Babel-ing Along…

The extensive view from way up on the hill of Bethlehem.
The gardens of the Franciscan complex in Tabgha.

And, in the blink of an eye, half my time in the Holy Land is gone. My feeling right now compared to when I first arrived is very different, because, three weeks ago, everything was new and everything remained in the future. Now, at the halfway mark, I can say that I have grown very comfortable here. I think a great deal of that has to do with the routine of living in a religious house. I realize now that I have never explained what my daily schedule is like here, and how it aligns with the schedule of the house. So here it goes.

Mass is offered every morning at 6:30 A.M. in the basilica. During the rest of the year besides the summer, Lauds (morning prayer) immediately follows the Mass (during the summer, the friars just pray it individually). After Mass, there is breakfast in the large refectory. Now, since I’ve been going to bed quite late, I have not been going to the morning Mass. I’m in the library for a couple hours in the morning after breakfast, then I break for the noon Mass, which the entire Dominican community is obliged to attend. After this Mass is lunch, in which the friars join the lay researchers and employees in the large refectory. I’m then in the library for three or four more hours in the afternoon before I head out into Jerusalem for a bit, visiting churches, getting lost, or seeing places particular to my research. Around 6:00 P.M., some friars can be seen pacing the gardens praying the Rosary. At 7:00, I have noticed many friars like to pray before the side altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. This altar is where Fr. Lagrange, the founding father of the École, preferred to pray. At 7:30 P.M., the friars and lay people come together to pray Vespers (evening prayer). Singing these prayers in French has become one of my favorite parts of being at the École. Learning all the Mass responses, and learning to pray in a different language not English or Latin, has been an eye-opening experience. Because so much of what happens at the École is in French, I have found it very enjoyable to listen to now, and my understanding has slowly increased. I am still far from fluent, however—and sometimes it is annoying not being able to follow a conversation at all (I even had a dream one night in French, and I could not understand anything!). After Vespers is dinner. The lay researchers and employees/volunteers eat in the large refectory while the friars remove themselves to a private refectory. After dinner, the day is pretty much over. I have gone to the library after dinner some nights, though not every night. Now, there’s a lot I have done since my last post, so here’s a rundown of the past week and a half.

Looking up at the fortress part of the Herodium, from the view of the ruins of Herod’s baths.
I realize now that this is the only picture I have of Fr. Anthony, but there he is! We were walking down from the archaeological site of Herod’s tomb, an active dig.

Last Saturday (July 13) morning, Fr. Anthony and I ventured out into the desert of the West Bank to see Herodium, the desert fortress-villa complex built by Herod the Great in the late first century before Christ. The fortress is basically an enormous mound of dirt that was built up to cover a structure descending down into said mound of dirt. Fr. Anthony gave me a very insightful tour of the ruins, which include a vast tunnel system, a huge Olympic-sized ancient swimming pool, theater, and Herod’s own tomb. The view from the top of the fortress is breathtaking because you can see dozens of miles in every direction, including the Dead Sea, the mountains of Moab in Jordan, and even a tiny bit of Jerusalem. We got back to the École in time for lunch before going out into Jerusalem for the better part of the day. I returned in the evening to work a little bit in the library.

This picture, looking eastward toward the Dead Sea, does not do this view justice. The area around Herodium, especially those deserts you see on the horizon, was heavily populated with Christian hermits and monks in the first several centuries until the Islamic invasions.

Sunday, Fr. Anthony and I went to the Austrian Hospice once more for the 8:30 Mass (the air conditioning was on in the chapel this time!!!). We had a fantastic time having coffee on the patio of the Hospice once again before heading back to the École for lunch. Nina, a German professor who teaches at the Dominican house of studies in California and who frequents the Mass at the Hospice, joined Fr. Anthony and me for lunch and we had a great conversation about the Church in the U.S. Now, this particular Sunday was July 14—Bastille Day for the French (their national day of celebrating the French Revolution and their ~independence~). It was very interesting to observe how the friars of the École and some other French people I’ve met here feel about Bastille Day. After all, the French Revolution resulted in the death of thousands upon thousands of faithful Catholics, and the clergy and religious of France were slaughtered at a near genocide-level. Some French here were very enthusiastic, but some refused to even acknowledge the holiday. The French flag flew above the École—as it does for all French holidays—and some of the friars attended a gala at the French consulate in Jerusalem, but it was tough to tell what the ultimate feeling was. That evening, I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Franciscan procession. I met a Sri Lankan-Canadian Carmelite friar there named Br. Frank, who was staying at the Carmel in Haifa in the north of Israel and was in Jerusalem on pilgrimage.

