Friendship, Culture, Life

The German Word You Need to Know

Guten Tag von Österreich (hello from Austria) — and welcome to “German Word of the Season”! The German language is full of fun guttural noises we native English speakers have never had to make before, along with many precise versions of the word “the” and terms so efficient they are sometimes almost untranslatable.

Because your FOCUS teams across the pond have been given the distinct pleasure (and sometimes challenge) of learning a new language for our mission, we wanted to share a bit of our first semester experience with you — especially in the way it is encapsulated by one of our new favorite words:

Gemütlichkeit: noun. (guh-myoot-likh-KAHYT) A sense of social and emotional well-being, geniality and belonging. 2. The cozy feeling of time spent among good friends. 

With the Christmas season upon us — and because it seemed to be an overarching theme of our first few months abroad — we could think of no better word than this one. The root, “gemütlich,” means “comfortable” or “cozy.” When you add the “keit,” it becomes a noun for which English has failed to provide an equally precise word. Gemütlichkeit is something difficult to describe, but you know it when you feel it.

Picture yourself sitting with your roommates or friends in a warm living room or around a table, talking about nothing and everything. Picture late one night at a retreat or conference when you should probably be sleeping, but you’re playing cards together and talking about what you’ve experienced instead. Picture your intramural team’s spontaneous fast food trip after your late-night match. Picture getting a coffee or a beer with a close friend who knows you well.

This sense, this Gemütlichkeit, isn’t just a nice feeling or emotional high; it points to a much deeper reality. For Christians, Gemütlichkeit is the human heart of a community. It’s a sense that you belong to one another and with one another, even when you know you’re all imperfect. From it flows a special ability to genuinely serve and honor each other, to forgive wrongs and to allow your own selfishness and bad habits to be ironed out. It says to the other, “Your being and presence is a goodness that deserves love, without proving or earning anything.” 

Whether you are a freshman, a third-year missionary assigned to a new campus, a mom of three or a transplant on a new continent, we all long for this Gemütlichkeit. We are longing to belong. To participate in this experience is a joy that refreshes us. To foster this experience is a gift to those around you. To lack this experience is a sure sign we have not yet learned the power of simply being together.

With the Christmas season quickly drawing near, we see Gemütlichkeit expressed in its fullness.  Can you imagine what it was like to be with the Holy Family on that first Christmas night?  Imagine the warmth that must have filled Mary and Joseph’s hearts as they watched their child sleeping peacefully.  The long-awaited Messiah, the one who was to fulfill all the promises and prophecies they had learned about since childhood, was content to rest in their presence, wrapped in blankets in a dirty manger full of hay.

This Messiah became Himself a baby just so that He could be with us, so He could belong to us and with us, and He waits even now in the tabernacles of the world to have that same presence with us, regardless of our flaws and failings. That’s Gemütlichkeit.

For the sake of ourselves and of others, this reality must be allowed to become the heart of our mission work, our roommate situations and our team lives. We want to invite people into the family of the Church where they are loved and belong for their existence itself.

Living halfway across the world, learning an entirely different language and culture, the missionary teams living in Vienna and Graz have had to practice how to cultivate and allow ourselves this authenticity of community. We spend time with one another while we eat, travel, pray, shop, have Bible studies and share our “realer” selves. We hosted a Thanksgiving feast for 40 students we have gotten to know over the semester, just to spend time with them and share something that reminds us of home. We invite people to hike with us, play sports, explore, get lost on our bicycles (actually that’s mostly just us…), go to McDonalds, spend way too much time in IKEA, get up really early to pray and have Mass in the dorms — anything we can share together, any way we can be together.

Our goal is to invite people into the family we have with one another as Christians, for their sakes as much as our own — so that when we miss our own families, awkwardly misunderstand cultural cues or simply experience the difficulty that is trying to love and live like saints in the modern world, the climate by which we are surrounded is one of peace, forgiveness and belonging to one another. 

So, how can you enter into the spirit of Gemütlichkeit — of the Incarnation — this Advent and Christmas season?  How can I let this time not be one of busyness, but of being together? Maybe call up your friend, teammate, fellow Bible study member or relative to talk about your breaks. Make real plans to do something positive with loved ones in the down-time, instead of isolating yourself in studying or Netflix. Take extra care to delight in your family and friends, even when it is difficult to see the treasure they are. Most especially, take some time to be in the presence of the God who has humbled Himself in every way just to be with you, exactly as you are.

PS. If you’re looking for fun/humbling bonding activities to do as a team, Bible study, or friend group, we fully recommend taking an intensive foreign language course!