What Is Asked Of Me?
As I arrive on the first floor of the retreat centre, a renovated ex-monastery, there is a modern single door to my room on the right, and huge double doors of solid dark wood to the chapel straight ahead. A large crucifix hangs overhead.
I am at the Madonna Centre in Reimlingen, Germany, for a nine-day International Intensive Training on Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and there are mediators, coaches, trainers, teachers and curious newbies like me, who have gathered here from across the world. Some of them work in ex-war zones with the wounded, others with nursery school children, and the rest with people from all walks of life in between. Non-Violent Communication has many uses.
My room is the only one next to the chapel. Everyone else is sleeping in rooms down long corridors, spread over several floors. What are the chances? The (incognito) newly ordained Interfaith minister gets the room by the chapel.
As the training begins in earnest the following morning, I discover that the day is divided into four segments, and there are several different teachings being offered in each segment by different trainers. So you just go to the one that interests you most… Or, in my case, I head to the one that is NOT labelled “advanced”.
Although the basics of NVC are quite easy to get a handle on, it has its own vocabulary and ways of delving into feelings and needs that can take a little practice before gaining fluency. How often do we try to figure out our real needs and put words to them? I am glad to have a printed list of possible needs in the helpful folder that I am given. “Celebration of life” is on there, just like “food” and “shelter”, and wonderful notions like “contribution” and “inspiration”.
I am also delighted to be here just for my own pleasure, and not for any diploma or set course of study, so I have no expectations of myself at all. I can float around in beginners’ NVC sessions every day if I wish, and just enjoy it!
The evening segment is a free-for-all. Anyone can offer anything at all, no matter if it is related to NVC or not. Just my kind of crowd: exchanging wisdom and fun that arises in the spur of the moment, in a self-organised and dynamic way.
The first day sent me on an exploration into the differences between “observations” and “evaluations”, and also the important distinction between “needs” and “strategies”. This started to open new intellectual and emotional pathways in my being, and I enjoyed feeling brave and plunging right in with practice NVC sessions.
It was not until the second day of the training, however, that I dared to open the chapel door, on the first floor next to my room. I actually thought the huge doors would be locked, and I just turned the old bulb-like metal handle on the off-chance. It creaked open, and what lay inside was entirely unexpected. A wave of deep serenity and awe gently swept into my heart, as my eyes took in the dark tones of wood, white walls and multicoloured murals, highlighted with gold. I did not spend long in there, like I was going to be discovered somewhere I should not really be, but I tore myself away with difficulty. I could have spent hours in peaceful contemplation there.
After this first glimpse of the chapel, it took me another six days, two of which were spent in bed with fever, to act on that which I realised was being asked of me. By that I do not mean that anyone suggested I do anything, but that the circumstances were set up so precisely that it would have been a disservice to the Universe to label it mere coincidence.
The first inkling came quite quickly after I stepped inside the chapel, as a curiosity arose in my mind about how it might feel to conduct sacred ceremony in that beautiful space. However, before it took any further shape, beyond the realms of a flighty daydream, I wrote it off. How could I possibly gain permission from the Vatican to do anything in there?
It was a bona fide Roman Catholic chapel, complete with a ceiling-high altar, many rows of heavy wooden pews, gorgeous murals, three confessionals and an extra shrine to Jesus at the back with a prayer bench in front of it?
As the days went on, before and after the fever that confined me to bed, I both asked and received permission from the organisers and the Madonna Centre to use the chapel for a service. It turned out that I would not need to ask the Vatican at all — the chapels in Germany apparently have a long history of cooperating with Zen teachers and others, which has nothing to do with the Vatican. Encouragement then followed from my teacher and peers at the One Spirit Interfaith Ministry in London where I was ordained to follow the compass of my heart: they helped me to check in with my own sense of authority and whether the chapel felt like a good place for ME to offer a service in.
With all this support, it meant that there was now a real possibility that I, Reverend Marcus, could stand at the front of that exquisite chapel and offer a spiritual experience to those who might gather to be part of it. In that vision, I imagined around five people sitting on the pews, including my girlfriend who was there with me — so the proceedings seemed quite manageable in size. Not too much for a newly ordained minister who had not yet taken a full service with an unknown gathering of people. Just a ministerial toe being dipped in the waters.
