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Three Months at Tantur, Jerusalem

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

Summer has come and gone, and I find myself checking off something that has been on my “Bucket List” for nearly two decades: Living and research at Notre Dame’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

I arrived in the Jerusalem late Sunday night, after what felt like a week in transit via Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and Rome. My first thought, as the Nesher shuttle drove under Montefiore Windmill, is that time flies and I can hardly believe it has already been 5 years since my first visit to the Holy Land. That was a 9-day seminar with the Russell Berrie Fellowship, at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Today, I embark on a 3-month dissertation writing fellowship at Tantur. It has taken three years of working multiple part time jobs (university teaching, research assistant, study abroad residence manager, spiritual advisor, international program staff) to get to the point I could take a few months ‘off’ and actually work full time on my dissertation. I am looking forward to it, but I confess it takes a couple days to adjust to having so much time to work on the one thing I never seem to have time for!

Thankfully, Tantur has a library of about 60,000-70,000 volumes on hand, with emphasis on ecumenism and patristics. [By comparison, the Centro Pro Unione in Rome has about 24,000; the World Council of Churches library at Bossey has about 100,000.] The library resources suffered some during the Second Intifada (c2000-2005), and is in the midst of updating its collection – a project I have been asked to help with while I am here, as part of my Fellowship.

The roots of the institute go back to the Second Vatican Council and encounters between Paul VI and ecumenical observers, who dreamed of an international theological institute for ecumenical research and life. The famous 1964 meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives sparked the notion that this would be the obvious place for such an institute to be established.

Before long, Paul VI entrusted the vision to none other than Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. As he looked around Jerusalem, he seemed to find the perfect spot.

Tantur is located on 36 acres of hilltop olive trees, vineyards, and pine. Overlooking Bethlehem, Gilo, and Bayt Jala, a short drive south of Jerusalem and with the mountains of Jordan visible on a clear day, the location has been understandably described as “strategic”. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, this was Jordanian territory, and is ‘east’ of the Green Line but west of the border fence surrounding Bethlehem.

The property itself belonged to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at least since 1869, when it was administered by the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire’s branch of the SMOM. During the Ottoman era, they operated a hospital on this site. Apparently, though, there are ties to this land with the order dating back to their first arrival here – in 1099, with the first crusade.

Fr. Hesburgh convinced Paul VI to purchase the property from the Order in 1966, for $300,000, just a few months shy of the Six Day War. The initial cost of building the center was estimated at $1 million, for which Fr. Ted looked to the generosity of I. A. O’Shaughnessy (known on campus for having donated the funds for the Arts and Letters College). Notre Dame leased the property from the Vatican in 1967, but building had to wait during the conflict, after which Israel now controlled the territory. By the time the center was constructed in 1971, the cost had doubled. The first year of operation was 1972.

Anticipating the renewal of the Vatican lease of Tantur to Notre Dame for another 50 years, starting next year, the University has approved a strategic plan that would propel the Institute to its next phase. The original vision of a resident community of scholars has ebbed and flowed, and most of the people who come through do so either for sabbatical or short term programs, in addition to ND’s study abroad programs in the spring. There are currently three of us considered resident Fellows or Scholars: A Church of England priest, a Jewish biblical scholar, and myself. There is also one seminarian intern/program assistant. There are about twenty people here on a three-month sabbatical/continuing education program, mostly Catholic priests (with two Anglicans). It is easy to envision something like the Lay Centre in Rome as a model for the community life here, with a more explicit focus on ecumenical dialogue.

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I had finished most of this post at the end of my first full day here; this morning (Yom Kippur/ Eid al-Adha) I heard the news of the shooting death of a 19-year old university freshman at a security checkpoint from a Mennonite peace worker. It is a somber reminder that even as I am here to get away from the distractions of the world to write and research, and as quiet and peaceful as things appear from this hilltop retreat, the complexities of the situation here, and the tragedies, require our prayer for peaceful resolution. And deeper understanding. I am no expert, and I hope the next three months bring me to a deeper understanding and solidarity with my brothers and sisters here – Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian.

Holy Land Seminar Day #9

The Wall, border between Israel and Palestinian Authority

Our final day in the Holy Land was spent beyond Israel’s borders, as it were, in the Palestinian Authority area including Bethlehem – just a few minutes from Jerusalem. The wall reminds me of the border between San Diego and Tijuana, though the crossing was a lot smaller. There is a distinctive difference from Israeli to Palestinian controlled territory, but not nearly as dramatic (in terms of poverty and plenty) as the Mexican to American transition. Instead of kippot, you see keffiyet. The Arabic signs are more prominent, but English and Hebrew are still present.

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Ezra, our driver, and Yitzik, our guide, being Israeli citizens are not allowed to cross the border, so we had a new driver and picked up a new guide once on the other side. We spent the better part of the morning at the Church of the Nativity, and then walking through the streets to the Church of the Theotokos, or as it is more commonly called, the Milk Grotto. We paused to view shepherd’s field, which upended my lifelong mental image of the shepherds on a hill top and the little town of Bethlehem in the valley below – it is actually the other way around. Villages are built up along the hillside to leave the valleys clear for farming and grazing.

