged by the city. His community (there are three Jesuits) shares its life and lodgings with a dozen of people from the street. Some day someone asked him, if it were possible to make a retreat in his community. About this adventure he reported in the Yearbook of the Society of Jesus 2002.
Some Fellow Jesuits from the social apostolate of our Province, who know Christian for a long time, asked him to direct them spiritually in their retreat in Brussels in July 2003 in the same way as he does it in Germany.
What is the burning shrub in the life of each of us? St Ignatius invites us to leave behind the familiar surroundings of our activities, in order to find the call directed at us by God. Where will we find our burning shrub in the heart of life, but outside the restrictions of our usual activities? Christian suggested to us to go on the streets. As he writes in the article, he invited us to listen to our own inner voice, and let us lead by it. Each human being is tempted at certain places by anguish. And so many people can only slowly approach, e.g. an accumulation of drug addicts, or they feel even urged to keep their distance. If somebody is able to get breath and he succeeds in staying, he/she will begin to take off his/her shoes and leave them behind. There a „compositio loci“ develops for the meditation and the prayer, Ignatius would say.
This place is different for everyone, and sometimes you have to roam about the city for two or three days in order to find just that place; a place that will surprisingly worry and attract us at the same time. And then we will, either from a distance or after a flight, untie our sandals and stay, to become vulnerable like Moses by listening to the One who Is, and who knows the anguish of his people in its misery. For one of us it was the Petit Château (asylum accommodation), for another successively the house numbers 127 and 127bis (prison-like asylum collecting point on the airport) during a long march, following the Haecht Street, later on the Boulevard de Dixmude (waiting for illicit work) with men and women from Eastern Europe or Africa, who are, as in the parable of „the worker in the vineyard“, waiting on the place until a car will stop to offer them work. For a third participant then it was the encounter with people on the streets of the city center. Two others found a bench, one of them in the park, the other in the Hellemans-Settlement in the Marolles, where they had to wait, to see, and to listen.
In the evening we celebrated Eucharist together with Christian and Jacques Enjalbert, a French Scholastic, who made last year the retreat on the street in Berlin-Kreuzberg. After the following dinner we shared in detail with each other the experiences of the day.
Everybody participated so in the helplessness of the others, to communicate what he had felt at the one or other side of a wall or lattice (at the house numbers 127 and 127bis, at the Petit Château), and how he had sensed Jesus‘ powerlessness on the cross, who could do nothing else but only be there, present in the suffering and in the most intimate and holiest longings of all who were around him.
Everyone took part in the noisy friendship of emigrated Poles, with whom they sat on a bench beside the beer doses from the supermarket, or in the friendly reception and in the fairly divided game with those people on the street, who blow up the passers-by humorously, but also in the prayer of the black Brazilian woman, who too was without roof over her head, and who had a longing to read the Bible. The fears of those who were waiting for work at the Petit Château and of those who were controlled by police patrols; their dismayed escape became that of us all: „I know their fears“; the conviction of many among them – Muslims or Christians -, that God was among us, and accompanied our searching everywhere.
The unsuccessful life of a woman of modest conditions who wanted to relax on a bench, and who told of her harm to one of us „who did not know her“, and „was not known to her“; on the next day the life of another woman from the same milieu, who came to the same bench, and who had chosen the single state in order to be available for her people, and for many projects for the future in the hearts of them. „The one who is meditating will not always be challenged“. Hence we talked also about our embarrassment, about the place looked for by those who were praying but that could not be found by them yet, or also, e.g. about the men and women who, without hesitating, went to and fro on the Rue Blaes and the Rue Haute, about gestures of friendship or mutual assistance, and about playing children.
Christian, but every other member of the group too, reflected in this exchange with very great caution upon what he noticed of the experience of the other one, and for the next day he suggested to him to do a further step, to meditate on a Bible text, and by this help the fruits of his prayer will ripen.
In the course of time the present of our way of investigations became our devotion to the One Who Is There; and our sandals were untied step by step, so that our hearts opened to the requests and questions addressed to us by those who saw us enter into their lives. „What are you doing?“ – „I am looking for God.“ – „Here?“ or: „You are talking like a priest.“ – „I am a priest.“ And sometimes long dialogues about God and his place in our life initiated. The usually forgotten internal life of a city began to become a part of our own life, and a mute prayer: „I praise you, father, ruler of heaven and earth, because you have hidden all that from the wise and intelligent but revealed it to those under age. Yes, father, so it pleased you“ (Lk10,21).
Does here not appear the mystery of the union (Communion) between Father and Son? Does Jesus not express in this prayer that he as man is living his intimacy with his Father in union (Communion) with the understanding for those things which are most important to human beings, in particular to those „without voice“ (this is the sense of the Greek word „nepioi“, that is usually translated as „minor“)? Yes, „the lord is at this place, and I did not know it“ (Gen 28.16).
What should the two disciples do after their long way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, where the „meaning of the Holy Scriptures“ opened, after recognizing the Lord when he broke the bread (Mt 25.40), if not repeat the way by returning? There their friends, who had stayed in Jerusalem, told them, „It is true. He did really rise from the dead and appeared to Simon.“ And they told them, „how they had recognized him.“ And „they were still talking when he stepped into their midst“ (see Lk 24:33-36).
We closed these eight days together in the Poverello (a soup kitchen) in the Rue Verte, to hear who is living there, and to tell about the things we had experienced. We have tried to meet there with socially excluded people – with them and also with Jesus who has said, „where two or three are together in my name, there I am in their midst“ (Mt 18:20).
At the end of our last evening meeting in the house No. 132 Rue de la Poste – there we occupied two rooms (with kitchen): in the one room we all (except two) slept on the floor, in the other one we ate and met in the morning and in the evening – we felt that we made an experience which reminded us of that of the first companions of Ignatius. One of us said, „Actually the things we have experienced are not much different from what the first companions were allowed to experience, as they lived in empty-standing houses in Venice.“
After summer we will look for means to pass on this gift to other Jesuits, if possible from the next year on, in a new edition of „retreats on the street“.
Jean Lecuit S.J.,
Published in the Circular of the South Belgian Province,