Follow me as I experience the life of study and prayer alongside the Dominican friars of Jerusalem!
Hello! My name is Sean Tobin, and I'm a junior at Providence College, pursuing degrees in Classics and History. I'm from Greenwich, Connecticut and from a loving family of four. I heard about the Smith Fellowship a couple of years ago, but didn't think much of it: I didn't plan to study abroad, so a six week trip somewhere else didn't really appeal to me either. But that all changed once I went to the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine) last year on a pilgrimage run by my diocese. It was a land of wonders, a land of the Bible, a land of God. Once I got back to America, I knew I was called back. Divine Providence worked its ways from that day, opening up channels of communications, assisting me in writing applications, and granting me the final "go ahead" in devising a six-week trip, to return to the Holy Land and see what God will do next.
Through the Providence College Rev. Philip A. Smith, O.P. Fellowship, I have been given the grace to be able to go on this journey, conducting research on the works of Flavius Josephus at the École Biblique, all while praying with, living with, and studying with the Dominicans of the Convent of Saint Stephen in Jerusalem. Pray for me!
Last Saturday, I visited the Church of Saint Peter in
Gallicantu. This church, located near Mount Zion, is the site where Saint Peter
denied knowing Christ three times, thus fulfilling Christ’s prophecy to him
that he would deny Him thrice before the cock crowed twice (Gallicantu
literally means “the cock’s crow” in Latin). This church was special to me
since Saint Peter was my patron when I was confirmed.
On Sunday, I went to Bethlehem for the last time. I visited the Shepherds’ Fields, where the angel appeared to the shepherds, telling them of Christ’s birth. I then went to venerate the place of our Lord’s birth for the last time here. It was nice, because there was no line this time to see the Grotto and the church was nearly empty. Before I left Bethlehem, I met a man from America named Ben. He has lived in Bethlehem for the past ten years. He just decided to move there one day after visiting. When pushed for a reason why he stays there, he said it’s ultimately the people that keep him there; the people are just so nice and welcoming. I have seen that for myself: amidst so much poverty and hardship in Bethlehem, for Christian and Muslim alike, they are very kind. It’s not very surprising. The small town that welcomed the most humble Birth in the history of the world is bound to be a place of humble and kind people. It is its legacy.
On Monday, at 7:00 in the evening, I walked over to the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Now, a few weeks ago, I arranged with the
Franciscans to spend the night in the church, a privilege allowed to only a few
pilgrims each night. So, at 8:30, the handful of other people granted this
honor and I waited by the doors to the church for them to be locked for the
night. Each night at 9:00, a Muslim man who lives nearby (whose family has had
the outside keys to the church going back a dozen centuries) locked up the
church from the outside, while the various Christian sects inside locked their
own locks (the doors are enormous and there are several locks). The church,
though not bustling, still had plenty of activity. Various bearded priests and
stern-faced Orthodox nuns spend the first couple hours of the night cleaning
the church—sweeping, mopping, dusting, and washing all the floors and the
places most touched by pilgrims. At about 9:30, I went into the Sepulchre for
nearly ten minutes (most pilgrims visiting during the day get less than 30
seconds to spend inside the Tomb). For the next two and a half hours, I walked
around the church, praying, reading, and frequently returning to Calvary. I
read the Gospel of Mark throughout the night. It was amazing how the priests
and nuns in the church never seem to go to sleep. There was always someone
cleaning, or some service being conducted, or Mass going on somewhere. At about
midnight, the doors of the church were opened for Orthodox pilgrims to come in.
At about 12:45, I joined the Franciscans in praying Matins and Lauds, which
took about 45 minutes. We sang the Magnificat in front of the Tomb. At 1:30,
the Greek Orthodox began Mass inside the Tomb, with two-dozen Orthodox pilgrims
attending. It lasted for about two hours. At 4:00, the Armenian Apostolic began
some sort of service in front of the Tomb, and their singing lasted another two
hours. By 4:30, I was nearly at my tether’s end from hunger, exhaustion, and
stomach pains. Nonetheless, I stuck around in the courtyard of the church
another hour; it was very nice outside in the late night/early morning air,
hearing the Armenians’ singing coming from inside the church. At one point, a
very short, elderly woman with a walker wandered out of the church and
basically forced me to help her up the quarter mile of stairs to her home in
the Christian Quarter. It was really amusing. It also was nice to see that the
elderly here expect the young to help
them. At 5:45 in the morning, I walked back through Jerusalem in the near dark
to the École, where I had a bite to eat and went to bed for a few hours.
