For one week in October, I left the hermitage and enjoyed the hospitality of the Sunnehügel community in the former Capuchin friary in Schüpfheim, Switzerland. I was invited to experience, live in, and contribute to this intentional community. I spent many hours working in the vast garden, “praying with my practical hands”. As part of the community’s daily rhythm, there were times of work, times for quiet reflection, as well as prayer times. I experienced the impulses for the worship rather dry and sometimes fabricated.
One evening, everything changed. During the repetitive singing of Agios o Theos, an orthodox sounding hymn, the spirit reached out to the gathered group. Gone was the anemic mood, gone were the pious verses, the hesitant singing-along, the practiced silence. With each repetition, the throats opened wide: Gone was the nice ought-to-be, the pious wavering, and the common singing sounded in unexpected force, strength, harmony, and beauty.
Right after the first repetition of the hymn, I started crying, which did not help my singing. However, I was not sad – but simply touched. Everybody else in the room was apparently touched as well by this moment of closeness to God since they offered general intercessions in a unusual openness and authenticity. Each person spoke from the heart on the issues that occupied his or her mind.
During the week in the friary, I was reading in the biography of Henri Nouwen. A few of the thoughts connected well to the above experience. It was an occurrence of shared pastoral care, as Nouwen describes the aim of pastoral care to be a challenge for people to celebrate life, which means a letting go of fatalism and despair. Only for people to discover that they have a single life to grow in the realization that it is God that cares for humans (Beumer, p. 89). For this, no particular faith tradition or church is needed.
I experienced this powerful moment during worship as a continuation of the work (the physical-practical, as well as the spiritual-emotional) that was done in the community that week. I felt it to be a form of continuous prayer. Nouwen writes that continuous praying does not mean to be thinking of God without stopping. It is something different: it is rather a form of thinking and living in God’s presence. Nouwen states that all we do and omit to do, ought to have its origin in this prayer, it should not be isolated from our daily occupations. Nouwen spells out this thought even further: It is wrong to associate prayer automatically with a pious and reverent attitude. A prayer should never become the hyper-individualized expression of a hyper-individualized emotion, but always needs to be connected to the life of the community the individual lives in.
Nouwen was wrestling his entire life with integrating his prayer into his own practical, everyday life. During prayer, people should give up everything that separates them from others, writes Nouwen. Every activity that we participate in, be it the turning of of a huge compost pile or the spontaneous conversation with a fellow human being, needs to be approached with the same attention and attentiveness that leads to all-embracing engagement and intense joy (Beumer, pp. 115 – 120).
I experienced being touched during the singing of a hymn as an expression of that interconnectedness of the profane and the sacred. I sensed a liberation from arbitrariness and superficiality. For me, it was the experience of a shared closeness to God.
Beumer, J. (1998). Henri Nouwen: Sein Leben – sein Glaube. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder.
Also available in English: Beumer, J. (1998). Henri Nouwen: A restless seeking of God. Crossroad Publishing.