A Spiritual Experiment for Advent – Being a Shepherd or a Wise Man in Your City
Most traditional Orthodox spiritual preparation during Advent or the Nativity Fast is individual (like fasting, prayer and reading), or undertaken within the family or within the Church community. Perhaps we could benefit from departing from the safety (even selfishness or self-centredness) of solitary preparation and from the safety and security and supports of our families and Church communities? Perhaps we could learn much from imitating the Shepherds [Luke 2:8-15] and the Wise Men [Matthew 2:1-12] and set out on a journey to find the Christ Child without any map or guide-book and in places (like Bethlehem) where we would least expect to find Him? Perhaps our spiritual preparation could be enhanced by an unconventional, practical approach?
An interesting, indeed exciting, spiritual exercise – or experiment – developed by Father Christian Herwartz SJ in Munich (Germany) as part of a series of “Street Exercises”, was summarized as “Going Barefoot in Munich”.
“Can God be found on the streets of Munich? Munich, of all places, a city of wealth, pride and power with its designer stores and business headquarters?
Cities are the deserts of the 21st century. Brick and concrete walls radiate the loneliness that pervades these places, just as the rocks and sand did when the desert fathers moved away from the centers of worldly Christianity to find God afresh.
There are no strict rules to follow during street exercises. Our biblical guideline was Moses in the book of Exodus who went beyond where he had been before (the grassland) to encounter a burning bush and the voice of Israel’s God who tells him to take off his shoes. In the same way, we went to places where you would not go if you came as a tourist or on some sort of business…
In our evening conversations we realized that every now and then we had been talking to angels. Not in the metaphysical sense of the word (at least they seemed to be real people of flesh and blood) but in the biblical sense of a divine messenger. Like someone stumbling onto a movie set with no idea of the screenplay saying something and disappearing without waiting for our response but giving a new and unexpected twist to the story, perhaps even pointing to a theme that lies still in the future. So the movie director decides to keep the unintended footage and includes it in the story. Similarly, several of us felt that they met strangers who spoke truth to us without even knowing what their words would mean in the context of our particular quest…
As Christian activists, most of us had to resist the occasional urge to launch social projects among the strangers, homeless or alcoholics or any other group with visible, tangible needs. Only then we discovered how they had become our neighbors, sharing whatever they had, gracefully allowing us to come out of our position (and posture) as the socially privileged. Much to my surprise, there had not been a single moment when I had not felt perfectly safe during that whole week….
God, I have learned, can find me even in a place like Munich, if I adopt a contemplative view of life. As Richard Rohr once wrote, contemplation ‘…keeps the field open; it remains vulnerable before the moment, the event, or the person – before it divides and tries to conquer or control it. Contemplation refuses to create dichotomies, dividing the field for the sake of the quick comfort of their ego.’ [Richard Rohr “The Naked Now. Learning to See as the Mystics See” 2009:32]
Looking back, I wonder what church would look like if we would stop treating it as a project; if we would stop trying to fix people to make them like us (so that we feel better about ourselves?); if we would stop to hide behind our ancient – or even fairly modern – walls and routines; if we walked our streets ‘barefoot’ – with receptive hearts, discerning and welcoming whatever God sends our way?”
From Peter Aschoff “Barefoot in Munich” “Journal of Missional Practice” (2015) at http://journalofmissionalpractice.com/barefoot-in-munich/
Perhaps we might not want to “go barefoot” – although there is great psychological power in doing so! Think how vulnerable most of us would feel “going out” without footwear. But we can at least approximate that state by ensuring that we do not appear in any way distinguishable from those amongst whom we are journeying…..no visible signs (like cassocks or crosses) to mark us out as different (by which, alas, we usually really mean “better”). Leave the usual “travel accessories” (notably the mobile telephone) behind: yet more vulnerability!
Just walk, alone, silently and meditatively, experiencing and observing without critical reflection, let alone judgment. Some prefer to have a “map”, but there is great benefit in walking without any itinerary. Go to areas you would not usually visit or might even avoid, whether those are areas of poverty or wealth, of businesses or residences. Even the risk of being “lost” will provide valuable lessons. Certainly, the experience of being in strange places and amongst strangers – “the stranger in a strange land” – has much to teach us. Knowing that we will have to find our way home is part of the experience.
This spiritual exercise should conclude – after our return home – with a time of reflection, again without judgment or too much intellectualising. For some, it may be enhanced by a discussion with a close companion or, as was the case in Munich, for others who have undertaken a similar, but different, journey. That reflection can include considering:
What did I experience on my journey?
Where did I feel most comfortable? Why?
Where did I feel least comfortable? Why?
With whom did I most identify? Why?
From whom did I feel most alien? Why?
Where, if anywhere, did I feel unsafe? Why?
When, if at all, did I feel I was “entertaining angels unaware”[Hebrews 12:2]?
Where, if anywhere, did I sense “Bethlehem”?
What did I learn about myself on this journey?