German Benedictine monk Anselm Grun on silence, consumerism, the senses – and the need to see yourself as you really are.
Tijn Touber| Jan/Feb 2008 issue
It is dead quiet in the monastery chapel. Of course, it’s still early: just past five in the morning. But not too early for the monks of the Münsterschwarzach Abbey near Würz-
burg in the southern German state of Bava-ria. They are already praying and singing. Observed by a handful of laypeople who—like myself—are temporarily escaping modern life, they carry out an ancient ritual. Five hundred years after it was written down by the Italian monk St. Benedict, the ritual is still the most important Western monastic rule. Nearly every Christian monastic community is based on Benedict’s vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—and a disciplined daily routine including eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work and eight hours of rest.
The Münsterschwarzach Abbey is home to Anselm Grün. For Grün, the financial director of the abbey, where some 100 monks live and 280 people work, the monastic life of orderly routine has proven an ideal setting for an unbridled flow of inspiration and creativity. Over the course of 30 years, he has written an astonishing 300 books. You name it, Grün has published something about it, in brief, accessible volumes: about God, of course, and the meaning of life, but also on the subject of relationships, intimacy, sex, health, stress, leadership, angels, death, guilt…
His broad sphere of interest developed early. Grün was 19 when he entered the monastery at the Benedictine Münsterschwarzach Abbey, and picked up an understanding of philosophy, theology and business administration. His eyes express such faith that people pour their hearts out to him, which led him to become a much-sought-after spiritual adviser. Many of his books are inspired by the lives of those who have confided their problems to him.
And apparently he touches on universal themes, because Germany is not the only country where his books top the bestseller lists. He has sold 14 million books worldwide in 28 languages. Nearly every week he lectures somewhere far beyond his country’s borders; Mexico and the Philippines are on the itinerary in the near future.
He now sits opposite me in a simple office just behind the impressive chapel where he was lost in prayer earlier. With his long beard, slight build and black-hooded habit, he is everything you’d expect of a monk. But Grün isn’t one to spout lofty Bible passages or high-flown jargon. His trademark is a sober approach to spiritual and religious themes. His strength is in the translation of age-old pieces of wisdom into 21st-century reality.
This is sorely needed, given the number of people Grün encounters who have become trapped in consumerism. “It hurts me to see how empty many people’s lives are,” he begins. “They’re nearly completely focused on material things. Silence has become frightening because it will reveal the truth about them. People are afraid of the pain, fear, doubt or disappointment they have hidden away. They do nothing but fill up the silence.”
According to Grün, people can only be happy and free if they’re prepared to look at their pain. He speaks from experience: “For years, I was focused on trying to be ‘perfect.’ I took myself far too seriously and wouldn’t accept any shortcoming, which meant I suppressed my imperfection and negative feelings. Most people have overly high expectations of themselves. They always want to be controlled, perfect, cool or friendly. But the soul rebels with fear or depression. You have to live realistically. You have to do justice to your inner self.”
Living realistically: It’s typical advice from Grün, who wants both feet firmly planted on the ground. That is what he must have thought when he realized there are two types of spirituality: upward- and downward-looking. “When most institutions speak of God and enlightenment, they point up,” Grün explains. “I do too, but at the same time I look down: to the reality in which I now live. If you don’t, you will become a fundamentalist. When you identify yourself with an ideal for which you abandon humanity, you are no longer a realist. Eventually, you will even become aggressive and try to convince others that your belief system is the best.” He shakes his head. “I think that indicates you fear and doubt your own beliefs. Fundamentalists suppress their own fear and doubt by trying very hard to convince others.”
One of Grün’s books is on my nightstand in the monastery’s guest quarters: Gemeinsam Gott suchen (“seeking God together”). In it, he explains that seeking and finding God—or the transcendent, as he also calls it—is a crucial component of human life.
“Those who reach out to the transcendent make contact with a force that fundamentally changes everything,” he explains in his room. “Your relationship with this force means everything because it is this love that makes your life powerful, worthwhile and valuable. Moreover, your relationship with God can help you take a look at yourself. You have to learn to look with some objectivity, as God does: gently and without judgment, from a sense that you’re fine just as you are. To me, this is the essence of the Christian faith: God saw that everything was fine. That is why there is no need to be afraid of God. God knows best that you aren’t perfect, but at the deepest level, in fact, you are. At your core, you are good.”
How do you achieve a meaningful relationship with the transcendent? Lots of prayer? “Yes,” Grün nods carefully, “but not the way a lot of people pray now. I know many people who are afraid and pray to God to take away their fear. That’s infantile; God doesn’t take the fear away. When you pray from a place of fear, you are diminishing yourself. This is not the same as humility.”
Yet the Catholic Church has greatly contributed to the fact that many people consider themselves sinners, guilty, bad and inclined to every evil. “The Church has damaged and diminished a lot of people,” Grün says. “But that doesn’t mean we should avoid these issues. Sooner or later, if you don’t examine your guilt feelings, you’ll end up in therapy.”
As Grün describes it, praying is “talking with God and being silent for him.” The voice you hear, he says, is the voice of the deepest self, which is similar to—but not the same as—the voice of God. “My will is God’s will,” says Grün. “That is wholeness. If I am one with myself, God is close. If I’m lost in thought, God is far away.”
He glances at the clock.It’s nearing time for the afternoon prayer, for which Grün will withdraw into the monastery’s chapel together with his spiritual brothers. My stay in this impressive edifice is almost over. Now that I’m at the point of returning to the hectic pace of everyday life, I ask Grün how I might hold on to the sense of peace I have felt here. Surely there must be a way to experience God even if you don’t start praying every morning at five?
“You can experience God always and everywhere,” Grün says resolutely. “You can smell, taste, feel and hear God if you open your senses. You can see God in other people, in nature and particularly in yourself.”
Five minutes later I walk into the village café across from the monastery. I smell God in the cappuccino I’m served; I taste God in the warm rolls from the bakery and see God in the everyday people who come to soak up a bit of spirituality in hopes that something of the holiness of Anselm Grün and his brothers will shine on them.
Tijn Touber is a former editor and columnist for Ode.