Saturday Just Before Another Feast!

Today is not only the sabbath for the Jews but at sundown it will also be the beginning of what is known as Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or aka the Feast of Tabernacles. During this feast which is observed for seven days many observant Jews will build small booths, literally, with palm or other kinds of branches on top to serve as miniature huts or shelters reminding them of how fragile their existence was during the forty years of wandering in the desert. Many will eat their meals inside the booth, and some will even sleep within it, as well.

So, I have had the privilege of being here for several great feasts: the feasts of Rosh Shashana, Yom Kippur, and now the feast of Sukkot. I feel very blessed to be able to be so close to the place where these feasts and will never think about them again in the same way.

Yesterday, Saturday, I went into the Old City, the area within the ancient walls of Jerusalem, just to have another look. First I walked through some narrow streets that were new to me. I even found an old stairway, often not used, that leads to a roof where the Ethiopian priests are. You follow this old staircase around and you end up back at the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher. Maybe it is because I am a Passionist, but for some reason I have been at Calvary and the Tomb more than any other place!! I guess it just kept calling me! I also kept finding myself near Gethsemane, one of my most treasured historical and spiritual places. I also visited the Church of the Dormition and went down into the crypt where it is thought that the Blessed Mother died. Then, it was a long walk around the city walls for another look and then I caught old bus number 36 and headed into Bethany. Later in the afternoon I celebrated the Eucharist with the CTU students who are here on a special study program.

Today is Sunday and this morning I attended Mass with an Italian group that were visiting during their pilgrimage being led by an Italian Passionist. They came from a parish not far from but I did not get the Passionist’s name, sorry to say. Then, after a nice lunch, I began to pack my things for my departure tomorrow. Tomorrow will be my ninth day here at Bethany and it has been a good visit. The whole community has been very hospitable, very kind. It seems to me that this a very tough assignment. The entire cultural milieu is completely different than what any of them are familiar with. Their presence, much like the Friars in the holy places here in the “Holy Land”, make it possible to maintain a Passionist presence but at what cost? It is not easy so please pray for them. Originally I was going to stay for two full weeks but that was based on my somewhat naive assumption that I could revisit some of the special places for quiet, prayerful time. Well, I suppose that could happen but I would have to get into those places around 7:00 a.m. and leave by nine when all the tour buses and crowds arrived!

So, it is time to pack and head for home. Besides, I think I have heard more than enough of the calls to prayer blasting forth from the minarets and mosques that are everywhere in this Palestinian area. I will have to study up on just what is being broadcast (and I am pretty sure they are recordings.) you will hear them near midnight; again around three in the morning; once again at around 6:00 a.m. and then periodically during the day. And believe me, none of these holy voices sound like the Sistine Chapel Choir!

Packing was easy, even including the little wine bottles from Cana and the Diet Coke bottle with water from the Jordan River (although where we met it, it was more like a refreshing stream.). I decided to put the water in a plastic Diet Coke bottle after hearing the story of a rather prestigious priest/scholar/pilgrim who had the same idea of bringing River Jordan home but somewhere along the line got confused and drank it! Ergo the Diet Coke bottle idea! So now I can have some Cana wine and some Jordan water for a few weddings and baptisms. Tina and Jimmy, I am saving some just for you!

I leave early tomorrow and look forward to being home once again. But these three weeks have truly been a blessing. Thank you, Lord! Gratias a Dios!

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Special Visit to Holy Sepulcher

Yesterday I had the unique privilege of joining the Franciscan Community for lunch at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher thanks to an introduction made on my behalf to Fr. Fergus Clarke, OFM, the Guardian (local superior) of the community. It was a wonderful visit and Fr. Fergus could not have been kinder. He took time to show me the cloistered area where the community lives (they are literally locked in at night….it is a long story!) and even a hidden area where you can see the stone that makes up Mt. Calvary where Jesus was crucified. (I wish I had asked for just a little piece!)

Please pray for these good men for without their sacrifice our Latin (Roman Catholic) presence would be in danger. They are making many sacrifices to be there, God bless them!

The attached picture, not the best, was taken from their private balcony, an ancient area, and shows the structural entrance to what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus.

As Fr. Fergus says, “This place is all about Resurrection and new life won for everyone through the Cross of Christ.” Fr. Fergus would be a great Passionist, too!

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Overlooking the Holy Sepulcher

Overlooking the Holy Sepulcher

A view of the tomb of Jesus from the Franciscan Balcony

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Yom Kippur and Another Adventure!

