WAITING FOR THE PRESENCE
JERUSALEM: VIA DOLOROSA, MOUNT OF OLIVES
It was mid-afternoon when I decided that I had lingered long enough on the Lithostrotos (can one ever linger too long?) For the first time in daylight I stepped out the front door on to the holiest street on earth – the Via Dolorosa. The holiest and one of the busiest! Shops galore, whose merchants and wares cry out to you like sirens. I was determined to get to the holy places first, and not be distracted by the shops. I wasn’t always successful, as I will relate shortly.
First I went to the Church of the Flagellation, and my thoughts turned to all the sins of the flesh down through the centuries. “Sins of the flesh” are not only sexual but also all the ways we abuse our bodies through addictions and over-indulgence. St. Paul says we should use our bodily members to serve Christ as once we used them to serve sin. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, holy because God dwells in us. Instead of fashioning our bodies into “living sacrifices” to the glory of God, we have often made them into temples that make Christ weep. Here, at this place of torture, he infused his love into our bodies, and won for us the power not to mock or torture them with our lusts and perversions.
I recalled my own sins in these areas and looked for a priest for confession. I couldn’t find one! This was a completely new experience for me – looking for a priest for confession and not being able to find one. (While I can celebrate the Eucharist alone, I can’t give myself Christ’s sacramental forgiveness.) I prayed for all those trapped in their sins of the flesh who don’t know how to be released from them, who do not have the Sacrament as part of their life. I decided to return here and keep trying to find a priest.
Not far from there was the pool of Bethsaida where Jesus healed the blind man. There is a lovely little park where you can sit and meditate on Jesus walking around the pools on that day when he brought daylight grace to that long-suffering man.
One of the gracious aspects of that encounter was that Jesus himself initiated the conversation: “Do you want to be healed?” Many times a day the Lord approaches us like that, putting that question to us. But we are too blind and deaf to hear.
I headed back to Ecce Homo to continue along the Via Dolorosa. The shrine of “Christ in Prison” was closed. I continued on, but then – temptation! Icons in one of the shops caught my eye. The rationalizations began: “I love icons. I’m in the Holy Land. I have money. Besides, I’ve been praying all morning and most of the afternoon. I deserve a break.” So much for the permanence of resolutions. I succumbed. I entered the shop.
The owner (so he turned out to be) saw me looking at icons, and his trained eye observed that I was wearing one. (Maybe he has a sixth sense for priests.) So, putting two and two together, he immediately said, “Come into the back of the shop and I will show you some real icons.”
My defences went up right away. I had read about imitation icons in these shops, and some of the methods used to make them look old. These guys are out to make money. I knew that they don’t always tell the exact truth. I know something about icons, but not much. Anyhow, I’m rather naïve about buying things. Pilgrim Wild, be careful!
I got even more nervous when he showed me some icons that he said were very old. They surely looked old. Two of them in particular made my heart jump. One was the Transfiguration, and the other was an unusual icon of the Resurrection that I had never seen before. The ordinary Resurrection icon is of Christ descending into Hades, taking Adam and Eve by the hand, and leading them out. This icon was of the resurrected Christ in the garden. Mary Magdalene was clutching his feet, while two other women were in the background. It was exquisite. I thought to myself that even if it were a fake, I’d like to have it.
I asked him how much it was, but the price he quoted was way out of my reach. I said as much. He looked at me and asked if I was a priest. (Again, his years of experience in this business.) I said yes. (I was often addressed as “Father” on my pilgrimage. I guess my icon and beard gave me away.) We chatted. I began to tell him a little bit of my life, especially that I spent a great deal of time in solitude and prayer. When I said this I could see that something was happening in his heart.
He then began telling me about himself. He said he was a Christian Arab, and began to witness to me about Christ. To this day I don’t know if he really was a Christian or not. I think he was. He said many people come in here to trade in icons, buying from him in order to sell to others. He doesn’t like that, but there’s not much he can do about it.
Then he said something that I thought was quite extraordinary, even as a sales pitch. He said if I promised not to sell this icon, and to pray for him and his family every day, he would sell me this icon for less than what he paid for it himself. He then quoted me a price I was willing to pay.
Well, my defences really went up then. Does he give this line to everybody? Am I being taken in, and this on my very first day!
