Musings From a German Monastery
This past weekend, during a short “hop-over” business trip to Germany, I enjoyed doing something that has been a romantic dream of mine for some time – to spend a couple of nights in a monastery. I’m interested in the history of it all, fascinated by the mindset of monks and nuns especially in modern day, and of course intrigued to see whether I can learn medieval beer brewing recipes from the heirs of the earliest microbrewers.
Most of all though, what drew me here was the idea of making a special pursuit of God, to see whether I could encounter Him in a new and special way. And I wanted to see if there was something about the lifestyle and devotion of these folks that holds lessons for me in my very different modern day life. That is what this brief post is about.
I must acknowledge (without apology) that I haven’t written since January. I have a thousand stories to tell about what an amazing year this has been and of wonderful things the Lord has done for me. These will come in due course. For now, I’ll just say that I was kept very occupied by an intense business deal that brought some significant personal battles and victories. I have been “living the dream” of what God created me to do in this earth, but just haven’t had time to write!
So back to my friendly nuns and life here at the 760 year old Abtei Lichtental in Baden-Baden, Germany – a few things I have learnt:
- Wisdom comes from rest and fresh perspective. It does the soul good to do something different in our busy lives regularly. The trouble is that we often seem to be “going deeper” our areas of particular focus in life, pressing harder, pondering how to succeed. But wisdom often comes, not from pushing harder in the same direction, but from taking a breath and looking elsewhere. This is of course the beauty of the Sabbath concept in God’s Word – that we are designed to take some time off each week for physical, spiritual and social refreshing as a key recipe of life. Sabbath is not only a weekly day off, though that is the core discipline. There’s more: Sabbath is something that happens daily in personal devotion/meditation times, at special moments in the year and occasionally taking a sabbatical perhaps for several months in an excellent idea if you’re in between major initiatives in your career or going through a change in life.
- Special pursuit of God brings special encounters. Because the veil between Heaven and earth was torn apart, God is always accessible to us – anytime, any place. We don’t need to crank up a thousand religious activities to reach him but can immediately access the life-giving power and presence of God by grace through faith at any moment in our lives. And yet, there is something special about “setting your heart on pilgrimage” as Psalm 84 beautifully describes (pilgrimage = special pursuit of God), perhaps because in this way we focus our faith and our desire on Him better. My thoughts about coming to this Abbey as I drove through the lush German Schwartzwald created somehow an eager faith and heightened desire, and I think in response to this, God met me in a very precious way.
- Worship is deepened by meditating on God’s Word. I’ve particularly enjoyed joining the 30 minute “Vesper” prayer time in the old church during which the nuns sing in angelic voices to the rich sound of the organ. In reality I couldn’t understand a word of it because the singing is Latin but fortunately the handbook provided a German translation. What they sing each evening is four new Psalms followed by Mary’s Magnificat of Luke 1. For each Psalm there is a “lead verse” that focuses the mind on a central though such as, for Psalm 144, “what is man that you are mindful of him, that you care for him?” What a wonderful experience of worship in His Presence I had – fixing the soul on the tremendous truths of God’s unmatched nature, and lifting the heart in worshipful response. You can read more about the relationship between worship and experiencing God’s presence here.
- Sometimes you have to close the monastery gate. Something struck me at 7:30pm when I was sitting in the courtyard enjoying a beer in the cool evening breeze, and the old nun in charge of keys walked by to lock up the big double gate in the impressive gothic-style entrance portal to the monastery. Outside is the resort town of Baden-Baden, once the summer capital of Europe in which emperors would meet at the local “baths” the Romans had first established, and the city still buzzes with holiday vibe. There are times when it is very healthy for us to shut off our hearts to the world and its influences and “draw back” to what’s central in our lives – to being sons and daughters of a very good Father, and to embracing the core people in our lives, our families. That “centre of gravity” defines who we really are, so that when we open the gates to the exciting rush of the world outside, we can play a positive role and are not insecure.
It goes without saying that I write these things, not to promote Germany monastery tourism, but to share of few lessons that are very applicable to normal life in Johannesburg or Houston.
I hope you’ll try some of these things at home – I certainly plan to take them back with me!