Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Monday (Part 2)

Reflections on Grand Silence.

I experienced two particular feelings as we left the church after Compline to begin the Grand Silence, neither of which I expected.  The first was a teeny tiny bit of panic.  It only lasted for a second, but it was definitely present.  What if I needed something and couldn’t ask for it?  What if I had something I desperately needed to say to someone?  Of course, had there been an emergency, or if I was in real need I could have said something. But how often are we ever just cut off from speaking to others? How often are we given a cutoff after which we no longer speak?  So though the panic lasted for a second, I was still very aware of it.


The second feeling was a feeling of humility.  In those first moments of silence I became aware that though there were many things I might want to say—even worthwhile things—those things were insignificant in the presence of God. There was nothing I could say that was worthy of God.  I experienced my own smallness, the smallness of my thoughts, and the smallness of the words that I was forbidden to speak in the presence of God.  It reminded me of what I so often forget:  that profound silence is often the only appropriate response to the vastness of God.  We are so used to noise. We are so used to trying to assign words to every thought we have. And the world of social media has tricked us into believing that every thought we have is worth sharing out loud.  But those words and thoughts—in the presence of God—are petty and small. This is why we need silence.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Mepkin Abbey, Monday

I showed up not knowing what to expect.  Jaylynn, the woman who coordinated the retreat had sent us a schedule, and the only thing I noted was that the brothers prayed at 3:20am and we were invited to join them.  I suppose I also noted that there would be ample time later in the day to take a nap.  I had also looked on the website at pictures of the accommodations for retreatants and was pleased with what I saw.  So I was empty of the dread that comes from not knowing the condition of the place where I would stay.

As we began to arrive in the afternoon, we met with Fr. Guerric, who gave us a brief orientation and suggested that we meet again after Vespers at 6:30 to talk about how we would structure our day on Tuesday.  I hoped that the structure would include naps.

Supper was at 5:00.  There is a guest refectory next to the monastic refectory.  We were not allowed to eat with the monks in their dining room, but we still kept silence during our meals.  The noon meal is the big meal of the day, so supper was simple.  The monks laid out bread, peanut butter, jelly, cheese, some relishes, and a bowl of apricots.  Cereal and milk were available as well.  We helped ourselves to whatever dishes and utensils we needed from the cupboard and tucked in. 

Fr. Guerric told us that Trappists eat quickly, which is ironic since everything else they do is so contemplative.  I suppose that one could eat both contemplatively and quickly, but he said that they like to finish quickly so that they can get back to work.

I enjoyed my supper. It was simple and nourishing.  I helped myself to things I normally wouldn’t eat at home:  cereal and a thick apricot marmalade that was just this side of heaven.  Not together, of course.  Marmalade with peanut butter on a thick piece of brown bread.

At 6:00 we celebrated Vespers, the service of evening prayer. 

We were invited to sit with the monks in the choir area, but in a special place designated for guests.  The monk nearest a member of our group on each side guided us through the prayers when we got lost.  I don’t remember much of the service itself, except that I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Fr. Guerric had already clued us in that we were to bow “profoundly” to the altar anytime we passed, but some other things that we caught pretty quickly were the “knock” and the profound bow at the Gloria Patri, which followed the singing of every Psalm.  The knock is the sign that the service is about to begin, and the response is to make the sign of the cross, bow to the altar, and then sing the Gloria Patri.

AspergillumAfter the service was over we met with Fr. Guerric to talk about Tuesday.  The Trappists are a contemplative order, and he was very interested in helping us learn to practice contemplative prayer.  So we schedule three “sits” during the day on Tuesday that would consist of 20 minutes of contemplative practice, 10 minutes of walking meditation, and 20 more minutes of contemplative practice.


The final service of the day is Compline, a beautiful and contemplative service of prayer in which we pray for all people to have a quiet night and a peaceful death.  As we left the service we stopped before the baptismal font where one of the brothers splashed us gently with water using the aspergillum as we remembered our baptisms.


And then began the Grand Silence. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 8

We didn't have to be anywhere until 10:45 today, so my roomie and I checked out of our room early and joined some other friends to tool around the Old City a bit and to explore a place that only seemed like it might be a dream.

That particular place was our first stop.  We had heard tell of it but refused to believe it until we saw it for ourselves.  You go to Stations III and IV on the Via Dolorosa and there you will see a plain wooden door.  You ring the doorbell and are buzzed in.  You next come to a large black metal gate, which in our case was open.  You continue up several flights of stairs until you reach a beautiful garden.  You enter the lovely building and ask for the coffee, and are told that the cafe doesn't open until 10:00am.  You hold back tears but go to the roofdeck to take in the view from there.