But that was not the end of his unusual sales approach. He said: “To show you my sincerity, I’m going to let you take this icon with you without paying for it. You can check on it or me until you decide to take it or not.” I prayed for a moment: should I really do this? What am I getting into? In a kind of stupor, I walked out of the store with this lovely icon in my hands. I thought to myself: “This icon is either genuine, and his offer is genuine, or this guy is one of the greatest cons artists on the Via Dolorosa.” (This drama continues later.)
I continued on my way along the Via Dolorosa, but now with this resurrection icon. (We should always walk our way of the cross in the strength of the resurrection.) I came to the Station “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.” In Greek, her name means “true image, true icon” – veron –ica. It is the name tradition gave to this compassionate and courageous woman. Her love gave her the strength to brave the hostility of the crowds and bring some precious relief to the Lord’s sweaty and blood-drenched face. In gratitude, he imprinted his Face, first on her heart, and then on the towel. This latter was a sign of the restoration of her deepest self to God’s likeness.
I knelt on the pavement outside as the buying and selling, the comings and goings, swirled around me. I prayed for the grace not to allow human respect to prevent me from wiping the face of Christ in others. W.H. Auden has a poem about finding a drunk on the street. People are walking by and nobody is helping him: “Then I took him, all puking, into my arms. And staggered, banged with terror, through a million, billion, trillion stars.” I love that poem.
The door to that Station was locked, so I obtained a key from one of the Little Sisters of Jesus who takes care of the shrine. She knew about our Madonna House team that had lived in Haifa a few years ago. I went upstairs and opened the door of the chapel. I suddenly found myself in a beautiful Byzantine church.
Over and over again during my trip I was to have this same experience –suddenly finding myself surrounded with great beauty. Most of the time the exteriors of buildings were drab and even dirty. But when you passed through the door, or impressive entrance, you found yourself in a lovely garden, or in an exquisite church such as the one I was now in.
This frequent experience became a symbol for me of what is often the drab exterior of a person’s face, or features, or behaviour. Within exists the extraordinary beauty of the heart and interior life. I prayed here for half an hour before a picture of Veronica’s veil. Every act of charity we perform is like wiping the Lord’s face with our love. As we do so, he imprints ever more deeply his image on our hearts. May we all, through following Veronica’s example, be quickly restored to the likeness of Christ.
It is easy to miss some of the Stations of the Cross, especially if it’s your first time, and you don’t know where you’re going. And there are so many shops, and the hustle and bustle of so much human activity. You’re not exactly in a quiet church making these Stations.
As I continued walking I came across a sign that said, “Ethiopian Patriarchate and Monastery.” “Oh,” I thought, “that sounds interesting.” I walked up the stairs and entered the open door.
Again, the experience of going from dust and dreariness to beauty. There was a small monastery garden surrounded by a church and several dwellings. I ventured farther in. I came across a young monk who was very shabbily dressed – but, I’m sure, clothed with beauty inside. He was praying out of his prayer book. We both smiled in a peaceful and calm exchange. He then said a few words, I presume in Coptic. I didn’t understand. We smiled at our first feeble attempt at communication.
Then, being a prayerful monk, he thought of a way to communicate. He did something quite beautiful. He saw that I was carrying my prayer beads. He took them from me, very gently, and began to pray with them. I then took his prayer beads and began praying with them as well. After a few moments he simply handed my chotki back to me, and I did the same with his. It was a real inspiration of his to meet in this way, separated as we were by language and (some doctrine?) In Christ we were not separated. (Can Christ be divided? Our divisions do not reach into the depths of Christ.) Praying together united us in the Spirit.
We bowed to each other with another smile and separated. These are the kinds of little graced-filled episodes that can happen when you are prayerfully walking around and trying to be present to the Holy.
In another part of the garden monks were sitting around talking. I approached and asked if I could see the church. One monk rose and kindly took me into the first Ethiopian church I’d ever seen. I knew something of the harsh persecutions the Christians were presently experiencing in Ethiopia. I felt I was in the presence of martyrs, or at least confessors.
The paintings and iconography struck me at once as a blending of Greek and more far-eastern styles; there was even some obviously western influence. The monk let me out through the back door of the church, different from where I had entered. All of a sudden I found myself right at the entrance to the door of the church of the Holy Sepulchre! My first reaction was, “I’m not ready yet. I haven’t prepared for this!”