Church of St. Catherine, Catholic portion of Nativity site

Like so many of the holy sites, the Nativity church is shared/divided among Catholic (Roman/Latin, Franciscan) custodians, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox. The main basilica is shared by the Orthodox churches, and the adjacent church of St. Catherine is catholic. The former is ancient, dirty, dusky, and dark. The latter is bright, well-lit, and modern. The original mosaics of the basilica are still present in some degree, though so covered in grime as to be virtually unrecognizable. The contrast is striking, and only a happy medium would be an improvement.

Grotto of the Nativity, Catholic chapel

The Cave of the Nativity is small, located below the main altar in the Orhtodox section, with some of it accessible from the Catholic side –including St. Jerome’s living space of the last quarter century of his life- though the traditional site venerated as the place of Christ’s birth is on the Orthodox side.

The official site of the Nativity, under the altar in the Orthodox section of the grotto

The Milk Grotto is one of those sites that at first glance, I had to cringe. This was a place where Mary fed Jesus? Did George Washington sleep here too? Give the faithful some credit! …But, even cynical prayers are answered.

The Franciscan custodian inside the grotto volunteered to give us a brief synopsis of the church – historical arguments and pius myth both included. Apparently, when St. Helena made her state visit to Bethlehem, the local Christians showed her two places – the cave of the Nativity, and the site of Joseph’s house in Bethlehem, where the Holy Family lived until ordered into flight to Egypt, and where the Magi are supposed to have visited. The “milk grotto” story developed from the idea that in one of her feedings, the Blessed Mother spilt two drops of her milk to the stone, which immediately turned white. Powder taken from these stones, when imbibed, is supposed to heal any reproductive ailments a woman might have, and is a very popular devotional/sacramental in some parts of the world. That the church is one of the oldest sites dedicated to Mary as Mother and to include Joseph, the poor man, is what makes it most worthy of veneration.

On our way out of town, I had to stop and take a picture of a café sign that reminded me how good my people are at exporting western values…

Western economic ideas in Bethlehem

Holy Land Seminar Day #8

On our penultimate day in the Holy Land we started with a fascinating discussion with David Neuhaus, SJ, director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Latin Catholics in the Holy Land. Most Catholics, both Latin and Eastern, are Arabic speaking in Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Cyprus, the area covered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. But, there are also a significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Roman church, and he is their go-to guy.

It was only a brief overview of the complexities of the church in the middle east. On top of the complex details of the Status Quo ecumenical “treaty” governing the holy sites, the internal Catholic complexities converge with language, rite, church, ethnicity and nationality. And Fr. David has to transverse borders of all kinds in the execution of his ministry. Some of the interesting pastoral notes were the mandatory minimum 2-year RCIA period, often longer, for people converting to Christianity from Judaism or Islam, in large part to make sure it’s a manageable process for the family. Another is the case of Hebrew-speaking Israeli children, at Hebrew schools, where all their classmates are doing Bar Mitzvah. How do you respond when they say they want one too?

We then went on our walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, through the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Quarters, including a stop at HaKotel, the portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount which has become the primary site of prayer for Jews in the last couple centuries – the closest they can get to what was once the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple, now the site of the Dome of the Rock.

Following the post-crusader pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, we did a brief walking tour of the original Stations of the Cross, ending at the Holy Sepulchre, which is a massive church complex visibly divided by the broken state of Christianity. Various parts of the church (and of the other holy sites) are cared for and controlled by various churches – Catholic (Latin Franciscans), Greek,  Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. Some areas are common space, which means nothing can change without the consent of all parties. The doors to the church are protected by Muslim families entrusted to the charge since Saladin, one has the key and another guards to doors to keep them open during established times. As we got to the main entrance, you can even see a ladder set on a ledge that has not been moved since the Status Quo was established. While we were celebrating the Eucharist on the first day in Jerusalem and started to chant the alleluia, we were shushed by some sisters who had come in to join us – apparently singing is forbidden to the Latins during the normal schedule, because back in the day the only singing happened at “high mass” and only “low mass” (unsung) were permitted…

For the evening Shabbat meal, we traveled out toward the Judean desert, in view of the crusader Good Samaritan fortress inn, to Ein Prat Midrasha. The midrasha is a place where young Israelis -mostly after high school and before military service, or after military service and before university –spend four months living in community and studying Torah, philosophy, other religious texts. It seems like a profoundly formative opportunity. We were joining them for their final Shabbat meal together before ‘graduation’, and got there just in time for small group studies.

Just before the sun sets, they head out to a bluff overlooking a desert valley, facing west to welcome the Shabbat (the Sabbath), which arrives with the sunset on Friday and ends only when three stars are visible on Saturday evening. This is done first with the singing of psalms and dancing, practices which I think originate in the mystical tradition from around the 16th century. Following this, before the meal, are the more traditional and common prayers that begin the Sabbath. As I commented to one of the students I ate with, the Sabbath practice is one of the great gifts Judaism has for the world, and is especially powerful for my fellow Americans and our intensive, frantic business and inability to slow down much!

It was a beautiful evening, and I was blessed to share it with the community here.

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