Elisabeth Ziegler-Duregger – Portrait of a Peacemaker

“When you grow up in Lienz, you become a tree, and trees do not leave.”

Elisabeth spoke these words to me as we hiked a short trail up the Eastern Tyrolian Alps in Austria. I stopped by her small town of Lienz to pay her a visit after ambling through Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on an aimless vacation. Predominantly Catholic, Lienz is nestled snugly in Western Austria between two breathtaking Alps mountain ranges. The train ride there was full of picturesque white churches resting at the base of the valley. Sun-drenched in the summer and snow-soaked in the winter, it’s a beautiful village at the confluence of the Isel and Drava rivers.

I came with the ‘excuse’ of wanting to help her out with her interfaith projects, even though my German was limited to a few, trivial phrases (“Do you speak German?” ; “Come on baby!”). In reality, though, it was my first journey to a see true peacemaker in action. Her work embodies the spirit of pacifism and imaginative originality. In thought and deed since childhood, Elisabeth has always felt the spark of peace and creativity converge inside of her. “Peace is not an end,” She told me, “The real value of peace lies in its ability to form friendships.”

In 1974, before she was twenty, Elisabeth became of the head of the Lienz Public Library, located inside the city’s Franciscan Monastery. She’s been working at the library ever since, all the while trying to engage her local community to open up about issues of theology and gender. Lienz isn’t a particularly diverse town either. Almost every resident is brought up Catholic, although with its recent refugee housing development it has begun to welcome folks from different cultural backgrounds. I did hear that one of her friends was Buddhist (as am I, although I didn’t meet her) and that Lienz is home to a single Baha’i couple (whom I did meet).

On my first full day, she brought me to St. Helena – a 300 year-old hilltop church with an enormous, deciduous tree twice that age towering among those South-facing Alps. Our walk there was coupled with wonderful peace shrines with prayers for the earth. Cows with bells, fresh mountains, brooks, friends who drink fresh creek water together, she helped me realize the thread dividing life and death is so small, so why hurry? The view from the top over Lienz and E. Tyrol made me completely forget my yearning to find a playable piano. God, friendship, the holy spirit, and Elisabeth’s blessed presence as first washed away all feelings of inadequacy.

We later walked to her hut nestled amidst the monumental Austrian mountains. Rows of trees lay beneath us with a tiny pool just down the hill. 1800 meters up in the freshest air and water I could possibly breath. We spent over five hours resting on her porch, talking about the great spiritual power of these mountains. Her words reached out to the mountains and they in turn echoed a tender, sharp emotional response which I couldn’t help but be moved by. The crisp, alpine atmosphere that surrounds Lienz leads its residents to harbor a deep connection to the environment. Its presence was strong within me and I was only there for a weekend.

This spiritual tendency has manifested itself into a great many creative, community minded projects for Elisabeth. Despite the lack of religious and ethnic diversity in Lienz, Elisabeth has succeeded in engaging her hometown neighborhood with creative forms of interfaith dialogue and intercultural service.

Here are a few of her most recent undertakings to foster friendship in her life:

The Little Owl – a children’s story written by Lene Mayer-Skumanz with pictures from the Italian artist Salvatore Sciascia, with music for the story written by the Madagascan band Mahaleo. The story focuses on a small owl who tries to find out who created the world. Elisabeth facilitated the translation of this story into over 30 languages. If you’re interested in translating this story into your native tongue, or would like to read the story, please go here .

Stones of Encounter – The project has already gathered stones from over 80 countries. If you’re interested in sending a sacred stone from your local community to the project, you may contact Elisabeth at info@bildung-frieden.net.

Bells of Peace & Friendship – Elisabeth has worked with the timing of the bells from ten different churches in Lienz. When these bells ring, members from the community take a moment, twice each day, to think what they can do to bring about peace & friendship in her self, family, or village.

Poetry CD – Elisabeth has written a number of beautiful poems ranging from issues of spirituality to the healing process after losing a child. The saxophone / piano duo Saxolution accompanies her poems, which are voiced by the wonderful Austrian actress Heilwig Pfanzelter. You can preview the music and purchase one of her albums here.

By Seth Kinzie – Outreach Director of Monks Without Borders