Since we couldn't get our coffee and apple strudel there, we hopped around until we found another place to sit and relax.  I got some Arabic coffee. Yum.


We shopped some more, and then three of us went back to the hospice when the cafe opened.  It pays to check out early.  The coffee was fabulous and the strudel tasted like angels had made it.
Then we went back to the hotel to load up our stuff and move out.  We had afternoon activities, but we weren't coming back to the hotel except to eat before catching our flight out.

We stopped first at the Garden Tomb.  Our teacher told us that there's no archaeological reason to believe that Jesus' crucifixion and burial took place anywhere other than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but this was helpful for allowing us to imagine what a garden tomb might look like.  We also celebrated communion there together, and it really was a lovely setting.
Then we went to the Holocaust History Museum, which was not lovely.  But it was important.

Our final stop was Ein Karem and the Church of St. John the Baptist, where he was likely born.  I didn't take my camera with me so I'll have to wait until others post pictures.

We returned to the hotel for dinner and some final words about leaving the country, and then hit the road!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 7

Today was an optional day: Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea.  We all opted in.

On the way to Masada, our guide, Munzer, insisted on a detour to Ein Gedi to see the ibexes and the hyraxes.  I have never seen or heard a grown man so excited about wildlife. But here's a hyrax:
When we had seen all the wildlife there was to see, we headed for Masada.  You can read more about it, because it's far more complicated that I have time, space, or brain power to explain.  It's essentially the Mother of All Herodian Palaces that then became important in the Jewish Revolt.  It's also a bear to climb, but I did it anyway because it was there.

Since I climbed instead of listening to the lecture I missed a great deal of the historical significance, but I needed the climb for my mental health.  Here are some other pictures that I took, though:



When we finished at Masada we spent some time in Qumran.  It's right on the Dead Sea with lots of caves for hiding, so overall a good choice for the Qumran community.  Here's Cave #4

We ended our day at the Dead Sea, coating ourselves in black mud and floating around, but NOT DRINKING THE WATER!  Eight ounces of Dead Sea water can kill you.  It's a nice float, but not someplace I'd need to stay all day.  Definitely worth the trip, though.  After a shower and dinner it was time for bed!

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 6.2

After lunch we went to the Western Wall, which may have been my favorite part of Jerusalem.  We got to spend some time there, which I enjoyed so much.  Here are some of my favorite pictures:




So, the Western Wall wasn't actually part of the Temple, but actually a supporting wall of the Temple Mount. When Emporer Titus laid siege to Jerusalem he left it to remind the Jews of Rome's power.  Sounds like a great guy.  The part that you can see is the upper part of the wall. It actually goes down 45 more feet.
The left side is the men's side and the right side is the women's side.  Here's a little guy hanging with his mom while she prayed.
We went next to the Davidson Center, which is an archaeological park in Jerusalem, centered around where the southwest corner of the Temple was located.   This is the area where the ritual baths would have been located, as well as the royal stoa (the administrative offices of the Pharisees).
Then we went out to the teaching steps where we can only assume that Jesus taught his disciples.  Interestingly, when Jesus said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees," he would have been sitting right under the royal stoa.  When he said "You are like whitewashed tombs" the disciples would have only to look to the left to see this:
Here are the teaching steps; one long and one short to intentionally disrupt one's stride and make them slow down:
Our next stop was the Upper Room, which isn't really the Upper Room, because that was destroyed be Emperor Titus when he laid siege to Jerusalem.  This particular structure was built in the Crusader period, and then it became a mosque.  But the original Upper Room might have looked something like this (with or without James):

Final stop:  Tomb of David, which also probably isn't David's tomb, but this is the traditional place.  It's considered a synagogue, so men and women have to go into separate parts of the burial place.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 6

We got out of the hotel early so that we could be some of the first at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We entered the Old City through the Lion's Gate, or St. Stephen's Gate, and marveled at how much the Old City looks like one would expect an Old City to look.  Except for the scooters, cars, and other little trucks that haul things.  There are lots of stairs, lots of little alleyways, and lots of places to shop.

