Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thanks for the Journey

       Yesterday before noon we rode onto the familiar campus of Mundelein Seminary.  It is hard to believe that we have been gone since the beginning of December.  All of us are excited to be home, and to spend some time relaxing before we begin our next set of classes in March.
       Looking back, it is incredible to see all that the Lord has done in and through us in the last 3 months.  The people, sites, and experiences resonate in our hearts, reminding us of the encounters with Christ that happened each day, each moment, while we were in the Holy Land.  However, in those moments Christ taught us something important.  We are blessed to have been in the Holy Land, to encounter Christ there.  But we need not be there to see Him, to talk with Him, or to serve Him.  We encounter Christ each day when we encounter our neighbors and even when we encounter strangers we have never met before.  What each of us brings back from the Holy Land is different, but we all bring an awareness of Christ's presence breaking into our lives each and every moment.  God, please give give us eyes to see You.
      Thank you for taking this journey with us.  You have been in our prayers, and we appreciate the prayers you have said for us.  We hope that your experience of the Holy Land through this blog brought Christ into your daily life in a new way.  Keep looking for Him, because He is always present to each of us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What was Pilgrimage?


We had two days of final exams.  I have just finished my last final and feel very relieved. After several weeks of classes combined with so many actual experiences of pilgrimage, I have learned much about what it means to be a pilgrim. Through the many places that we have visited and the adjustments I have had to make in order to adapt to the different structures of this pilgrimage, I can say that a pilgrimage is a walk of faith. When one goes on a pilgrimage, they enter a new path. They come to a new understanding about themselves and the world. We must remember that this path is not a temporary path. The path of a pilgrim is a lesson that will help them grow for the rest of their life.
            Seeing pilgrimage as a walk of faith is a common theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament the Israelites made a journey through the desert, in which they were absolutely dependent on God. In order for the Israelites to learn to trust in the Lord, God gave them many signs and wonders. As we were told in one of our classes: Israel’s departure through the sea was a miracle worked by God that would never be forgotten by His people. We also see the walk of faith several times in the New Testament. From the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus called His disciples to walk in faith by leaving everything behind and following Him. Jesus continued to challenge the faith of His disciples by relating the conditions of discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:28).
            Understanding the pilgrimage as a walk of faith is also made visible in many of the sites we have visited. During our stay in Bethlehem I had the wonderful opportunity to see the spot where our Lord was born. This spot reminded me of the faith of our Blessed Mother. By saying “yes” to God, Mary has become the perfect example of what it means to be a pilgrim. She abandoned her own will and allowed God to take her to places she would have never imagined.
            While the Blessed Mother and the saints are good examples of the importance of faith in the life of a pilgrim, the most perfect example of what it means to walk in faith as a pilgrim is Jesus Christ. In His life and ministry Jesus totally surrendered Himself to the Lord. Through His forty days of fasting on the mountain, Jesus overcame temptations of the devil. Through trust in His Father, Christ was given the grace to endure death on a cross. Walking in the footsteps and example of our Lord is not easy. In order to make a good pilgrimage one must abandon their preconceptions and desires and put their trust in the Lord. When one faithfully allows the Lord to be the center of their pilgrimage, he or she will grow in self knowledge. Through continued prayer and reflection, this greater self-knowledge will help the pilgrim to grow in their relationship with God for the rest of their life. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Answer to the Test


            “As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools,” so reads a bumper sticker I once saw back in the States. While prayer is indeed quite encouraged in the seminary, I have a feeling that many prayers were said today for God’s intercession. For today is the first of our two examination days for our scripture courses here on pilgrimage. It occurred to me, as that bumper sticker passed into my mind as I poured over details of the intricacies of the Gospel according to Mark, that most of us tend to pray much more frequently when we need something. Whether it’s last-minute knowledge, a hole in traffic so that we can make it to work on time, or even the larger things such as guidance on one’s vocation in life, a job or even health, it is common to pray for a specific thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
            It occurs to me that we tend to pray for something when we realize that we lack something in our lives. All of the things which I mentioned above are good things, important things which help us to live our lives and live them to the full. However, we need more than just those individual things. If we pray because we lack some particular thing or cannot get it using only our own power, it can be hard to see the bigger picture. All of us, as created beings, are incomplete on our own. Aristotle describes human beings as the social animal, which is to say that we are made to exist in relationship with one another. This goes beyond our relationships with our fellow human beings and extends to our relationship with God. On our own, we lack the ability to form that perfect relationship with God that He desires to have with his people. Indeed, on our own power, we lack a relationship to God who brought us, and indeed the entire created order, into being and continues to sustain us.
            Therefore our prayer, while interceding for various needs which we have both individually and as the human race, also brings us to a deeper communion with God. This requires a growing awareness of the ways in which God has worked in our lives. This pilgrimage has allowed each of us to experience, in new and different ways, the way in which God is working in our lives and in the life of the human race. Our prayer, which St. John Damascene defines as “the raising of the mind and heart to God,” ultimately allows us to draw ever closer to God and grow in our love for one another, whom God has made in His image and likeness. In the course of this pilgrimage we have learned to see how God has worked in the course of time and through various different peoples. This has led us to reflect on how God has worked in our own lives. Day by day let us grow ever more aware of how God has worked in our lives in order that, when we see him at the end of our pilgrimage, we might know him and his love for us. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"He Ascended into Heaven, and Is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father"