But with the permission from the Madonna Centre and the Interfaith Ministry also came the total dissolution of any external obstacles that I could have blamed for not going ahead with this daydream-now-rapidly-turning-into-material-possibiity. I would only have myself to blame for not adding an “Interfaith Peace Service” to the free-for-all evening session board now! And I knew that I would profoundly regret going home from this retreat without having offered the service, and yet I also felt that the free-will to do so – or not – was entirely mine.
How excruciating the deliberation… Dare I step into ministry like this? In a Roman Catholic chapel?! Without my “proper” ministerial gear? I had just brought my stole with me as I heard there were show-and-tell evenings, and I thought the acquisition of my stole could be an interesting story to share. That impulse did not extend to bringing my full minister’s whites and suitable shoes though. I would just have to put something together in neutral shades of white and cream from my suitcase.
To help me along, since I find it more fun to do these sacred service things with others than alone, I teamed up with Leah, a wonderful and gentle mediator from the USA with a soul-stirring tone of blues in her singing voice. When the time came to make the announcement about the Interfaith Peace Service, we stood up together – me with my stole round my neck, just recovering from the two days of fever, and her without a word but full of presence – and we invited anyone who might like to come to join us on the Friday evening. The only problem was that there were already four other offerings that Friday evening and no other time left in the schedule. This meant that any participants in the peace service would have to miss the other exciting offerings, which included a tango dance, and a film about NVC in Nepal. My vision of just five people in the chapel pews started to seem very real.
But then, all of a sudden, Heaven and Earth moved. Totally effortlessly, Klaus the lead trainer suggested that we start the peace service at 7.45pm and all the other evening activities at 8.15pm, so we had a half hour slot for all those who wanted to be at the service.
Now I really did not have any more excuses. I was elated and almost trembling with nervousness-fear-excitement! I walked back to my chair, took my stole back off and sat down, without hearing a word anyone said for the next 10 minutes.
During the course of that morning, people started coming to me to say how much they were looking forward to the service. During my two days of fever, most of the service had been “delivered” to me piece by piece, and all I had to do was write it down and put it in a suitable order. This felt like a life raft of stability in an ocean of emotion – and repeated ideas of running away so I would not have to do the service. Did I mention I was nervous? And excited?
The afternoon arrived, and I left the final NVC session of the day early so I could go spend some time alone in the chapel. I knew I would need to create a space there that was my own, in service of Spirit, so I could feel the authority necessary to conduct service – without being a Roman Catholic priest. It is not much use to stand there speechless and shaking, questioning one’s authority to be there, when one is supposed to inspire a sense of spiritual connection in others!
Back at those big wooden doors, I took my time, and entered the chapel slowly. Reverentially. I walked forward and backward in the aisle a few times. To acknowledge the God praised in this chapel I knelt down on one knee and bowed my head.
“With Your permission, I come here to serve.”
No thunder broke outside, and the floor did not crack in front of me. I took that as a go-ahead.
A couple of hours later, with a brief dinner interlude, I was ready to begin.
I had set up my own altar at the front, with four small candles and a large one in the middle, on a wide and squat wooden bench I found in a storage area. I had also discovered which of the floorboards around the podium creaked and I would therefore do best to avoid stepping on during my readings. I failed to find any way to turn on more than two quite dim overhead lamps over the rows of pews, but that gave the chapel a rather intimate look as night was falling, with my one large candle flickering at the front, waiting for participants to come and light the other four.
To calm my nerves, I indulged in a little visualisation. First of all, I imagined my two teachers from the Interfaith ministry sitting on the front two pews, one on the left and one on the right. In my mind’s eye, I saw how Rev. Bernd Leygraf gave me his characteristic double thumbs-up sign with a twinkle in his blue eyes. That made me smile. As I then glanced over to the other pew, where I had placed Rev. Christopher Marcus, his imaginary self gave me a slow nod with a warm acknowledging look in his eyes and just a hint of a smile. That also worked a treat, and I felt on safe ground.
Since this was going so well, I decided to call in some extra support from even more aethereal teachers: the Council of souls that I report to and learn from between my incarnations in a body. (More on this in my forthcoming book “Imprint”). These four I imagined seated at the front of the top circle, looking over the balcony edge at me, and merrily enjoying the proceedings. All seemed good and right, and exactly as it should be. I had answered the call.
