Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Choice to Love

            As darkness deepened in the valley, a small group descends from the city into a well known grove of olive trees.  As most of the group stops, four of them continue a short ways on alone.  Then a solitary figure walks on to a rock outcropping and falls forward in prayer.  This is the moment of decision, and in this moment, we see the true depth of love.
            The Garden of Gethsemane stands a few hundred yards from the eastern gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is now called St. Stephen’s Gate.  It is here that Jesus asked His Father if there was another way, any way, other than the agony of the Passion.  Yet in this moment we see Jesus’ resolve to do the will of His Father, for in the same breath He says, “not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39).  This is the place of complete surrender.  Jesus, who is both fully God and fully man, shows us both His humanity in His desire to escape the agony and death that awaits Him and His divinity which is completely in line with the will of God.  The Cross was not something forced upon Christ from a harsh and judging God.  The Cross is God coming down and choosing to place Himself on the Cross for us.  By entering into the depths of our humanity, God frees us for new life in and through Him.  The only explanation for this is complete and utter love, the love of God for us.
            Such a love asks us if we are willing to respond.  When someone does a loving act for us, the only appropriate response is an act of love in return.  Anything less is hollow and demonstrates selfishness on our part.  But a loving act in return, an act of reciprocating love, shows our desire to truly be united with the one who loves us.  Gethsemane is for us also a place of decision, a place where a choice is made.  Jesus loved His Father and us with everything He had, to the end.  Will we love Him with the same love, with everything we have, to the end?

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Beginnings of Peace

Winding streets, narrow water channels, underground tunnels, ancient fortresses and wide open spaces in the middle of a crowded city.  The Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David, and the Temple Mount, respectively are all places which we visited today.  By now we have all been in the Old City plenty of times, exploring its maze-like streets, the innumerable nooks and crannies, and the places that memorialize what Jesus did here.  But the Temple Mount, that was a new experience for most of us; it was a place we had only seen from a distance.  Of course, we have all seen the Dome of the Rock, or the Golden Dome as it is also called, dominating the landscape of the Mount, but we hadn’t been up to the place itself to see, up close, the building that was raised over 1300 years ago by the victorious Arab Muslim leadership.
In the midst of all this there is, somehow, a peace of sorts in Jerusalem.  Muslims, Christians, Jews and the ever-present stream of tourists and pilgrims manage to more or less get along here.  Which makes me wonder: what does real co-existence look like?  What does real tolerance look like?  Does it merely consist in saying something like: “I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s be friends”?  Or perhaps, “I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s get along”?  Or, “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, let’s do business together”?  Is there something more we can say, some firm foundation upon which to build lasting peace, enduring co-existence, and authentic tolerance?
To find our firm foundation, maybe we could look to Jerusalem.  True, over the centuries and the millennia many wars have been fought here, much blood has been shed in the name of religion or perhaps to stamp out one group or another.  But yet if we look closely we see the seeds of peace sown in the hearts of the faithful.  Each of us, Jews, Christians, Muslims, believe in a God that we cannot see, who has created the brother and sister whom we can see.  “For whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).  "O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another). Indeed the most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous." (Quran, 49:13). May this shared belief be our firm foundation, may these shared values be the beginning of a lasting peace.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We are Pilgrims on a Journey

         Today is our first full day back in Jerusalem after our trip to Jordan.  Today was actually a free day for us to recover from the Jordanian trip, to catch up on journal writing or homework, or to just explore the city.  One of the things many of us spent time doing today was catching up on email or other communications with our friends and family back home.  We find ourselves being asked about schedules and other obligations when we return home in just a few short weeks.  While beginning to look to the future, one thing is clear: our pilgrimage is rapidly reaching its conclusion.  Or is it?
        Not wanting to neglect the duties we have at home, it is important to also remember that our pilgrimage continues.  This is not time to simply check out and look forward to what comes next.  God is still working in and through us on this pilgrimage and is asking us to remain attentive to the here and now.  That is one of the principle points of a pilgrimage: being open to what is occurring now and seeing how it helps us live a more authentic Christian life.  At Mass by the banks of the Jordan River, the site of the Baptism of Jesus, the celebrant reminded us that, as Christians, our life here on earth is nothing but a pilgrimage.  The ultimate goal of this pilgrimage is life with God.  Danielle Rose, a Christian singer-songwriter, once wrote a song entitled 'See You in the Eucharist.'  Towards the end of the song she says:
"We are pilgrims on a journey
We are headed for the throne
Carried on the wings of angels
Oh we do not walk alone
All our prayers we lay before Him
And His grace will pave the way
To lead us to our one true home
Where we'll see each other face to face."
This pilgrimage should remind all of us that, as Christians, we are always called to seek God.  We are called to imitate Jesus and be led by the Holy Spirit to see the Father face to face.  While our pilgrimage to the Holy Land is drawing to a close, our pilgrimage as Christians will continue long afterwards.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Temple of the Heart

As we awoke this morning in Amman, we began our last day in Jordan.  This day was dedicated to visiting the site of the ancient Roman city of Jerash.  The uniqueness of this site is due to its level of preservation and its massive scale.  For two hours we walked through relatively intact arches, temples and markets.  It was not difficult for the imagination to enter into life at the peak of this city.
One fascinating aspect of our experience was seeing the juxtaposition of paganism and Christianity.  While one moment we were walking through the temple of Zeus or Artemis, in the next we were captivated by the mosaic on the floor of one of three Christian basilicas.  This clearly demonstrates the evolution of this city from paganism to Christianity during the early centuries after Christ.  It would have been easy to be drawn into the uniqueness of this site from an archeological or historical perspective.  I think, however, there was an important spiritual lesson here for all of us who walked through these ruins.
Just as in Jerash there are, within our hearts, pagan temples next to Christian temples. In other words, we are all in need of continual conversion.  The spiritual life is one of constant attention to tearing down these false temples of self-interest and selfishness, and allowing the great temple of the Holy Spirit to be more and more glorious.  We will never be perfect this side of heaven but, with God's grace, those pagan temples will eventually fall into ruins.  The spiritual life is a journey, a gradual progression towards God.  And, in the end, we will dwell forever in the Lord's temple and He will dwell within the temple of our heart.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Beginning of our Pilgrimage

