Vexilla Regis Prodeunt

Jerusalem as viewed from the Mount of Olives.

French people drink coffee out of bowls.

Israeli honey is seriously good.

I have gotten lost every time I have gone into the Armenian Quarter.

Pita bread.

I heard two cats fight to the death outside my window one night.

Shorts = tourist.

Not walking fast enough or looking like you have a purpose = tourist.

You can smell the toilet before you see it (honestly very helpful in finding one when you’re walking around).

Elderly Russian Orthodox women will literally kill you if you get in their way.

Don’t accept the free coffee in the Christian Quarter.

Pita bread.

Don’t jaywalk.

I highly recommend going to a dentist in Israel, for the air conditioning if for nothing else.

If you can find me a song in Arabic that doesn’t have the word “habibi” in it, I will pay you money.

Pita bread.

Just some of my random thoughts, observations, and tips learned from my time here thus far. I have been here less than two weeks, and, yet, I have learned so much.

Jerusalem is a city all her own. It is a city of a thousand different cultures, a thousand tongues, and a thousand peoples. Go for a stroll and you will hear Hebrew, Russian, French, and Armenian; Arabic, Greek, Amharic, and English; German, Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish. It is extremely tough to describe, because, I’d be willing to bet, you have never seen a place where so many different peoples have met in one place. Jerusalem has always been a place where worlds have collided. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have fought for control of the Holy Land for the past two thousand years, rubbing up alongside each other: claiming, defending, fighting, sacrificing, praying. It is tough to know where to begin, but I suppose I’ll start with the geography. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Despite the names, these respective groups flow over into each other’s quarters and foot traffic sees all different sorts in each place. Souks, or markets, are found in every crevice of the city, especially near to each of the seven gates that provide entry to the city. Their names, alone, speak to the antiquity and rich history of the city: Herod’s Gate, St. Stephen’s Gate (also called Lion Gate), Damascus Gate, Zion Gate, New Gate, Dung Gate, Jaffa Gate. Leaving the Old City’s sixteenth century walls by one of these gates: to the north is a mainly Arab section (where the École is) that formed part of Jordanian East Jerusalem before the Six Day War; to the west is the heavily Jewish section of the city, West Jerusalem (where Jews first settled after the creation of the Israeli state and contain large European Jewish populations); to the east is the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives; and to the south is also former Jordanian, Arab territory, the Gehenna Valley (you might remember the name from the Bible) and the location of the ancient City of David. Within the Old City is the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Western Wall, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Jews have prayed here unrestricted since the Jordanians were forced out of the Old City in the Six Day War of 1967. This is all that remains of Herod’s Temple of the first century.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits atop the Temple Mount, above the Western Wall. The Dome of the Rock (shiny gold-domed thing you think of when you think of Jerusalem) is the other mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount.
St. Stephen’s Gate (Lion Gate), the entrance to Jerusalem coming from the Mount of Olives. According to some traditions, this is where St. Stephen was martyred.

To say that Jerusalem is a twenty-first century city is far off. It has elements of the first century, the twelfth century, the twenty-first century and the architecture, street names, laws, and styles of dress of every century in between. You walk down St. Francis Street, Al-Halediya Street, Via Dolorosa, Tiferet Yisrael, and Armenian Patriarchate Road. You can see men in fezzes, keffiyehs, jeans, turbans, suits, shtreimels, thobes, and, yes, Dominican habits. You can see women in hijabs, veils, niqabs, tichels, wigs, and, yes, Dominican habits. If you don’t know what these words mean, don’t worry—I didn’t know what they meant two weeks ago! You see Jews with sidelocks dressed like it’s winter in Lithuania, Orthodox priests with long beards, and sandals galore. What has impressed upon me about Middle Eastern dress the most is how modest and formal it is. In this sense it is quite beautiful and dignified. The sounds of Jerusalem are just as interesting as the sights. You can hear church bells throughout the city ring out for the Angelus three times a day. You hear the Muslim call to prayer sound five times a day from the dozens of minarets. On Fridays at sunset, all throughout Israel, extremely loud sirens ring for a couple minutes, signaling the beginning of Shabbat for the Jews. The smells of the city also fill your nose with spices, fresh baked bread, and, unfortunately, very ~devout~ religious men who love God but hate showers.

I think this is the funniest thing I have seen so far.
A look inside a Christian shop near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Pilgrims and a Franciscan in the Holy Sepulchre.

