Q: Only some months ago you became “Kaplan” in the Trumau parish, in Lower Austria. Was it difficult to leave the Heiligenkreuz fraternity? What changed in every day’s life? Did you work out a schedule for the long working days as priest? I can imagine that being priest at a parish can be exhausting …
A: A peculiarity of Austrian Cistercian monasteries (due to the vicissitudes of history) is that some of the monks are engaged in pastoral work in parishes (we have 18 parishes). In September I was made curate (parochial vicar) in two of our parishes, and am living in the rectory of one of them with the parish priest. It has been an adjustment not living in the monastery, and no longer having the solemn liturgy of the hours that structures every day in the monastery, but parish work is quite interesting and rewarding, and I am blessed to have a very good and prayerful parish priest to work under, who is very patient with me.
A big difference between life in the monastery and life in the parish is that in the monastery you are part of a very well organized whole that runs as it where of itself, and it is easy to concentrate on the essentials. In the parish, however, one is generally in charge of making sure that each event happens, and if one forgets something then it doesn’t take place.
Q: Today a most complicated question for people who need help: Where can one find God? In nature, in a chapel, in yourself?
A: In the middle of our monastery in Heiligenkreuz we have two symbols that express something of our tradition on where God can be found. The first symbol is a locked garden, closed on all sides by the beautiful columns of the medieval cloister, but open upward toward the heavens. The garden symbolizes the monastic life, which is locked away from the distractions and busyness in order to be open to God. God is in one sense the highest who transcends this earthly reality. He can be found by withdrawing to some degree from mundane affairs, by contemplating the beauty and majesty of nature, but also, as in the monastery, by solemn liturgical prayer and chanting, and by liturgical art and architecture that lift the soul upwards as it were. The second symbol is a “sealed” fountain – a spring of water that rises up in a little stone room sealed off from the outside world. God is also to be found in the depths of the soul, where His grace can well up like water from the depths of the earth. If we can find the silence to meditate and plunge down into the deep, here is there to meet us. Meditative prayer in silence is something that takes some practice, but it is very rewarding. The Cistercian fathers, for example William of St. Thierry have written some very helpful works on this practice.