It is now past sundown and the great feast of Yom Kippur has come to an end. I tried to shape my own personal prayer around this feast, a feast all about forgiveness and healing. After Mass and lunch I took the bus into the Damascus Gate, one of several special entrances into the Old City as it is called. The streets are very narrow and crowded with shoppers of all kinds. There are four quarters, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, and Armenian. Because today was a holy day for our Jewish brothers and sisters the Jewish quarter was closed and outside of the Old City in the predominantly Jewish areas there was literally no traffic, unlike the other areas that were packed with people.

I walked through the Moslem and Christian areas, cutting through to exit at what is called Zion Gate. Not far from there is the Church of the Dormition, a Benedictine Monastery. The area is important because according to tradition Jesus celebrated the Passover in this area, and the Blessed Mother was said to have lived and died here.

After visiting here I walked outside through the Zion Gate and headed back toward the Damascus Gate, walking along the ancient walls of Jerusalem rather than inside the market areas. It was vey peaceful, especially in the Jewish area. Many religious Jews were observing the feast day and leisurely strolling along, some families, some couples. It was a long walk. I went from the Zion Gate, past the Jaffa Gate, the Jewish section. Soon I passed the New Gate and walked downhill to the familiar Damascus Gate.

I was ready to head for Bethany and had been assured that all you need to know is two things: Bus 36 and Bus 63. That’s pretty easy, right? I quickly found Bus 63, got to my seat in the back, and sat down. Soon four young men, Palestinians and clearly worker-friends boarded the bus and sat back where I was. I didn’t understand a thing that they were saying, their Arabic was being flung like stones, but I could easily understand their friendship and kidding around. Soon we were moving at a pretty good clip and I discovered that I didn’t really recognize the scenery!

We were not heading to my area, Ras al mud, but rather, we were going out onto a highway and heading for a city outside of Jerusalem called Abu dis! It is no where near Bethany, believe me! I even think we headed in that direction when our pilgrimage group was leaving town for the Dead Sea! No panic! I really felt very comfortable. I tapped one of the workers on the shoulder and said feebly, “Ras al mud?” He looked kind of surprised but got my meaning and said, “No. You go back Jerusalem!” It wasn’t long before the ticket collector came along and the whole gang talking at once told him about the foreigner who needed to get back to Jerusalem! They were all really great about it! After about 20 more minutes we reached Abu dis, and the whole time everyone kept giving me reassuring smiles and looks. (But I really think they thought I was kind of feeble minded which wouldn’t be the first time I felt that way!) We went through the city, totally Palestinian territory, and then stopped. The ticket collector called me forward, motioned with his hands to follow him, and the next thing you know I am getting onto a beautiful bus (not at all like the beat up jalopy I just got out of) with the driver saying, “You are welcome!” They were all so great and i was quite relaxed until we stopped some fifteen minutes out and came to a stop off the highway. We were at a checkpoint with armed guards!

I only panicked for a moment when I remembered that I always, always carried a copy of my passport. The soldier, a young, pleasant Israeli woman, barely looked at the paper, smiled, and moved. Yet, there were many who had to leave the bus, walk through a checkpoint and present their ID’s, and then re-board the bus. It was a total example of some citizens being more equal than other citizens. Again, it is complicated but walls and checkpoints just keep reminding everyone that there really is not a common bond of trust. How can there ever be peace without trust? And here we were (some many of us) pondering the meaning of the feast of Yom Kippur, all about forgiveness and mercy!

Well, I got back to the Damascus Gate, found the real bus, number 36, got on and headed for Bethany. It wasn’t long before I climbed up the killer hill and came through our front gate, breathless but happy to have had yet another experience. How do I get into these things, anyway!

Shortly after I arrived home I heard the sound of very loud music. It was coming from a reception hall just across the street from our house, Santa Marta! They tell me it was music for a wedding or an anniversary. All I know is, it felt like the music was at the foot of my bed, pure Arabic music, some beautiful to be honest, but loud and wailing! It made the Croatian music we hear on our Fiesta Grounds sound like Gregorian Chant. Sleep finally came after midnight. A blessed Yom Kippur.

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From Mt. Zion to Bethany

It is the evening of my second day here at our Bethany House. Yesterday I left our hotel, called Mt. Zion, on Mt. Zion, and met up with my Jewish taxi driver, an Israeli who clearly had no idea where I was going! And all I knew was a street name and the fact that we were on the east side of the Mount of Olives. To make a long and harrowing 90 minute taxi ride that cost me 150 shekels short, he ended up talking to the taxi command post, they found an English speaker, and he kept telling me I really wanted to go to Santa Maria’s. I kept insisting, no, I want to go to Santa Martha (even Santa Marta would do!) Then, out of the blue, the dispatcher says, “No, mister, you don’t want to go there. That is a very dangerous area!”

