Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Free Day Adventure

            What do you do when you have a free day in the Holy Land? You go on a short, leisurely six mile walk of course! Well, at least that is what one small group of us did. Earlier, during one of our excursions, we were able to visit the Shepherds’ Field run by the Franciscans. There are, however, apparently two others. One is operated by the YMCA and the other is looked after by the Greek Orthodox. Having read in our guidebook about Orthodox fields and its connection to a church built by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, our group decided to walk to the Orthodox field.
            Upon arrival at the fields we found the gate closed. It was only with the assistance of a local that we discovered the call button on the side of the gate. After pressing the button, the gate slid open to reveal a neatly manicured garden area and the Orthodox church. Before entering the main church, we explored a little and came across the remains of the older basilicas, of which the original underground portion is still maintained. We were able to go in and look around the small chapel’s side room. One of the things that struck me was a set of skulls on the right side of the chapel, which had belonged to monks from the monastery who had been martyred during a Persian invasion in the seventh century.
            From the small underground chapel we went to the main church. When we entered, we were amazed by the beauty of the icons that covered every inch of the interior. The brightness of the colors and the imagery used helped to remind us that, in that sacred space, one encounters God.
            Skulls and icons. These spoke eloquently of the faith of that place and those that served there. The icons revealed their belief in the glory and majesty of God. They were able to use simple human tools such as pigments and brushes to reveal an inner beauty and a belief in the transformation that God can work. The skulls also spoke of their reliance on God. The former monks of that place faced death rather than deny their belief in God. May our belief and trust in God be as visible in our work and our lives as it is the lives and deaths of the monks who lived at the Shepherds’ Field Monastery. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Mother Holds Her Son

On the day after Christmas, the sun began to shine after much rain for a couple of days. The fresh, clean air is a reminder that rain always brings new life.  We had Mass at the Milk Grotto. The Milk Grotto is in Bethlehem, not far from the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born. It is the place where tradition tells us that Mary first fed her son and that some of her milk was spilled there. The title “Milk Grotto” comes from the apocryphal gospels and highlights the sincere devotion that pilgrims have for the mother of Jesus. This place has been a place of veneration for both Christians and Muslims for centuries, and the Grotto contains relics from the seventh century that are conserved in fragments of rock.
I felt that the experience of being at the Milk Grotto the day after Christmas was very appropriate for us. We know from the Gospel of Matthew that that the Magi set out and followed the star until it came and stopped over the place where Jesus was staying. “And on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. (Matthew 2:11).” As we continue in this Christmas season, may we each reflect on the joy and simplicity that Mary had for her newborn son, and may we hold the baby Jesus in our hearts so that our lives can be renewed each day. Let us also pray for all mothers, especially our own. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Knowing Him Better

            Throughout the pilgrimage, we have heard the constant refrain, “A pilgrimage is an outward journey to stimulate an inner journey.” Some of the men who have gone before us have told us that, after the pilgrimage, one never reads the Bible in the same way again. This Christmas was proof positive that we are further on the interior journey and can, almost literally, see the Bible in a new light. As a pilgrimage group we attended Midnight Mass at Bethlehem University. One of our deacons chanted the gospel, which is the story of the birth of Christ as found in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:1-14). It was amazing and powerful to hear this story proclaimed in the very town in which the events occurred. As the Gospel was being proclaimed, many of us could vividly see in our mind the story taking place. We have prayed in the grotto in which Christ was born. We have heard the story of the shepherds in the fields in which they tended their sheep and learned that their shepherd had been born. After the mass, one of the faculty members remarked, “This is why we came here.” Indeed, this is why we came to the Holy Land, to see those places where Christ walked in order to be able to more closely follow in his footsteps.
            When someone desires to get to know another better and to grow in a relationship with him or her, it is important to see the actual places that are significant to the other. In this pilgrimage, we have been seeing various places that were important to many of those who have gone before us in faith, people such as Abraham and Sarah, David, Mary and Joseph and most importantly Jesus. In doing so, we have been able to more deeply reflect on their lives and have been further inspired to live out the best virtues that they have shown. We are able to grow in our understanding of who Jesus was and is, and are thus able to grow in our relationship with him. While Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem are a profoundly beautiful way to grow closer to our Savior, it is not the only way to grow closer to Christ. Rather, we must continue to come to know Christ as he is made present in our world today. We are called to continue to make room for Christ to dwell in each of our hearts. In a sense, every day should be an image of Christmas in Bethlehem. In order to live with Christ in the life to come, we must receive him into our hearts, as he was received by Mary and Joseph into the world, every day of our lives.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve

