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"The harvest of righteousness shall be sown in peace by those who make peace" (Letter of St. James)
FRIENDS OF THE LITTLE SISTERS OF JOY
An ecumenical Foundation of Prayer, Peace and Reconciliation
Newsletter no 30
My dear Friends,
This year of 2023 started with many blessings. A while ago, I was on the doorstep of my doctor’s surgery when I turned around and saw a couple I didn’t know passing by. After chatting to them for a few moments, something made me burst into song with the haunting ‘Eli, eli, shelo yigamer leolam’ the words of which Hannah Senesh by the Sea of Galilee in the 1930’s.
‘My God, my God, may you never end, the sand of the sea, the rustling of the water, the lighting, the Prayer of mankind.’ Hannah Senesh died flying a plane over enemy lines in her birthplace of Hungary, but the enduring melody is one which I have sung in many concerts.
The couple had taken my contact details, and, shortly after this encounter, I had a message from them, inviting me to their home in Germany. And I went! I had a truly wonderful experience, as my Irish and German hosts gave me magnanimous hospitality and drove me everywhere. They live in a leafy suburb near Dusseldorf, where I also had the chance of meeting Liesbeth and Markus, my friends in the north of Holland, whom I have known for over 30 years and had not seen for a long time.
I was taken to several different services; the first in the local Catholic Church, then one by the huge Rhine; I studied German in my turbulent youth in the Sixties at Glasgow University, so had a chance to converse. Perhaps the most touching visit was to a private chapel, open to the public, in an estate owned by a German Count and his family.The priest talked about the Gospel after the Resurrection, when Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’ and when he used the word ‘Shalom’ which really means ‘peace, wholeness and integrity’ it brought tears to my tears.
One day, my host said that he would take a day off and book two tickets on a slow train to take us some way down the magnificent Rhine. We started at Dusseldorf, and made our way as far as Mainz, a journey of usually about two and a half hours, but which took as nearly four on this occasion, as they are renovating the track. However, it only gave me the chance to get to know my friend better but as we progressed onwards to our destination the scenery became truly breathtaking. Large hills appeared, covered with vines, and we had fun trying to read the name of the vineyards, written on the slopes, from the window of the train.
Being mid April, it was not quite the tourist season, and I longed to get out and stay in one of the attractive old German houses with timber roofs.Arriving in Mainz, via Koblenz, where the parents of one of my Jewish friends had lived before the Second World War, we got a bit lost after arriving in the main station, which had been rebuilt, along with many other fine buildings, after the city had been destroyed in the 1940’s. Fortunately, an English lady on the bus we got onto directed us ; we had an idea of going to the newly built Synagogue, which is apparently adjacent to the old one, but we still could not find it.
We had another plan, which partially succeeded-we wanted to see the Carmelite monastery, where there was a small shrine in memory of Titus Bransma, a Dutch priest from Nijmegen (the town where my friends live) who had helped to found the Catholic University there. Brandsma had died under the hand of the Nazis; what I recall about his life was that he had a strong singing voice, and was sometimes told off for being too loud during monastic services-an experience I have had myself!
Finally having arrived in Karmelitinstrasse, (Street of the Carmelites) we saw the wooden door of the church next door. A couple from the Netherlands were already looking at the memorial plaque to Brandsma and we discovered that this gentleman’s uncle had at one time been Prior of this monastery in Mainz. Alas-even when we entered the large and very beautiful church we were unable to find the exact shrine and guessed it was probably within the actual walls of the private Carmelite chapel. But it was a blessing to meet this charming couple and for me to discover that in retirement he had become the Chairman of a choir in the Netherlands, specialising in early Dutch and Flemish music.
But the best was yet to come. I had spotted a large, modern museum and persuaded my friend to have lunch there in the lovely cafe area. We were all alone except for the security man, who was only too pleased to be of help. In the elevator, I noticed a sign saying Judaica which usually indicates some sort of collection of Jewish artefacts.
What a wonderful surprise, for us both! There in a large glass case, was a collection of very precious items, mainly in silver connected to Jewish ritual observance. There were rimmunim, elaborate bells, which are placed on the top of the Torah scroll, before and after it is read in the Synagogue and breastplates, also to ‘dress’ the Torah. All had been rescued from a collection the Nazis had appropriated from a wealthy family in Mainz.I noticed a spice box, in silver, similar to the one I have and which my father used in the little ceremony of the going out of the Sabbath, to indicate a sweet week to come, but this one was one square, not round like mine. Nonetheless, the nice security man now knew something new to tell the people going round the museum.
I left the north of Germany with a very happy feeling, having discovered new friends, things and places and travelled to the south, to spend another happy four days with my friend.