As for the École Biblique itself, I have been able to learn and contemplate just how beautiful it is. The friars come here, as they have for 130 years, to contemplate the Bible in its setting. It is a part of their very being. And, while these friars are Americans, Frenchmen, and Poles, there is something about them that says that their hearts are native. No doubt, Jerusalem is a very different place from when Fr. Lagrange arrived here in 1890. There were only 9,000 Jews living in Jerusalem and the sultan ruled over everyone from far away in Constantinople. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem and the sultan is no more. Nonetheless, the friars have continued here almost without change. Their studies and preaching no doubt are a large contribution to the intellectual devotion of the Order of Preachers, the service of the Church, and an aid to the native Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The basilica at the École viewed from the gardens.
From my pilgrimage to Bethlehem, when we got off in the middle of the Judaean countryside. The Monastery of Mar Elias is in the background.
The Kathisma.

Last Thursday, I travelled to Bethlehem. I went with a Finnish woman named Ulla, an archaeologist who was researching here at the École. Ulla is Finnish Orthodox, so, on the way, she wanted to stop off at an Orthodox monastery called Mar Elias, about halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We got off the bus and walked, but the monastery was closed. It is funny (but we certainly didn’t find it funny at the time) that the Orthodox rarely if ever have their churches and holy sites open when their own websites and time schedules say they will be open. Almost like it’s on purpose or something…Well, anyway, we still were in luck, for not too far from the monastery were the ruins of a Byzantine church called the Kathisma, or “The Seat of Mary.” This is supposed to have been the place where our Lady rested on her way to Bethlehem while still pregnant with the Child Jesus. It is very sad because the ruins are just sitting there, right next to a busy road, littered with trash. At one time such a venerated spot is now overgrown with weeds. We venerated the rock of Mary’s rest and Ulla told me everything she knew about the Kathisma, its architecture, its history, and its destruction. We got back on the bus and continued on to Bethlehem. After going through the checkpoint, we walked around the “peace wall” and made our way up the steep hill that is Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity. We had to stand in line for two hours to venerate the spot of our Lord’s birth in the grotto of the church. It is all a part of the pilgrim experience, however, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, for, while waiting in line, we had the opportunity to admire the beauty and antiquity that is the church, pray, and meet other pilgrims. We met a Greek Cypriot pilgrim group and their leader, a man named Theo, spoke English. He was kind in letting us tag on to his group as we elbowed and shoved our way down into the grotto (for that is the only way to get down there, and, you will find, Eastern Christians are much more assertive about seeing their holy sites than Western pilgrims).

Palestinians love the Irish, and flags were everywhere in Bethlehem.
Inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Custody of the holy site, like in the Holy Sepulchre, is shared by several Catholic and Orthodox sects.
Russian, Cypriot, and Spanish pilgrims (plus an American and a Finn!) descending into the Grotto of the Nativity.

As our group and several other groups waited on the steps descending to the grotto for the signal from the Orthodox priest that we could enter, a Romanian pilgrim began singing Adeste Fideles in Romanian. Slowly, each person began joining in in his own language. I never thought I would sing a Christmas song on a ninety-degree day, but there I was, moved by the universality of the Church and how an Infant could have drawn people from all over the world to venerate the spot of His birth. After that, Ulla and I got lunch, and then we headed over to the Milk Grotto, Bethlehem’s other place of pilgrimage. It is here that the Mother of God breastfed Jesus and, according to tradition, a drop of milk fell to the ground, turning the rock in the cave white (in contrast to the rocks around Bethlehem, which are all red). Pilgrims have prayed here for centuries, usually for newly wed couples, safe pregnancies, expectant mothers, and infants. I had plenty of people to pray for here. After that, thoroughly tired, Ulla and I headed back to Jerusalem.

The Milk Grotto.

On Friday, I left the École early in the morning to walk the Stations of the Cross. As many of the small chapels of the stations are in the custody of Muslims and it was nearly time for Friday prayers, many were closed. Nonetheless, I did it anyway. The stations end in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the twelfth being our Lord’s death on Calvary and the fourteenth at the Stone of the Anointing at the base of Calvary. The Sepulchre is amazing because it retains the small quarry hill of the first century that is Mount Calvary itself. It is basically like a second story within the Church. I wanted to enter the Tomb after doing the Stations, but was not aware that it is closed for cleaning on Friday mornings. Later that day I walked around the city and even up on the city’s walls with a friend I met at the Austrian Hospice by the name of Leonardo. Leonardo, from America, has lived here for a couple years and even met his wife, who is from France, in Jerusalem. He showed me around some parts of Western Jerusalem for the rest of the day.

