Let’s Grow Together: Interview with Matthias Luckwaldt

luckwaldt2Matthias Luckwaldt is a 35-year-old freelance journalist from Germany. A practicing Buddhist for the past few years, he became interested in Quakerism while researching Pennsylvania online, stumbling upon William Penn and his Holy Experiment. As a German, Matthias particularly enjoyed learning about the ship Concord, which in 1683, brought 13 Quaker and Mennonite families from Krefeld, Germany, to the New World, where they founded Germantown. “It was our Mayflower after all!” he says. Around this same time, he and his husband were planning a road trip on the East Coast of the United States. He decided to visit the “famous Quaker places in Philadelphia,” and maybe even have a “real worship experience.” Upon returning from their trip in August, he began attending Hamburg Meeting in Germany, a country where there are about 150 total members of the Religious Society of Friends.

What were your early experiences of faith, and what are your more recent experiences?

I grew up in Germany in the state of Thuringia, which is, together with Saxony, the heartland of the German Reformation under Martin Luther and also other radical reformers like Thomas Müntzer. I was raised in a tradition which combined Lutheran with Calvinist traits. So I was baptized as a kid—as it is a custom there—but my parents weren’t very religious. As a teenage member of the church, I visited the service from time to time, but I had to do the inner work for myself without any spiritual guidance from my family. I tried to be a good Christian until my early 20s. I always made attempts to do more, to read more scripture, to pray more, to go more to church. However there was some moment later when I discovered that Lutheranism didn’t work for me anymore. There’s this quote from George Fox: It didn’t “speak to my condition.” It’s very perfect for the situation I was in. For some years then I was not religious at all. I think I had other problems to face because I also discovered that I am a gay man, and so religion was something that didn’t match for me at the time.

Three years ago, I read in a magazine about a Buddhist retreat center in Frankfurt, Germany. I was in a time of change and thought, “Oh, maybe this is good.” I didn’t know much about the religion, but I decided to go there for a 12-day retreat and I liked it very much. In the months after, I did a lot of research on Buddhism and learned about the Tibetan tradition. So I began to visit a Tibetan Buddhist center in Munich where I was living at this time. I didn’t became a Buddhist immediately, but I felt this might be something that I can work with in the future. I was at a retreat in April of this year where I met a Buddhist monk from Newport, Washington. Her name is Thubten Chodron. She’s also an author, and she’s somehow my teacher now because I was excited to meet her there and again here in Germany.

How did you learn more about Quakerism when you first became interested?

I first read about Quakers a couple years ago when I was living in Munich and looking for a spiritual group there. I read on their webpage: “We are a small group, and we meet at the home of one of our members.” And I was like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t work for me [chuckles].” At least it didn’t work for me at this time, to worship in a private space. So it was a very short encounter. I came across Quakerism again when I read about the history of Pennsylvania and about William Penn. When we visited Philadelphia this year, I went to Arch Street Meeting House and took a tour, and this was the first time I learned about the testimonies. Then I went to the Free Quaker Meetinghouse and also to Friends Center on Cherry Street, and browsed through the library there, so I could read some books. Soon afterward I started to buy books about Quakerism.

I wasn’t able to go to a worship meeting in Philadelphia, but when we went on to Washington, D.C., on the last Sunday of our trip, we attended a meeting for worship [at Friends Meeting of Washington]. During the following weeks, I read six more books on Quaker practice and virtues and subscribed to Friends Journal. One of the first books I read was by Philip Gulley; it was also about the testimonies: Living the Quaker Way. Actually I’m not much of a bookworm. However, reading the stories of Robert Lawrence Smith, Rex Ambler, Margaret Fell, and others, I often felt like, “This is me talking.” I read all about the testimonies, and everything spoke for me. Simplicity is very important for me, and also equality, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I was always thinking like this without thinking about being a Quaker.”

What aspects about the Quaker way resonated with you in your readings?

At first, the book on all the testimonies was very important for me. At the moment, I enjoy reading The Journal of John Woolman and his early feelings for justice and equality. I think it was an extremely revolutionary view for his time. In Buddhism I kind of miss something like the testimonies. We always have the focus on mindfulness and on compassion. Those are great teachings. But sometimes I have the feeling that it’s just a concept, or it’s just a training for a single person. Many practitioners I have met just try to dwell in meditation and equanimity. For me, it’s not enough. Even the Dalai Lama has criticized that Buddhists could learn from the Christian emphasis on public welfare. There are some good examples, of course, but German Buddhist are rather stuck. So I think I was missing something that was written down like the testimonies. It is a great part of Quakerism, and has inspired a new leading for service.

