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200knapp

Andreas Knapp: From College Dean to Laborer

Christoph Strack

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Andreas Knapp is a monk, an unskilled laborer, a poet. When he joined the Little Brothers of the Gospel, he traded a promising career as a theologian for a humble life at the margins of society. Read his new book, The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight and Resilience in the Middle East.

He’s tired: By six a.m., he has to be at his job as a packer at a local business, folding cardboard boxes, filling, and closing them – again and again. “But for me it’s important to be present there. It’s a token of solidarity,” he says. Working as an unskilled laborer on an hourly wage is only one part of Andreas Knapp’s multifaceted life in Leipzig. He also writes poems and volunteers as a school chaplain. But above all and in all he is a Catholic monastic, a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel.

The order, founded in 1956, is patterned on the life of French priest Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) and consciously seeks to live at the margins of society, in the midst of the people, not sheltered behind high church walls. In one of his early poems, Knapp described it like this:

our city quarter
is our cloister
and the busy crossroads
are our monastic walkways
our monastery workshops
are the factories
and our times of prayer
are dictated by the time clock
the faces of the people
are the icons we venerate
and in countenances marked by suffering
we see the crucified one

His city quarter is Leipzig-Grünau, one of the largest concrete slab high-rise apartment districts in the former East Germany. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, this socialist model city housed over ninety thousand people; when Knapp moved in less than half remained. Vacancy and demolition signaled a bygone era. Whoever could leave did. Children seldom played in the patches of green between the towers, and when evening came the lights went on in only a few windows.
All that is changing with the flood of refugees entering Germany, giving Leipzig-Grünau a new lease on life – and Andreas Knapp a new calling ministering to recent arrivals. Knapp’s “cloister” is a five-room apartment in one of these unrenovated East German structures. One room serves as the chapel; several chunks of concrete from condemned buildings are arranged in the meditation corner next to candles and a cross.

Finding God in the Mundane

But the tall “Little Brother” doesn’t pray only in the chapel. He also meditates at his packing job, while lifting books or bottles. “I’m always happy when I have a monotonous job with repetitive movements and the same breathing rhythm – it has its benefits,” he explains, referencing the classic aim of monastic work. Handwork has been linked with prayer since the days of early monasticism. “Taizé songs help me with that. They’re already running through my head when I leave the house in the mornings.” Today the verse “My hope and my joy, my strength, my light; Christ my confidence” accompanied him. “I don’t think I work any the worse for it,” he says with a smile. Nazareth, the provincial Galilean town where the carpenter’s son Jesus likely worked for years as a craftsman, was of great significance to Charles de Foucauld, he recalls. “Jesus was at home in the milieu of common folks, and he built on those experiences,” says Knapp. While he works on an assembly line, one of his fellow brothers has found a job as caregiver to a person with disabilities; another is a prison chaplain. “We very deliberately chose these realities. Finding God in the simple, in the mundane – things that are completely ordinary play an important role in this.” The three of them make up a fraternité, the name the Little Brothers of the Gospel give their communities. Around eighty of them exist worldwide, in twenty countries.

He’d rather write pithy verse than lengthy sermons.

When Knapp, who was born in 1958 in the small town of Hettingen in the Swabian Alps, was ordained as a priest in Rome at age twenty-five, his life was set on a very different course. After completing his doctoral thesis, he spent five years as a university chaplain in Freiburg. He was then appointed director of the archdiocesan seminary at the age of only thirty-five. His future career seemed secured. But then the well-positioned administrator became a Little Brother, gave away his car, and chose a religious life. And today he’d rather write pithy verse than lengthy sermons.

It’s a long way from the life of an academic to that of a factory worker; from the career ladder back to an ordinary life; from the Catholic environs of Freiburg to a prefab concrete housing estate. But Knapp has made the leap. “Other Christians live up there on the left,” he says, pointing to the seventh floor, “and also there at the front on the right. That’s about it.” Some time ago, he gave a speech entitled “Desert Adventure” at a tenants’ association event themed “collaboration instead of isolation” in a neighboring house. Music and several pictures of plants and landscapes spark inspiration; as one of his poems puts it:

the desert’s expanse
gives to all its proper dimension
no longer harboring illusions of greatness
you humble yourself as human
only God is great
adoration now belongs to him alone

“What I’m counting on is that religious sensibility can grow within a person.” The colleagues on the assembly line know that he has something to do with church. It hardly comes up as a topic of discussion in conversations over coffee or tabloids during breaks. But for two days each week, Andreas Knapp volunteers as a school chaplain. This fits his order’s model of sharing life with the poor and participating in local church efforts. “Missionary thoughts arise in me during the meditative factory work and find their fulfillment in the school,” he relates.

For the first time, he offered an Ash Wednesday event this year. It was an experiment, a stab in the dark. Knapp reckoned with the attendance of the two hundred elementary school students, but expected only one or two dozen older students to appear. Altogether, about four hundred mostly unbaptized boys and girls attended. At the end, the children each received a cross of ashes that they wore throughout the day. And each one of them heard the blessing: “Respect life and do not forget to share.” Two of the students are currently preparing for baptism. They come from families in which not even the grandmothers belonged to a church.

Language as a Path to Truth

For two years, Knapp has also offered religious discussion evenings for parents. The topics sound quite simple: “Who is God?”; “What is the Bible about?”; “What it the purpose of rituals?” This, too, is mission, says the priest: “Coming into conversation with interested adults who are not baptized but show openness and inquisitiveness.”

The brevity in Knapp’s writing style shows itself in his way of speaking as well. He uses few words and restrains himself in conversation. He works meditatively. Maybe this is what led him to poetry. “Language opens up our world. It is the path that wants to lead us closer to the truth. It is through language that we discover our reality,” he believes. The first verses came to him during his Freiburg years. As university chaplain, he used them in worship services. At some point, he put a few together as a gift for his circle of friends. Now poems from Andreas Knapp can be found in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and textbooks. Readers write to him with lines they’ve added to his poems. At the assembly line or while grocery shopping, the doctor of theology always has a notepad at the ready. A poem initializes something but does not conclude it, Knapp says. This leaves room for the reader’s or hearer’s own thoughts and visualizations. Poems on Life and Death is the title of his newest collection. “In my texts, I try describe the whole of human life and to broach the inevitable: that life flows toward death.”

Approaching Truth

not gazing through
but gazing at
not having a grip
rather being gripped by
not only understanding
but also standing to oneself
not penetrating
but simply beholding
this is how we become real


First published in Kontinente magazine, March 2009. Translated from the German by Erna Albertz. Top image © KNA

Andreas Knapp Andreas Knapp in his Leipzig neighborhood Photo from www.bistum-regensburg.de
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