This afternoon we had the opportunity to celebrate Mass near the site of the Baptism of our Lord beside the Jordon River. Our celebrant Abbot Thomas, our in-house spiritual father, did a wonderful job of connecting the meaning of the site to our lives. He connected it both to our lives here on pilgrimage in the Holy Land and also to our lives back home.
We started by renewing our Baptismal promises, just as we do each Easter. As the group was finishing the renewal the sun came out from behind the clouds and shone on us for the rest of the Mass. Fr. Thomas used his homily to demonstrate how that renewal of the Baptismal promises is for us and for every Christian a renewal of our role as pilgrim. We here are physically living out the life of a pilgrim, but that physical manifestation will stop when our plane lands back in Chicago under a month from now. Yet our spiritual pilgrimage, and that of all those who have journeyed with us through this blog and in prayer continues past our return. Through Baptism we entered into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and became members of his mystical body, the Church. Our life here is therefore not our own. Nor is our life here on Earth meant to be fulfilled and complete.  We are meant for something greater.  In Baptism we were made pilgrims here on Earth who journey towards the rewards of Heaven. As Vatican Council II taught in Lumen Gentium: we are “[o]n Earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Gift of Adventure

As part of our journey, we went to Petra, Jordan. This experience was one of the most memorable experiences for me during our pilgrimage. Petra is said to be one of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world. It is filled with multicolored sandstone mountains in a secluded site of steep rocky slopes, high cliffs, and soaring mountain tops. Amidst these beautiful natural wonders is an ancient city carved into solid rock by ancient an Arab tribe called the Nabataeans over 2200 years ago. Although the Nabataean kingdom was powerful, they were eventually annexed to the Roman Empire in AD 106. 
As we made our way through the gate of Petra I was in awe. The ancient main entrance is a long narrow gorge of magnificent beauty. It is like walking through a narrow canyon with high rock walls. On the walls are several bizarre looking geological formations. After entering the gate we were shown many caves that decorated the rock walls. These caves had carved entrances and were used by the Nabateans as tombs. The largest of the royal tombs has a main chamber of 17 X 18.9 m in size. We also saw the tomb of Sextius Florentinus who was the Roman governor of the province of Arabia. Among other interesting Nabatean structures which were carved into the rock were a high place of sacrifice where religious ceremonies took place honoring Nabataean gods, an ancient theatre and a colonnaded street.
While we saw many amazing things at Petra, I would say the most memorable experience was my climb to the Ad-Dier Monastery and the rain storm we encountered on the way down. The Ad-Deir Monastery is a large structure up a mountain that was used by the Nabataeans as a either a tomb or temple, or possibly both. It was later used as a church in the Byzantine era. In order to see the structure we had to climb a flight of 800 stairs up a mountain. It looked like it was going to rain and it was a very cold day. Some of the other seminarians decided to go. Others decided not to. I debated whether I should make the pilgrimage up the mountain, but decided to go. It was an amazing experience. I went alone but met some of the other seminarians at the top. On the way up I somehow got lost from the stairs that were carved out of the rock. At one point I heard a voice yelling to me, telling me which way to go. I would later find out that this person was a Bedouin, a person who was born and raised in the caves of the area. I spoke to this person and had tea with a Bedouin family. I soon learned that several Bedouin families live among the caves of the area.
After getting to the top of the mountain and seeing the monastery, the rain began to come down. The other seminarians and I made our way down the mountain as fast as we could, but we soon were caught in a massive rain storm. We had about three miles to hike back to the bus. As I made my way through the canyon I got soaked. The narrow way that we had to walk was filling with water, looking like a river! Waterfalls were forming on the sides of the high rock walls and pouring into the canyon. The wind was soaring through the canyon. It was so cold that my brain felt numb. When I finally got back to the bus with my seminarian brothers, I was very relieved. I was cold and soaked, but I was on my way back to the warm place where we were staying.
Although our visit to Petra was not explicitly religious, it is an event that I will always remember. It was an adventure of high magnitude that taught me new things about our mysterious world. Life is filled with so much natural beauty, magnificent history, and amazing cultures. May we each come to learn more about our world and be open to the many adventures we encounter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Workers, not Builders

“We may never see the end result. But that is the difference between master builders and workers. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs; we are prophets of a future not our own.” – Archbishop Oscar Romero Prophets of a Future not Our Own
            Throughout this pilgrimage we have visited various sites within the Holy Land. Today we began our brief journey into Jordan. We visited Mount Nebo, the place across the Jordan River where Moses saw the Promised Land. We were privileged to be able to celebrate Mass at the chapel atop the mountain. The view was quite remarkable, from the top of the mountain one could see the northern shore of the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho and the hills of Judea near Jerusalem. On a clearer day one can apparently see the city of Jerusalem from atop of this mountain. During the homily, the celebrant discussed the fact that Moses was brought to Mount Nebo in order to view the promised land, but told that he would die before he could enter it (Deut 32:48-52, 34:1-6). The theme of the homily was that we like Moses, must surrender ourselves to God’s plan and remember that we are but an instrument that God uses in order to carry out his plan of creation.
            I was reflecting upon this theme during our Mass on Mount Nebo. It occurred to me, as I had been with the group that celebrated Mass at the Holy Sepulcher yesterday, that our Promised Land is not an earthly city but a heavenly dwelling in the presence of God. This Promised Land is not anything which can be imagined in this earthly life. Rather, this earthly life exists in order to bring about God’s will in creation and to prepare us for the eternal Promised Land which awaits us in heaven. The work of building up this kingdom, which is ultimately God’s work, is a work which has existed before us and will continue to be perfected after we depart from this earthly life. Like Moses, we are called to help build up God’s creation, but we will ultimately leave much undone for it is not our project, but God’s creative action in which we can only cooperate in.
            It is Christ’s life, death and resurrection which have ultimately brought about the redemption of the entire created order. The only way in which we can enter into the eternal kingdom which God has promised us is to enter into the mystery of death and resurrection. It is this ultimate surrender to our independence, however illusory, and to everything which we have known which allows God to finish the work of perfecting us and bringing us into heaven. It is this eternal mystery which we enter into at every Mass. It is this eternal mystery which we have been blessed to enter into at such places as the Holy Sepulcher and Mount Nebo. It is this eternal mystery in which we must continue to immerse ourselves until our master builder summons us to himself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Meaning of a Tomb