But beyond just the outside service, I’m also drawn to the faith or spiritual part of Quakerism, particularly the belief in the Inner Light. It reminds me of Buddha Nature in Buddhism. I know it’s not the same if you compare the traditional Quaker view and Buddhist scriptures, however both concepts give us strength and reassure that every person has the possibility to be free from suffering. I do believe that all beings have the Inner Light—whether it’s the light of Christ or some other divine source. I came to realize that Quakerism offered everything I didn’t like about growing up in the Lutheran tradition. I asked myself, “Would I have ever studied Buddhism if I had met the Quakers earlier?” I can’t give an answer to that. However, I’m sure I could not appreciate Quakerism as much as I can without the experiences I gained from the Dharma. So it’s interfering; it’s not just one way.

What is your experience of meeting for worship like in Germany?

It’s completely different from Philadelphia or Washington because it’s much, much smaller. At Hamburg Meeting, there are in general about eight people at meeting for worship. In Germany, Friends have only one meetinghouse, which is in a city called Bad Pyrmont. But in all other cities, they have to rent spaces from other churches. And we’re in a space from a Lutheran church. It’s more intimate with just a few people.

To go to Hamburg Meeting, I have about a 45-minute ride on the train. During this time, I already try to center down a little bit: I don’t look at my smartphone, I don’t read, although I have all these great Quaker books. I’ve read that lots of newcomers have a problem to sit in the silence and to stay calm for an hour or so. For me, it is not so hard because I already did meditation before in Buddhism. It’s okay to be silent for an hour. When I’m there in worship, I start by first concentrating on my breath, breathing in and out. However I try not to mistake it for Buddhist breathing meditation. I just start to breathe, to concentrate, and then try to wait patiently—and this is something you don’t find in Buddhism—for the still, small voice within. I didn’t know this idea before but it really resonates with me.

You mentioned a new leading for service. Where has that taken you?

I had this leading already many months before, but reading about the testimony of service has confirmed my feeling and gave me more strength to do something. I just started a penpalship with a prisoner on death row. And I just learned about Elizabeth Fry so I’m excited to read about her because she was a great reformer of the prison system. We have exchanged two letters now. I try to avoid writing too much about faith, because I think a lot of prisoners get letters from people who want to only talk exactly about that. But in the last letter, I said something like, “I believe that there’s a light in everybody.” And he’s included in this. I didn’t mention that, but it was what I was thinking. Although he might have done something bad in the past, I didn’t ask about it and I don’t intend to do so. It’s okay if he’d like to share it, but I don’t feel a need to know why he’s on death row. Because everybody, me included, has done something bad in the past. But I think everyone should have the chance to be treated well, even if he is in prison.

I’ve also served with Buddhist groups. Last year we had monks from Tibet visiting, and I helped with the communications. We also had some exhibits from Tibet, and I was a sort of press coordinator for the events. I try to do what I can beyond my job.

Where would you like to see Quakerism in the coming years?

Next year we are celebrating 500 years of Reformation in Germany. I’m currently studying religion at the University of Hamburg, and we had a lecture where the professor mentioned that, actually, the smaller reformations, first the Mennonites, later the Quakers, have done much more for social liberation than Luther. Friends can be a beacon and force for equality and tolerance still today. I wonder: Are they keen to keep their reputation to be the most progressive part of the Reformation?

In the United States Quakerism is already a great movement, and I would like to see it be a bigger movement in Germany as well. I think we’re in a time now where people—especially in Germany—are leaving the churches because they don’t like all the doctrines and old traditions. So that’s why, for example, Buddhism is flourishing in Germany. I think Quakerism has something to offer for seekers who don’t like to be part of a church with many doctrines and creeds but who are still looking for a place of tolerance and openness and spiritual companionship. Quakers can offer all of that. We just need to get the message out and say, “We are here, and we have a great tradition.”

This interview was conducted by associate editor Gail Whiffen. Our Let’s Grow Together series profiles those who are newer to Friends. Do you know someone we should interview? Reach us at editors@friendsjournal.org.

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