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Bert Hellinger (Biography)
|Bert Hellinger considers his parents and his childhood home to be the first major influence on his later work. Their particuliar form of faith provided the entire family with an immunity against believing the distortions of National Socialism. Because of his repeated absences from the required meetings of the Hitler Youth Organization and his participation in an illegal Catholic youth organization, he was eventually classified by the Gestapo as ‘Suspected of Being an Enemy of the People.’ His escape from the Gestapo was paradoxically made possible when he got drafted. Just 17 years old, he became a soldier, experienced the realities of combat, capture, defeat, and life in a prisoner of war camp in Belgium with the allies. |
The second major influence is certainly his childhood wish to become a priest. At the age of 20, immediately after getting out of prisoner of war camp, he entered a Catholic religious order and began the long process of purification of body, mind and spirit in silence, study, contemplation and meditation.
His 16 years in South Africa as a missionary to the Zulu also deeply shaped his later work. There he directed a large school, taught, and was parish priest simultaneously. He tells with satisfaction that 13% of all black Africans attending university in South Africa at that time were students of this one mission school. He learned the Zulu language well enough to teach and minister, but he tells amusing anecdotes about the courteous dignity of the Zulu people when he inadvertently said something rude rather than what he intended. With time he came to feel as much at home with them as is possible for a European. The process of leaving one culture to live in another sharpened his awareness of the relativity of many cultural values.
His peculiar ability to perceive systems in relationships and his interest in the human commonalty underlying cultural diversity made itself apparent during those years–he saw that many of Zulu rituals and customs had a structure and function similar to elements of the Mass, pointing to common human experiences, and he experimented with integrating Zulu music and ritual form into the Mass. His commitment to the goodness of cultural and human variety is deep, and to the validity of doing things in different ways. The Sacred is present everywhere.
The next major influence was his participation in an inter-racial, ecumenical training in group dynamics led by Anglican clergymen. They had brought a form of working with groups from America that valued dialogue, phenomenology, and individual human experience. He experienced for the first time a new dimension of caring for souls. He tells how one of the trainers once asked the group, "What’s more important to you, your ideals or people? Which do you sacrifice for the other?" A sleepless night followed, for the implications of the question are profound. Hellinger says, "I’m very grateful to that minister for asking that. In a sense, the question changed my life. That fundamental orientation toward people has shaped all my work since. A good question’s worth a lot."
His decision to leave the religious order after 25 years was amicable. He describes how he gradually became clear that being a priest no longer was an appropriate expression of his inner growth. With characteristic impeccability and consequent action, he made his decision and gave up the life he had known so long. He returned to Germany, began a psychoanalytic training in Vienna, met his future wife, Herta, and they married soon after. They have no children.
Psychoanalysis was to be the next major influence. As with everything he did, he threw himself into his psychoanalytic training, eventually reading the complete works of Freud and much of the other relevant literature as well. But with an equally typical love of inquiry, when his training analyst gave him a copy of Janov’s Primal Scream shortly before he completed his training–a book the training analyst had
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