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Interview: Ralf Masch, visitor guide, King’s College, Cambridge

29 September 2023

‘To be in a sacred space counts for a lot in an age when exposure to the holy is no longer a common experience’

The needs of our students and visitors are quite different. I strive to give students a sense of home and an atmosphere conducive to study. It’s a privilege to witness their journey, from freshers to finals. I help them to find lecture theatres or the Fellows’ offices, but my role is often to offer a word of encouragement, or listen during stressful times.

Coming to King’s College is often the highlight of visitors’ journeys to Cambridge,
but the sheer numbers can sometimes compromise our students’ privacy. The peek into the “sacred halls of learning” is fuelled by images seen in movies: Harry Potter, Chariots of Fire, and so on.

I honour (and occasionally adjust) these expectations.
Many travel from very far away, or come in fulfilment of long-held travel plans. I’ve witnessed tears of gratitude from Chinese visitors to the Xu Zhimo memorial garden, when I offered them last-minute entry after they had misread our opening hours.

I remind visitors that students are giving them an authentic glimpse into the life of a working college,
and foster the students’ pride in being part of an institution that captures the imagination of people from all around the world.

Many visitors come because of the chapel’s tremendous importance in their life as the location of the Nine Lessons and Carols,
the real start of their Christmas celebrations.

Most are awed by the sheer size and rich decorations when first stepping into the chapel,
and to be in a sacred space counts for a lot in an age when exposure to the holy is no longer a common experience.

I was born in Cologne,
the largest Catholic diocese and the art and media capital of Germany. I studied theatre, film, and television arts at the University of Cologne, but that offered few employment opportunities. I took a job at a newspaper, quickly rising to become the senior editor and, later, publisher.

I spent most of my childhood summers with my maternal great-grandparents in Amsterdam.
My mother told me only recently that my great-grandfather was not “Hans” as we called him, but Salomon Mopurgo. He was Jewish and had 11 siblings — all murdered in Auschwitz.

Salomon never talked about this,
and I now understand my interest in Jewish culture and the tragedy of the Holocaust. I subsequently made journeys to Auschwitz, and Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, and recently found the works of Etty Hillesum, which were performed in the chapel some years back.

In 1984, I moved to California to reunite with my father,
who had emigrated to the US in the late 1950s.

The One World Café, in San Francisco, fulfilled a long-held dream to open my living room to the public.
It was a hot-spot for live music, art exhibits, and other community events — and the best cappuccinos in San Francisco. Regulars included the jazz great John Handy, and the Romeo Void singer Deborah Lyall. “An inventive expression of what constitutes a vital café,” Patricia Unterman wrote in her Food Lover’s Guide to San Francisco.

After two years, the demands exceeded my energy.
The proceeds from the sale enabled me to take a sabbatical, most of which I spent at the New Camaldoli monastery in Big Sur [California]. In January 1995, I joined Parallax Press, becoming the publisher in October 1999.

For 20 years, I helped to transition the company from a small sole-proprietorship into the third most prominent Buddhist publisher in the US,
and a monastic-owned charitable organisation. We brought mindfulness into popular consciousness as a secular term for an attitude to life. And we contributed to the worldwide recognition of its main author, Thich Nhat Hanh.

I first heard about Thich Nhat Hanh
(Thây — meaning “teacher” — as he was known to his students) through an intriguing review of Peace is Every Step in a San Francisco newspaper. I signed up for my first retreat, where I got in touch with the San Francisco Bay Area Buddhist Sangha.

Meeting Thich Nhat Hanh focused my adolescent interest in Eastern spiritual traditions developing in Germany.
The I Ching opened a door to mysticism. It led to studying the Hindu Vedas, a brief excursion into Rudolf Steiner’s [philosophy of] anthroposophy, before learning about the Buddhist Sutras.

I helped organise Thây’s 1994 visit to the Bay Area,
and subsequently all his following US retreat and lecture tours until 2013. In 1994, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the Fragrant Mountain Ceremony in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s main monastery in France. In 2003, I became a fully ordained Dharma teacher [Zen master] in the Lieu Quán Dharma Line, belonging to the 42nd generation of the Lâm Te Dhyana School.

