BLOG: Sr. Maria Christina's retreat in Manhattan

Posted on: June 8, 2015 3:00 pm
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Spiritual exercises on the streets of Manhattan

by Sr. Maria Christina Hennig  

In August 2014, Sr. Maria Christina Hennig made a different kind of annual retreat. She participated in "retreats on the streets," or spiritual exercises on the streets of Manhattan. 

The retreats on the streets are in the tradition of the spiritual exercises that were initiated by Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. It is the exercise to see and to hear from within and outside of self, to exercise awareness and to become aware of God’s presence any time and everywhere. The spiritual exercises on the streets aim at the awareness towards a place that internally moves a person.  It is the exercise to discover the presence of God in a strange and foreign environment; “in the exile” or in the “desert.”  In Germany, spiritual exercises that are looking for God at different and unusual places became a movement called “Strassen-Exerzitien“ (retreats on the street). 

In the German translation of the Bible the burning bush is named “Thorn-bush,” one of these ugly, unapproachable and rootless bushes with many thorns. This is for me an important distinction; because it is in this thorn bush that God reveals God’s self to Moses.

In the story of Moses and the burning bush, there is first of all an allurement, a seduction and attraction. An inner, deep desire leads Moses out into the desert.  There he has a fascinating experience (the bush that is burning, but not consumed). Moses is attracted to it. Then God says, “Take off your shoes. Come no nearer.” God is not calling Moses to enmeshment or loss of his own self.  God is telling Moses, “I know who I am, and you are about to enter into an experience of the sacred with me, but stand your ground. Come no nearer.” God honors the other as distinct. God invites him to grow in relationship to God.

This image of the burning bush is the core image of the spiritual exercises on the street. I become aware of what is within me and around me. That can be affection, movements, feeling, situations, my environment and the people around me and, in this context, a touch of the secret that we call God.

The exercises start with looking at shadows and attachments – and looking to the desire, the longing that is behind them; the foundation. Following this desire, God is calling to different places. Without agenda, I went out to walk, to see where God is leading me.  As a searching person on the street, the street itself becomes a place of meditation, that is the everyday environment in which I move, for example a bench, a bus stop. In simply perceiving and watching the people, I may become aware of the unfamiliarity in my own life.

The exercises on the streets are rather simple: watch, listen, smell, feel, taste ... be touched by heart.

The first days

The first day I walked like in the story of Hagar in a foreign environment, not knowing where it would take me. After a while I got tired, sat down on the stairs in front of a church, beside a sculpture of a woman who was begging. She had her head bent down and covered with a veil. Here God invited me to rest. I sat down beside this sculpture in the middle of Manhattan and meditated for awhile.

The next day sitting beside “her” I became curious and took a closer look; under the veil covering the face, was a man with a beard; it was Jesus. In taking a closer look, I could see Jesus, not only in a sculpture, but in the people I meet. 

In my conversation with God, names for God came into my mind:

God, You who make me see

God, You who lift up the veil 

The retreats on the streets encourage letting the strange and alienated come into my life. Curious I walk into new and “strange worlds." There I become aware of what is happening within me, something might open up or resistance towards the strange will be allowed, accepted and transforming me. In the encounter with people who are poor, it is easier for me to discover my own poverty, with the prisoners my own prison, and with the marginalized my own marginalization. 

God, You who lead me

An oasis in the city

One day, I wanted to meditate at the Union College theological seminary. However, the building was closed to public. Slightly frustrated I continued my walk. At one of the big houses, I saw the text “and the bush was not consumed.” Moses sees during his ordinary work this simple thorny bush burning. He doesn’t continue his walk; he leaves his usual path, comes closer; he is astonished, curious and approaches the bush, then he is able to hear God’s voice. 

I had a closer look and saw it was the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The burning bush was making me curious. In this building I found an oasis with a well in the middle of the city, a dwelling place. Psalm 23 already expressed what I experienced: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose; He renews my life …” This place invited to deeper reflection on the well and the message God had for me.  

The exercises are a time for a lot of unplanned time, without agenda. This makes it easier to go out and find the places for personal encounter with God, to stay there or to move on.  It is necessary to stay long enough in a place to be able to perceive what is happening there. 

Not until my ninth day I found a cemetery, a nice and quiet place in the middle of lower Manhattan. It wasn’t quiet in the sense of noise. There were two big streets with a lot of traffic on each side of the cemetery. Yet, here people moved slowly and without talking aloud. In this cemetery, some of the stones had lost their inscription. They were just reminders of the past. Now they looked like leaning onto the other, watching the generations pass by from a perspective of eternity, where stones lose their shape.

Let go…

Exercises on the street of Manhattan challenged me not to follow the numerous touristic invitations to famous places and sights.  The exercise in letting go was a humbling experience. I realized that to be poor is to let go and let God; our life is a gift, a very short and valuable moment. 

The retreats on the street are exercises in silence in the midst of the world, but not a silence for its own sake, rather to be able to listen, to hear ... to take off your shoes and get in touch with the ground, the holy ground of encounter and with respect for the secret and the sacred of the people of the street. Awe grows out of listening, hearing and seeing. When I shared my experiences they became deeper and relational.  The experiences became a source of recognizing that we are disciples.  We share like the Emmaus disciples: “Didn’t our heart burn …”

These exercises are a chance to let go of time and to go into the presence of God, the presence that God wants to give us.  It’s a time with no agenda.  We exercise to listen and to follow and then to experience God in the middle of everyday life, the sacred places, the desert within ourselves and in the streets of a big city.

It was tears of immense release and joy and happiness—as I experienced that there’s a heart out there big enough to receive what I can’t receive, to forgive what I can’t forgive. That is what makes me fall in love with God. On the spiritual journey, that will happen many times. God can meet me anywhere in the places that are out there.  

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us where to find God. It is not about doing, but being; being poor, searching, longing for God, to encounter God, to learn more about life, meaning and direction for my life, living in relationship with God; to see God in the other, to experience God in encounter with other.

Chris Wilson LPN,HTCP,SND associate
Date: on August 1, 2015


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