I had been dreaming for some time of a winter wonderland, wrapping myself up in a warm blanket, reading a good book and admiring the snow outside the window, so I accepted the invitation of Brother Wolfgang to visit his abbey in Admont, Austria: the Benedictinerstift Admont. The impressive, fortress-like monastery and church are surrounded by a small village nestled in a steep valley ringed by rugged mountain peaks. For over nine centuries since their foundation, the monks have cultivated this community and its land in times of joy and difficulty. I am impressed both by the formidable history of this community and the familiarity of its daily life. These monks live a grand life in a humble way.
Sharing in their daily routines last winter, I came to realize that our Catholic tradition and our daily practice of it are like the rugged mountains that surround our human activity in this valley cloister. The peaks of the mountains are rock thrusting high, evoking the strength of our tradition that surrounds our world and sustains us. The mountainsides are covered with thick pine forests, suggesting our deep roots in solid tradition and the life we receive from its daily practice. The fresh snow and changing seasons nurture all that lives on these mountains, as the liturgical year in its changing rounds celebrates our lives in Christ. The raw resources of these mountains, chiseled from the rock or felled from the forests, are brought to the valley, where these fruits of the earth are worked by human hands so that God may nurture our lives, and that through our voices creation may return praise to the creator of all.
As I join their praise of God in German, not yet understanding all the words, I know well the liturgy’s structures and rituals, and these support and lift up the prayer that comes from lips not yet conforming to the syllables of German, not yet supple enough to pronounce its hard consonants. I realize that no matter how infelicitous my pronunciation, how incomprehensible the words remain, however we struggle to keep pitch and recite together, however we fail to rise to the full stature of communal prayer, these difficulties are rendered insignificant by the abundance of our tradition. Like mountains, forests and fresh snow, our tradition supports and nourishes us, bringing us to celebration.
Parallel to the eucharistic table stands the abbey’s dining table. Here too the strength of this community’s tradition undergirds the familial warmth of dining together three times a day. I am struck that all the monks and visitors sit around one single table. Conversation easily passes from one end of the table to the other; they truly have convivium, a sharing in a common life around one table.
Young and old, student and professor, visitors and administrators alike all share in the conversation. As in many monasteries, their chatter often centers on the liturgy; one brother mispronounced a word, or did he? Another tried to save the singing at morning prayer, only to generate much discussion at breakfast. For me, what they discuss is not so important as the fact that everyone has a voice and that the voice of each is respected, much as one would hope to be the case when a family gathers around its table for a meal.
During supper this evening, our daily banter was interrupted by a conversation of greater significance that, because of its difficulty, called upon the strength of our tradition to help us encounter one another more personally in fraternal charity. One of the monks told me that he had been a prisoner of war in World War II. At first he was held by Americans in an open and crowded camp, with only foxholes for protection from the mountain cold, until he was transferred to the hospital for dysentery, which was rampant in the camp from drinking water from the river. Later he was transferred to a French camp. I asked how it went, the conditions and such. He said that it had not been easy to leave his anger behind. We all shared in the discussion around the table, one translating into Italian for my benefit the elements I did not understand, as I spoke in faltering German to meet him in his own language as much as possible.
Now I am a guest at his table, come to learn his mother language for my study of liturgy in Rome. I am aware that my presence here as an American is not neutral, that it can raise up long-dormant memories and feelings, as if an intruder could get inside our very self and pry loose the experiences we wish to bed down to silence. What can I say; how respond to something begun so long ago, perhaps unfinished, or at least dormant, till my presence aroused it? I suggest to him how important it is to pray together, that we celebrate the liturgy together.
So I am also a guest around the table of the Lord, and give Communion to those who come forward, saying “Der Leib Christi,” “the body of Christ.” And they profess their faith, responding “Amen.” As they receive from me the gift of God’s unconditional love in Christ, I wonder who was in the war, what anguish remains, what still divides us and what will help heal the wound. Time? Patience? I hope that our personal encounters, one by one, and our acclamation of the body of Christ in Communion can help to overcome obstacles. Or will my presence there be like the intruder reaching into the deepest recesses, where faith is often mixed with the desire to justify ourselves, where self-transcending faith threatens to churn up what we hold tight within us, which must yield to the purifying love of God, if we could only trust God’s sufficiency offered by those who threaten us most?
Yet he who was once our prisoner is now the gracious host, and I the guest in his home, at his dining table. He welcomes me to the Lord’s table, that together we may profess faith in God who transcends us both and calls us to be one. He welcomes me in our table talk to the secrets of his heart’s history, which no longer holds tight but lets go and witnesses to his healing, that my heart’s pride might be toppled from its throne by the lowliness of his heart saying, “Welcome.”
Whatever the difficulties of prayer, our presence in Christ and to one another, our yielding to the transforming power of the Lord, this is the strength that the liturgy, that our tradition gives us: that we allow ourselves to be exposed and purified of all that harms us. Like that mountain of exposed bedrock, that evergreen forest and the blanketing snow, our tradition is so strong and nurturing that when we let go and yield to the love of God who comes to us sometimes in troubling disguise, it supplies inner resources and strength and nurtures us to sustain, heal and unite.