I didn’t do much Tuesday or Wednesday besides work in the
library and scan any materials I haven’t been able to look at yet or want for
reference in writing my thesis this semester. Today, I will be packing and
seeing the city for the last time.
Today, August 8th, is the feast of Saint Dominic. For Dominicans, this is perhaps the holiest day in the calendar after Easter and Christmas. As is custom, a Franciscan friar visited Saint Stephen’s today for the noon Mass, just as a Dominican visits a Franciscan church on the feast of Saint Francis. At the end of Mass, the celebrant gave a benediction with a relic of Saint Dominic. There was a festive lunch that followed. Saint Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in 1216, having been inspired to by years of preaching to the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. From then to now, Dominic’s friars have reached nearly every corner of the globe in their mission to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Being here in the Holy Land this summer with the Dominican friars, who come from all over the world and are the evidence that Saint Dominic’s mission has been successful, one thought has stuck in my brain: Saint Dominic never saw what I’m seeing. He never made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—indeed, he was far too busy converting the masses of Europe. He never gazed out over the Sea of Galilee. He never set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He never prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And yet, Saint Dominic’s life might as well have been spent in the Holy Land. He knew of Christ’s preaching on the shores of Galilee better than anyone who’s visited Capernaum. He believed in the Empty Tomb more so than anyone who has knelt inside it. And he experienced the Agony in the Garden more so than any other in his incessant, worried prayers to God every night: “What will become of sinners?” While I have loved my time here and am extremely thankful to have spent time in the place Christ walked the earth, Saint Dominic remains the model of holiness more so than any devout pilgrim can, because he lived his life always modeled on Christ’s. Right before I began my fellowship, a certain friar from Providence gave me this piece of advice: “Be gentle with yourself, and ask Saint Dominic to be your father.” I thank him for that advice, and I thank Saint Dominic for being my intercessor these past six weeks.
I leave for America tomorrow. It was a very blessed time
here, and one that cannot be contained to this blog. I learned a new love for
the Bible, the living, breathing Word of God. I saw firsthand how nearly every
Dominican, after hours and hours in the library each day, did not rest until he
had visited the Blessed Sacrament for nourishment each evening—what he was
learning was not for a purely scholarly purpose; it was for the glory of God.
I’ve learned and seen and felt so many other things this summer, so if you’re
reading and would like to talk about them, feel free to reach out. I could not
be more grateful to the friars here at the École, especially to Fr. Anthony
Giambrone, O.P., Fr. Paweł Trzopek, O.P., Fr. Martin Staszak, O.P. (the prior),
and all the others. I also have to thank all the friends I’ve made here, the
Smith Fellowship donors and committee at P.C., my family, and any others who
helped me this summer.
Thank you for praying for me, and please continue to pray
for my fellow Smith Fellows still abroad. Saint Christopher, Saint Simeon,
Saint Stephen, and Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us. Saint Dominic, Light of
the Church, Teacher of Truth, Rose of Patience, Ivory of Chastity, and Preacher
of Grace, pray for us.
Before I left for my fellowship, I had resolved that I would
walk the road to Emmaus at some point before my time here was over. For those
unfamiliar, the twenty-fourth chapter of Saint Luke will enlighten about Emmaus:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named
Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all
these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing
together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept
from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation which you
are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to
Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’
And he said to them, ‘What things?’ And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of
Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the
people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned
to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem
Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened.
Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in
the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had
even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who
were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him
they did not see.’ And he said to them, ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to
believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ
should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses
and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things
concerning himself.” (Luke 24:13-27)
Last week, I had the great opportunity to walk this road, which our Lord and the two disciples walked. Now, first off, Emmaus is not so easy to locate. The Crusaders thought it was in a village called Abu Ghosh. Why? It’s about 6 miles away from Jerusalem, so it nearly fits what Scripture says (the Crusaders were really quite rational archaeologists). There is another candidate, however, that is more likely, and that tradition favors—this one is in a village considerably further away from Jerusalem called Latrun. Today there is a Trappist monastery located near the site. This Emmaus is about 16 miles away from Jerusalem. So, I chose to walk from Abu Ghosh to Latrun, which, since the way is by no means straight, is about 13 miles give or take a mile. I met my friend Leonardo at 6:00 in the morning last Wednesday and we headed in a cab for Abu Ghosh. Leonardo, who studies here in Jerusalem and attends Mass at the Austrian Hospice, was in the U.S. Army, so he came fully prepared with everything you could need to get from point A to point B through the wilderness.
We set off on the trail/road at 7:30, and we quickly realized just how secluded the path was; “wilderness” is no exaggeration. I mean, through nearly all of the walk, the only sounds we could hear were the birds and the wind in the trees—no cars, no highway, no planes, nothing. For the first couple of hours, we were mostly going downhill, so it wasn’t too bad. However, there were thousands of bees buzzing around in the bushes that lined the dirt path, which had us on nerve; there were also the most annoying black flies the entire time. The sun was also shining very hot in the morning. The trail then became tougher as we had to hike up and down hills and valleys. Leonardo and I shared carrying his pack with all our supplies, food, water, etc. that weighed about thirty pounds. We talked about a lot of things: conspiracy theories, the Fathers of the Church, science, Islam and Judaism, and, most of all, Scripture. After five hours hiking, we came to a fork in the road. Actually, it wasn’t so much a fork, unless the fork you are picturing in your mind has seven prongs on it. With no signs and no one in sight, we were truly at a loss about which way to turn. Then, out of nowhere, a car pulled up on this dinky dirt path, miles away from any paved road. We asked the driver, slightly annoyed at us, for the way to Emmaus/Latrun, and he pointed us in the direction. Now, when I had told him I would be walking the road to Emmaus, Fr. Anthony had told me, “If you meet someone on the road to Emmaus…” (the silence insinuating it would be Christ). I guess Christ chose to appear that day as a crabby, old Jewish man in a beat up Mitsubishi, because his directions led us straight to Emmaus. After six and a half hours of walking and ~20 kilometers later, we arrived at Emmaus-Nicopolis. It was closed. *Sigh* Nonetheless, the walk was why we had come, and we profited from it.
On Thursday, I woke up at 4:45 A.M., even earlier than the day before. I walked down Nablus Road a a little ways to the hotel where my friends I went to see in Galilee were staying. I tagged along with the pilgrims as they walked the Stations of the Cross at 5:30. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just as the sun was coming up. We had come to the church so early because Fr. McQuaide had been given permission to celebrate Mass inside the Tomb of our Lord at 7 that morning. While our group waited to go into the Tomb, I happened to see a priest friend of mine from New York, Fr. Sean Connolly, who was in the church with a pilgrimage group he was leading. Seeing someone you don’t expect halfway across the world is a real different level of joy, and it was good to talk to him in the few minutes I had to spare. Mass in the Sepulchre of our Lord was an experience that can’t really be described, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say, one could tell by watching Fr. McQuaide that it was the most humbling Mass he had ever offered.
Later that day, I went back to the church with Mahri, a
friend of mine I made at the École. Those from Providence College reading this
might remember her (Dr. Mahri Leonard-Fleckman), for she taught theology at PC
for a couple years before leaving to teach at Holy Cross last year. She has
been to Jerusalem a dozen times and Thursday was her last day this time around
and she hadn’t been to the Holy Sepulchre yet on this trip. I accompanied her and
we venerated the holy sites and joined in the Franciscans’ procession at 5:00. After
that, we met a couple other researchers at the Notre Dame visitor center
outside the Old City for dinner. Notre Dame has a rooftop restaurant for
pilgrims and the views are some of the best in all of Jerusalem. Finally, I met
up with the pilgrims one last time that evening to say goodbye.