The French tricolor flew high above the École on Bastille Day.

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, I didn’t go out into the city at all really, and I stayed in the library most of both of those days. Monday morning was also when I said goodbye to Fr. Anthony, as he was leaving for the next month to visit his family in America. He was an invaluable part of this fellowship and I was sad to see him go. The same thing about staying in goes for Wednesday, for it was 98 degrees most of the day (high 30s Celsius; yes I have begun to use Celsius; no, I don’t think I will continue to once I step on that plane for home)—the hottest it’s been since I arrived here. In fact, nearly everyone at the École was inside all day. That evening was something of a goodbye, since Fr. Kevin, one of the American friars of the Midwestern Province who frequents the École, and Mark Smith, an American professor of Old Testament who specializes in the Book of Judges—and also frequents the École—were both leaving soon. A few other people I have met, some of them Americans, have also left by now, and I can see how the École really empties out for the month of August. Nearly half the friars who were here when I arrived have already gone back to their respective countries for the rest of the summer.

On Thursday, in the afternoon, I went to the Holy Sepulchre, this time feeling moved to go into the Tomb of our Lord for the first time. Yes, I have been here for three weeks, but, no, I had not been to the one place most pilgrims are most eager to see. Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Holy Sepulchre itself—the place that hosted the dead body of the living God for about two days before He rose again on the third. The reason I had not been in the Sepulchre until last Thursday was because the line to wait to venerate it takes about an hour. After waiting nearly that long, and all the while trying to put myself into a solemn mindset, I entered the tomb. Some guy was trying to ask me a question in Spanish, for which I could not answer him. A Greek Orthodox priest was trying to tell me something else—went right over my head. He gave me, the Spanish guy, and two other pilgrims the go-ahead to duck down into the extremely tight quarters of the tomb. We did so and knelt down at the spot of the Resurrection—the place that gives meaning to all of life, basically. The fact it is void of a body is the reason I am here, the reason I am a Christian, the reason I am me. You try to focus your thoughts and make a sincere act of faith, praise God, request some assistance for this or that intention, maybe recite an Our Father or a Glory Be if you can recall the words in so humbled a state—and just like that, you are being ushered out of the tomb in less than fifteen seconds by an Orthodox priest. Nonetheless, they are still the most meaningful and important few seconds I have had. After my pilgrimage to the Tomb, I wandered the Greek neighborhood of the Christian Quarter before returning to the École. That night, after dinner, I went down to the Winter Chapel of the École, which the friars use for a Holy Hour every Thursday at 8:30.

The Holy Tomb of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This nineteenth century structure was built over the Tomb to protect it and aggrandize it.
The Church of Saint Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. Here is venerated the site of our Lady’s birth.

On Friday morning after breakfast, I walked to the Church of Saint Anne. The church sits in the Muslim Quarter near the eastern entrance to the Old City just a few meters away from Lion’s Gate. It is where tradition says that our Lady was born to Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, who were living in Jerusalem. Like in Bethlehem at the site of our Lord’s birth, there is a grotto in the Church of Saint Anne to venerate the site of our Lady’s birth. I prayed a Rosary there and hung around the church for another hour, before returning to the École for lunch. At 2:30, I made my way back toward Lion’s Gate to the First Station of the Cross, believing the Franciscans began their recitation of the Stations at 3. I was wrong…apparently they begin them at 3 in the winter but in the summer they begin at 4. This hour of time gave me freedom to explore the Christian sites of the Muslim Quarter, however. I visited the Prison of Christ (self-explanatory), controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, and the Church of the Flagellation, where Christ was scourged on Pilate’s orders. At 4, I went to the spot where the Stations begin and waited for the “men in brown” to arrive to begin leading the procession. In the fifteen minutes it took for all the pilgrims joining in to assemble, I think I must have heard at least a dozen languages. When the friars began with the First Station, they were speaking so many languages I could hardly follow along. By the Seventh Station, I had realized they were praying different sections of each Station in Spanish, English, Polish (?), Latin, and perhaps Italian and Russian (to be honest, I don’t know). The number of people accompanying the friars at the Stations must have been two hundred, and any sort of solemnity to the occasion was lost. By the end of the Stations of the Cross, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was sort of annoyed at how discombobulated it all was. But then it occurred to me: this is how our Lord would have seen Jerusalem as he walked under the weight of His Cross to the place of his execution—a loud, busy, cramped city street, filled with different languages, some people paying attention to Him and some just going about their business. I was thankful for the faith and privilege to be among those “paying attention” on this particular Friday.