Our pilgrims joined tens of thousands of other pilgrims from around the world in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our Savior.  The day began with a grand march, featuring many different bands, through the street believed to be the one which Mary and Joseph walked on their way to the place of the nativity. The march lasted for more than two hours. People of different ages, cultures and religions together joyfully participated in the festive march; all of whom were filled with great joy.  The day was crowned with a midnight Mass in which some seminarians served at the Mass, while other shared the gift of their voices in the Choir to make the liturgy very colorful, inspirational and transformative. The liturgy ended at 1:30 A.M., followed by a social prepared by the hosts.
Celebrating our first Christmas away from our families was a sacrifice, but it was a worthwhile one in order to be in the birthplace of our savior. Joining our voices with the heavenly host in praising God with the heavenly song of the Gloria, in the land where it was sung first by the multitude of angels on our Lord’s birth, permanently transformed many of us.  The experience of sharing the joy of Christmas from Christ’s birthplace can’t be explained. In meditating upon what was taking place, it was clear that God’s love that dwelt among men. The unity of people of different religions who came to Bethlehem for Christmas was a clear sign that no merely human celebration can bring all people together in joy; this was a symbol of unity and a grace of God for inter-religious dialogue. Just as the shepherds went out to give witness to Mary and Joseph from what they heard from the angel, all are commissioned to do the same.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reflecting on Christmas

(Written the day before Christmas)
            Today is a day of recollection for our group.  It is an interior pilgrimage to rediscover God’s love for us as we come closer to Christmas day.  It is also a chance to examine our relationship with the Lord.  It is, therefore, a time for prayer, thanksgiving, fasting, and reconciling ourselves to God.  This is a moment to recognize and acknowledge our sinfulness and to give thanks to God for his great love in giving his beloved Son to reconcile us to himself.
            We all know that many people are busy preparing for Christmas.  Some are buying.  Others are selling.  Some are sending Christmas cards while others are receiving.  Some are sending gifts to their friends, siblings, and their loved ones.  All these are preparations for Christmas!  These are all well and good, but these seem to be only external preparations.  What about our spiritual pilgrimage?  As Christian pilgrims, we see this as very important and our first priority.  We spend this day to prepare our souls to receive Jesus Christ, who is a gift as well as a giver.  As the Gospel proclaims, he is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).  It is he who enables us to do what we do.
            In fact, God is closer to us than we know, “for ‘in him we live, and move, and are’” (Acts 17:28).  That being said, when we pray, it is the Spirit who prays in us and with us.  Thus our recollection aims at allowing the Spirit to work in us, to pray in us, and create a conducive environment in our souls for Christ to be born.  Since this is a noble and good thing, we gladly invite you to join us wherever you are; in your prayer and acts of charity to make Christmas a joyful and peaceful event.  Just as food is necessary for the body, so is prayer for the soul!  Would you pray with us for peace?

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Light.

            Living in the Holy Land makes you appreciate things you may have missed before.  One such thing is the warmth and comfort of sunlight. Ever since we arrived here, we have noticed the difference between standing in the sunlight and standing in the shade.  When you are in the sun you feel the warmth pour over you giving you energy and comfort.  However, when you move out of the sun or the sun is hidden by clouds you immediately feel cold.  You can almost feel your body growing more tired as it uses its own energy to try and keep itself warm.  The difference is so striking that you can go from shivering to comfortable in just a few short steps.
            There is a lesson here for our spiritual life.  In the beginning of the Gospel According to John we are told that the Baptist “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe  . . . the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:7 & 9).  Jesus Christ is our Light.  And here in the land in which both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist lived, we see how important light can be.  It not only illuminates everything for us to see, but it also nourishes us and gives us energy and strength to engage in our activities for the day.  Just as the sun helps us to live each day to the fullest, so too does the Son give us the grace we need to live our Christian walk to the fullest.  During this Christmas season and all year long He gives us everything we need, if we just stay in His Light.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Extraordinary Day.

If you have been paying close attention, you have probably realized that our posts are actually just a couple of days behind our actual schedule.  Below is the regularly scheduled blog reflection from a couple of days ago.  However, today we decided we needed to make an additional post.  Why is today different than any other day?

Today is Christmas day.