Some of us pilgrims had a chance of visiting the Mosque of the Ascension on top of the Mount of Olives.  For us as Christians, this place has a very significant role in our lives of faith. Commemorating the Ascension of the Lord brings joy to us as Christians who believe that, at the end of our pilgrimage, Jesus will be there to welcome us into the heavenly kingdom where we shall see him face to face. Although it’s unclear if this is the actual spot where Christ ascended, we believers don’t commemorate the exact place as much as the event which occurred. It doesn’t matter where the ascension exactly took place but what matters is that He ascended back to his father and our father.
            St. Luke is the only evangelist who gives a clear description of the ascension, writing “He led them out as far as toward Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:50). As I mentioned earlier, we don’t know the exact place but the reality remains that He ascended.  One of the most striking details about the ascension is the fact that, when Jesus called the twelve, he have them his power to drive out demons, lay hands on the sick, restore sight to the blind and other gifts. He later gave this same power to the disciples and, after the resurrection; he extended his power to all the believers. Whoever believes in him and is baptized receives this same power. This shows how Jesus is very generous with his grace.  Luke is trying to draw a distinction between the terrestrial mission of Jesus and that of the apostles, which began with the descent of the Holy Spirit. After the Ascension of our Lord, the Bible tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and spent much of the time in the temple praising God.  We Christians, who received the charism, or the power of the Holy Spirit, have received a charism of action. We are encouraged to actively use the gifts of the Holy Spirit which we have received in order to build our communities.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Blessings of Pilgrimage


            We are still at Notre Dame.  Having visited most of the sites we are now in the final days before we go back to Mundelein at the end of this week. We have been enriching our minds and our souls through our classes and prayers. Today we had two classes, The History of Israel and The Spiritual Pilgrim. These were our last classes here at Holy Land. We are now beginning to prepare ourselves, spiritually and mentally, for exams and for our return.
            It has been a blessed moment for us to be here on pilgrimage. We have enriched our minds with the geography, culture and traditions in which our Lord was born, lived, died and rose. We have been following his footsteps and now it is nearly the time for us to go out and proclaim the good news. In fact, as we are from different parts of the world, we shall bring this news to our different nations (Mt 28:19). Our understanding of the Scriptures has been enriched. When we read the scriptures, they now make more sense than they did before. This is because we now know the geography of the places mentioned in the Bible and we know the culture into which Christ was born. These are just a few of the fruits of pilgrimage. What else can we say? It can be said that ungrateful hearts dry out all graces. Therefore, we remain so grateful to God for this moment and we continue to thank everyone who has contributed to our ability to experience this wonderful pilgrimage. May God bless you all.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What a Walk Reveals