            Half of our pilgrimage group was blessed to have mass inside the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher today. The Holy Mass began at 6:30 am and it was an incredible experience for us to have such a rare opportunity. This was truly a unique experience which we will carry in our memory for the rest of our lives. Standing in the tomb where Jesus was buried and contemplating the mystery of human salvation, which was fulfilled in this exact spot at the resurrection, is beyond our imagination. Meditating upon the mystery of our salvation and pondering on God’s love for us fosters a deeper appreciation of who we are not only as children of God but as God’s chosen ones.
When reflecting upon the mystery of the tomb, those without faith one comes to believe that it is a symbol of lifelessness, a place of no hope and the end of life. For those who believe in Jesus, however, his resurrection gives death a new meaning, not as the end of life but its transformation and completion. Our faith is clear and our hope is a surety because we are certain of our destiny in Jesus Christ. Gathering around the tomb of Jesus to celebrate Mass made us appreciate in a deeper way the mystery of our salvation. Reflecting and looking at the empty tomb in which Jesus was buried made us to appreciate the gospel account of the resurrection. “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him” (Mk 16:6).

[Blogmaster's note: Sorry for the delay in posting today's reflection.  We were on the road and got back late.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Our Worst and Our Best

            Today, we celebrated Holy mass at St. Peter in Gallicantu. It is located on the eastern slope of Mount Sion.  At this site stood the house of the high priest Caiaphas where Christ was brought after his arrest (Mk. 14:53) as well as where Peter denied Jesus (Mk. 14:66-72).  There is a truly beautiful church at the top of which sits a rooster.
            Peter denied his master three times, but what is more significant is Peter’s confession after the denial.  Scripture tells us that Peter “broke down and wept” (Mk. 14:72).  He realized his sin and confessed it.  Before Christ had given Peter the command to care for His sheep, he asked Peter three times, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” just as Peter had denied Him three times.  Being at this site reminded us of our weaknesses.  In one way or another, we have all denied Christ by our words and our deeds.  We have denied Him far more than three times!  Praying the Holy Mass at this site was like re-experiencing our denial of Jesus on one hand, while on the other hand it was a hopeful moment, in that if we confess our sins, God forgives us.
            It is when we recognize our weakness and sins and confess them that Christ not only forgives us, but entrusts us to carry out His mission just as He did with Peter.  As Bishop Sheen once said, “Sin is not the worst thing in the world, denial of sin is the worst thing in the world.”  We have been blessed today to be at this site in order to remind us of our weaknesses and to be assured of our hope of being forgiven, that we may carry on Christ’s mission.
            We continue to thank God for this opportunity and we also thank all who have made this pilgrimage possible.  With one voice we say, “God bless you all.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What is Possible?

            The valleys and hills surrounding Jerusalem are what the Scriptures refer to as the hill country of Judah.  In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, a young woman makes an arduous journey into these hills because she has been told something, an impossible something.  She travels down from a tiny village and up into the hills surrounding Jerusalem to see her relative because the unexpected has happened.  This young woman has been visited by an angel, and was greeted with words that have echoed throughout the world ever since: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (1:28)  She enters into the house of her relatives and is greeted with a phrase that has been spoken and cried and praised throughout the two thousand years since it was first heard: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (1:42)
            Both Mary, a virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren woman, have both been blessed with a child when it was impossible for each of them.  But impossible is such a human word, a finite word.  Impossible belongs to men and women who see only what can be seen with the eyes or touched with a hand.  Mary was able to see past that.  Even though she knew it was impossible, she consented to the angel’s word.  She recognized that she was small and that God was infinite.  She grasped the possibility of God’s presence breaking into our reality and the way He changes everything in the process.  Mary responded to God’s promise to act, and trusted that His greatness would provide for all the obstacles that were faced. 
            We each face many challenges: the bad economy, the struggles of a family, and the countless other impossibilities that we all face in our humanity.  However, all these pale in comparison to the greatest impossibility we face, becoming saints.  Our own eyes show us that we cannot do it.  Our own minds give us a million reasons why this is impossible.  Saints are someone else.  Saints are people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Vianney, or Terese of Lisieux.  Surely that can’t be us.  However, the reason the angel came to Mary and the reality altering action of God that Mary perceived is just this: that we might be saints.  God did not become man just to teach us rules to live by.  Jesus came to transform everything and everyone, if we only let go of our own limitations and let Him.  Jesus came to make the impossible our reality.  He came, died, and rose again to unite us to God.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Value of a Life