Now I was getting the picture. You see, Bethany and the surrounding area is nearly all Palestinian. There are some Israelis here but not too many. It is quite complicated but you must go through a checkpoint if you come by the most direct route from Jerusalem. It was for this reason that my Jewish taxi driver, a very nice man, was unaware of this part of town. In fact, while the meter was ticking, he shared something very personal with me. Nine years ago his twelve year old son was on a bus going to school. A bomb placed on the bus by a terrorist, exploded and, while his son was not seriously injured, it did scar him and the family very deeply.

This shows you how complicated things are here. Jerusalem is a beautiful city filled with many wonderful and deeply devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Most people just want to live in peace and raise their families and live to see their grandchildren. But there are other radicals who see things differently. Add to that the fact that the Palestinians are by far reproducing at a higher rate than are other populations there is bound to be greater future tension.

Back in the cab I just asked my friend to take me back to the Hotel Mt. Zion and I would figure out something from there! The driver was truly sorry so I gave him twenty extra shekels!

I walk into the Lobby and tell the young woman (very pretty and I think she was Palestinian) what happened and she said sweetly, “Why, sir, you need an Arab taxi driver!!” Hello!!!!

So, ten minutes later in walks my new taxi driver who assures me he knows exactly where I want to go and how to get there without going through the checkpoint!

He was born in Jerusalem, worked for some years in Russia where he met and married his wife, and now lives in Jerusalem. Like my other driver, he, too, has a story to tell. And, like my other driver, he simply wants to live in the Jerusalem he loves and raise his family in peace.

Our ride took only twenty minutes and the funny thing was that it cost 150 Shekels just like my first driver! Go figure. It was quite an experience and I will always remember my brother taxi drivers as a peek into the mystery that is Jerusalem!

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Just to catch up on things!

Well, the official pilgrimage ended on Saturday evening and all of the participants have departed. They were a ll ready to go home too as the trip was very full, somewhat challenging, but always informative.

The last day was very special foe me personally. We began with Mass at St. Martha’s in Bethany. This is the Passionist House, originally founded by French Passionists in 1903!

It is a beautiful little place that commemorates the friendship between Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Currently there are four Passionists living here: one Italian my age (he is the old guy in the community!); the local superior is Fr. Juan, from Bogota, Columbia; there is another Passionist, Fr. James, from the Philippines; and there is one other whom I have not yet met, Fr. Franco, also Italian. There is a young diocesan priest living here as we’ll, Fr. Marco, who is from Brazil. He has had a close friendship with the Passionists and considers himself one of us. He is here to study for the next three years at the Franciscan school of Biblical studies. Very nice man. Most of the conversation is in Italian so you can imagine the mess I make of both languages!! A little Italian, a lot more of my poor Spanish and voila, you have this strange salad of sounds that people kindly pretend to understand!

We had a very nice Mass here at St. Martha’s. I was privileged to be the presider and I thought a lot about Martha’s words to Jesus when he came after hearing of Lazarus’ death (although the Scriptures tell us that he waited for two days after hearing that his dear friend was ill!) Martha said, “Lord, my brother would not have died if you had been here!” I think in her heart Martha was saying, “Where were you Lord when we needed you?” We all have those “where-were-you-Lord moments, don’t we? And then our next stop was Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations. Believe me, all nations were there! Anyway, this is one of my favorite biblical/spiritual themes, Jesus coming to that great awareness that he must surrender to the mysterious yet loving will of his Father. I share this because it is tied in with the dialog between Martha and Jesus, where when we have those “where were you Lord moments we too say what Jesus himself said in Gethsemane, “Father, not my will but thy will be done.”

So the day was very beautiful and complete. Some of us went to the Holy Sepulcher to visit the site where Jesus died and was placed in the tomb but it was so crowded that we turned around and left. I am fortunate that I am staying on so that I can possibly go very early one morning and get in!

More later on my return to Bethany! A really interesting adventure — how do I get into some of these things!!

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I just want to say it was amazing to kneel and reverence the site where we believe our Savior was born! Something I will never forget.

Yesterday we drove south to the Dead Sea, over 1200 feet below sea level. Yep, I took a swim in it if you can call it swimming! I just had to do it! Maybe more on this later.

We crossed the boarder yesterday afternoon into Jordan. We went to the beautiful port city of Aquaba and stayed at an amazing hotel overlooking the Red Sea. And today we went to Petra. What a place. More on this later. God love you all. Pray for peace! The last thing before I pray at nite is watch CNN and see all that is happening so close to where we are at this very moment!!

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