Over two thousand years ago, on this day of days, Our Lord and Savior was born in a cave in Bethlehem.  We know this is true, we've been there.  Two thousand years ago, on this most special day, Our Creator was born to a virgin and was a newborn infant.  We know this is true, we've seen the place she laid Him.  Two thousand years ago, on this most holy of days, a great multitude of the heavenly hosts appeared in the sky singing praise and glory to God because He became one of us.  We know this is true, because we have seen the cave the shepherds stayed in and walked the roads they walked in order to behold the Miracle of Miracles.

Today we not only realize the reality of the Incarnation in a new way, but we also appreciate in a very small way the price that Jesus paid in coming to us.  Because Jesus left His Father, who is All in All, to become a man in order that we might know His Father.  Jesus left everything behind and became a pilgrim for us.  We, who are pilgrims now in this land, feel our share of sorrow and loss because we are not with you this Christmas Day, this Day of Days.  But we reach out to you in our thoughts and minds, we lift you up in our prayers, and we hold you close to us in our hearts as we celebrate this Christmas Day in this Holy Land, the land of Jesus' pilgrimage.  May His pilgrimage bring us all home to Him, and may our pilgrimage bring us home to you with Christ Jesus in our hearts.

God bless you and keep you.  Merry Christmas.

Ordinary Day.

            Today was an ordinary day.  We had a couple of lectures in the morning and then much of the rest of the day was left open for us to do as we pleased.  So today we all used our time in different ways: taking a nap, playing cards, visiting the holy sites, or catching up on some reading we had wanted to do.  It was much like a day would have been like were we still in the United States, perhaps just a bit warmer.  We haven’t had too many days like today, ordinary days that is, and perhaps that’s what makes today unique in its own way.  We have spent a great deal of our time here going to visit the many places and people that make this land holy.  For this great blessing that has been to all of us, we give thanks to God.  But today was a little different; today didn’t include a visit to a holy site or Mass at a special place. Today didn’t include any of the usual pilgrimage activities.  Today was an ordinary day.
            I can’t help but reflect on the fact that an ordinary day here is much like an ordinary day when we are home in the United States.  All of the same spiritual dynamics are in play: we find a million and one ways to keep ourselves busy, prayer can sometimes be the last thing on the priority list for the day and idle chatter comes more readily than something that people really need to hear.  Even here in the Holy Land, perhaps especially here in the Holy Land, it can be a challenge for us to actually make prayer a priority, to actually set aside some time aside for God.  It’s the same spiritual dynamic that we find on an ordinary day back at seminary, the same dynamic that we find on an ordinary day back in our respective homes; Jesus is always there to draw us to Himself, to wait for our response to His love.  On any ordinary day, real growth in the spiritual life, authentically living out the Christian life, involves letting Jesus be a priority in our lives amidst the busyness and challenges of life.  Today was an ordinary day.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Concert for Peace

Beethoven, Bacharach, Brahms, The Beatles, and …Boy Scouts?  Alliteration aside, one may be wondering what exactly these things have to do with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  On Tuesday night several of the pilgrims ventured down to St. Catherine’s for the 11th Annual Christmas Concert for Life and Peace from Bethlehem.  A local Boy Scout Troop ushered in hundreds of people for a night of classical music, along with some contemporary music, performed by the Palestinian Youth Orchestra and a few world-class musicians.  For two hours the church was converted into a concert hall that resonated with beautifully performed music.  The Franciscan superior in charge of the Custody of the Holy Land wrote in the program that “when music becomes an instrument of Peace, it changes your perspective as a listener.”
           The program is meant to convey a message of hope; a message very fitting as we draw closer to Christmas.  Part of the pilgrimage experience has been immersing ourselves in the local culture through food, marketplaces, prayer and general interactions with others.  This concert showed that certain things can and will transcend any culture and be all-encompassing.  Music, played from the heart as a sign of hope, can speak to all of us.  As Advent comes to a close, let us all be reminded of the joyful hope that comes with the birth of our Savior on Sunday morning.