Not being on a guided tour (thanks be to God!) and often not knowing where I was going, I would suddenly just find myself at one of the holiest places on earth without being mentally or spiritually prepared. “A surprise of the Spirit” you will say. It certainly was! But whenever it happened I heard myself saying inside, “God, I’m not ready yet, I’m not ready yet. I have to get ready.” God didn’t listen. I was there – here – and I had to enter into the grace of the moment. The Presence was waiting for me whether I was ready or not.
I stood for a moment or so outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, trying to decide if I should go in or not. I didn’t have to go in right now; I could come back later; or come tomorrow. I decided to enter.
If you walk straight ahead in this Church you quickly come upon a marble slab on the floor with many vigil lights hanging over it. I thought this was the Holy Sepulchre. I knelt down and kissed it and reverenced it. The holiest spot in the universe.
I was only there a few minutes when I noticed that most people were walking right past this spot and on into the interior of the Church. “Is this the right place?” I thought to myself. I got up and followed a small group of people, arriving with them at last at the real tomb of Christ. (The place I had been reverencing was the commemoration of the taking down of the Lord’s Body from the Cross. My reverencing was by no means wasted. As I said before, every place in this land is holy.)
Pilgrims should not be upset by such mistakes. Pilgrimaging differs from planned, moment by moment, carefully mapped out tours. All the adventures are precluded in the latter. The pilgrim, however, is on an adventure: you don’t always know exactly where your destinations are, or when they will suddenly appear as if out of the ground. If you can be at peace about these meanderings you’ll be a more peaceful pilgrim. (On another occasion I went up – on my knees – the wrong staircase, thinking it was the stairs to Mount Calvary. Does it really matter? The penance isn’t wasted. One still meets the Presence everywhere, and receives a blessing.)
So, I finally arrived at the real tomb of Christ, all the more exciting now since I knew for sure it was the tomb of Christ. I prostrated before it; knelt for a while; then just sat down and prayed and meditated. I clasped the Resurrection icon to my heart and felt something of the joy of the women on that first Easter morn. Many tours were going in and out (it was mid-afternoon) so I decided I would not enter the tomb today but come back tomorrow.
As I was sitting there a flashbulb went off inside the semidarkness of the tomb. I thought of what a scientist had said in a film on the Holy Shroud of Turin. He said that “the only thing we (scientists) know could produce such an image on cloth would be something akin to a nuclear explosion.” What a marvellous image! At the moment of the Resurrection the Father touched the Body of Christ, and something like a nuclear explosion happened – the Resurrection! The bright flash in the tomb that afternoon became, for me, the image of that moment when, through God’s almighty power, the Lord Jesus exploded back into the totality of his incarnational reality. (And Catherine’s word, “explosion” came to mind as well.)
I sat there for quite a while, clinging to my – his! – Resurrection icon; and then I walked back to Ecce Homo.
That night, before I went to bed, I sat and looked and looked some more at this icon. Was it fake? Was it real? How I wished it was real! With my uncritical eye I kept examining it over and over again. It looked real to me; and, if it was, it certainly was worth every penny he was asking for it. I’m sure, if it was real, it would be worth four times the amount in North America. What to do, what to do!
I decided to trust him. I wouldn’t ask anybody about him. I wouldn’t seek any appraisal of the icon. Maybe this was foolish. I don’t know. But I decided to take the risk.
Next morning I went back to the shop. I told the owner that I didn’t check up on him or his icon. He was visibly moved by this trust. I told him I would pray for him and his family every day, and that the icon would never be sold. (I haven’t been faithful to the praying every day.) Besides the price of the icon, I also gave him a sizeable donation for a children’s orphanage he was running. Well, if he had been conning me, this last gesture would have made him come clean for sure.
Nothing changed; he stuck to his story; I gave him the money and took my precious icon. We embraced and parted. I subsequently found out that the icon is real, and worth much more than I paid for it. Grace had been present in our transaction.
I may as well continue to relate here how the Lord used this icon.
When I returned to Madonna House I told them this whole episode. I said, further, that there is some mystery behind this icon: I don’t know exactly why I bought it; I felt God had some special purpose in practically giving it to me. I asked God about it in prayer. What came to me was this.
