The mystery of how I can know Schoenstatt: speaking and living in German (or English, or...)
Some thoughts about Schoenstatt on a winter night in January 2007
SCHOENSTATT, Simon Donnelly. It was two Christmases ago, on a dark winter's afternoon that I came to the Original Shrine for the first time in the season of Our Lord's birth. It was just two months earlier, on a golden autumn day in early October 2004, that I had visited Germany, and Schoenstatt, for the first time ever.
I have strong, clear memories from the first winter visit: the Rheinlandpfalz region where Schoenstatt lay under a thin blanket of crunchy snow, all the red-orange October colours I had had in my mind's eye already now painted away into pure whiteness. It was these first Christmas moments in the Urheiligtum-we have no adequate translation in English for the German Urheiligtum: the 'Mother Shrine' or 'First Shrine' or 'Original Shrine'-that reminded me that there is an abiding mystery about Schoenstatt, more than I can grasp, more than I can articulate. My thought then was: 'Even in winter, the Shrine is warm'. I don't mean the physical heat. I mean that the heart of the movement, the heart of this place of grace, still radiates the love of our Mother for us, and radiates too the love and devotion that her love evokes in us in turn when we come to her Shrine. This 'place of grace' doesn't grow cold in winter!
Each time I come back, it is a home-coming
Two years later, just a few days ago, the heart of the Original Shrine still beats quietly and firmly in the winter darkness. I arrived in time for some moments of adoration before our Eucharistic Lord, the newborn Christchild, who offers his Mother to us as our Queen. The winter afternoon was cold, but the light of the Saviour's birth that drives away all darkness was reflected in the warmth of this place-of-grace.
I have the same thought each time I come here: 'So little has changed from my last visit!' Occasionally the paint seems whiter, or the carpet seems to have faded or brightened its colour (it's my imagination, I'm pretty sure).
Or there is a small change reflecting the liturgical season, like the Christmas nativity scene. But, basically, nothing has changed. It's true that perhaps I have changed, maybe a bit, maybe a lot. I make long loops of many thousands of kilometres in my life from where I live and study in Rome, to this place of grace, and in between many thousands of ordinary and small things take place (and a few larger and wilder ones too). And the 'me' who comes home-it really is a home-coming-is not quite the same me as before.
More 'marinaded' in Schoenstatt than the last time? Yes, a little (I hope!).
More 'mature'? I don't know. More sure of my Schoenstatt role and vocation and contribution? The answers are elusive.
But each time I come back, it is a homecoming. And since my real home is very far away (Cape Town, South Africa), and the diocese for which I'm studying is just as far away (Johannesburg, South Africa), this is my spiritual home in between. Even the Shrines that are my homes in Cape Town and Johannesburg and Cathcart are so far away, that the Shrines of the Marienau, and the Original Shrine 100m away, will simply have to suffice as my homes away from home!
October 18, 1914 - here
And I think a lot too about how I could know and experience Schoenstatt as much as I have, along the way, without ever coming to this First Shrine earlier than two years ago. I imagine that most Schoenstatt pilgrims in the world have never been to the First Shrine. Most don't even speak German (the movement is wide and deep, and expanding). And yet, and yet, here the Shrine is, in a specific time (1914, and after) and a specific place (outside Vallendar, outside Koblenz, in Germany).
I remember how Christianity isn't a religion of ethereal, platonic ideas. It is concrete. A historical man (who was also God) came, to a historical and real people, in a concrete time and place. And so too with Schoenstatt. Fr Kentenich was a man in a certain time and a certain space, a German in Germany, even though his ideas and his heart were universal. Somehow from this one man, and the faith in his heart, kindled with the boys of the founding generation in this one small chapel-shed, translated into a universal idea, a global possibility of renewal within the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' that we have professed since Nicea, and with the Apostles since the time when the whole Church fitted into one Upper Room.
The language thing
How can I know the universal idea, the Love of God for his people manifested in the love of Our Lady for her sons and daughters in Schoenstatt? It must be mediated through human language, the words and phrases of Fr Kentenich, and of every Schoenstatt branch and member of the family we constitute together. But this whole language thing I find perplexing, and mysterious, just wondrous really. I grew up in Cape Town in the 1970s and 1980s, imbibing some-even many-facets of Schoenstatt spirituality, all through the medium of English.
The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary had been in our country since before the Second War, from 1937 onwards, and for the half century since they had been translating the thoughts and work and spirituality of Fr Kentenich into English. This was certainly aided by the Schoenstatt Fathers (the Patres, as I later discovered their German-Latin name is), whose steady presence has been in my country since the early 1960s.
But it seems that in sum total the number of texts of Fr Kentenich's that these Schoenstatt founders in South Africa translated is very limited.
Really, very few indeed (in comparison to the 100s of 1000s of pages of Fr Kentenich's talks and letters that we now know exist). More than the words, more than just the concepts, these single-minded and devoted men and women have been translating the reality of Schoenstatt into the cultural and linguistic and religious context they find themselves in. They have been living Schoenstatt.
But then I have to myself ask a much more provocative question that has nagged at me ever since my first visits two years ago to the Mother Shrine:
'Even though Schoenstatt has been translated (or 'handed on', 'given over',
'fed into') my South Africa-a country that has developed in its own complicated and sometimes strange paths-since the mid-20th century, is Schoenstatt really knowable without the medium of German?'