On Saturday, I ventured over to the Kidron Valley for the first time in a few weeks, near the Garden of Gethsemane. I wanted to see the Tomb of the Virgin, the place where the Orthodox churches believe that our Lady “fell asleep” before being assumed into heaven. Being a Catholic and believing Dormition Abbey is actually the place this happened, I was skeptical. It was a beautiful place, though, and, at the end of the day, the Orthodox need somewhere to venerate, don’t they? One must hold these convictions of “THIS is where this thing happened and I’ll die believing that” with a grain of salt. Later that day, at Vespers, as the Dominicans chanted the Salve Regina, the Muslim call to prayer began up. The sound of the friars chanting loud enough so as to not be drowned out by the much louder sounds of Arabic was an unforgettable memory. The symbolism was not lost on me—Christians often struggle to be heard in this society in which their numbers are dwindling and being pushed to the peripheries.
On Sunday I went to Mass here at the École—the first Sunday
I’ve done such. Right before Mass began, nearly 200 pilgrims from Martinique
walked in. These French-speakers were the most joyous pilgrims I have seen and
their singing added to the beauty of the Mass.
The beginning of this week has been relatively quiet and uneventful, save something I did on Tuesday. The Benedictines of Dormition Abbey organized a conference that took place these last few days. The subject of the conference was the Psalms and how they are understood in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. On Tuesday, they arranged for a walking tour of the Old City, with a scholar acting as guide to place the psalms in a physical setting within the history of Jerusalem. For example, when the second Psalm reads, “I have set my king / on Zion, my holy hill,” we went out and looked at what the Psalmist meant in writing that, where the hill he might have had in mind would have been. It was a very informative walk/lecture and gave me a physical context in which to read the psalms.
I entitled this post “God Provides” because, since I have been in the Holy Land, I have seen in a million small ways how God provides, whether in teaching moments, moments of joy, or signs of clarity. God bringing me into contact with this year’s diocesan pilgrimage group that, last year, was so pivotal in where I am today; God placing that crabby old man who knew the directions on the road to Emmaus; God intentionally crossing the paths of two people from Providence College on the other side of the world; God giving me the grace to see in striking clarity how I am lowly and sinful and unworthy of His love, and yet bestowing on me that love anyway and in such superabundance. With only a week left here, it is hard to be gloomy or sad, because God has made my time here so bright already.
I have also begun to name the cats. A full list to come soon.
Please continue to pray for my fellow Smith Fellows and me.
Saint Christopher, Saint Simeon, Saint Stephen, Saint Dominic, and Our Lady of
the Rosary, pray for us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have gotten lost every time I have gone into the Armenian
I heard two cats fight to the death outside my window one
Shorts = tourist.
Not walking fast enough or looking like you have a purpose =
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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).
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.
Alright, maybe I lied about the next time posting being from Jerusalem. I feel inclined to write again before I leave in a couple weeks.
About a month ago, I started to feel
very anxious about this trip ahead of me. Violence had escalated in the Middle
East with hundreds of rockets being fired between Israel and Hamas, I was
struggling to finish my thesis proposal, and I felt uneasy getting used to the
idea that I was now beginning my last year as a Providence College student. So,
I began a novena to St. Thérèse, asking for peace: peace in the Holy Land,
peace in my life, and peace in whatever God had in store for my future. Just
like that, the theme of peace began to pop up everywhere—in sermons at Mass, in
conversations with friends, everywhere. I felt reassured day by day, and I am
still feeling the blessings from that. Why should I be afraid, nervous, unsure?
The hand of Providence is at work, and even in the most turbulent of
situations, the machinations of Divine Providence always end in the peace of
the Lord. Peace is a gift from God, one badly needed and one that I know will
be key in undertaking this fellowship experience with courage. All I had to do
was ask to see it. Going forward, I must ask.
These past few months, I’ve received this question over and over again, sometimes several times a day: “Are you excited to go?” I almost feel guilty at the lack of enthusiasm found in my voice by this point from answering it so much. I am not excited. It’s more than that: I am so humbled as I prepare for this journey that excitement does not even begin to describe what I feel. I think to myself, “What have I done to deserve this?” My pride rushes in to reassure me that my talents and strengths have led me here. But after reflection, these always fade away. I am left with this journey before me, knowing I have done nothing to deserve so great an opportunity. It is a gift. At the end of the day, it is nothing but a wonderful gift that the Lord will use to some purpose in my life.