This is a Resurrection icon, and consequently an icon of hope. I obtained it on pilgrimage, so I think this is meant to be a travelling icon. It should go where people are in need of hope. “So,” I told the community, “if you are despairing, or depressed, or sick, and you need an increase of resurrection joy, hope, and lightness of heart, ask me for this icon. You will be able to borrow it for a while so that through its presence the gift of hope may be increased in your heart.”
And that is how the icon is now used. People have taken it to the hospital during the time of their operations. Frequently it is in their room when they are sick or recuperating. One person was having nightmares so he slept with it under his pillow! And even more recently, a prayerful friend of ours, Mary, who has a special apostolate of visiting the sick, often takes the icon with her. She recounts many minor miracles, both of healing and consolation. God is good!
I returned to the Holy Sepulchre the next morning with the intention of entering. I bowed to the ground at the entrance. Then I went in.
There are two sections to the Holy Sepulchre, an antechamber and the inner tomb proper. I entered the antechamber of the tomb of Christ for the first time. I knelt down for ten minutes or so, preparing myself to enter the inner tomb.
Just then a monk came in, dragging a prie-dieu behind him. He was making arrangements for a few elderly women to kneel before the tomb. He motioned me back just as I was about to enter. Somehow it disturbed my inner spirit. He didn’t seem very respectful of my religious sensitivities. I decided these were not the circumstances under which I wanted to enter the holiest place on earth. (Not to mention my interior unpeace.) I would wait for a quieter time. I went back outside.
It was a joy just to sit outside the tomb in these early morning hours and allow the Spirit to speak to me. The women in my icon were here those many centuries ago, sitting on the grass for hours in front of the then sealed tomb. Their Master was dead. They were desolate. Were they thinking, “What will happen now? He raised other people from the dead. Can he raise himself? Is he that great? Greater than death? Will the God he prayed to raise him? Who was this Man?”
As I was meditating such sublime thoughts a woman tourist came by, looking more at her guidebook than at the tomb. She said quite loudly to her husband, pointing to the tomb, “What’s that, George?”
I don’t know why this ignorant remark (ignorant simply means not knowing) disturbed me so much. I didn’t know either where the tomb was. I guess it disturbed me because I heard in it the superficiality of too many tourists and sightseers; maybe heard in the remark my own incomprehension of what God has done for us in Christ.
We believe the most astounding things: God became a Man; God died for us; God has risen from the dead; God has taken us up with him to the very right hand of the Father; God has given us himself as food. Her remark just shouted at me how blind and faithless most of the human race is. “O you of little faith. How is it that you still do not understand? How much longer must I put up with you.”
We’re just so blasé about the most awesome truths concerning human existence. “What’s this Cross? What’s this Blood on the ground? What’s this tomb?” God has done too much for us. We can’t get our puny minds around his great deeds. That woman was I and every other Christian, tripping and bungling around sacred tombs and crosses in a state of muddled incomprehension. Indeed, “What’s this, George!?”
Because of the fighting in Lebanon I was not able to visit Charbel’s monastery where he lived. So he brought the monastery to me. It happened like this.
Later that same afternoon I was walking near the Damascus Gate when I spied a sign that read, “Maronite Monastery.” I thought to myself, “Surely they will know all about Charbel.” I was not disappointed. In their gift shop were many medals and pictures of Charbel. I bought some. Another gift was the priest, Father Hassad. He was a monk, and had spent some time at Charbel’s monastery. It was a gift from God just to meet someone that close to Charbel.
Father Hassad spent an hour with me, and then gave me a tour of the monastery. In the chapel were two large pictures of Charbel. I stayed for lunch, and then came back the next day for the liturgy. It was a liturgy infused with the theme of light. I have a copy of the rite in French. It began beautifully: “From your own light, Lord Jesus, we draw our own luminosity. O Source of light, true light, Sun of the universe, make us worthy to approach your dazzling light, and to penetrate into the splendor of your joyful dawn.”
The liturgy was very simple and dignified. Father Hassad said it was very ancient, antedating the liturgies of Basil and Chrysostom; it was basically the liturgy that Charbel would have celebrated in his hermitage every day. This latter fact was the most inspiring of all for me. I felt I had met Charbel at this liturgy, surrounded by members of his Maronite family, and celebrating in the language and rite he used. I’m sure he was there.