Few events in the history define the history of an entire people the way World War II and the Holocaust define modernity and the Jewish people.  Today our group visited Yad Vashem, the memorial that the Israeli people have created to remember what happened.  Today the group visited the memorial to genocide, to an attempt to annihilate an entire race of people.  Today the group visited one of the defining moments in the history of the Jewish people.
One thing that stood out, among so many things at this memorial, is the deep sense of betrayal that is indelibly fixed in the minds of Jews.  As if the program of humiliation and extermination carried out by Nazi Germany wasn't bad enough, there was nowhere to which the Jews at the time could flee.  What happens when the whole world turns a blind eye to atrocious evil?  What happens when the whole world sits down and refuses to help those who cannot help themselves?  What happens when you and I sit down and allow people to continue to perpetrate evil?
But, one might ask, what can one person do?  Indeed, among seven billion people in the world I am but one person.  Well, in the case of Hitler, he galvanized a nation into exterminating twelve million people in the name of the false promise of a better future.  Nelson Mandela galvanized his people and the world into ending apartheid, and the future was better because of it.  John Paul II helped to galvanize people both inside and outside of the USSR to end the oppressive regime, and the future was better because of it.  An unknown priest at a parish you and I have never heard of lived an authentically priestly life, and his people were better because of him.  An unnamed father, an unnamed mother, sacrificed and loved and cared for their children, and their children were better because of it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Receiving and Giving

“We adore you, oh Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.”
In the pre-dawn hours of morning our rather sleep-deprived group made its way through the narrow and winding streets of Old Jerusalem to pray the Via Dolorosa, also known as the Stations of the Cross.  The entire length of the fourteen Stations amounts to a mere 600 yards; beginning with Jesus’ condemnation by Pontius Pilate and culminating in his death and burial in the Holy Sepulcher.  It is truly amazing to think of how much occurred over such a short distance.  As we made our way through the virtually empty streets of the city to pray at each station, some of which are commemorated by no more than a bronze circle attached to a wall with a roman numeral on it, a strong somber quiet remained over the group.  Praying where Christ fell three times, or where he met his mother, or where he died for all of us truly made the stations come alive.
Before we completed the final two stations, Jesus being taken down from the Cross and being laid in the tomb, we were able to celebrate mass at Calvary, the precise place where Jesus was crucified.  Each and every time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated, we participate in a re-presentation of Calvary.  The Eucharist is the un-bloody sacrifice of Christ.  I felt that this morning I had a clearer understanding of this than ever before.  The words “This is my body which will be given up for you” struck a deep resonance in my heart.  At this very spot Christ gave up his life - for you and for me.  The experience of mass at Calvary illuminated my heart in a way that nothing more could be added to enrich what occurred. It was a celebration of the Eucharist which I will not forget.
Each and every Sunday, when we are called to the Eucharistic table, we see Christ give us everything, again and again.  He performs the ultimate act of love by dying on the cross so that we “may have life, and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  In order to properly receive this entirely unmerited gift, we must be prepared to give ourselves, wholly and entirely, back to Christ.  As we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our very selves, we should always meditate on what Christ has done for us.  Part of this meditation includes asking of ourselves: “What have I done for Christ?”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Kings

Today was our first day on the road since we left the Sea of the Galilee. Our excursion took us to the tomb of the Prophet Samuel, Abu Gosh – the city the Crusaders considered to be Emmaus, and to Bet Guvrin-Maresha. While visiting Bet Guvrin-Maresha I must say that I was thoroughly unimpressed. The city was apparently mentioned in the Bible somewhere but no one could tell me where exactly, the best answer was “I think it is somehow associated with Joshua.” The apparent reason for our visit was to see a Columbarium Cave. The massive underground cave had been carved with thousands of niches. The tour guide said that the niches were originally thought to be the places to store the cremated remains of the inhabitants of the city. He went on, however, to say that modern researchers now no longer think that the cave was for burial. In fact they now think that the cave with two-thousand carved niches was built as a pigeon coop.
It was only in passing that the comment was made that this city, the one we traveled to so as to see a massive pigeon cage, is thought to be the birth place of King Herod the Great. The great King who rebuilt the Temple and many of the massive fortresses we have visited, the King who killed his own sons to avoid civil war, the King who was on the throne when Jesus was born and whom we are told in the Bible had many children in the Bethlehem area killed, was born in this city. Yet, this fact is secondary. It apparently pales in comparison to a pigeon coup.
But this speaks volumes when we think that twenty-one days ago we were celebrating Chirstmas in the city of Jesus birth. Tradition has not only helped us remember the city Jesus was born in but we can point to the exact spot that has long been held as THE birth spot. We as pilgrims still come by the bus load just to spend a few precious moments in prayer and to reverence the place where our Lord was born and where he was laid in a manger. Today it seems that Herod, with his massive building projects and powerful armies, is perhaps best remembered for the fact that he was on the throne when our True King was born. His great dreams seem to have ended in nothing. So why should it be a surprise when a pigeon coup gets top billing over the fact that the city may have been the birth place to the once Great King Herod?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Unremarkable House

            Our morning was filled with talks that helped us to more fully incorporate the experiences we are having on pilgrimage.  The first talk gave us a deeper appreciation of both the history and theology of ecumenical dialogue, something that has become more real to us since our experiences at the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Our second talk focused on deepening our appreciation of God's movements in our life through prayer.  This afternoon, one of our hosts in Jerusalem brought us up to the rooftop of our building.  We had a beautiful view of the Old City as the story of Salvation history, and centrally the Paschal Mystery, was shown to us, location by location.
            Looking over the entirety of the Paschal Mystery from a rooftop made one thing clear - each of the key sites of this mystery of our salvation are marked by rather unassuming buildings.  Even the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most sacred site in all of Christianity, doesn't stand out. It blends into the surrounding buildings and on the inside is mostly dark and dingy.  Some say that the most holy site in all of Christianity should be a glorious Church which radiates beauty throughout the city.  However, I wonder if this actually is the best representation of our faith.
            This unassuming Church is the most appropriate place to honor a God who, humbling himself, assumed an unassuming human nature.  Just as the eyes of faith allowed one to see through Christ's human nature to his divinity, so too do the eyes of faith allow one to see the glorious Paschal Mystery through this building.  Our faith allows us to see beyond what is simply perceptible by our senses and peer into the fullness of reality, to peer into the Mystery of God.  What is true for this building is true for the life of every believer.  The simplest acts and the most common experiences can be windows through which we gaze upon the love of God.  If, however, we are always expecting God to manifest himself to our senses in glorious ways, we just might miss the one who emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and “humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7).  The outward unremarkable appearance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher reveals an inward reality that is the transcendent glory of the Paschal Mystery.  I just hope that, once I return home, I will continue to see the glory of Christ shine through the most mundane of experiences.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How We Grow