And, ultimately, as I prepare to go to the Holy Land for six weeks, one sentiment pervades my heart and mind: joy. God Himself is handing me this gift. Are we not filled with joy when someone who loves us gives us a gift? The Lord has showered me with too many gifts to count, and this is the next one. He gives it to me for a reason. Perhaps it will be to show me down a path I would not have seen as clearly without this opportunity. Perhaps it is to do Him some small service. Whatever it is, I grow more confident and reassured in His plans for me day by day. Should my logical answer to His kindness not be to spread His peace and His love throughout my trip in whatever way He makes possible? As I was packing up to leave Providence and go home for a couple weeks before I leave, I began listening to an old Shape Note hymn called Bridgewater. I probably listened to it three hundred times. I attached a recording of it being sung at the bottom, and I encourage you to listen to it. A short little thing, it is nonetheless beautiful and stirring, and it sums up the gratitude and hope I feel at this moment. I have a feeling I will be humming this on the plane bound for the Holy City and whatever my Redeemer has in store for me. Thank you for your prayers and please continue to pray for me.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother’s living room was not complete without a television (picture one of those 90s, *really* deep TVs) airing the Holy Land Rosary. If you don’t know what the Holy Land Rosary is, it’s a program on EWTN that follows a Catholic pilgrim group reciting the rosary in different parts of the Holy Land. If you’ve seen it once, maybe even ten, twenty years ago, no need to see it again—it hasn’t changed. Literally. There are only four episodes—one for each set of mysteries of the rosary, which are prayed different days of the week. The same footage from nineteen ninety something shows a priest named Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J. giving short reflections on the rosary in crowded Jerusalem streets, cramped Bethlehem grottos, and enormous, echoing churches throughout the land Christ lived in. Having this play on the TV in the background of my childhood was, really, my first experience of the Holy City of Jerusalem.
When I got a call from my sister at the end of October of 2017 telling me to go online and apply for a spot on a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land she had applied to, I thought I knew exactly what it would be like—I had seen the Holy Land Rosary after all. Full of Christians—brimming with them, I believed. Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, as well as a host of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic clergy, not to mention the native Palestinian Christians who have kept the faith for two millennia through persecution, hardship, and conquest. But when I arrived in the Holy Land, it was not as I thought. Christians in the Holy Land make up a miniscule, and constantly dwindling, section of the population. Nonetheless, in a very strong sense I immediately felt at home with these souls, brothers and sisters in Christ, doing all they could to keep the Gospel alive in the land of the Gospel. It was these Christians who made the strongest impact on me, and it was their faith that led me forward on this journey.
Bethlehem, Nazareth; the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Upper
Room, the Holy Sepulchre—these places became real to me for a short span of
eight days in January of 2018. I saw the places and things described by the
four evangelists themselves, and words can hardly describe the feeling that
arises in a Christian soul when he sees them. To reflect on the fact that God
walked the earth, and he walked it here.
It was the most spectacular thing I have ever been blessed to do. Many graces
came out of that week: some I have seen, some which are only just bearing
And, through the generosity of the Providence College Smith Fellowship and the Providence of Almighty God, I will once again have the opportunity to walk where Christ walked and live the Christian life where Christ lived. This summer, I will be living with the Dominican friars of the Convent of Saint Stephen, mostly composed of French Dominicans who operate the Ècole biblique (French Biblical and Archaeological School). This is where I will be doing research on the works of Flavius Josephus for my undergraduate thesis in History and Classics. I will be living with, praying with, and studying with brilliant Dominicans, witnessing firsthand the charism central to the Dominican life—“To contemplate and give to others the fruits of contemplation,” as one motto of the Dominican order goes. Through it all, I am grateful especially to my supportive family, the friars at St. Stephen, and Fr. Anthony Giambrone, O.P., who helped me organize the fellowship and will be my guide in the Holy Land. I am also grateful to the Providence College Office of Mission and Ministry, especially Fr. James Cuddy, O.P., Heidi Fraitzl, and the selection committee, all the friars at Providence College, Fr. Michael Weibley, O.P., Dr. John Lawless, and my professors and friends who have encouraged me throughout the application process. Please pray for me, and I’ll see you next from Jerusalem!
Saint Christopher, Saint Dominic, and Our Lady of the
Rosary, pray for us!