On Saturday, I honestly just needed to sleep in for once, so I got up extra late and, feeling really fresh, got six uninterrupted hours of research done in the library. In the evening, I walked to the Holy Sepulchre, intent on sketching the church. However, as soon as I sat down inside the church by the base of Mount Calvary, I heard the Franciscan friars come down a corridor from elsewhere in the church on their nightly procession that commemorates the holiest spots in the Holy Sepulchre. The incense was thick. An old friar began to chant the Vexilla Regis, a Latin hymn written in the sixth century in honor of the relics of the True Cross. Its simple and humble melody, not to mention its courage-summoning words, made for a haunting experience. It must be listened to, but the English goes somewhat like this:

The Royal Banner forward goes,

The mystic Cross refulgent glows:

Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,

Upon the Tree of pain is laid.


O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide

With us now in this Passion-tide:

New grace in pious hearts implant,

And pardon to the guilty grant.


Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!

Let every living creature laud;

Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,

O guide and govern now and ever! Amen.

I joined the other pilgrims in following the procession. At each spot of veneration, the prayer recited by the friar included the Latin word hic, or here—our Lord died HERE, our Lord was anointed with spices and perfumes HERE, our Risen Lord HERE appeared to the Magdalene. I left feeling mystified, and the Vexilla Regis remained stuck in my head and in my soul.

If it wasn’t already apparent, Franciscan friars abound in the Holy Land. They have custody or partial custody of most of the holy sites. This is a group of them in the garden of Gethsemane.

The next day, Sunday, I served a particularly hot Mass for Fr. Anthony at the Austrian Hospice followed by the usual coffee on the (much needed) breezy terrace. Conversation with our friends ranged from French Catholicism to 1980s submarine movies and most topics in between. Later on, I set out for the Mount of Olives. After somehow ending up at the Western Wall, I found my way out of the Old City and descended into the Kidron Valley, then up to the Garden of Gethsemane. What pity that name, Gethsemane, invokes. I was thankful, for the garden was virtually empty. I then made my way up the extremely steep Mount of Olives until I reached the Dominus Flevit Chapel. From here, you can see the city from the vantage point of Christ in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when He wept over the city for missing the hour of its deliverance, knowing then the sacrifice He would make and the death He would endure; this is what Dominus Flevit means—the Lord wept. I prayed for the clarity to not miss the Lord’s guidance in my life and made my way down the mountain. I made a beeline for the Holy Sepulchre to hear the Vexilla Regis again.

Getting to read St. Luke’s version of the Agony in the Garden in its original Greek at the spot of the Agony was very special.
The Lord wept.

Being present for the entire procession Sunday evening was even better than the evening before. While many things of religion in the Holy Land are impressive and attractive, seeing and hearing and smelling these things so familiar to me—the Latin, the incense, the habits, etc.—evokes something of a mix of pride, comfort, and immense joy, reminding me I am a Roman Catholic pilgrim. That evening during the procession, I also noticed two old men sitting on a bench in the Holy Sepulchre. One was of darker skin and I presumed he was a native Arab Palestinian (seeing him again several times, always near the Franciscan chapel, has confirmed for me he must be a Jerusalemite). The other, of much lighter skin, was a Spaniard. One of the Franciscans told the two to get up off the bench, as the procession was about to begin. They both sort of looked at each other and, with only a smirk, communicated to each other that neither of them were moving an inch, and they both knew it. That moment has remained firmly in my memory. For one of these men, the procession in the Holy Sepulchre is a daily part of his faith—something central to his experience of Christ in his life. For the other, the procession is a once-in-a-lifetime episode, something he will remember for the rest of his days just as it happened that single night. Yet, are they not both pilgrims? Am I not the same? Is the Cross not my “sole hope,” just as it is for them? This might be the simplest, yet most important thing I have realized here: all are humbled before Calvary. All must go forth from Calvary flying the “Royal Banner” emblazoned with the “mystic Cross.” This is what the pilgrim learns, whether he is in the Holy Land his whole life or just one day.

I have returned to the procession several times since, and I will continue. The Franciscans, who have performed the procession every single evening since the beginning of the sixteenth century, will certainly be there.

The past three or four days have largely been spent just in the library. Oh, I also had to go to the dentist yesterday. Please continue to pray for my fellow Smith Fellows and me. Saint Christopher, Saint Dominic, and Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.


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