Today was a day of prayer for us.  This day was much needed because we have been on the go for the past eight days. The day before yesterday we arrived in Jerusalem. Yesterday was a free day to settle in. Most of us roamed around and explored the area where we are staying. We are staying in a wonderful spot here in Jerusalem. Our residence is located right on the border of the Old City. We are in walking distance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the spot where Jesus was crucified. Other nearby sites that we have been encouraged to visit includes the Tomb of Mary, Cave of Gethsemane, Chapel of Condemnation, Chapel of Scourging and the Western Wall. The New City is very modern with several stores and restaurants. The Old City is filled with many individuals walking up and down the small streets. Small shops take up both sides of the streets. It is like walking through an ancient shopping mall.
At the beginning of this day our spiritual leader spoke about the significance of our location in light of our pilgrimage. We began our pilgrimage by visiting Bethlehem. Then we moved to areas of Jesus’ ministry. Now we are standing in the place where Jesus gave his life. We have seen many historic and holy places and have learned many things from this pilgrimage. Today was a day for us to reflect on how these experiences has affected our lives. It was a time for us to take our outward journey and bring it inward.
Reflection is necessary for every Christian. In the midst of our busy lives it is important for us to pause at times so that we can recognize what the Lord wants to say to us. In the midst of his busy life, Jesus himself took time to go off alone in prayer and reflection. May each one of us follow this example of Christ and allow our minds and hearts to be open to how our daily encounters and experiences are shaping the journey of our lives. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Meeting Christ in the Crowds

            After a month and a half of pilgrimage, we have finally experienced our first full day here in Jerusalem. As we did not have anything planned on our schedule, many of us took advantage of the opportunity to explore the city. A group of us decided to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which has within it the hill of Calvary and the tomb in which Jesus was buried. It is an interesting building. Where one might expect a grand church built with the finest architecture with other buildings a reasonable distance away, this is not the case. Rather, the building, due to various additions through the ages as well as its joint custody by six Christian Churches, is something of an eclectic mix of styles. Additionally, there are many shops in a marketplace that sits right up against the church.
            It occurred to me in my reflections that there is much similarity between this present description of the Holy Sepulcher and what it must have been like in Jesus’ day. The city of Jerusalem was in the midst of the holiest time of the Jewish year when Christ was crucified and rose again. Many pilgrims from all over the Jewish world had flooded into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. As Jesus walked towards the site of his suffering and death, merchants were doubtlessly hawking their wares and people were exploring the city. Where the modern mind often expects a sanitized, separate, and peaceful place to honor such a momentous event, this is simply not the reality of the situation in which the Paschal Mystery occurred. Christ suffered, died, and rose in a world that kept moving. Perhaps this holiest of churches continues to teach us something about prayer.
            While it is quite important to take time to withdraw from the world for prayer just as Christ did before beginning his public ministry, our prayer can never be completely removed from the world in which we live. We must learn to find God in the hustle and bustle of daily life. We must remember that Jesus entered into the chaos and confusion that so often defines our life. God is present in our day to day lives, in our struggles as well as our joys. He calls out and speaks to us even in those moments in which we do not feel much of anything at all and those moments in which we are experiencing the busyness of everyday life. He is the God who suffered, died and rose again to redeem all of this and to allow it to bring us closer to God. This is the message of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hearing God's Call

Today we have come to an end of our stay in Galilee, the region of much of our Lord’s ministry. We concluded our journey in Galilee with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at Capernaum, in the church built on top of the ruins of the house of St Peter’s mother-in-law. The readings of the day matched with the theme of our call to ministry. The first reading was about the call of Samuel by God. The main celebrant emphasized the message of the readings which call us to contemplate more deeply during this pilgrimage as we make preparations for our deaconate ordinations. After Mass we gathered outside and the tour guide gave us a lot of important information about the site. He challenged us to think about why of all places, Bethsaida, Tiberius and others, Jesus chose Capernaum as the headquarters of his ministry. The first reason was because the area around the Sea of Galilee had a population of at least 20,000 people. We are not shocked hearing that he fed five thousand men with loaves and fishes. Unlike other small towns like Nazareth, Cana and others, which had a population less than 200 people, the area surrounding Capernaum was highly populated. The second reason was the fact the Capernaum was the center of business and taxation. All of the caravans made a stop in Capernaum and these people would take what they had heard and seen in Capernaum to all other places of their destiny.
We made another stop at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, which is under a Greek Orthodox Church.  At Jacob’s Well we read from the Gospel of St John, 4:4-42.  This is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The text was expounded upon and later we received the historical and archeological information about the place from the tour guide.  We as pilgrims and future priests were challenged with the work that lies ahead of us.  The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well shows how God’s people are longing to be given the living word of God. We can relate this to today’s reading about the call of Samuel; God has called us to minister to his people and has given us this time on pilgrimage to prepare ourselves as best we can for the task ahead of us. We are doing this by being open to God’s grace, being conscious of our inner movements, and deepening our understanding of the Scriptures so that when the time comes to deliver the word of God, we are very prepared and confident. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jesus Preaches to Us

