PILGRIMAGE: Berlin, Germany—Breaking Down Walls by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Berlin, Germany—Breaking Down Walls by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

Berlin’s outdoor Christmas Market is in full swing.  Scores of temporary wooden stalls line the crowded streets in the center of prosperous former West Berlin, and shoppers wander slowly from one to the next looking at the leather goods, sweaters, neckties, wood carvings, handmade jewelry, and plastic toys.  They line up two deep at long outdoor bars that serve bratwurst and beer, or they stand in groups in front of stalls that advertise Heisser Glühwein, talking and drinking hot mulled wine.  The city has a festive pre-Christmas atmosphere about it.

Reluctantly I turn from this scene to report for my guided tour of Berlin.  Several other tourists are already on board the comfortable double-decker bus when I arrive.  I settle in next to a window on the upper level and wait.

A tour of Berlin, more than of any other European city, is a quick trip through the history of the twentieth century.  Berlin was intimately connected with the Prussia that was instrumental in unleashing World War I.  She nurtured some of the most important movements in painting and literature.  She witnessed the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler’s Nazism, paying for it with her life’s blood.  She saw herself cut into two parts, like the world itself, by a wall that separated the Communist bloc from the “free world” of the West.

The bus rumbles into motion and the multilingual guide begins pointing out the important sights.

On your left is the Hauptbahnhof or railroad station. 

Also coming up on your left is the war memorial in the bombed-out ruins of the church called the Kaiser Kirche.  It has been made into a shrine to pray for peace. 

On your right you can see the Christmas Market. 

Up ahead on your left is the city aquarium.  Across from the aquarium, notice the high-priced hotels for expense-account travelers, and the modern glass towers that are home to dozens of multinational corporations.

There’s a feeling of busyness and prosperity on every side.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching what used to be the dividing line between “East Berlin” and “West Berlin.”  On your left you will see some remains of the Berlin Wall, and the guard post called “Checkpoint Charlie.”  The wall was begun on August 13th, 1961, and was torn down on November 9th, 1989.

The bus rolls silently past a ragged, graffiti-covered stretch of the wall that has been left standing as a reminder of the twenty-eight years the city spent artificially divided into “East” and “West” Berlin.  This ugly relic still has a sinister aura about it.

We rumble toward a large sign that once inspired fear but is now merely a curiosity for tourists.  The drive slows down and twenty cameras point out of the left-side windows to click at the white signboard that warns ominously: “ACHTUNG!  ATTENTION!  You are now leaving the American-controlled sector of Berlin.”

The bus rolls onward across the one-time border and into the former East Berlin.  I’m shocked at the contrast.  It’s as if a color movie has just turned to black-and-white.  The buildings are faceless, gray concrete cubes lined up along sad streets in monotonous rows.  No anti-Communist propaganda film from the late fifties could do a better job of evoking the dismal mood of lifelessness and oppression.

That building on your right was the headquarters of the Soviet secret police.  The one up ahead, on your left, is where political prisoners were taken for interrogation.

A large gloomy field lies strangled by high weeds – in the center of the city!  For the first time today, I notice how dark the clouds are overhead, and how chilly it looks out there.

We will now descend from the bus for ten minutes so that you may take photographs of the Brandenburg Gate.

It’s bitterly cold when I step out of the bus.  I start sketching the gate but soon decide to climb back aboard and finish my work from the comfort of my warm seat by the window.  The Brandenburg Gate fades in and out behind my breath condensing on the glass.  My mind keeps being drawn back to that ominous section of the Wall.

One of the great tragedies of the dividing of Berlin into “East” and “West’ was that relatives who happened to be living at different ends of town in August of 1961 suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of a wall with no way of reaching one another.  If the call to be human is the call to be sister or brother to everyone else on the planet, then the Berlin Wall was a tragic parable in cinder block; it showed the world that any wall that cuts me off from another human being is cutting me off from a member of my family.

Jesus set us the example when he ignored the walls that the Jewish culture of his day had put up.  He befriended women, lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, Samaritans, and other “outcasts” who were walled off from the accepted society of his day.  In Benedict’s time, rigid social distinctions were the normal way of life, but in his monasteries a Goth might find himself eating with a retired Roman soldier, and a scholar might be praying alongside an unlettered peasant.

If this bus tour is teaching me anything it’s this: a wall that’s meant to divide people is an ugly thing.  Some individuals put up a Berlin wall in their heart with barbed wire on top, and consign whole groups to the other side of it because of skin color or nationality or religion.  A subtle wall of fear, insecurity, or anger springs up when I quietly cut myself off from a particular person because of some injury or insult.  I justify my behavior with the knowledge that I am right and the other person is wrong, and then, over time, I stop noticing how ugly the wall is; I come to accept the division as a normal part of my life.  But no matter how it started, no matter if I am “right” or not, to the extent that this wall divides me from a brother or sister, it divides me from Jesus, who always identifies with the person on the other side of the wall.

Newsreels show the delirious joy of the Germans on the day the wall came down.  The symbol of their dividedness had crumbled and left them standing on the pile of rubble and embracing their brothers and sisters from the other side of the wall.  What a beautiful invitation to all humans to join in breaking down the world’s walls wherever we find them!

Ladies and gentlemen, we will now continue our tour with a ride down the famous avenue called Unter den Linden.

The linden trees are stark and bare in the dead of December.  This whole part of the city looks as if it has been in the grip of winter for fifty years.

I promise myself to come back one day and visit Berlin in the summer.  In the warm sunshine everything will look prettier – everything except the Wall.


Lent’s call to repentance challenges us to look for things that are separating us from Christ.  Take some time to reflect on the walls you may have erected in your heart that separate you from a particular person or group.  (Remember that certain walls may have become such familiar parts of the landscape over time that they may be hard to spot.)  Picture that wall: what is it made of?  Does it look old or new?  Is it pretty or ugly?  Is it solid or crumbling?  How does the wall make you feel: Comfortable?  Safe?  Sad?

Ask the Lord if there is something you could do about that wall during this Lenten season.

Sacred Scripture (Ephesians 2:13-14)

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 2, “Qualities of the Abbot,” vv. 16-20)

The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery.  He is not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience.  A man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk, except for some good reason.  But the abbot is free, if he sees fit, to change anyone’s rank as justice demands.  Ordinarily, everyone is to keep his regular place, because whether slave or free, we are all one in Christ.

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