When I was a nurse at a hospital, we had a patient who eventually died of his cancer in our ward. Later his husband wrote a death notice in the papers saying: “The journey not the arrival matters”. I have kept the notice ever since – maybe because my journey was long, and I hoped to arrive.
These days it is 100 years ago since the border between Denmark and Germany was placed, where it still is today. That is a story worth telling, but in my story it is only the condition I set out from. On a summer day 25 years ago, I left the apartment in Flensburg, where I lived at the time, mounted my bike and drove straight west. When I reached the west coast, I headed north, crossing the border into Denmark. It was a warm and dry summer, so I could sleep on the dyke in my sleeping bag among the sheep. Earlier that year I had returned from Paris, where my dream had shattered. I wanted to live in the city, study at the Sorbonne University and spend my days at the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève like Simone de Beauvoir. Loneliness and a sense of detachment drove me back to my hometown, where I started working on a farm, hands in earth growing vegetables and pondering life.
I grew up in Flensburg as part of the Danish minority in Germany – so crossing borders and shifting between languages and cultures was natural to me from the beginning. I did not grow up in an explicitly Christian family – everyone being baptized and confirmed out of tradition. Putting words around faith was not a thing you did. For many reasons I became a searching and seeking soul, though. I had been on exchange in the south of England, when I was 12, and I spend a year in Japan with a Japanese family when I was 15. It was the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Berlin wall. The world opened to me, and I thought it to be a thrilling place. When I could not find people to talk to and share this experience, I turned towards literature, making many good friends: “We read to know we are not alone”, as C.S. Lewis put it. A German author became a kind of stepfather to me, opening wide the doors into realms of thinking and music, art and beauty. He was a believer, and I remember him saying that as Christians we should never be subject to the Zeitgeist, but have access to an immense freedom rooted in the gospel and Christian tradition. But he was also a man traumatized by World War II, a shadow that also lingered over me: How can you live in a world where such atrocities took place in the country, that I was a citizen of?
When I came home from Japan, I became part of a class at school that was dysfunctional with massive problems of bullying, that no adult acted on. I became friends with a girl from another class. She was Christian in a conscious and explicit way. We had long discussions about faith and literature. We both read Sheldon Vanaukens “A Severe Mercy”, and I started reading the Bible and joined her at her Baptist Church, where eventually I was baptized (again), leaving the Danish state church. My family could not meet me in my new faith, and I became more and more isolated from them and other people my age.
In my last year at high school loneliness took hold of my heart driving me into an existential crisis, that almost cost my life: What was I to do with my life? All my relations were troublesome, and I did not feel that I belonged anywhere, feeling a total stranger. I talked five languages fluently, but had nothing to say in any of them. I had experienced so much through books and could quote many wise authors and poets but lacked experience of life and words of my own. Not even my faith could withstand the abyss. A woman from church witnessed my suffering and wanted to exorcize the evil. I never saw her again. I wanted to go home and ended up in a closed psychiatric ward. Strangely that was a relief: people here did not pretend anything. They did not wear masks. Later I came to understand that this is part of the illness: not being able to wear a mask when you need one. But for the time being, I felt part of an authentic fellowship, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and reading Camus. Eventually it was the music of Bach and meeting honest people that started a gradual process of healing.
When in the summer of 1995 I set out on my bike, one of the goals was a summer camp at the Danish west coast arranged by the Danish Christian Student movement (DKG). I did not know anybody there, and I only came because I did not have any other plans for the summer, and the program seemed interesting: About Time. Among the guest speakers where two sisters from the protestant order of The Daughters of Mary (Mariadøtrene). Their being and words impressed me. I learned that they lived a monastic life just north of Flensburg and the border, their family mostly consisting of Swedish women all ages. Their home was open to women who needed rest or comfort, silence or someone to talk to. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I regularly came to visit and took part in their everyday life of gardening and cooking, praying and singing, teaching them German and sharing some of my struggles. There was a time, when I considered becoming part of the family, but it became clear to me that this step would be out of fear of life, a flight, and not because I was called to live a monastic life.
So, I continued my confused, bewildered and rootless life, leaving Flensburg to study in Denmark. I considered studying theology, but at the time had lost confidence in words, having experienced too much hypocrisy. After some detours around university and the Pentecostal church, I ended up studying to be a deacon in combination with a health professional training. That was an eyeopener to me: both meeting and living with the people I studied with and the challenge of taking care of people at hospitals and care homes in combination with a theological training – it made so much sense! At the end of these studies, I had to write a deacon treatise that I called “Diaconia viatorum – living in the interim”, where I got to summon up all that I found important to be able to live a fruitful and patient life as Christian in the world. A world where we are both confronted with suffering and need of others and self, a world that is not as it ought or could be, always stretched between the already and not yet, being a citizen of the kingdom of God and at the same time a citizen of a fallible democratic state in a postmodern time characterized by spiritual poverty.