I learned too that the Maronites had suffered much for their faith down through the centuries. I resolved to learn more about their history.
Later that same day I was walking near the Lion’s Gate, loaded down with packages. Suddenly I could not find Catherine’s chotki. I checked all my pockets many times. No chotki. I went back twice over the route I had walked. No chotki. I never did find it. It was a great loss, particularly because it brought Catherine and her intentions close to me. But pilgrims must be detached from such things.
When I returned home and told her that I had lost her chotki, she just shrugged – she was detached! – reached over to her bedside table, and handed me her personal Roman Catholic rosary to keep. That’s how she was. I have often seen her praying this rosary. It will be a treasure for me to remember her by. When one door is closed, God opens another: I wouldn’t have her rosary if I hadn’t lost the chotki.
I stopped at a food stand and bought some bread to eat along the way. The man said to me in broken English, “Jesus Book. Jesus Book. I like. I like.” He meant the New Testament, of course. I told him that I only had one small copy with me, and that it was not for sale. (He probably didn’t understand a word I was saying. But this explanation soothed my own conscience.) As I started walking away I remembered that the Russian pilgrim in my book had given away his “Jesus Book” because that very book had told him to sell all he possessed.
So I turned around, walked back, and simply handed the guy my pocket New Testament. It was no big deal: I could easily obtain another one, if not here, certainly when I got home. But I wasn’t sure if my friend here would ever come across one in the near future. Maybe never. Maybe it will bring him to Christ. Maybe he already was a Christian. Who knows! Anyhow, I felt more like a pilgrim as I walked on towards the Mount of Olives.
One of the first places I visited there was the tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As was my custom, I just sat there for an hour or so, listening to the Spirit, waiting on the Presence, making a faith contact with the mysteries of grace saturating the atmosphere.
A grace I received there and which was intensified at the Dormition Abbey) was a lessening of the fear of death, a lessening due to the deeper realization that I would not be dying alone. The icon of the Dormition (“falling asleep”) pictures Mary falling asleep in the Lord surrounded by all the apostles. I believe we do not pass over into that immense country alone.
Often, in the lives of the saints, we read how their patrons, or their loved one, or the angels, came and were present to them at the moment of death. Thomas More’s daughter, Meg, was visited, at the moment of her death, by some of the Carthusians she had ministered to when they were in prison, often at great personal danger to herself. They said to her, “We have come to accompany you home.”
As a priest I have heard quite a few stories of people reaching out with joy to someone present in the room at the time of dying.
If ordinary people can receive such heavenly escorts, what must have been the entourage of holy ones present at take Mary home? Surely Christ and St. Joseph were there as well as the apostles. (Tradition says they had to make some fast travel plans to be with her!) Myriads of angels, of course, were there. Perhaps her parents, Joakim and Anne. A few relatives. Our departure may not be so glorious, but we can be assured we will not make that “long day’s journey” into that other world on our own.
Not far from this Church is Gethsemane. I will not keep repeating myself, but entering each holy place for the first time was AWESOME. I could hardly think of anything. You can’t believe you’re there, in these places you’ve been meditating on all your life. You see the centuries-old olive trees that date back to the time of Christ. (Which one was he near on that night of sorrow?) You see, in the Church, the huge rock where tradition says Jesus sweat his Blood. I prostrated upon it, and prayed. My heart is still too hard to weep, but I desired to weep. Maybe the Lord accepts the desire for the deed.
Pilgrims without schedules get in on many surprising treats. A solemn high Latin Liturgy was just beginning, so I asked and obtained permission to concelebrate. Not only that, but when it came time for the minor elevation, I was handed the chalice filled with the Precious Blood. I raised this chalice solemnly over the very rock where this Blood had been shed in dread of the coming ordeal, shed for me. It was during that Mass that I conceived the desire to spend the night in this Church, watching with Christ, in reparation for all who have fallen asleep in prayer and failed to console him, including me. But this request was not granted me.
Then the thought came to me, “if you’re really serious about it, you can stay up all night back at Ecce Homo.” While for many years I used to get up every night for a vigil, I rarely spent the whole night in prayer. I have never really done that. This would be a good time for it.