            I went for a walk.  Not uncommon, nor in my case unusual.  In fact I find that a nice walk does a world of good.  It relaxes me and helps me decompress.  It’s something about exercise and fresh air I’m sure.  So, I went for a walk.  I was feeling a little pent up, being in the same place quite a bit of the time with classes and what not.  I had a vague destination in mind, but nothing in particular.  I walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and I made some meandering turns here and there.  However, I came to find that this walk was not helping me relax at all.  There is a difference between walking in a familiar location and a foreign city.  You can’t really just walk.  You have to keep your bearings and try to not get lost.  In the end, I returned to our residence a little physically tired, but not relaxed at all.
            Then I started to try and figure out other ways of letting off some steam.  As I ran through all my usual hobbies and distractions, I quickly realized two things.  First, none of my usual hobbies were available to me.  Play on my guitar? Nope, it’s in Chicago.  Watch a movie?  No theater close that I know of.  Go for a walk? Well we saw how that worked out.  When I left on pilgrimage, I left behind the things that I used to recharge my batteries.
            Then I realized that there was one thing that I had not thought of.  Among the many ways that I had developed to top of my personal fuel tank, prayer had not been first on the list.  It hadn’t even made it into the top ten.  Only because I was on pilgrimage, because God had placed me beyond these normal things I used, did I even think of it.
“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons . . . [a]nd he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons . . . [a]nd in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:32-35
Jesus knew what he had to do to rest; he had to stay close to his Father.  He was surely exhausted by the energy it took to minister to so many in need.  So he went off by himself and prayed.  Prayer is not an important part of our daily lives.  It is the most important part.  We turn to so many different things, good things, to try and give us energy: family, hobbies, exercise, food, sex, material possessions, etc.  In and of themselves, none of these are bad.  However, when we place them at the center of our lives, when they become the things we turn to in order to make us feel better, we have lost our bearings.  All these things are goods that God has created for us, but as created things they are finite.  They disappear and run out.  In prayer, be it personal prayer, meditating on scripture, the liturgy, or especially the sacraments, we turn to the source of life itself and receive our rest from Him.  Only God can be the fount of life giving refreshment that will sustain us forever.  


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pray. Study. Rest.


Pray.  Study.  Rest.  These are three very important things, things that are meant to be part of each person’s life.  True, for many people it is not easy, and sometimes not possible, to make time each day for all of these, especially given the busyness of life.  We have many things to do, demands from work, activities, family and friends.  For us, on days like today, when we have a few hours of time spent in the classroom, the study part seems easier.  I went to class.  But there’s more to it than that.  Study doesn’t mean just showing up, it means actively seeking the truth.  It means an honest desire to find the truth and an open heart to receive it and be changed by it.
Rest.  “My heart is restless until it rests in You.”  Saint Augustine wrote this famous line, and his words written so long ago still resonate today.  Our hearts are restless; we bounce from one thing to the next to the next.  But where, with whom, do they rest secure, rest in the absolute certainty of being loved and cherished by the other?  This is why we, especially us Americans, must learn to rest, learn to do nothing and just be.
But study and rest are by no means the end of the story.  In fact, taken outside their proper context, when taken too far, they can become something which leads not to God but close us in on ourselves.  That is why pray is the first task listed.  That’s the one that is most important, that’s the one that keeps us rooted firmly in God.  Most people are capable of serious study, and equally capable of working hard at our jobs.  But are we intentionally and consciously making sure that spending time with Jesus is right at the top of our priority list?  This is not easy.  As a seminarian, we are asked to do many things, asked to juggle many things.  We are currently staring down the barrel of a few exams and deadlines for papers quickly approaching.  This makes the study part seem pretty important right about now.  But we cannot let our work, our study, become an end in itself, it just is not meant for its own sake.  The challenge is to remember, and more than just to remember, but to make real in our daily lives the fact that all of our study and work and rest are directed toward being with Jesus.  Our lives must be directed toward remaining with Him as He remains with us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Last Week


In these last days of our pilgrimage it is easy for us to prematurely begin the process of transitioning back to “normal” life.  The number of class sessions which we have in these final days increase, we must begin our preparations for final examinations and we have begun to get emails regarding the commitments and obligations that will be awaiting us when we arrive home.  While this is the easiest time for us to lose the spirit of a pilgrim, it is also the most important time to remain on this journey.
You see, right now each one of us has to make a choice.  This decision will affect the way that this experience forms and shapes our life and our ministry.  If we exit the pilgrimage now, if we leave that attitude that we have prayerfully fostered over the last two months, we run the risk of weakening how this experience shapes our relationship with Christ.  If, however, we continue with the spirit of a pilgrim, our return home will not mean the end of our experiences.  Rather, we will continue to enter into the graces that we received here more deeply and we will continue to journey towards Christ within our heart.  In short, we will no longer be on a pilgrimage, but we will remain pilgrims.
As we said in some of our first blog entries, the pilgrimage is an outward journey to foster an inward journey – the journey of the heart to Christ.  With the grace of God, this experience can be an important step in that life-long journey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Night to Remember