Friday, December 23, 2011

An Individual Journey

After being in the Holy Land for over two weeks and as we begin our prayerful preparations for Christmas, this week presents to us an opportunity to reflect on the movements of God throughout our pilgrimage experience.  One of the most fascinating aspects of this experience is to see how each man is having a unique experience, one that God has personally tailored for him.  While a visit to the Mount of Temptation may have been a particularly powerful experience of God's love to one of us, another might have felt dry and detached.  While one can look across the Judean desert and see his own deserts and yearn for God to lead him to green pasture, another simply sees sand and a monotonous landscape.   While we are journeying together during this pilgrimage, each of us is having a different response to the same experiences.  In other words, the Holy Spirit is acting uniquely on each one of us.
The personal nature of the pilgrimage is but a smaller aspect of the personal faith journey that each one of us takes.  While our destination is the same - complete immersion into Trinitarian life and love - the road the each of us walks is beautifully unique.  We can sometimes make the mistake of believing that growing in holiness can only occur in a specific way.  We hear that we are to use the great saints as models of lives of holiness and we can think that we must exactly reproduce their actions.  Rather, what we are called to do is to imitate their passion, their desire for God and their responsiveness to the movements of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit's guidance is unique and personal because each of us is unique. What is the same, however, is the gentle invitation into the Father's loving embrace.  The hardest part, at least for me, is to trust that God is always leading me to himself, knowing that all I must do is follow. 
Holiness can look like many things but, in the end, it always looks like our true self.  The sooner we let go of the idea of what our holiness is “supposed to” look like, the sooner the Spirit can lead us down the personal path that God has lovingly prepared.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


“And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.” Gen. 2:2.
            We have had an amazing two weeks of visiting holy places and archeological sites. We have seen the ruins of palaces and the resting places of patriarchs. We have climbed up the Mountain of Temptation and looked down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death from Psalm 23. It has been two action packed weeks of memories to never be forgotten and opportunities for prayer that only come once in a lifetime. The schedule has, however, been a wearying one. Today was therefore designated as a day of rest.
            Genesis tells us that, when God created the world, he looked and saw that it was good. He then took the seventh day and rested. The fact that something is good does not mean that it is effortless. Our experiences here have helped to show us that. Looking back at the time we have already spent in the Holy Land I can say that for me it has been good and yet when the opportunity for rest came, I realized that I needed it. Just a day or two before and I would have told you that a day off was unnecessary. Yet by today I realized just how tired I had become. Taking today and making it void of formal activities allowed for plenty of opportunities to pray and simply be with our Lord while here in the Holy Land. Back home it is easy to get into the swing of things and, like here, forget the importance of rest. However, it is not just rest from the physical that is needed. We need to remember to rest in the Lord. We must take time out of our hectic schedules so as to embrace silence and come to a deeper appreciation of the actions of God in our lives. It is by resting in the Lord that we will be energized so as to go forth into the world and experience what God has in store for us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Gift of Giving.

I believe that this past week has been a great blessing for us pilgrims. We have had the chance to visit many different sites and we have learned much about the history and culture of Israel and Palestine. I have been amazed at the ways that God is present in the individuals who have shared their time and experiences with us and I am astonished at the amazing sites we have been blessed to visit. God’s presence is here!
Today we had the opportunity to visit an orphanage. Many of the children at the orphanage have been abandoned. I learned that this area does not have an adoption program. Therefore, these children will never have a home with parents and a family. Yet, I saw that these children received much love through the sisters and others who donate their time at the orphanage.
The pilgrims from Mundelein visit this orphanage every year. The children who live at the orphanage range from newborn to six years old. We took a collection from the seminary prior to our pilgrimage so that we could help support the children financially and we also bought them toys for Christmas. The children sang some songs and performed some dances for us, and one of our seminarians dressed as Santa Claus and gave them the toys. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces as they unwrapped their gifts was wonderful.
            Through our visit of the orphanage I am reminded of the true meaning of the word home. It is good for us to have shelter and a place to live. Yet we know that what really makes a home special is the love that we share. As we celebrate Christmas, may we share the love of Christ with one another so that we can allow God to build his home in our hearts, a home that is everlasting. May we also be mindful of those who do not have shelter or anyone with whom to spend Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

College. It's the same everywhere.

            Today we visited Bethlehem University, a small university run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. The university, which was founded in 1973, boasts an enrollment of a little over 3,000 students. This was more than a simple visit, rather it was a chance to see a part of life in this area; a life both very similar to our own and remarkably different. When we spoke to the students, many of the questions focused on the distinctions between attending college studies in the United States and in Bethlehem. Through their answers, however, we both began to see similarities emerge. As 70 percent of the students attending Bethlehem University are Muslims, it was an excellent opportunity to see how the Christian and Muslim students interacted. To the surprise of many, the four students who participated in our discussion reported that the Christian and Muslim students interact quite well with one another. While many of the cultural norms are different from those to which we are accustomed, the nature of the university promoted strong interactions between students of both faiths. More than that, there was a common bond established among the seminarians from the U.S. and the students from the Holy Land. We were all able to sympathize over the stress of examinations and the occasional boredom of a lecture. We were able to express a common gratitude for the gift of education as well. Indeed, students are students wherever they may be found.
            I hope and pray that, when we return to the United States, that we might remember this lesson. Despite that which divides us, whether race, language, location or culture, that we share a common humanity. It is often by encountering that which is slightly different and taking those differences seriously that we are able to see where those differences end. By understanding what is different, one begins to engage in genuine dialogue by sharing various perspectives. Through this dialogue and an examination of our differences, we can discover those areas in our own lives which we may have been neglecting. By meeting one another, we do not learn only about the life of the other. Rather, we fundamentally learn something of ourselves, as human beings are fundamentally relational and social. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Catholic Relief Services in Action