It felt as though I had found my vocation, and I was at the same time miraculously surprised and found by love: I fell in love with the man that I am still married to. Since he studied in Berlin at the time, I continued to study to be a nurse in Copenhagen in order to be able to work in Germany as well, where we chose to live. After some back and forth we ended up living in Copenhagen together, and suddenly it all went so fast: getting married, working as a nurse at hospitals and eventually becoming a mother of three wonderful children.
In 2011 I grew weary of working at hospitals where I never fully felt that I belonged. I started working at the hospice, where I am still working as a nurse and deacon. So many of my detours and experiences suddenly made sense: meeting people close to dying with all the symptoms that come along, helping patients live as well as possible until the end, helping relatives to be alongside and accepting helplessness and loss of control, spending their time with something meaningful. Holding a space around them requires many different talents. Now at last the professionalism of being deacon came to its own too.
But being a mother of three and a nurse with changing shifts, working weekends and holidays also wore me out: there were the nights with too little sleep, the endless needs of children, patients and relatives, lunchboxes to be made and a household to tend to with hardly any time left to take care of my own body and soul. When my father got terminally ill in 2013/14, my body collapsed under the weight of too much responsibility and too little rest.
During that period, I had to learn how to breathe and be inside my body again. Colleagues and friends told me to take care of myself – which was exactly what I could not do. It was a long and painful process during which I also reread my deacon treatise, wondering whether I really wrote it since there were so many helpful insights – how come I had forgotten them along the way?
Since I moved to Copenhagen 20 years ago, I have visited the Cathedral (Church of Our Lady) regularly. Here we married, and here our children were baptized. My family knows of and accepts my need of church, of singing and services, although they do not share it. All through the years I would go to see a pastor now and then, seeking advice and pastoral care (in German we have the beautiful word “Seelsorge”: care for the soul). When once I asked for spiritual guidance, one of them refused. That is also being a protestant: you have to think and find out for yourself. Although it is tough at times, I am grateful that I never experienced abuse in any way!
When it comes to the congregation though, I still feel a stranger and at the edge of it, hardly knowing the name of any of the people that I have seen and attended service with over the years. I think the body of Christ is beautiful in all its diversity, and I like to come in the German church of Saint Peters as well as the more progressive church of Brorson here in Copenhagen. But when it comes to really being a committed part of a fellowship, it feels suffocating to me. When I attend service, when we share the Eucharist, I have a strong sense of being part of the body of Christ that transcendences time and space.
There have been times where I felt it to be wrong somehow – that I needed to be part of a defined congregation. Now I try to accept that it just won’t work for me. The concept of being a pilgrim resonates with me in many ways: A pilgrim is a ‘peregrinus’, a stranger, who is always on his or her way to a goal ahead: “Not all those who wander are lost” (J.R.R. Tolkien).
When I was already an adult I found out that my name means ’someone belonging to Christ’. That is where I find hope: I belong to Christ with all of me – my story, my longing, my vulnerability, my shortcomings, my marks and masks, my stains and fatigue. I am on my way, as best I can. The goal is not to become the best version of myself, a good person, or to perfect anything. If glimpses of the kingdom of God can shimmer through my life from time to time, then I am where I should be.
For almost 10 years now we have been living in a part of Copenhagen called Nørrebro, which is the most divert and multicultural part of Denmark, and in that sense a parallel to the borderland,that I came from. I never imagined I would live in a city with children, and I often miss the horizon and nature. Still this is where I am, and it does make sense. I try to accept the consequences and gift of our choices and of my work: witnessing so much suffering and loss, pain, anger and death, being reminded of our mortality and powerlessness on a daily basis does not leave you unmarked. Every life has a price. And I like the idea of being poured out, giving it all away in this life, that is so very real and full of beauty and cruelty.
Having been in my own company for more than 46 years, I know that I will stumble and fall again. I know that I will be overwhelmed by the demands of life, others and myself. I continue to struggle with being a woman, mother, daughter, nurse, deacon, Christian, and part of a minority – life simply doesn’t come to me easily. I will disappoint and be disappointed. I will be exhausted, weary and angry, and life East of Eden will seem barren and meaningless from time to time, a wasteland and a provocation, where I will forget insights and what really matters, while trying to navigate in the many seeming contradictions of everyday life. I will sense my poverty and vulnerability that mysteriously turns out to be my strength.
As a nomad I chose to belong here as best I can. There will always be places of rest that are home to me on the way – goodness, joy and love are also part of life. And I will not be alone: there are people with me on this journey, sisters and brothers in Christ – some are alive and around, some live abroad or have already passed. And the church is there with its reservoir of buildings, traditions, texts, songs and liturgy, that I can lean on when my faith faulters, reminding me of the things I cannot tell myself and the fact that I am not the author of this script. And most importantly I know that I am always already loved, even though I don’t feel it, and that I will always be found again by Him/Her/Them (words fall short) no matter how much I go astray or loose myself. And that He/She/They meet me in the people and events I encounter, as I go along.
– Kirsten Bühler