            The group is staying at Pilgerhaus Tagbha in Galilee.  Today we visited the Mount of Beatitudes.  This is the place near Lake Gennesaret, also called the Sea of Galilee.  Here Jesus gave a long sermon which expresses the principles values one needs to cultivate in order to be a follower of Christ.  From the sermon we heard, three major themes are clearly expressed; The Beatitudes, the ethical admonitions, and the authority of Jesus’ teaching.
            Jesus gave the Sermon to the crowds two thousand years ago and he is giving the same sermon to us today.  The principle values he laid down for his followers are ever new and relevant to people of every generation.  We had enough time to read the sermon (Matthew 5:1 – 7:29), and the homilist made the point that the Word of God never expires.  The Word surpasses time and space.  In the Sermon, Jesus was not making impossible demands to his followers; he wants us to take his words seriously.  The fact that the principles are difficult does not mean that they are impossible.  In fact, Christ never promised us an easy life, rather he said, “Anyone who wants to be my follower must deny himself, take his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:25)
            So we are blessed to be at this place and hear the Sermon which is being preached to us.  Christ is talking to us as his followers through the Scriptures and in our celebration of Holy Mass.  Christ has laid down the principle values for us.  Let us embrace them, live them, and follow him.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Peering Through the Mist

            As we drove through the Golan Heights our guide said, “You can’t see it, but to the left is Mt. Hermon.”  We had started off the morning being rained upon at Caesarea Philippi.  As we moved up the mountains into the Golan Heights we entered into a thick white cloudbank.  In any direction you looked, you could see no more than ten or fifteen feet.  The driver of our bus was visibly straining to concentrate on the road ahead of us, looking for any obstacles or hazards that could loom up in front of us with no warning.  After having been told about how beautiful the Golan Heights area was, it became difficult not to get upset that we could not see it at all.
            As Christians, we have to remember that we don’t always get a clear view of what is around us.  We travel our pilgrim path through this world, and at times we find ourselves in a dense fog.  We can’t see far in any direction and it can become very easy to lose our way.  We strain to peer through the mist in order to catch even a small glimpse that might point us in the way that we should go.
            These fogs can happen for many reasons.  Sometimes our sins blind us to the path.  Other times it is simply our human nature; we can’t know everything.  Sometimes it is a darkness that comes from God who shields our sight so that we can learn to trust and love Him better.  In any case, the answer is always the same:  follow in the ways that God has given to us and trust in the path taught to us by Christ.  Psalm 119 sings the praises of God and says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (v. 105).  God sent His Word to us, Jesus Christ, to show us the way home.  He will lead us through valleys and over mountains.  He will show us great vistas and take our hand to move us through blinding fog.  We simply need to trust in Him, and follow His path: the path of charity towards our neighbors, the path of love of God, even the path of the Cross.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not the Water

            Today we visited a place in the northern part of Israel called Tel Dan, which is near one of the sources of the Jordan River.  One thing that we have noticed about the Jordan River, after seeing it both near its source and where it flows into the Sea of Galilee, is that it is not as impressive as we had made it out to be.  For some reason it always seems like it should be this big, impressive river, like the Mississippi, but really it isn’t.  It’s not much more than a big stream and the parts of it that we have seen were too small to even handle much of a boat.  So why then is this river so important?  It doesn’t impress the eyes, but it certainly is known and recognized all across the world.  By way of disclaimer, I feel that I should mention that yes; I did fill a bottle of water from the Jordan River.
            Perhaps what is so important about it is neither its physical appearance nor the ability to use a boat on it.  Rather, it is meaningful because it is the river in which Jesus himself was baptized.  These are the waters which the savior of the world entered, so as to make holy the waters of baptism for all of us.  Just as the water in a baptismal font generally is, physically speaking, unimpressive, it is not the physical here that is of account.  The waters are sacramental because Jesus has made them so; they are an outward sign of an inner transformation.  As Christians we aren’t called to be outwardly impressive, rather we are called to radiate the stunning and beautiful light which dwells in our hearts, we are called to radiate Christ.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Question of Love

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:25).  Replace any one of our own names in that first line.  Imagine Jesus asking each one of us, “Do you love me?”  What is our honest response?  Can we respond with sincere hearts and say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you?”  Today we visited many of the sites on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where much of Jesus' earthly ministry was performed.  One of those spots is known as the Primacy of Peter, where the Resurrected Christ gave Peter authority over the Church after the triple-confession of his love.
It is unbelievably gorgeous here.  To be able to sit and pray within feet of where so many miracles happened is almost mind-boggling.  We are here, witnessing the sites where many people were healed or had their faith strengthened.  We are literally walking in the footsteps of Christ.  So what does that mean?  This pilgrimage has taught us to open our eyes and to see with the eyes of faith.  Those of us here on pilgrimage, and those following along through our blog, have all hopefully noticed a deepening of our faith in Christ.  We should be able to respond with a stronger, deeper, wider, and more profound act of love than ever before.  Praying in these sacred sites and seeing the beauty of God's love all around us should always lead us to a more sincere response of love when we are asked by the Lord: “Do you love me?”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saying Yes

Our entire pilgrimage, every moment, every prayer, has happened for one single reason: the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.  Today, as we continue to immerse ourselves in Nazareth, we celebrated Mass at the site where God took a human nature upon himself. Our Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation, only feet from the Grotto where Mary received the angel's message, was truly a grace filled moment.  The fact that Christ again became present in that place was a powerful realization; 2000 years ago Christ was made present in the womb of Mary, now he has again been present under the appearance of bread and wine.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this particular celebration of the Eucharist was that one of our priests was celebrating his 46th anniversary of ordination.  Just like Mary, this man gave his word, his yes, to God's gentle invitation.  Just like Mary, God took that priest’s passing, finite word and brought forth the infinite Word of God in his priestly character.  As one who is preparing to offer his “yes” to God this year, the Annunciation serves as a reminder that I must always strive to receive, not to grasp onto, God's presence.  At the seminary and in parish ministry, it is easy to believe that the more we do, the more we can bring Christ's presence into situations.  The Annunciation serves as a reminder that God simply asks us to say yes, to receive what he is offering.  Then he will be made present in ways we could never imagine.  It is that simple, but it is also that difficult.

