Franciscan priest locked in a nun's cell for a week

Paul Zahner: "Life in a cell is madness - strange and challenging".

Franciscan Paul Zahner was locked in the Wiborada cell from 16 to 22 July. He recounts his experience. "It is simply fascinating that such a cell was set up by a group of women. And this today," says Zahner. He takes a stand on women's priesthood, saying that in theology he experiences "only polemics about it." And he gives advice for good theology.

Why did you decide to go to the Wiborada cell for a week?

Paul Zahner: Wiborada began to fascinate me. She is the world's first canonised woman of the Church (1047). Obviously she was very headstrong and lived in a cell in a way I couldn't possibly imagine. Wasn't that madness? But the time knew inclusions and knew this way of life. That is strange and challenging. I wanted to experience living in such a cell once. The accompaniment by the diocesan nun in St. Gallen, Sister Fabienne Bucher, was wonderful. She knows Wiborada very well and knows how to accompany her kindly. It is simply fascinating that such a cell was set up by a women's group. And this today.

What were your expectations for this week and were they fulfilled?

Zahner: The expectations were very much fulfilled. One is not completely enclosed, but can also go outside. I sometimes also enjoyed the silence of the church of St. Mangen, on the other side of the inner window. I was almost always alone there. I once visited St. Georgen, where Wiborada lived with some women in the church. But Wiborada's cell became dear to me. There it is all about God and not about a thousand other things. It became a Franciscan place for me, even though Wiborada lived before Francis and was killed in 926. Her dress, splashed with red paint, hangs in the church of St. Mangen as a sign of an artist's struggle.

What were the greatest challenges? Were there moments of fear or anxiety?

Zahner: To endure myself was the biggest problem. There was only me and God in that cell. And my ego often made itself so big that God no longer had room next to it. Only in the course of the days did God regain the innermost place and I became unimportant next to Him. Unpleasant were the noises one hears in such a wooden cell. Are they people who are in the city? Or animals? Unpleasant was going to the toilet at night.

Is there a connection between Franciscan theology, Wiborada and the question of women's priesthood?

Zahner: As far as I know, all Franciscan theologians of the Middle Ages were against the possibility of a women's priesthood. But they had to deal with this question after the presentation of the Sentences of Peter Lombardus and had quite different arguments. Since I began to study theology in 1985, I have only experienced polemics on this question. Unfortunately. The conservatives call you heretical if you are in favour of women's priesthood. The progressives consider you misogynistic and completely outdated if you are against the women's priesthood. But good theology seeks substantive arguments for both opinions.

And what would be the better way for the theological debate?

Zahner: In theological questions in the Middle Ages, the opinion of the persons who are against something had to be described in content first, and then the opinion of the persons who are for something. Both arguments must be known and described quite factually. Only then does the formulation of one's own opinion begin; the arguments for saying yes and for saying no must be included. We have hardly begun these lines of argumentation and have no peace in them. Attentiveness to others is the basis of all good theology.

To what extent has Franciscan theology been influenced by holy women? 

Holy women are essential in Franciscanism. Francis cannot be understood at all without Clare of Assisi. Without Clare, Francis would not really have been able to follow his path. Her life of contemplation was for him the centre of an intense encounter with God. Elizabeth of Thuringia, whose texts we are working on in a working group, is quite fundamental for a life in partnership. She lived her partnership very intensively and almost broke up when her husband died of a plague on the crusade.

Do you have any other examples of women?

Zahner: Angela of Foligno, who cultivated a mysticism hardly known in German-speaking countries, which grew directly out of the encounter with God, so that she began to cry out in a church because God touched her. Charitas Brader, who as a Swiss woman entered the adventure of the mission, and combined the hard mission work in Latin America with intensive prayer before the Eucharist. It is necessary to rediscover these intensive features of a woman's perspective in Franciscanism and in the Church in general. It is a treasure that is still little noticed.

How would Saint Wiborada approach such questions?

Zahner: Wiborada lived synodally to the last. She was not concerned with long discussions on difficult questions or with democratic voting in order to follow the majority, but was concerned solely with the question of where she could meet God now and where the Holy Spirit was present. That was the only thing she was in the locked cell for. She prayed intensely for hours and spent ten whole years in her locked hermitage. What does God want?

And what was Wiborada's position on the women's priesthood?

Zahner: In the question of women's priesthood, it is absolutely necessary to ask the question: What does God want? What does the Holy Spirit want? Of course it needs broad theological discussions, open to everything, it needs respect for the previous tradition of the Church, even if we could no longer share it, and it needs feelings that trigger this question anew in me and go in this or that direction.

Are the Sisters of the Fahr Convent a role model for you here?

Zahner: I admire the sisters in the Fahr convent who, on Thursday evenings, pray intensely to God to tell us what to do about these questions. May HE answer, not us. We should all pray intensively and ask in which direction God wants to lead us. Let us trust in God, like Wiborada.

Brother Paul Zahner OFM lives in the Franciscan monastery in Näfels GL. He is a priest, Guardian, Custodian and Moderator of the Franciscan Research Workshop. Zahner is also a member of the editorial commission of "Helvetia Franziscana".



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