The Prison of Christ.
The Franciscans leading pilgrims in the Stations of the Cross, here seen at the Fourth Station, where Jesus met His Mother on His way to Calvary.
The cloister garden of the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem. Saint Jerome’s statue is pictured here on top of that column.

On Saturday, Fr. Paweł offered to take me to Bethlehem with him, as he had to go hear confessions for Carmelite sisters there. We parked at the Carmel and I walked to the main square of the town. Now, since I went to the Church of the Nativity and the Grotto the last time I was in Bethlehem, this time I went to the Church of Saint Catherine, the Roman Catholic one which is right next to the Nativity. Underneath Saint Catherine’s is the Cave of Saint Jerome. In the fourth-fifth century, Saint Jerome lived in Bethlehem, where he translated the Bible into Latin. I read the first chapter of the Old Testament and the first chapter of the New Testament and prayed for Saint Jerome’s intercession before leaving the cave and exploring Saint Catherine’s some more. After walking the streets of Bethlehem and browsing through the souk, I went into a Christian shop that had access to a rooftop for views of the town and surrounding valley. I went up onto the roof and took in the view of this once majority-Christian city before meeting back up with Fr. Paweł to drive back to Jerusalem. When we got back to Jerusalem, I frantically searched for a vigil Mass, knowing I would be travelling Sunday morning and evening and probably would not be able to get to Mass that day. Luckily, the (apparently) only vigil Mass in Jerusalem for Catholics is at 5:30 P.M. at Paulus Haus (the German Hospice), which is only about 100 meters from the École. The only catch was that it is in German. I used my “Guten Tag’s” and my “Danke schön’s” to get past the front gate of Paulus Haus before meeting my savior: a German pilgrim named Christina [who spoke English] who directed me to the chapel where Mass was being offered (in an extremely unconventional place, a little room in the Hospice, not in the main, enormous, beautiful church). She, another German woman, and I were the only ones at the Mass. I had no idea what any of the responses were in German so I just whispered the Latin responses under my breath and hoped it looked like I was speaking German. The only German I did use was from a hymnal given to me by the unnamed German woman; singing in German feels a lot like singing in English, probably because many of the tunes of English hymns are translations from the German. Anyway, I was glad to have found the vigil Mass.

The Cenotaph and altar of Saint Jerome in the cell where he translated the entire Bible into Latin. I have prayed to him many times to help me on Latin tests. I assume he was busy some of those days.
Though it is difficult to make out, this column, which is in the Church of the Nativity, is decorated with the image of Saint Cathal, a seventh century Irish monk and bishop. The Crusaders painted him on one of the columns of the church about 900 years ago. Below his icon are some sort of hieroglyphs from when the Muslims recaptured Bethlehem. Óró sé do bheatha abhaile!

Sunday morning, I woke up at 5:00 and got ready to leave for Central Bus Station in West Jerusalem. I took the light rail at 6 A.M. and located an electronic ticket machine when I found out that, surprise…the only language option was Hebrew. Utterly at a loss, I happened upon a man who said he spoke English, when in fact he did not, who helped me purchase a ticket. I got on a 7:00 bus headed for Tiberias, a city located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a two-hour bus ride filled with IDF (Israel Defense Forces) troops. I got my first taste of real air conditioning here in the Holy Land while on this bus, and it was glorious. At 9:15, we pulled into Tiberias Central Bus Station and then I had the problem of trying to get a cab speaking to some guys who only spoke Arabic. Finally I got it across to them that I wanted to be driven to Tabgha, where I was scheduled to meet up with a group of pilgrims from back home. I had about an hour to myself on the shore of the Sea of Galilee behind the Church of Saint Peter’s Primacy, and then went to meet up with the tour bus. In fact, this pilgrimage group was the same pilgrimage I went on last year with my sister. I had contacted Patrick Donovan, the organizer of both pilgrimages, to see where they would be on Sunday and was delighted when he said Galilee—it would be my only really good opportunity to see Galilee efficiently (because they had a tour bus!) during my time here. Seeing Patrick, Fr. Joseph McQuaide, and my good friend Grace (who was on the pilgrimage with me last year!) made me very happy. Seeing familiar faces was something I didn’t realize I missed so much until I saw them. I spent the rest of the day with them.

The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. This rock is where our Lord cooked breakfast for the apostles after His Resurrection and reinstated Peter as Prince of the Apostles, forgiving him for his three denials on Holy Thursday. (John 21:1-24)
On the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This must be the calmest place on earth.
Our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. This body of water has also been referred to as Lake Tiberias, the Lake of Gennesaret, and several other names.