As the clock ticked closer to 7.45pm, and my heart was beating more and more strongly, people began to appear at the door that I had left open for them. I remembered what it had taken for me to just turn that handle myself – a leap of faith. A brave gentleman ventured in and sat himself down on the front pew on the left. Wow, I now actually had an audience. I was so pleased and keen to interact that I commented to him what a lovely chapel it was, but with his simple nod in return, I realised that he was not here for small-talk. As he wrapped a brown shawl around him and let his eyes close, I understood he was here to connect with his inner sense of spirituality and peace.
People are really here for spiritual purposes, I thought.
Not just a little common song and a few reflective readings.
Can I hold this?
Am I enough?
Before I knew it, the front two rows of pews had filled up, and more and more people were venturing in, spreading themselves further towards the back of the chapel, too. Some of them were talking very quietly amongst themselves, others were looking around with similar faces to me the first time I sneaked in here, and yet others were looking expectantly to me. I felt the corners of my smile tremble. I closed my eyes and concentrated on just breathing. The key, I reminded myself, was to remember there was nothing I needed to do: I was here to allow Spirit to move and speak through me. To help that process, I used my learning from energy healing school: come into contact with the ground by consciously feeling it under my feet, and bring my focus to the dimension of intentionality, also known as Hara. That is where I “discovered” that the Sacred flows during my recent Ordination, which was a great surprise. I was convinced that it was a phenomenon in the energy field called the Aura.
But energy consciousness deliberations aside, I was becoming emotionally and spiritually ready in earnest, and the time was now 7.45pm. Gabriele, who was going to translate the service into German, was seated in front of the podium, ready to work. Leah was in the front pew to the right, in a blissful-looking state with her eyes closed.
“Are you ready?” I asked the assembled Non-Violent Communicators… Some offered me a smile, but no one spoke. I then clarified: “I am checking if I am ready!” which made most of them laugh warmheartedly. It felt good to share my nervousness, while also feeling my dedication to making this happen. So many chances to back down, ignore the call, run away — and now here we all were.
Over the next half hour, we lit candles, hummed together, shared Taoist and Native American readings about peace in English and German, listened to Leah’s a capella devotional singing, and learnt the tune for an old Irish blessing. It went swimmingly well. Even as people came in a bit late, left a bit early, did not quite get the tune “right”, and perhaps thought some of the instructions were too long or too short in German or in English, I delivered exactly what I had offered: a 30-minute Interfaith Peace Service, with help from Leah, Gabriele, and all those present.
As we all blew out the candles together at the end, and sent their blessings of peace out into the world, I knew I had done what had been asked of me.
Some stayed behind to ask where one could train as an Interfaith minister. Others approached me that evening around a jovial communal bonfire and shared their experiences. Gabriele, the dear translator, came to me several days later to share how she had felt a profound sense of belonging as she looked out on those present at the service – a new family to replace those she had lost. A school teacher told me how she was so happy the service had invited people to come into a religious place in times where that does not happen so often anymore.
All these reflections were so welcome. I loved to hear how participants were touched, affected, and moved by the event in very different ways. I also enjoyed how others took their experience with them, as it was truly theirs alone – with the God of their own understanding.
For me, giving this service supported the expression of my purpose in my life. Stepping up to what was being asked of me by the Universe, by Spirit, by the God of my own understanding.
Many spiritual teachers and psychologists speak of the importance of being in service to what is being asked of one, to gain a true and profound sense of purpose in one’s life. The late Dr. Wayne Dyer, in his book and film entitled “The Shift”, transmits this energetically in a beautiful way. To paraphrase:
When we ask “What can I get? What’s in it for me?“ we are anchoring ourselves in our human ego. This lives mainly in the pursuit of its own satisfaction and happiness, through material acquisitions or outward accomplishments. This is not to be confused with a purpose in life.
When, instead, we consider “What is being asked of me?“ we anchor in our highest self that is aligned with the flow of the Universe. We step into our place, fully, and we thereby receive a profound sense of purpose in our lives. It may not be something fun, easy or particularly glamorous that is being asked of us, and yet, we know exactly what it is that we need to do. It could be picking up litter in the street, choosing to practice silent listening with a family member, going on a pilgrimage, and so forth.
It could be giving an Interfaith Peace Service on a wing and a prayer.
“Even after all this time,
the sun never says to the earth:
‘You owe me.’
Just think of what a love like that can do.
It lights up the whole world.”