                Five members of our class took advantage of one of the unique opportunities Jerusalem has to offer: being locked in the Holy Sepulchre for the night.  After being greeting by a Franciscan Friar who told us the three rules (no sleeping, no singing, and no lighting candles) he said the entire Church would be ours for the following nine hours.  The doors were locked, both from the exterior and interior sides, the monks went their way, and we went to pray.  We found ourselves able to pray, unobstructed, at the most important sites in all of Christendom: Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre (the actual tomb of Christ).  Aside from near-freezing temperatures and a few random cats wandering around, we had ample time to enter into the mysteries of Christ’s death and Resurrection.
                After about four hours the doors were opened and the other Christian Churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptics, and Armenians) which have a claim to the building entered to pray their liturgies.  In the middle of the night the holy sites were filled with bells, incense, chanting, and unexpectedly large crowds of people.  In the Old City of Jerusalem, the streets were deserted and quiet, yet the Holy Sepulchre was thriving with actions all praising the Lord!  While it was nice to have the last few hours of the night back in relative solitude, the movements of the entire evening were joyful.  There was a profound joy throughout the night.
                Last night we went to an empty church to pray at an empty tomb.  We did not expect to find the tomb occupied, as Mary Magdalene did on that first Easter Sunday morning (Lk 24:1-9).  So what were we expecting as we ventured into the tomb or as we climbed up Calvary?  I think we received exactly what we had set out for: a time to pray with Christ and rejoice because the tomb was empty.  He is Risen!  We encounter Him each and every day, whether here in the Holy Land, back home in the States, or anywhere else we may travel.  Let us be reminded of that each and every day, every time we make the cross.  Let us make the saying of John Paul II ring true in our hearts: “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.”   Let us be joyful.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Deeper Look


Today we had a guest speaker come in and talk to us about Judaism. Judaism is a wide umbrella of practice including groups such as Secular Jews, Traditional Jews, Orthodox Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, just to name a few. With such a wide range our speaker knew she couldn’t present all the intricacies of Judaism to us in one short day. She decided therefore to focus her talks on some of the commonalities amongst most Jews. One of those topics was Midrash.
            Midrash is kind of like a collection of stories or sayings that have built up around the Bible. They often attempt to clear up confusion or answer questions that come up during the reading of the Bible. As examples we looked at three Midrashim connected to the story of Cain and Abel. In Genesis it says that Cain invited Abel out to the field. The Midrashim attempt to give possible conversations that they might have had on their way to the field. The conversations presented are attempts to explain why Cain killed Abel. Without giving the entire stories I will summarize the three Midrashim to say that the first said it was a conversation over money, the second over power, and the third over sex. The Rabbis were basically saying that these are some of the reasons that we as humans fight and kill each other. We fight over money (or possessions), over power, and over sex. That held true then and it holds true today.
            The Midrashim gave insight into human thought and human life. One of our classmates compared this to our Catholic Lectio Divina. In Lectio we use our own imagination to place ourselves into events and explore the setting, much like the Midrash does. By doing so we can also come to know ourselves better and come to a deeper appreciation of our human condition. The Midrashim and Lectio Divina stand as examples for us as to how we can further engage the Bible stories that we know so well in order have a second and deeper look. Sometimes when we think we already know something we miss another lesson that is waiting to be discovered. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Prayer of Christ


We are entering the final moments of our pilgrimage. This evening we did a holy hour in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was an incredible experience to spend time with the Lord at the same spot where He experienced His agony.  As a man having both a divine nature and a human nature, Jesus knew that He was going to die an extremely painful death for the salvation of humanity. But it was at the moment in Gethsemane when He seemed to come face to face to what He was going to undergo. He knew that his trial was upon Him, and He knew that He could not face this trial alone.  So He went to the garden to pray.
As I reflected on the Jesus’ agony in the Garden today, I realized that this gospel passage teaches us the importance of prayer. We are reminded not only of the importance to take time out each day to be alone with God, but we are reminded that we should pray with a sense of urgency, of desperation. We live in a world that is filled with urgency for many things. We are desperate for instant gratification. We want instant e-mail. We want instant communication through cell phones. We seek fast food. Our prayer today at Gethsemane asks us to ponder whether we have the same urgency for God as we do for the things of the world.  This place reminds us how necessary it is to put God first in our lives, to depend completely on him.
In his urgent plea to the Father, Christ reminds us of the intense battle between the flesh and the spirit.  If we don’t pay attention to how God is working in our lives at every moment, we can easily become complacent. We can slip into the notion that we can do things on our own and, like the disciples at the Garden, we can get caught off guard and fall asleep. Therefore, now is the time for us to stay awake. Now is the time to cry out to God and seek his help. May we follow the example of Christ in his urgent plea to the Father so that we might constantly be aware of our own spiritual needs and the needs of others.   