First we went to the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, where our Lord, well, multiplied loaves and fishes. It is in the custody of the same German Benedictines who live at Dormition Abbey here in Jerusalem. After that, we embarked on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee to take in the view of Tiberias, Capernaum, the Golan Heights, and experience what it would have been like to accompany our Lord on a fishing vessel in the first century. After the boat docked, we drove to Tiberias for lunch, during which I got to know the new pilgrims and hear about their experiences in the Holy Land thus far. After eating, we got back on the bus to head up to Mount Tabor. This is the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John and joined by the prophets Moses and Elijah. This, like last year, was a meaningful place for me, for it was here in Christ’s ministry that everything sort of changed—things became more imminent, and a voice from heaven told the apostles, “This is my beloved son. Hear him” (Luke 9:35). A very simple message, yet a message that has challenged all believers for two thousand years. From Mount Tabor, some two thousand feet in elevation, you can see a long ways southward into Samaria. After Mount Tabor, we went down the mountain and began the two-hour bus ride south. They dropped me off at the bus stop right outside Bethlehem since they would be crossing into Palestinian territory to stay in Bethlehem; just by chance, the French undergrads from the École were at the same bus stop as they were in Bethlehem for the day, and we all caught the bus back to Jerusalem together, making it back just in time for Vespers and dinner.

The Church of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor. This particular church was built in the Spanish style in 1919 after the Ottoman government gave permission for the Franciscans to build it.
The Chapel of Elijah in the Church of the Transfiguration.
My friend Grace and I recreated a photo we took here last year. I would have used the photo of her hair entirely covering her face, but she is reading this so…

Yesterday, by the invitation of some of those said French students, I joined friends Marie, Louis, and Pauline in going to Jaffa on the coast. We took a 10:00 bus to Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and walked a few kilometers to the Old City of Jaffa. They spoke French a lot, but I also had some good conversations with them in English, although many jokes do not translate well. Jaffa is known for its medieval architecture, beaches, and views of the Mediterranean. It has many sights of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian significance. We walked around all day seeing these sites, and I even got to take my first swim in the Mediterranean (it’s a bit nicer than Narragansett Bay). I looked like an overcooked piece of bacon by the end of the day and prayed to all the martyrs who have died by burning to ease the feeling of my skin being roasted, before making it back to Jerusalem just in time for Vespers and dinner again.

The musical tastes in Israel are a little bit different, but I dig it! I took this at a record shop in Jaffa.
Me, Pauline, Marie, and Louis exploring the Old City of Jaffa.

So, I’ve done a lot in a week and a half, but a common theme sticks out to me—language; or, rather, not being able to understand a language. Whether it’s German, French, Spanish, Arabic, or even the ancient Greek I am doing research on, language has tested my limits of cognitive ability. It has humbled me, as it is really tough to convey your opinion or your personality well in a different language. It has secluded me, in a good way—when there is no one to talk to, you talk to God, who understands everyone. It has given me a perspective of why people who speak the same language stick together, or why peoples who speak a different language get lost in each other’s meaning (always very evident here in the Holy Land between Arabic speakers and Hebrew speakers). It has also given me an appreciation for other languages and for the diversity of languages used by Christian communities throughout the world and here in the Middle East (Latin, Greek, Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian, Syriac, Amharic, etc.). And, ultimately, it makes me hopeful for when, like at Pentecost, we will all be able to understand each other perfectly in heaven. In the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel came tumbling down because humanity was weak. But the Holy Ghost made us understand each other at Pentecost because of the sacrifice of Christ, which unites all men. While I may feel like I am in Babel while here in Jerusalem, I know the lingual unity of Pentecost exists among all those who speak of Christ, both here and back home. So, yeah, I can’t say “Please, I really don’t want anymore pita bread, Sister” in French, but Saint Augustine says I only need to understand this:

“The Church therefore has been entrusted to them (the friends of the Bridegroom). And when He was about to ascend into heaven, He said so to those who thus asked Him about the end of the world: Tell us when shall these things be? And when shall be the sign of thy coming? And He said: It is not for you to know the times which the Father hath put in his own power. Hear, O disciple, what you have learned from your Master: But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you. And it has come to pass. On the fortieth day He ascended into heaven, and behold, coming upon this day, all who were present are filled with the Holy Ghost, and speak in the tongues of all nations. Once more unity is commended; by the tongues of all nations. It is commended by the Lord rising from the dead; it is confirmed this day in the Coming of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” (From a sermon by Saint Augustine for the Feast of Pentecost)

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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