Monday, January 9, 2012

'Stuck' on the Mountain

Today after lunch we were stuck at the top of a mountain for almost an hour. The Church was closed for lunch so we couldn’t get in and the shuttles needed to take us to the bottom weren’t running. The entire class was thankful, for we were at the top of Mt. Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration, by ourselves.
The class dispersed into the gardens, terraces and ruins that surrounded the large central church. A sense of quiet and peaceful prayer descended onto the mountain top. At times all was complete silence apart from the occasional click of a camera as we tried to hold onto a moment of importance.
Each of us was grappling with what the transfiguration means in our own lives. For me I kept returning to something the guide said about Mt. Tabor. It had long been used by the Jews as a signal mountain. A fire would be set in Jerusalem and then those on Mt. Tabor would light their fires. This was so that the most important feasts in Israel could be celebrated simultaneously, as one.
Jesus also used light to send a message. However, this time the signal was heading to Jerusalem and from there to the whole world. Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, is the Son of God and revealed his transforming light.
This message is still being sent today to all the ends of the earth. That transformative light also continues to shine. It is ready to change and transform us into signal fires to send out His message if we are willing.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

An Ancient City

We are now staying in Nazareth. We are staying right next to the place where tradition tells us that the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and asked her to be the mother of Jesus. We will be here for three days. It is such a grace to be able to walk around the town where Jesus spent the first thirty years of his life!
Today we went to a place called Megiddo. Megiddo is the place written about in the Old Testament where King Josiah fought with King Neco, the king of Egypt. During the battle, King Josiah was shot and killed. It was overwhelming to visit the site of Megiddo because we were standing in an area of ancient history. We walked through an actual gate and stood on the same stones that date back to 1000 BC. We also went underground into a deep well, and we saw many different walls and structures.
As I reflect on the site of Megiddo, I realize the importance of the message of Biblical history for our time. Throughout the Old Testament the Israelites believed that by following God’s precepts, they received His blessing. When they didn’t follow his ways, they fell into destruction. God is with us at every moment of our lives. He wants us to constantly open our hearts to him and listen to his guidance so that we will avoid pain and destruction and be filled with his blessings. May we always seek the guidance and protection of our Lord.  Let us also pray for God’s blessings upon our world leaders to stand up for all that is just and that God will bless our country and world and protect us from pain and error.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Voice Both Great and Small

            Our pilgrimage group has departed for the northern areas in the Holy Land. Today we were blessed to see three sites which are important in the Bible and the life of the Church. This morning we went to Caesarea Maritima, an ancient port in the north of Israel. It is a magnificent place: an old hippodrome (horse and chariot racing stadium) and ruins of a bathhouse, as well as an ancient amphitheater that, to all appearances, is still quite functional. All this is located along the rocky coast of the Mediterranean, where one sees blue waves and white caps crashing upon the rocks. It is here that Peter went after receiving a dramatic vision. This vision consisted of a sheet which held all manner of animals, some of which were considered unclean by Jewish purity laws. God told Peter to kill and eat the animals (Peter had been rather hungry before receiving this vision). He later understood it to mean that God was calling him to eat with the Gentiles and minister to them, something verboten to the practicing Jew of the time (Acts 10). God spoke to Peter in a dramatic way, calling him to a great mission to convert the Gentiles.
            We also prayed at and stayed at the Stella Maris monastery of the Carmelite Order. After dinner, one of the priests took a large group of us down to the basilica which features the Cave of Elijah. There is a beautifully elaborate basilica built around a humble cave in which there is nothing but an altar, a statue of Elijah and a place for candles. Tradition tells us that it was in this cave that Elijah heard God. In one of the most beautiful passages of the Scriptures, we read:
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Indeed, I found the simple cave to be one of the most moving places to pray. The basilica was a beautiful church. It featured fine frescos, beautiful statues and memorials to some of the most important Carmelite saints. Yet in the midst of these testimonies to the grandeur of God, the humble cave was featured as the central part of the church, as the quiet place in which God whispered to the prophet.
            This juxtaposition of two dramatically different places in which God spoke to one of his servants was fitting, for it expresses something of the way in which God is present to each one of us. Very often we desire to have God speak to us in dramatic visions or a loud, thundering voice or a bright flame of light. Indeed, God sometimes speaks in such ways to each one of us. However, God far more often speaks in the small, still voice. This voice is heard only when we allow ourselves to be silent and simply wait upon the Lord. Even in the midst of the stresses of our day to day life we must take a moment to ignore the firestorm of work and the thundering of our daily demands to listen – listen for that small, still voice. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Moving to Galilee

Today we were preparing to depart for Galilee, where our Lord Jesus performed much of his public ministry. The first month we have spent together as pilgrims from Mundelein has had an incredible spiritual impact in our lives. It is always sad to leave a place you have come to love, but this sadness is turned into joy as we continue on our pilgrimage to other holy sites. The spiritual fruits and experiences which we have experienced at the holy sites we have visited so far will never leave us. They will always remain within us, as we grow closer to holiness. One can say that our time in has been a time of inner transformation and a better understanding of Scripture.
As future ministers of the Church and disciples of our Lord, it is important that we also spend some time in those areas where he carried out his ministry. Visiting these sites and contemplating his work in these areas allows us to see the importance and value of the work ahead of us.  Visiting and praying in the different areas where our Lord carried out his ministry will enable us to better understand the New Testament. Visiting the different sites which we often read about in the New Testament is not only very important, but it is also a prayer in itself. It is an indirect way of saying to Jesus, “Teach me as you taught those who listened to you in these places.” Saying this also compels the pilgrim to be open and willing to be taught. Continuing with the spirit of the pilgrimage and staying focused on Christ will always bring a lot of joy within each pilgrim.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year Greetings