The ecstatic element in Eastern spiritual traditions created a counterpoint to the overly regimented way of life in Germany
— however stereotypical that view may be. After my return to Christianity and its own contemplative practice, I saw that churches had failed to teach its contemplative and mystical traditions in a way that was accessible to the younger generation.

I was fortunate enough to be exposed to it through the East-West practices of the Camaldoli monks in Big Sur.
I went on annual personal, silent retreats there for nearly 20 years, and was able for the first time to incorporate my Buddhist practices seamlessly with Christian ones. I deepened my practice through studying St Ignatius, and centring prayer, aided by my training in meditation and mindfulness.

Buddhism taught me not go after the big stroke but to pay close attention to each action or interaction,
and to create small gaps between thinking and acting that allow for a quick review of the intention behind each action. Nowadays, it may seem commonplace to say that I learned to pay attention to my breath; but the grounding and calming that resulted from simply paying attention to one’s breath was ground-breaking for me, and sustains me to this day — whether being present to visitors at King’s, or as practice during evensong and benediction at Little St Mary’s, my parish in Cambridge.

My real journey has been one of moving away from mindfulness
— not in the sense of the Buddhist practice, but in the sense of being “full of mind” — towards “heartfulness” which, for me, means living a life of service, giving, compassion, and care.

The chapel
doesn’t easily offer itself as a place of practice, except the smaller side chapels, where I often read morning prayers before visitors arrive. Several feature stained glass or paintings by 15th-century Rheinland artists, which give a deeply felt connection with art familiar from Cologne, especially the face of Mary, Mother of God.

The chapel is dedicated to Mary and St Nicholas,
and my prayer practice is focused on Mary. In 2017, I made a pilgrimage to Europe’s significant Marian shrines in petition of finding a kidney donor. The wish was granted in a wondrous way, with the unexpected gift by my ex-wife of her kidney. The feast of St Nicholas is a major feast day in Germany, and has many good — and one decidedly not so good — childhood memories.

When I open the main building and the side chapels in the morning, using 17th-century keys,
or older, I imagine the people who used these keys through the centuries who treasured these quiet and holy hours of the morning.

In my free time I swim,
hike, observe birds, animals, and clouds, or make homemade kale chips. I cry while watching romantic movies.

2017, I received the kidney transplant, and, now, every year since, seems a bonus year given to me by God. It fundamentally changed my outlook from wanting what I want to sitting back in trust and wonderment of what God’s still planning for me. “Thy will be done” is a daily recollection and re-commitment to God’s plans for me.

I’m a firm believer in the power of community;
so Brexit was a sad example of isolationism, made worse by the fact that it was presented using false and incomplete information. Bigotry, racism, hypocrisy make me sad.

Swimming, travelling, and being of service help me return to a place of happiness,
even though nowadays the word “happiness” has less significance to me than the word “joy”. Swimming still helps me to shake off the minor irritations of a day by connecting to the basic elements of life and feeling held by the world.

Travel is an inherited passion from my father.
It began from a sense of expanding the horizons of what I conceived to be a narrow-minded and foreign-phobic environment. Gradually, over the decades, it’s led to a sense of permanent pilgrimage, seeking communion with people from different cultures, lifestyles, and beliefs. It’s an antidote to the belief that there’s only one way to live.

I’m fortunate to live in Fulbourn
— originally Fugelbournia, meaning “place where the birds come”. They come here still, and their morning and evening concerts are reassurance of the continuity of life.

On the sacred level, I draw hope from the knowledge that God has a plan for the world.
On a secular level, I draw hope from my observation of a lessening of cynicism and negativity, and an increase in acceptance and care for others, mostly in the younger generation.

Some aspects of my religious practice have a childlike character,
hence prayer for me often still starts with “Lieber Gott” (Dear God), and with petitions for health and happiness for my parents, child, and spouse, as well as offering myself up to the will of God and the path that he has chosen for me.

I would love to have been present at a concert of the West Coast jazz musician Art Pepper.
I could be locked in a church with him. Or John of the Cross, whose writings on direct dialogue with God, and the idea of God pulling us toward him if we only outstretch our arms a little, had an enormous influence on me. Or Etty Hillesum, whose radiant joyfulness of practice amid the most horrendous circumstances are deeply inspiring for me. I’d like nothing more than to talk to her about how to find the source of this joy, and how to nourish it.

Ralf Masch was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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