This Sweat I Hold Dear

The front gate to the École on the Nablus Road.

I am here! After a nearly yearlong process of making contacts, writing applications, and settling logistics, I am here at Couvent Saint-Étienne in Jerusalem for the Smith Fellowship. I must first begin by thanking God and His Mother for bringing me here and, more importantly, bringing me here safely.

On Friday, June 28, I set out from my home for my flight from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, which was set to take off at around 5 P.M. After being in the car for four agonizing hours of traffic, we finally arrived, and I bid my parents goodbye for six weeks (I couldn’t have done any of this without their love and support, so thanks, you two!). I knew immediately that Divine Providence had already begun directing my trip when, right before going through security, I received a text from Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., a wonderful professor and mentor of mine at PC and a great friend. He was asking whether I was flying out of Newark…and that he was currently at Newark. Now, Fr. Nic travels a lot, so seeing him in an airport wouldn’t be that surprising usually, but I know the fact that our paths crossed that day was no coincidence. He sat with me for about an hour at my gate, gave me some encouraging final words, and ended by giving me a blessing before I left. I felt ready. I boarded the plane, and off I went.

Fr. Nicanor and myself at Newark.
The coast of Israel and Palestine on the Mediterranean from my plane’s window.

I spent the ten-hour flight listening to music, praying the Rosary, and compiling all the prayer intentions people have sent me the past few weeks. I got one restless hour of sleep somewhere over the North Atlantic. I didn’t even watch any movies—I just watched the map on the screen in front of me as it tracked our plane. Looking out of my window, I could make out the Danube when we flew over Serbia, the Dardanelles as we passed from Europe into Asia, and the coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. We touched down at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv at 10:20 A.M. on Saturday, June 29. After going through passport control and retrieving my luggage, I found Fr. Anthony waiting for me. We stepped outside into the Tel Aviv summer air and…wow. Like a blast furnace, the heat smacked me right in the face.

This, the oppressive heat, is the first reason I sweat. It is a sweat that makes the body pine for air conditioning, ice cubes, the North Pole, anything. It does not let up for the entirety of the day, and even continues into the night. It is a sweat that is constant and uncomfortable. But it is a sweat that reminds one that he is alive. It reminds him he has a beating heart and a weak body. It reminds him he is human and that his refreshment is not in something physical. And, for this lesson, this sweat is worth it.

It took about half an hour to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, along the way, Fr. Anthony enlightened me as to the different climates in the Holy Land, pointed out several Biblical sites as we passed them, and told me a hundred other things I was surprised he knew by living here just a few years. Ashdod, Ashkelon, Yearim, Bethlehem, Jerusalem—you are used to seeing the names of these places in the Bible, but, I will admit, seeing them on road signs feels very strange. Driving through the northern part of Jerusalem, we arrived at the École Biblique and Saint-Étienne, located on the Nablus Road a couple hundred meters from the Damascus Gate. That means, when I come out onto the street from the priory compound and look to my left, I can see the Old City of Jerusalem. Having already been to this place last year and having stayed in a pilgrim house across the street from the École, it felt surreal to see everything again. It felt like I had never left. Anyway, Fr. Anthony had an engagement so showed me to my room and left me to unpack and eat lunch in the refectory, though I did not know anyone else yet.

Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, founder of the Ècole Biblique.

The École was founded in 1890 by Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P., a French Dominican ordered to found a school for biblical studies in Jerusalem, where the Order already had a priory. Upon arriving in the Holy Land for the first time, Fr. Lagrange wrote, “I was moved, seized, gripped by this sacred land, and I abandoned myself to the delightful appreciation of distant and historic times. I had so loved the book, and here I was gazing at its setting!” (Henry Wansbrough (trans.), Père Lagrange: Personal Reflections and Memoirs). That is much more beautifully put than I could have put it, but I completely understand his sentiment. It is a chilling feeling to think of a verse of the Gospel and, instead of having to imagine the setting in your mind, be able to contemplate it in person.Owing to its founding by Frenchmen, most of the friars at the École are still Frenchmen, and the common language of the house, used for Mass, the Divine Office, and dinner table talk, is French. Nonetheless, there are also friars here from Poland, Italy, India, Mexico, Benin, Vietnam, Germany, and a single friar from America, Fr. Anthony. The room I am staying in is in the Ancien Couvent, the oldest building on premises and right next to the room once occupied by Fr. Lagrange himself. Oh yeah, and there is no AC (awesome). The gardens of the complex are really quite beautiful and are filled with olive trees, fruit trees, flowers, gravel paths, beekeeping hives, and a ton of sleepy cats lying around. The Basilica of Saint Stephen (Saint-Étienne), also on the grounds of the priory complex, is a breathtaking nineteenth-century church made to resemble its fifth-century predecessor in the same area. This is the main church for the veneration of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith.

The entrance to the Ancien Couvent, the oldest building on site; also, where I am staying.
The main hall of the priory, on one side bordered by the refectory and on the other leading out to the gardens.
La basilique Saint-Étienne.