Today was a great day as we observed the humanitarian work of Catholic Relief Services. We attended a presentation from two of the coordinators who discussed the wide spectrum on the work done by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Besides providing food and shelter to the vulnerable of the community in some of the refugee camps, they have done much to empower women and the youth. We visited one of the women centers that makes and sells crafts. Catholic Relief Services brought them together, having chosen those who are mothers and who were experiencing the greatest financial difficulty. After making their crafts, CRS helps them find a market; we are told that they are soon establishing for them a website to widen their market.
            Later we visited a culture and arts center which has a special wing working with the youth. Their primary goal is to work with the youth to enhance community building. Due to the fact that there is a lot of conflict in the region, this group educates the youth on other, nonviolent means of problem solving. They educated some of the youth who now act as ambassadors to their villages. During our interaction with them, one of them told us that, two years prior to getting involved in the program, she had never considered any non-violent method of solving problems. This was because they are brought up in a society that practiced eye-for-an-eye justice. This struck many of us as a non-violent approach is one which is necessary in our world today. I pray that we all might learn to resolve conflicts as Christ would, by giving of ourselves and being strong enough to resist the temptation towards violence. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Welcome again dear readers,
            Today we have visited three different historical places: Qumran, the Dead Sea, and the mountain in Jericho at which Jesus was tempted.  However, I will limit this brief reflection on Qumran and the Mount of Temptation.
            Qumran is located west of the Kaliah-Sodom road on the western shore of the Dead Sea.  It is in the Judean wilderness.  In the second century BC, a Jewish sect, the Essenes, separated itself from Jerusalem and went to live at Qumran.  The reason for their departure from Jerusalem was that they wanted to separate themselves from the ‘corrupt’ Temple of Jerusalem.  They thought the Temple had been corrupted by the influence of Hellenistic culture.  At Qumran they lived a life in which they shared everything in common.  They invested time in studying the law and purifying themselves in order to hasten the coming of the Messiah.  We are challenged by the Essenes to read the Scriptures, and to purify ourselves for the second coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
            The Mount of Temptation, like other sights, affected me more than I can explain.  Every one of us seemed to be in a deep reflection in the great silence.  We learned many things at this place.  One of the important themes from this experience is that we can overcome temptations.  We cannot escape from being tempted, but we can always, by the help of Christ, overcome temptations.  In themselves, temptations are not sins, but if we consent to them then we do sin.
            Dear readers, let us give ourselves in service to Jesus Christ.  He is always with us to help us.  If we commit ourselves to Him, we will overcome all temptations.  Let us pray for ourselves and for each other, and for all who most need our prayers.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Fortress Built by Man

            Towering over the western shore of the Dead Sea stands the mountain fortress of Masada.  It was built by Herod between 37 and 4 BC.  It is a magnificent structure, and was built to be a final refuge in case Herod’s enemies got the upper hand on him.  It contained store houses and cisterns that could keep the occupants supplied for years.  There was even a swimming pool, as well as the customary bath houses and two palaces.  In short, a community of people besieged at Masada could hold out for many years with all the customary comforts.
            Looking out over the wall of Masada, a series of ancient camps all connected by a wall that encircled the fortress could be seen.  These are the remains of the Roman army that besieged the Jewish rebels here for over two years, until the fortress at last fell to the Romans.  This was the last holdout of the Jewish rebels in the revolt that brought about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Romans, knowing the futility of attacking the fortress on the paths leading up to the fortress, built a giant ramp that allowed them to attack the Western Gate of Masada.  The fortress fell, and the revolt in Judea was ended.
            Staring out over the besieging armies camps, it came to mind how like our own lives Masada can seem.  We build up a palace of comforts, ideals, and beliefs that seems indomitable.  However, the trials and temptations of life lay siege to us.  They can surround us and test out our weaknesses, until finally they break through our defenses and overthrow us.  Worst of all, our own wants and desires can undermine our stronghold from within, demonstrating to all that the foundations we had built up our fortress on were faulty from the beginning.  On our own, our fortresses will always fall just as Masada did.
            However, Psalm 127 reminds us:
                        “Unless the Lord build the house,
                                    they labor in vain who build.
                        Unless the Lord guard the city,
                                    in vain does the guard keep watch.”
Our fortresses should be built on the foundation of the Lord and His ways.  He alone can preserve us from the trials of this world.  What the Lord builds the world cannot undo.  If we allow Him to direct our lives and to build them in Him, our fortress will glorify God and never fall to the attacks of anyone or anything that may try to destroy us.  We, “like living stones . . . (can be) built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood . . . acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

