Words of Thanks on the Occasion of the Acceptance of an Honorary Doctorate in Theology from the University of Freiburg

4 May 2007

Your Excellencies, very honourable Prorector, honourable Deans, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I consider an honorary doctorate from the University of Freiburg’s Faculty of Theology a great honour, a very special and exceptional thing, for a musician in particular. Even though I feel that I am not worthy of this recognition, I am still very happy to see that the inner impulse of my musical endeavours is so clearly perceived and appreciated. For this, I would like to express my sincere gratitude ̶ especially to the Dean, Professor Helmut Hoping, to Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, to Auxiliary Bishops Paul Wehrle and Bernd Uhl, to the philharmonic orchestra and to the cathedral, as well as to the cathedral director of music, Boris Böhmann.

Do I feel like a theologian now?… I don’t think so.
Do I feel like a doctor? … No, of course not.
When is one a theologian anyway?
That I don’t know either.

You’ll surely forgive me if I say that I am neither capable of speaking of nor theoreticising about God, not even now, as a new theologian. I would just like to live life WITH HIM. All right, but what could ’life with God’ mean? It might sound simple, but who of us could say that he or she is capable of achieving this? In my case, this life is something very concrete, and it is first and foremost the world of sounds, because music is also a living being and a language which can become a ’living word’. When we say that God exists for us to live ’WITH HIM’, then for me, this means that God comes into my life through music. To aspire toward this is an immense challenge for an artist.

Some thirty years ago, I was in my great desperation ready to ask anyone how a composer ought to write music, and once met a street-sweeper who gave me a remarkable reply. ’Oh,’ he said, ’the composer would probably need to love each and every sound.’
This was a turning point. This self-evident truth completely surprised my soul, which was thirsting for God. From then on, my musical thoughts began to move in an entirely new direction. Nothing was the same anymore.
But who was that mysterious street-sweeper?…
If he was a theologian, then I wanted to be one, too.
But now I would like to take you away from the music and tell you a short story from the early days of Christianity, a story which has grown very close to my heart. It was written by Leo Tolstoy. I am certain that it is familiar to many of you, but since everyone in this room isn’t a theologian, I take the liberty of telling this story here again in short form.

* * *

One day, a bishop was sailing at sea. A nightly storm threw him onto an island, and he no longer knew where he was. The following morning, when he went to see if there were any living souls on the island, he happened upon a small pithouse. In front of him stood three old men. One was as tall as a giant, completely naked, with only a covering of bast hung around his hips. The shorter one was clothed in rags. The third man, ancient and bent over, wore a tattered coat.

The old men bowed deeply before the bishop, and he blessed them.

They bowed even more deeply when the bishop began to speak to them:
’Tell me what you do for the salvation of your souls, and how you pray to God.’

The ancient and short old man just smiled and said:’Oh, servant of God, we don’t know how to serve God, we only serve ourselves.’

’And how do you pray to God?’

’We pray like this: there’s three of you, there’s three of us, have mercy upon us!’

The ancient one had barely uttered these words, before all three of them turned their eyes toward the sky and said as if with one voice: ’There’s three of you, there’s three of us, have mercy upon us!’

A smile now spread across the bishop’s face, and he said: ’So you have heard of the Holy Trinity, but you don’t pray properly. I also see that you don’t know how to serve God. You need to pray differently. Listen, let me teach you!’
And the bishop said the words of the Our Father, like this:’Our Father.’
And they all repeated:’Our Father.’
’Who art in heaven’. And the old men responded:’Who art in heaven’.

The bishop then repeated the beginning of the prayer again, and the elders said the words after him yet again. The bishop exerted himself all day, repeating one word a hundred times, and the old ones repeated it after him. He wouldn’t leave them before they had learned the Our Father and knew how to say it without his help.

He then stepped into the boat and left the island. And the entire way, the bishop heard how the old men were praying loudly. He saw them for some time still; they then disappeared from view.

The bishop stayed on deck and stared, deep in thought, at the spot where the island had sunk into the sea. Suddenly, something began to flicker before his eyes, and then he saw: something white was shining in the moonlight.

It was similar to a human being. A strange restlessness gripped the bishop, and then he saw: it was the three old men! They were running across the waves, their hair shimmering and shining. The steersman looked around. He was overcome by fear and let go of the helm: ’Lord have mercy! Those old men are coming after us! They’re running on the water as if it were dry land!’

And now they all saw them: the old men were running toward the boat, holding each other’s hands. The ones on the left and right were waving with their free hands, signalling for the boat to stop.

The boat had not yet stopped when the old men reached it, came toward the deck and said with one voice: ’We forgot again, oh servant of God, we forgot what you taught us! As long as we repeated your prayer, we remembered it, but as soon as we stopped praying for an hour, one word went missing, and then it all fell apart. We can’t remember a thing anymore. Please teach us how to pray again!’

Now the bishop made the sign of the cross, leaned from the deck toward the old men and said: ’Your prayers will reach God without that, blessed old ones! Who am I to teach you? Pray for us sinners!’

And the bishop fell down before the old men. The men remained standing, then turned around, and walked back across the sea.

* * *

Yes … that’s quite a story.
And again: when is one a theologian…?
Do we know?
I think the three blessed old men and the bishop were …

* * *

This sounds like a beautiful fairy-tale. All that’s missing is the sentence ’And if they aren’t dead, they are still alive today’ — (hand over eyes, looking across the room) — I can see the bishop, he’s here. The three old men might be here, too, although perhaps they appear a lot younger. But that’s not important. Children can also have their own, secret, prayers. And the good bishop knows this. Perhaps we are capable of hearing what they have to tell us. Please come forward to me, Valentin, Till, Friedrich, come here! Let’s try to show what I was talking about just now.


(Arvo Pärt’s Vater unser for boy soprano and piano (2005), performed by a trio of singers from the Freiburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir, with Arvo Pärt on piano.)


Translated by Laura Neill

On June 22, the Centre is open until 4.00 p.m., on June 23, the Centre is closed. Happy Victory Day and Midsummer to everyone!

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