This mini-experience – of being blocked in a pious desire, and then finding another way open – was proof to me of the often grandiose and unrealistic aspects of some of our desires in the spiritual life. I make-believe that my “great desire” (in this case an all-night vigil) is being thwarted. But nothing was really keeping me from making an all-night vigil every night if I really wanted to. What illusions we often have in our spiritual lives!
This is an aside (but apropos of the above) once one of the guests here at Madonna House was going on and on about how drab and ordinary life at Madonna was. “We should all be out on the street corners, singing and shouting to all the people passing by, about the love of God,” she said eloquently. When she had exhausted her enthusiasm I simply said to her, “Well, why don’t you?” “Why don’t I what?” she said. “Why don’t you go and do that? There’s nothing preventing you.” There was a long pause; she didn’t say anything. I doubt if she ever did follow up on her enthusiastic idea.
It had already been a long day so I returned to Ecce Homo for a nap. I was very happy to have discovered the Mount of Olives. I decided to return there in the early evening and watch the sun go down over Jerusalem.
As I was making my way that evening back to the Mount of Olives I passed two teenagers along the Via Dolorosa. One of them, seeing my icon, pointed to the pavement and said, “For you!” I looked down and saw some mule dung. (My prejudiced vision at the moment.) I thought that’s what he was referring to, and was making a sarcastic remark. But as he passed by he said, “And for me.” He meant, I believe, the Passion of Christ for both of us.
As I would do several times during my stay in Jerusalem, I climbed the Mount of Olives in the early evening and just walked around, or prayed, or sat on a rock over-looking the city of Jerusalem. Christ must have come up here often, and spent many hours in prayer.
Because I believe my own vocation is praying for the world, the Mount became my favorite spot. Here is where Jesus prayed for the world and for the peace of Jerusalem. Here is where he pleaded with his Father that the world would recognize him. Here is where he taught us how to go apart and pray to the Father in secret. His disciples sensed that it was in prayer to his Father that he gained his strength for the crowds every day; sensed that prayer to his Father was the center of his life. That’s why they asked him to teach them how to pray as he prayed.
On Olivet I met especially the mystery of Christ’s loneliness. Nobody really understood who he was, or what his life and mission was all about. Mary understood somewhat; but she was still a creature. Only the Father knew.
One of Catherine’s themes in her spiritual life was her passion to assuage the loneliness of Christ. She said Charles Peguy’s phrase, “Christ is in pain until the end of time,” was one of the truest sentences ever spoken. She had an intuition – that is perfectly in keeping with the teaching of the Church – that in some way the sufferings of Christ, and hence his loneliness - continue in his Mystical Body. If the Body suffers, the Head who is joined to the Body, suffers.
St.Augustine, in commenting on the Lord’s words, ”Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” says: “He did not say, `Why are you persecuting my members?`but `Why are you persecuting Me?’”
In a sermon for the feast of the Ascension, Augustine wrote: “For just as he remained with us after his Ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. Christ is exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. While in heaven he is also with us, and we while on earth are with him. These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body.”
You can conceive of this mystery in several ways: 1) when Christ was on earth he suffered (and knew about beforehand) the sufferings of all peoples of all times; 2) through the doctrine of the Mystical Body, he continues to suffer now what his Body suffers. This is a deep mystery; we can’t fully explain it. But it’s a truth of our faith that in some real way we are “making up in our bodies what is wanting in the sufferings of Chris,” and that we (Head and members) share now the same glories and sorrows.
This desire to assuage the loneliness of Christ was part of my spiritual life even before I came to Madonna House. A poem by E.E.Cummings says it perfectly: “No time ago, or else a life, walking in the dark I met Christ Jesus. He was as close as I am to you – no closer, made of nothing except loneliness.”
“Made of loneliness.” An open wound of loneliness. A divine loneliness that no human person can assuage. Several times in Gethsemane Jesus sought out his disciples. He knew they couldn’t take away his loneliness and dread. He just wanted some human companionship, that’s all. Many sufferings are like that: we can’t really do anything for people, but it helps if somebody is just there. Perhaps that’s all we can do for Christ in his loneliness. How it would give comfort to his Heart!
I walked many hours with the lonely Christ up and down the paths of the Mount of Olives, wishing I could love more so as to console him more.