Nuestra Señora

            I know that you will be reading this after the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but Happy Feast Day of Nuestra Señora de Gudalupe.  Her appearance to Juan Diego 450 years ago was an event that changed the course of history; it was in many ways the beginning of Catholicism for the peoples of the Americas.  We celebrated her feast day in our small way today by singing a few Marian hymns during Mass and having a small celebration (which included some really good Middle Eastern pastries by the way) after dinner.  While yes, we are here in the land where Jesus walked and are preparing to celebrate his birth, it is a blessing to remember and celebrate the faith as we have received it.
             This celebration reminds us of two very important things, which are particularly significant for us on pilgrimage.  The first is that some things in life are constantly changing.  The castles and palaces and fortresses that we visit are all in ruins, and the empires that built them are all gone. The monuments to once great civilizations and leaders have faded.  And yet, the really important people in life are not changing. This is my second point. Good friends, family members, brothers and sisters in Christ, the people that mean the most to us are the people that are always there for us.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is always here for us, no matter where here happens to be, and she is always leading us closer to her Son, Jesus.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Finding the Inner Room

                Before today even started I had everything planned out on what I was going to write about.  I was going to share something so profound, beautiful and scriptural that it was going to perfectly reflect everything that has been going on thus far.  Then, however, God came into the picture in a typical God-like fashion and completely disrupted all the plans I had laid out so perfectly.  He provided something much more profound for reflection than I could ever have come up with on my own. 
                As I sat praying at one of the holy sites this afternoon I witnessed a blind pilgrim being led to the altar by another pilgrim.  Initially I thought of St. Angela Merici (1474-1540) who once went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was struck with temporary blindness for the duration of her pilgrimage.  Even when some of our senses are deprived, God will still work wonders in our lives.  After the pilgrim was told by her guide where she was, she knelt down to pray and did the last thing I had anticipated: she prayerfully closed her eyes.  I thought to myself: “Why on earth is she bothering to close her eyes?”  We often close our eyes to escape the scene going on around us and to enter into our own thoughts and imagination.  So why did she need to close her eyes on something she could not even see?  Upon reflection I thought of how we often close our eyes when we feel safe, secure, and comfortable.  This pilgrim was blind, yet she felt safe and securely enveloped in God’s love.  She did not need to see the site to feel the presence of God.
                This reminds me of the passage from Matthew’s gospel: "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  Seeing these holy sites is indeed a blessing and has proven to be quite fruitful.  Today, however, I was humbled by this simple pilgrim who truly showed me that is not about seeing and praying at the sites.  Rather this pilgrimage is about being able to enter into our own “inner rooms,” our own hearts, where we can feel the comfort and presence and God.  Regardless of where we may physically be located, God calls each one of us to turn interiorly to see and hear his message for each one of us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't consume. Be consumed.

On a guided tour of Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity, our guide walked us through the busy streets detailing the history of the town and offering us insights into the Bethlehem of the first century and beyond.  In the Church of the Nativity we learned about the long history of the Church and the many treasures that it contains.  We concluded with a prayer service and then were free to explore as we wished.
These experiences lead to the opportunity for me to spend a Holy Hour in the Grotto where Christ was born. While sometimes it was overflowing with pilgrims and tourists and other times almost empty, one thing I noticed was how some people missed the presence of God in that moment.  They came to take pictures (sometimes even of the seminarian quietly praying in the corner), they came to hear a talk from their tour guide, and most came to reverence the spot where Christ was born – but few, it seemed from afar, paused and entered into the stillness that permeates that place, the stillness that is the presence of God.  What struck me was how frequently we can go through life like this, moving from one experience to another, grasping for this or that, only to find ourselves always unfulfilled.  Yet, what we truly seek is present here and now – it is God who is always yearning for us.  It is when we pause and call to mind Christ's presence within our hearts that we will no longer consume every experience, but be consumed by His great Love.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting Lost