            For most of us, this has been the first time that we have celebrated Christmas and New Years not only in a different country, but in the Holy Land, the place where Jesus lived.  We welcomed the New Year 2012 happily then we went to sleep.  In the Morning, we woke up; nothing was new!  Everything looked just as old as it did last year yet everyone was telling each other, “Happy New Year!”  Where is the newness of the New Year?  Maybe it is too early to look for the newness of the year, but if one is caught up in such an attitude it would be easy to miss many of the blessings God has given us in the whole year.  With such an attitude it is impossible to be thankful to God.
            We count all that we have as a gift from God; our successes, our struggles toward success, and above all our existence is a gift from God.  In fact, it is as undeserved gift.  It is only when we realize this that our souls can burst into gratitude.  Then we can see and appreciate the newness of the New Year.  It has been a great blessing to begin the New Year in the Holy Land as we continue our journey and strive to become real and true disciples of Jesus Christ by learning about his earthly life.
            Dear friends in Christ, life is primarily sustained by God, secondarily by air, water, and food.  Yet our life is also supported by people with whom we share happiness, sorrow, jokes, advice, and prayer; all of which helps to give us a comfortable world.  Therefore, friends, we would be less than honest if we don’t thank you.  Thank you for touching our lives in 2011 and we sincerely invite you to share our lives in 2012.  As we continue to keep you in our prayers, we sincerely say to you, “Happy New Year 2012.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Experiences and Encounters

            As one year draws to a close and another begins, it is natural to start wondering how much has happened in the last year and how we are different because of it.  The last year has impacted each of us in large and small ways.  The people we have encountered have come into our lives and changed us.  The places we have visited have altered our understanding and the way in which view the world, as well as the way we live in it.
            This journey through the Holy Land is a great blessing that has changed us and continues to do so.  We encounter the people who live here and because of it we know both them and ourselves better.  As we travel to the holy places, we journey not only to them, but also travel within ourselves to know God and ourselves in relation to Him in a deeper way.  Day after day, each of us confronts ourselves anew in relation to the truth that God reveals to us in His Son, Jesus.
This is true not only for pilgrims far from home, but for all Christian pilgrims as we travel through this world in hope of the world to come.  All of our daily activities and encounters are tools which God uses to mold and shape the way that we understand Him and ourselves.  As God refines and polishes the lenses of our souls through our experiences and encounters, we continue to see ourselves better.  Upon seeing ourselves better we come to see and know ourselves more and more as God sees us, as God knows us, as God loves us.  By knowing God and ourselves better, we can share more deeply in God’s love.  Then we can come to love God and even love ourselves as God does.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Holy Families

            The feast day of the Holy Family comes around each year and serves as a beautiful reminder to us all of just how important families really are.  Yes, there is the Holy Family, but there are also many holy families who are truly striving to live a good Christian life and love God and each other as best they can. For this reason, we take this opportunity to pray for families, to pray for parents and children everywhere that we all may learn to imitate the Holy Family.  On this day we also take a moment to remember in a special way our own families; we want all of you to know that we love you very much and that you are in our hearts and our prayers during this pilgrimage.
            What better way to celebrate the feast day of the Holy Family than to spend some time with a family here in the Holy Land?  A local family had invited some of us over to have dinner with them and so of course we happily agreed.  When we arrived at their house, the whole family was there to welcome us and make us feel at home.  Feeling at home when you are in a foreign land that speaks a foreign language is a very good feeling to have.  There are always those places in our lives that are a little home away from home, and this particular family seems to have a gift for making their home one of those places.  The food was excellent, a veritable feast, but the company was really what made it a special evening.  No, we didn’t eat with the Holy Family, but I’m pretty sure that we just spent this feast day with one of those holy families; with one of those holy families that reminds us that, yes, trying to live like Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived is not only possible, but a truly beautiful thing.  Thank you, God, for all the holy families that you have put into our lives.  Thank you for showing us your love through the love of a holy family.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking Forward

            It is hard to believe that exactly four weeks ago we boarded the bus at Mundelein to begin this pilgrimage.  We left with high hopes and expectations, as well as some fears and doubts.  So where are we now?  I think one thing many of the pilgrims are coming to appreciate is the longevity of this particular pilgrimage.  While we are excited to soon be heading up North to Galilee, Nazareth, and eventually over to Jordan in the East, many of us are rather grateful for the duration of our trip already.  What we have been learning is that even on pilgrimage, we can get "settled in.". There are some dangers of becoming too settled, too familiar, too comfortable.  Every day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to receive the graces from this pilgrimage.  That is what Christ calls us to.  To live the life of a Christian is to daily renew our Baptismal promises and seek to be drawn ever-closer to the love of Christ.  Let us not become too stagnant with our lives, but let us always be ready to journey, be it interiorly or exteriorly, on the path of holiness. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012


After spending almost a full month in the Holy Land, it has become clear that God has blessed our group with some extraordinary experiences.  Today we had one such experience as our group was welcomed into the Grotto of the Nativity, after the Church had closed to the public, for a private holy hour.   Although I have spent several holy hours praying in the Grotto, none of them have been like this.  There was no parade of pilgrims and tourists venerating the spot of Christ's birth, there were no flash bulbs going off, there were no tour guides with booming voices there were only the 27 of us in that holy place.  There was a stillness the pervaded that place, the quietness in which one encounters the Risen Lord.
I couldn't help thinking, however, that the outward stillness was not ultimately important.  Rather, what is most important is that interior quiet where we can hear the gentle whisper of Love Himself.  Even in the midst of pilgrims, cameras and tour guides, one can have an interior stillness that is undisturbed by the flurry of external activity.  Granted, the exterior silence helps, but the more we foster a quiet of the heart the more we encounter Christ in even the most chaotic of situations.
It is not easy and it requires a life-long struggle with patience and trust, but the more we grow in this interior stillness, the more we can hear the quiet invitation of that baby.