This is a true epistemological question: the bottom line of much philosophy of language is that no language is in fact translatable into any other
language. This may sound crazy, but when looked at carefully, it is unbelievably difficult to carry all the strength of feeling and cultural nuance from one language into another. And when you unpick the Hebrew >
Greek > Latin > English (etc) chain of catholic (with a small 'c') Christian culture, there remain profound questions of what is gained and what is lost along the way. So, in the case of the Schoenstatt Family, is the heart-the essence, the Original Idea, the key, the nucleus-of our Father and Founder's profound insights and divinely inspired teaching (which he gave all and only in German) truly knowable, truly understandable, in its fullness except through the medium of German? This is a non-trivial question: can I, in fact, experience Schoenstatt with the same heart as the Founder without speaking and hearing with the same words and phrases and registers that he did?
Re-founding Schoenstatt – can we?
Wait wait wait!! I know this will perhaps shock you, gentle reader, into deep consternation, even frustration. 'How could this guy (me!) seriously adopt a medium-specific linguistic position, a reductivist, almost a fundamentalist position?' Schoenstatt cannot be reduced to German, or to any one language.
I am asking this because I am part of a course, where all course proceedings with my brothers is through the medium of German. I am happy about this; it strongly urges me to learn better German. I find German an extraordinarily rich language in its lexicon (which is vast), in its ability to generate new phrases (which is theoretically infinite, and which is already very substantial).
But my experience is also deeply frustrating as I often cannot express myself properly. It's true that I feel the asymptotic line is starting to veer sideways towards flattening in the horizontal time axis: my knowledge of the language has been mounting rapidly, but it is now slowing down, levelling off. And what's more I know that I will never overcome the last-in fact, infinite-distance to acquiring the instincts of a native German speaker.
Fr Kentenich said that every course refounds Schoenstatt ('Jeder Kurs gründet Schönstatt neu'). This may be true, but without sufficient reliable contentful linguistic input, how can we 'refounders' know that we are proceeding in step with the Founder (one might say: sentire cum fundatore), in the same way that a well-formed Catholic conscience is called into profound sentire cum Ecclesia?
My claim (with others, I think): our knowledge in English of the founder's thinking is dramatically insufficient. We have only limited English translation. By far the vast majority of Fr Kentenich's enormous written output is unavailable in English. Besides the quantity question, there is even sometimes the question of the quality of translations. Fr Kentenich is notoriously difficult to translate into English. I've tried a little, and what I end up with neither does justice to what he is saying in German, nor is it proper English! (So, my hat off to those who have translated him and continue to!).
The translatability of the core of Schoenstatt: the shrines
This is a burning question for the generations in each branch as they begin to move from dual German/English speaking sisters and fathers to monolingual English speakers. (Of course this applies to all other non-German languages too).
I'm pretty sure that I'm hardly the first to ask such questions. I don't know the inner discourse and processes of each branch of the extended family of institutes and federations and leagues. So I can only frame the question for me personally: without a profound knowledge of German-a point from which I am far off-can I really know Schoenstatt as the Apostolic Federation (Schoenstatt Priesterbund) does?
The temporary answer I reach seems contradictory: both yes and no. Yes, of course! Look at the presence of Schoenstatt in my family, in my home country, where no discourse is in German. But then, no, the long long road that Schoenstatt ideas and thought have moved in the 92 years of our common history, is mostly out of my reach unless I can sentire in lingua germanica.
This seems completely clear.
The mystery of this flowering of thought and hopes and hearts under the mantle of our Blessed Mother is bewildering: it is both deeply reliant on its proto-medium, its 'home language', which is and always will be German, and yet the Schoenstatt mystery is also quite independent of it. I too, a non-German, can see and feel and taste the family of charisms that Fr Kentenich founded and nursed to infancy, and urged into adulthood, and that he then finally let go of as its own grown person in the wide world. And I am not fooled by my seeing and feeling and tasting: these are real sensations, with real knowledge, and yet I stand humbled in the face of the mystery.
It seems to me that one key-perhaps the key-to the translatability of the core of Schoenstatt (something which seems unique to the Schoenstatt family as a movement of apostolic renewal) is the inspired copying-and-innovating of the very original place of grace itself: the Shrine. Just as the Church was inspired through St Francis of Assisi to participate in the original stations of Christ's passion in Jerusalem after the Muslim occupations made travel to the Holy City no longer possible, so the Schoenstatt Shrine of grace has slowly been brought to the communities of the world by building a replica. The Shrine translates out of her home culture and into new cultures without words at all.
Schoenstatt is only a mirror in miniature, albeit a beautiful one, of the One Mystery, the triune, one-in-three God, who has revealed himself to us in history, in specific languages, and yet in every language. Jesus Christ never spoke to his Mother in any language except Aramaic-never in Greek or Latin or English (or German, for that matter). And yet I know him, and I believe I know her, through English, and only very occasionally through Latin or Greek, and absolutely never through Aramaic. And yet I believe my knowledge to be reliable and true.
I am deeply humbled before the One Mystery of the Triune God, and I am also humbled before the mystery of this Marian movement of apostolic renewal that I feel so at home in. I am nearly 40 years into the Schoenstatt mystery, in my English medium, and only just two Christmases in through German... Much beauty and some aspects of understanding now stand before my eyes, but there is still such mystery, hidden from my eyes.
Show yourself to me, Lord, through your holy Mother. Mater, clarifica te.
Clarifica te in Ecclesia Iesu Christi, tui filii. Doxa tou Patrou, kai tou Uiou, kai tou Agiou Pneumati. Abba ('mein Vater, my father')-mein ganzes Leben ist ein Heimgang zu Dir. My whole life is a going home to you.
Thank you. Danke schön.