The work and study of the friars for the past 130 years has resulted in research and scholarship that is a step above; a Dominican here was one of the first archaeologists to excavate the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and Dominicans from the École created and translated the famous Jerusalem Bible in the 1950s and 60s. It is safe to say that the brains here are a bit larger than everywhere else. I have seen it already, just in normal conversation at lunch or dinner, or by observing the friars in the library. They are extremely bright, which is a bit intimidating, and my sweat glands kick in again.

This, a fear of appearing stupid, is the second reason I sweat. It is a sweat that makes one want to be alone, but not out of seeking solitude, but instead out of fear of appearing ridiculous, ignorant, or inadequate. It is a sweat that seeks to limit, isolate, and embarrass. But it is a sweat that reminds one, especially one conducting difficult research, that he needs help, guidance, and humility. It reminds him true wisdom is not in acquiring all knowledge, but in praying that what knowledge he needs will be given him. And, for this lesson, this sweat is worth it, too.

Nearly all streets in Jerusalem are quasi-markets. This is in the Muslim Quarter approaching the Damascus Gate to leave the Old City.

On Sunday morning, I travelled through the Damascus Gate into the Old City for the first time on this trip. Fr. Anthony and I walked through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem to the Austrian Hospice, the pilgrim house that most Austrians and Germans stay at when they make a visit to the Holy Land. Father celebrated a Dominican Rite Mass (the Mass for the Dominican Order that would have been celebrated before the Second Vatican Council) there in the chapel of the Hospice, which has not changed since the days of the Habsburg emperors. Stepping into the small chapel, you are struck by its ornate beauty and the dozens of plaques commemorating all the Austrian emperors to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. After the Mass, Father, a few attendees from Mass, and I had coffee on the terrace of the Hospice, and I got to know a few Americans and Frenchmen currently living and studying in Jerusalem. Besides the friars, the lay people I have met thus far are all very kind. Afterward, I finally ventured out into the Old City by myself, making a beeline for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world. Having been there last year, I knew what it looked like. Nonetheless, upon stepping into the church this time, I couldn’t believe where I was. I looked up at the dome above the site of our Lord’s tomb. How was I here? While I could make this post an in-depth account of the sites at the Holy Sepulchre, I will save it for a later post. I will be there a lot over these six weeks.

The chapel in the Austrian Hospice, where Fr. Anthony celebrates Mass on Sundays.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, location of the final stations of the Cross, Mt. Calvary, and our Lord’s Tomb. A personal favorite.

On Monday, I got a tour of the library from Fr. Paweł, a Polish friar who is the librarian of the École. Once I understood how the library worked, I settled in and began. I confess, jumping right into my research after so long picturing what it would be like has made the past few days overwhelming. However, I have to keep reminding myself that I am by far the most junior and probably the youngest academic in this library, and, while they are writing thousand page commentaries, I just have to focus on my undergraduate thesis. Unless I keep that in perspective, I’ll probably go crazy.

On Tuesday, I spent the morning in the library, which I think is how it will probably be most days, and then went out to Dormition Abbey in the afternoon. The German Benedictine abbey is located on the site where, according to tradition, Mary, having “fell asleep” (from dormitio, the Latin for “sleep”), was assumed into heaven. The abbey is in an area called Mount Zion, right outside the walls of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In fact, the area it is in is likely where Christ spent his time in Jerusalem before and after Holy Week. I spent a couple hours there, praying in the crypt, taking note of the beautiful frescoes throughout the church, and sitting outside just marveling at its architecture (and at the fact our Lady’s body is literally in heaven).

Dormition Abbey, a church of German Benedictine monks on Mount Zion.
The crypt of the abbey, in which is an empty sarcophagus with a shroud of Mary on top. Her statue lies below the frescoes of Old Testament women with Christ in the middle.
The Cenacle. This room actually sits above the site where Jews have a synagogue in the “Tomb of King David.”

Today (Wednesday), after my time in the library, I went over to Mount Zion again, this time to the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, a large medieval room venerated since it sits on top of where the upper room of the Last Supper was. Like at the Dormition, I really tried to take it all in, so I stayed a couple hours, contemplating the Eucharist and praying for the faith to believe more and more each day in the reality that is our Lord’s Presence in Holy Communion. Walking back from the Cenacle, my heart pounded as I briskly walked back outside the Old City and toward my temporary home at Saint-Étienne. I have already walked many, many miles down countless streets packed with holiness during these past few days. So, naturally, I was sweating again.

This, a joy of being here where our Lord chose to die and rise, is the third reason I sweat. This is a sweat that is more pleasant than the rest. It is a sweat that is only gained by determination, devotion, and an eagerness to see the holy sites here in Jerusalem. It is a sweat that reminds one that our Lord sweated: at work in Nazareth, in the desert, and in His Passion. It reminds him he is most blessed, and meant, to be here. And it reminds him the next several weeks, with God’s help, will be good.

Please continue to pray my fellow Smith Fellows and me. Saint Christopher, Saint Dominic, and Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.


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