Friday, February 3, 2012

Assumptions


            Today we had a lecture from a local expert on the topic of Catholic-Jewish relationships in the Holy Land. He spoke extensively about the particular challenges which face these relations in this part of the world as the result of two factors. The first is the unique situation of Israel as a land with a majority Jewish and minority Catholic population. In the situation of Jewish-Catholic dialogue with which we are accustomed in the United States, Judaism is a minority and Catholicism, while not a majority, is a large percentage of the community. The second is the peculiarities of Israel as a nation founded precisely as a Jewish State and the history of this land. It was an elegant reminder to me that attempts at dialogue and relationships can never be discussed in the abstract. Rather, relationships and dialogue take place between people; people who live in a particular context and carry a particular history. Without understanding and respecting the various unique factors which accompany people in a particular time and place, it is impossible to forge any kind of relationship.
            Jerusalem, indeed the whole of the Holy Land, is a place which has seen far too little peace and has a history of poor relationships among its residents. It was difficult, yet necessary, to see that some of my more na├»ve assumptions about the possibilities of dialogue were not accurate. It reminded me that it is easy to make assumptions about people in all manner of circumstances. It is only by actually meeting with people and engaging them as they are that our assumptions can give way to a genuine understanding of the other. It is not only in the course of inter-religious dialogue that we make erroneous assumptions, nor do those assumptions concern only people thousands of miles from home or from a much different culture. Rather, we also tend to make assumptions about those people closest to us. I hope and pray that we all might learn to engage in genuine dialogue with other people, rather than simply make assumptions about them. Then and only then will we advance in genuine understanding and build a solid relationship. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

God's Grace


Today we were blessed to have mass at the Church of St Anne, built by the Crusaders in AD 1138. There is a tradition that the crypt enshrines the home of the Virgin Mary and her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne. In the crypt, we had an opportunity to visit and pray in what is said to be the birthplace of Mary, the virgin mother of God. It was in this Church that we had today’s Eucharistic celebration. Next to it are the ruins of the miraculous healing pool called Bethesda, around which many sick people gathered in hope of healing once water stirred up. In the gospel of John we read about Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, a man who had been ill for 38 years and who Jesus found lying next to the pool but had no one to put him in the pool once the water stirred (Jn 5:1-13).
Reflecting on these two important sites in the life of our Lord Jesus, one comes to appreciate and to clearly understand the salvation history of humanity. Having Mass at the site where the Blessed Virgin was said to have been born, lived, and grown up as a normal child bring us to understand the humility of God. The humility of God is visible as He uses normal and ordinary things in our lives to bring about extraordinary things. Anne and Joachim lived a simple but upright life and raised Mary in a life of holiness as they cooperated with the grace of God. Born for a special mission and thus being conceived without original sin, Mary became the mother of the incarnate Word, bringing forth through God’s grace the Savior. Anne and Joachim cooperated with the grace of God to raise Mary, who fulfilled the divinely ordained mission given to her. We too are called on to pray and imitate the humility of Saints Anne and Joachim so as to let God’s will be done in our lives and to fulfill the mission to which we are called. Gazing on the Pool of Bethesda, we realize Jesus’ concern, love, and compassion for those who are suffering. Jesus initiates the healing process; He gives the grace and we are to cooperate with His grace to attain the healing we need in our lives. This healing can be physical or psychological, but above all it is spiritual. Like the lame man who believed and was cured, we too are challenged to cooperate with God’s grace. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Friendship with Christ


            We had the opportunity to visit the Mount of Olives, where Christ ascended into heaven, as well as Bethany where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the friends of Jesus, lived.  We saw the tomb where tradition tells us Lazarus was raised by Jesus Christ.  We have also been at the place where Jesus Christ taught his disciples how to pray.  At this place, called Pater Noster, the prayer that Christ taught them, the ‘Our Father’, is translated into more than 150 languages from different parts of the world and placed on the walls of the church and courtyard.
            By visiting, seeing, and entering the tomb where Lazarus laid, then coming out of the tomb, we were reminded of our hope of being raised by Jesus from our own tomb of sins through the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation.  This was a way of connecting to our Lord by walking in His steps.  It was a moment to continue cultivating an abiding friendship with Christ just as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had done during Christ’s earthly ministry.  To be with Christ is our first and most important priority, which brings us to fulfill His mission.  He calls us first to be with Him, them He sends us out as long as we stay connected to Him (Mark 3:14).  We can only have power and authority to do Christ’s work if we are united with Jesus.  Thus visiting these sties allows us to follow Jesus’ steps and renew our friendship with Him that He may send us to carry out His mission according to His will.  May the Lord bless all who made this journey possible and continue to bless us and give us the zeal and desire to serve Him and His people in love.