Our first stop was St. Ann's Church, the traditional home of Mary's family.  It's run by the White Fathers and they even had a small seminary there.  We stopped to listen to the liturgy.
Then we moved on to the Pool of Bethesda, where John says that an angel stirred up the water once per year.  The first person to jump in when the water was stirred would have been healed.  It's history is outlined here, but it's interesting to note that the pool was originally part of the Antonia Fortress, built by Herod for the Roman Guard. It was a pagan place, yet Jesus came there to heal those who needed mercy.
When we left St. Ann's we went to the first two stops on the Via Dolorosa.  The first was the Chapel of Flagellation, where Jesus may have been beaten.  The two stops, the Chapel and Flagellation and the Chapel of Condemnation were in the exact spot of the Antonia Fortress (mentioned above) built in 35 BC by Herod in honor of Marc Antony.  Here's the Chapel of Flagellation:
And the inside of the Chapel of Condemnation:


We finally made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but not before lots of other people got in line.  The church is jointly (but not always cooperatively) run by five different groups:  Franciscans, Coptics, and three flavors of Orthodox.  They have such a history of arguing about the joint use of the church that in the 1500s Sultan Suleiman ruled that the Muslims would keep the keys to the church, which they still do to this day.



Helen, mother of Constantine, made it her duty to find out where the holy places in Jerusalem were.  It was she that decided that this particular place was the place where Jesus was crucified, anointed, and buried.  Eventually a church was built on top of these three places to protect them.

We started at the small chapel that holds the rock that supposedly marked the spot where Jesus' head was laid in the tomb.  It's been covered over with a large slab of marble.


 Then we moved on to the Rock of Calvary.  As with the birthplace of Christ, there's a hole in which you can stick your hand to touch the rock.
Finally, the rock where Jesus was anointed.  There were people taking things that they had purchased elsewhere and rubbing them on the rock for a blessing.  Not my thing, but quite lovely anyway.



Blogging from The Holy Land, Part 5.2

After lunch we went for an olive wood shopping spree with the Nissan Brothers, who make their own olive wood carvings by hand.  Having spent far more than I should, we moved on to Shepherd's Field.  We didn't get to poke around much in the archaeological sites, although we peeked in on a few caves where the shepherds might have spent the night with their sheep if they couldn't make it back to the city in time.


Interesting fact:  When the shepherds remained in the caves with their sheep, they would have taken briars and sticks and put them at the front of the cave.  Then they would have positioned their own bodies at the entrance as well, literally making themselves the gate to the sheepfold.  When Jesus says, "I am the gate," that's exactly what he means.

Want to hear something else that will blow your mind?  After Shepherd's Field we went to the Herodium.  Here it is from far away:

The Herodium was Herod's wintering place.  It was over the top with decorations and luxuries, a pool, and a waterworks that would blow your mind.  We walked through those:
But see how it's flat on top?  That's not natural.  Herod actually had slaves to remove the top of the mountain so that he could build his fortress up there, on the highest spot in the Judean mountains.  So when Jesus says, "With faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains," don't you know what the people thought of?  Herod had nothing on them.

We ended our day with a service at St. George's and went to bed!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 5.1

I was a little disappointed at breakfast this morning because the spread wasn't as expansive as it had been at the other hotel, but one of the hosts explained that it was Shabbat breakfast: things that could be cooked ahead of time and easily reheated.

Our first stop this morning was the Church of all Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony of Christ. It is built next to the Garden of Gethsemane, which translates into "the place where the olives are pressed."  And this is where Jesus came when he was pressed and had no way to avoid what was ahead of him.  The olive trees were gorgeous, and the weather was perfect.  The altar of the church includes a huge stone which commemorates the place in Gethsemane where Jesus might have settled to pray the night before he met with death.

While we were all inside and sitting around the rock, each in our own moments of prayer and contemplation, our teacher, Bob, began reading to us from Luke.  He was standing outside of the church but was reading into our earpieces that became an integral part of our touring experience.



We left the Church of all Nations and went to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity.  We had to cross over a Palestinian checkpoint to get in.  We began our journey on the plaza of the church. We knew we would have to wait in line, but may not have been quite prepared for the wait.  The church is jointly owned by three different congregations, a Catholic congregation, an Armenian Orthodox congregation, and a Greek Orthodox congregation.  Each of them was having mass, so we had to wait for those to finish.

Then there was the line.  It funnels into a tiny descent into a grotto where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus.  The stairs open up into a small room where you can crawl into a tiny space where a star indicates the birthplace.


Then you can see the altar to the Three Wise Men before being ushered back up the stairs into daylight.  Overall it was a bit underwhelming and somewhat aggravating.  But it's all part of the experience I guess.  My favorite part was probably watching a group of four teenagers take selfies, proving that teenagers are, in fact, the same everywhere!


Our next stop was the Church of St. Catherine, connected to the Church of the Nativity, and then to the Chapel of St. Jerome, an underground structure where St. Jerome translated the bible into Latin. There was a Korean congregation celebrating mass while we passed through, and on the way out we saw the tombs of the innocents killed by Herod.