            While visiting Bethlehem today, we were free to explore a little.  Many of us took the opportunity to discover a variety of restaurants, coffee houses, shops, and vendors.  I had set out with friends to do just that, explore the souvenir shops selling hand crafted olive wood and maybe buy a sweet or two.  God, however, had different plans.  After passing through Manger Square we came to Nativity Street.  Instead of turning up the store lined road, we turned the other direction, intending to circle around the Church of the Nativity to a street we had been on before.
            After some time walking on a winding and hilly street, we realized this was not the direct ‘short cut’ we expected.  Our short cut quickly turned into the scenic route.  After a twenty minute walk up some steep inclines we arrived at a familiar location, the opposite side of Manger Square about fifty feet from where we had started!  Relieved to be on familiar ground we took the road we had been looking for but instead of stopping at our intended destination of a shop, we continued up to the Milk Grotto Church.  Upon entering the empty grotto, the porter directed us to some seats and told us a procession was about to start.  It was then that we heard the beautiful singing of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Their simple procession took them up to the altar where they sand a beautiful prayer before leaving.  Before the procession I had begun a rosary, but during the procession I seemed almost unable to continue as I was so moved by the prayer of the sisters.  The peace and clam that this gave me was deep and profound.  As I sat there after the procession I realized that this would not have happened if we had not taken the ‘short cut’ and gotten momentarily lost.  But perhaps that is the purpose of a pilgrimage, to take the opportunity to get lost with the Lord so as to enjoy those unexpected moment of grace that you will come across.  One does not, however, need to be in the Holy Land to experience this.  Just setting aside our daily plans and taking the opportunity to get lost with the Lord in prayer can open us up to recognizing God’s graces as they come into our lives.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

An Example of a Pilgrim

Today was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We are used this day as a day of reflection and prayer. I see this as very important. We have been experiencing many things on this pilgrimage during this first week and today gives us a chance to reflect deeper on the meaning and significance of what we are doing and why we are in the Holy Land. We can take all the outward gifts that we have been receiving and allow God to bring them inward, into the depths of our hearts and souls.
This morning we heard a talk by one of our priests on the significance of the Immaculate Conception in our lives as pilgrims. As I heard him speak, I was reminded that Mary is our model for this journey. I am learning that being on a pilgrimage is not easy. It takes much faith and trust in our Lord. Since our departure on this pilgrimage, I have had to leave behind many of my attachments and comforts, but I am seeing that God is blessing me with something new. He has taken me out of my regular routine and has opened up new horizons.
As I reflect on our pilgrimage in light of the Immaculate Conception, I realize that the life of Mary is the perfect example of a pilgrim. In saying yes to becoming the Mother of Jesus, Mary abandoned her own will and allowed God to take her to places where she would have never imagined. She was taken to a stable in Bethlehem, where we had Mass the other day, to have a child, and she was later taken to Jerusalem to watch her child die on a cross. Mary’s pilgrimage was not easy, but in allowing God to guide her in a new direction her life was filled with joy, purpose, and meaning.  Each one of us is on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.  Through the example of Mary, may we be open to the Holy Spirit and allow God to take us to new places, places that we would have never dreamed or imagined, so that our lives will be filed with a sense of renewed joy, purpose, and meaning. 

The Unity of Brothers

            The high point of today’s activity was in the gathering of seminarians at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary. The Latin Patriarchate, the diocese which serves Latin Rite or Roman Catholics in the Holy Land, hosted the local Franciscan, Silesian, and Missionaries of Africa seminarians as well as the pilgrims from Mundelein Seminary this evening. We played in a soccer tournament, prayed evening prayer, and ate dinner together. Our gracious hosts took care to ensure that everyone present was included in the various activities. The seminarians were greeted in both English and Italian. Vespers was celebrated in the beautiful church at the seminary using a variety of languages: Italian, French, Arabic, English and Latin. After our prayer, all of the seminarians ate dinner on the top floor of the seminary, overlooking the town of Bethlehem as night fell across the sky. Truly, this evening showed us what it means to be a member of a truly universal or Catholic Church.
            “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” So the psalmist writes in Psalm 133. This evening we truly experienced what it means to dwell with our brothers in unity. The soccer tournament embodied the best spirit of the Olympics, the youth of the nations coming together to share in the common joy of sport. As good as any universal expressions of humanity may be, whether it be the exuberance of sport, the structures of mathematics, or the sublime majesty of inspiring music, none of these can compare with the richness of being able to pray to our God as one and to share in the nourishment of body and soul. The opportunity to share games, prayer, and fellowship with others studying to be priests after the heart of Christ in the very land where Christ was born was a profoundly moving moment. Our church is blessed to cross many lands, cultures and languages in order to worship our God. On the eve of the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, I realized even more that we cross the boundaries of time as we pray with the saints in heaven to the one God who, as creator and redeemer of all, unites peoples across all those boundaries which divide us.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gift of Joy

