What was it like in the cave?
“It was an adventure. It was spiritually beneficial, but physically tough. People around me had warned me in advance: “You can do it when you’re 30, but not when you’re 67.” It turned out there was some truth in that. The four weeks I had scheduled became three weeks. By then I had reached my physical limits. For my lodging I had a cave of some three by three meters, with a bed, a small table and a chair, and lacking any modern comfort or sanitation. I lived on bread and cereal, fruit and milk. That was, remarkably enough, fairly easy.
I never longed for a hot meal, coffee or cigars, which I normally enjoy. I think this has to do with the radical change in surroundings. Fasting is harder when you are at home and continuously pass the refrigerator, or when everyone eats except you. In the desert the entire mindset is different. As a nice side-effect I lost some seven kilos in those three weeks.”
Was the cold in winter not a problem?
“That was indeed the hardest for me. During the day there was sunshine and temperatures were as high as 18 or 20 degrees. But when the sun vanished behind the mountains at around 6 o’clock, the temperature immediately dropped some ten degrees. Out of 24 hours, about 16 were actually really cold. Using army fatigues, which had been given to me as military bishop once, I kept warm in the evening, and a sleeping bag helped me get through the nights.
One night, when I was considering sleeping outside, a grey wolf suddenly walked past, less then ten meters from me. I reconsidered the plan then. A small gas tank gave some heat to the cave for about one hour each evening. I used that time to read the Holy Mass. I can now imagine myself far better in the hard life of a homeless person, especially in winter, and I sense more compassion.”
How did you experience it mentally and spiritually?
“Mentally it was also an experience which does hake you up. One afternoon I was dropped off at the cave by some friendly people. We had first driven off the main road for about half an hour, over rocky paths, past ravines and crevasses, and we had then walked some time to reach the cave. A short distance away a hermit lived permanently, near a central building where we could park the car. But he respected my wish to experience solitude and left me alone.
It became dark and I started to feel really alone. Even with a torch I couldn’t see much further than ten meters because of the rocks and ditches. I realised that I was now totally left to my own devises. But that also had a positive side. For a while I was completely cut off from the world. You experience the silence like never before. Precisely the wilderness lets you experience nature in a new way. You are a part of it, and at the same time you feel that it transcends your soul, and it becomes a window to God.”
And that was it was about for you.
“Exactly. I wanted to experience fasting very concretely. To literally deny yourself everything. To try and get away from concerns and problems, from activities and plans, to better hear the voice of the Lord. You are essentially trying to make less space for yourself, so that God may have more. Bow that is easier said than done. Even in the desert you bring yourself along, your thought and concerns. I mostly experienced it as an exercise of faith and trust. Christian meditation is, after all, not primarily a technique, but a relationship. You are trying to place yourself in God’s presence. To try and see in that Light what is not right in yourself, but also in our Church, and where we must change.
Of course I brought my questions and worries to the Lord. It is remarkable to experience to get a true answer in a sudden thought or in reading Scripture or spiritual literature, making meditation a true dialogue, and God’s presence a concrete reality. What He placed in my heart if obviously personal. I did gain an even stronger awareness of how much the great apostasy which, because of our lukewarmness and failure, is taking place in Europe, wounds the heart of the Lord and ruins our society.”
The abdication of the Pope seems to have something to do with that. Did you hear anything about it there?
“At the end of my stay I got a text message with the shocking news. It surprised me as well, but I can understand and respect it as an act of deep humility. In front of the world, Benedict said, “I can’t do it anymore, my strength is no longer sufficient to handle the great challenges and problems of the Church in this time”. It does fit with my presentiment of our time. Ik consider the future with a mix of hope and concern. We will have to prepare for decisive events by which the Lord will purify the Church and the world. The words of the Gospel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” is becoming increasingly topical for me.
Doing penance was also one of the motivations for me to retreat in a cave for a while. For all of us this is a time of grace to return to God and His mercy. Only then will we be able to prevent a global catastrophe and see the miracle of God’s love, the victory of life and resurrection. In that sense I wish all readers a Blessed Easter.”