Today the pilgrims visited the Shepherds’ Field, the place where the Angel appeared to the shepherds who were tending to their sheep and proclaimed to them the good news of the birth of Jesus.  We had Mass in the cave where the shepherds kept their sheep in the night. We were told that the cave kept at least 200 sheep. The place is under the custody of the Franciscans. On top of the cave is a beautiful Church with holds drawings of shepherds before, during and after receiving the good news from the Angel.
During the homily, the celebrant said that the joy of contemplation is the dancing of the heart. The joy, which the shepherds received, impelled them to hasten to Bethlehem to see the newborn king. They gave the first witness to Mary and Joseph about what the Angel had told them. The shepherds, being the first pilgrims to Bethlehem, aroused a greater joy within us and made scripture clearer and more real in our minds. The experience of this place comes from the reaction of the shepherds to the good news.  They left their sheep immediately and went to Bethlehem to give witness to the good news which they received. This is what is kindled within us, the zeal to go out to give witness to the good news. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

We Are Here . . .

            Today we had Holy Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  This is the place where Jesus Christ was born about 2000 years ago.  Inside the Church of the Nativity we celebrated Holy Mass down at the site of the manger in which Christ was born.
            It was one of the most touching moments where the group was deeply touched and felt the presence of God.  Everyone seemed to be deeply embraced by the mystery of the incarnation and the presence of God among us.  It is hard to explain how each one was immersed into this divine mystery.  We just felt that his presence was actual and real at that moment.  Personally, I felt a great peace of soul and mind.  More interestingly, the homilist ‘pointed to’ the spot and said:  “We are here, what else can I say?  Near by us is the manger in which Jesus was born. So, we are in the presence of the Word.”  This was the homily of today!  In other words, the homilist was saying that “I am not worthy to give a homily,” the place and the presence of the Word is the homily itself.
            This was important for us because it was a transformative moment; a moment of reconnecting to the Lord who humbled himself and took on human nature.  I personally did not want to leave the place, but I had no choice because others were waiting outside to come in.  In fact, as one of the pilgrims of last year said, “Go to the Holy Land, you will never come back the same spiritually.”  This was the experience of many of us today: more connected to the Lord, peaceful, and not wanting to leave the place.  At St. Paul says, “What will separate us from the love of Christ . . . ?”  As future priests, we can only connect people to Christ if we are connected to him ourselves.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Walking Bethlehem.

            Today, while we were visiting Bethlehem, we spent some time walking through the city streets.  It was amazing how the differences jumped out.  The market street was filled with the people of the city, buying fresh fruits and spices for their meals.  Shop owners called out from their stores inviting passersby to come into their shops for tea or coffee.  They then showed off their goods while the strongly sweet Turkish coffee enlivened both the tongue and the mind.  During the day, the cry of the muezzin rang out from the minarets across the city, calling faithful Muslims to prayer.  Everything seen, heard, tasted, and smelled exclaimed that you were in a totally different place than the one previously known.
            Differences make things stand out.  Our lives often seem to be a repetition of the same events.  Day in and day out we go to work or school, run errands, and do the same things.  Many times these are good things that we need to do, such as the work we are called to perform or the things we need to accomplish to live a healthy life.  However, if we are not careful, the busyness can consume all our time and leave us wondering if we weren’t meant for something more.  God is in the daily tasks we do, but it can be hard to see Him if we live our lives just checking off boxes on our to-do lists.  The difference of being a pilgrim, either in the Holy Land or at home in our daily lives, is that we live our life for something more than just accomplishing our daily tasks.  A pilgrim lives life looking for God in everything they see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and do.  When we live our lives that way, then we will notice that everything is different through God’s amazing grace.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Safe and Sound

We made it to the Holy Land safe and sound. Stay tuned for regular blog entries to begin starting Thursday. Prayers from the Holy Land!