The next day was Friday, October 21.During my night vigil it came to me strongly that on my pilgrimage I should be praying for all the pilgrims who are not praying. I had been toying with the idea of visiting St.Catherine’s monastery on Mt.Sinai, but decided against it. The only way to get there is on a tour! I didn’t look forward to four days on a tour without time for prayer. Besides, I would be seeing plenty of monasteries on Mt.Athos.
I set out early that day and walked completely around the walls of the Old City. Then, at the Christian Information Centre, I arranged to celebrate Mass one morning in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was hesitant to arrange too many other Masses. The Lord had already provided me with a celebration at Gethsemane. I would trust him to get me in on other celebrations as well.
There was more on the Mount of Olives I hadn’t seen. I had visited the Church called Peter in Gallicantu where Peter wept over the denial of his Master. Here I prayed for the gift of tears for my own sins of denial. At the church called Dominus Flevit, where Christ wept over Jerusalem, I prayed for the gift of tears to weep over my sins and the sins of others, the multitude of sins which in some way continues to make Christ weep.
To my regret, the Russian monastery of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives was closed, and I never did get into it. Near the top of Olivet I visited the Evangelical Sisters of Mary, the community founded by Basileia Schlink. The superior looked like Mother Basileia, with a radiant and joyful face. We had a pleasant visit together, complete with a cool drink after my long climb.
I also visited the Benedictine monastery nearby. I bought a beautiful original icon of our Lady of Tenderness, the one where the Infant is cheek to cheek with our Lady. My twin sister, Andrea, has a House of Prayer in Ohio. I thought this would be a nice gift for her chapel. She calls her House “Marian Solitude.” I also bought many small wooden rosaries as gifts.
That evening I celebrated the liturgy at Ecce Homo for the Sisters and guests. I told them of four experiences I had had already that had become for me symbols of deeper realities. Three of them I have already mentioned to you: the Ethiopian monk; the beauty behind drab appearances; the superficial cry, “What this George?” The fourth experience I have not mentioned yet.
Ecce Homo is in the Moslem quarter of the Old City. There are regular calls to prayer over the loud speakers, day an night (4 A.M.!) The very first time I heard that call to prayer I thought to myself: “It sounds so sad.” It always sounded to me like a cry for Someone, Someone not present, a cry for Christ. They don’t believe that God has already answered their prayer. Part of my pilgrimage was to pray that Moslems would one day come to believe in Christ as Messiah and God.
Today, in theology, there is a strong current to recognize what is good in non-Christian religions; and the Second Vatican Council encourages this. There is much dialoguing going on not only among Christians but among Christian and far-Eastern religions as well. A lesser-known movement is what Luke Malik calls the “New Ecumenism” that embraces Jews, Christians, and Moslems. Each of these great traditions believes that we are all children of one father, Abraham, and brothers and sisters to one another. Surely this movement towards unity is a work of the Holy Spirit in our day, and is to be encouraged.
But whenever I would walk out onto the roof overlooking the Old City and see the Mosque of Omar sacred to the Muslims, I would think to myself: “Christ also weeps over the Mosque of Omar (especially since it has around its copula “God has no son”). Yes, the sins of Christians and their lack of fidelity to the Gospel have caused many of the obstacles to unity. But there is a more fundamental disbelief that Christ encountered even before the sins of Christians: there is a basic resistance to Christ that is part of original sin itself. It cannot be blamed entirely on the sins of Christians towards Jews and Moslems. Whatever blinds people to Christ as the Messiah, as the Son of God, is a cause for Christ’s weeping. This blindness was present before our sins.
Christians have sinned historically in trying to make people believe in Christ. Only the Holy Spirit of God can convert people to Christ. The task of the Christian is to witness to the love of Christ, the joy that believing in him brings to life. Christ will do the rest. The point is that there is a fundamental blindness in human nature itself to accepting Christ as the Messiah. This blindness is prior to our present divisions and the added obstacles to belief present in those divisions. Enormous as the crimes by Christians against Jews have been (is it not also honest to mention the persecution of the Christians by Jews in the early centuries?) we cannot allow this to distort Christ’s desire for all peoples to accept him. The greatest act of love we can perform towards anyone is to desire that that person believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour of the world. This is the Father’s desire, not our own.
We can go too far in emphasizing what is good in other religions. Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism existed before the sins of Christians and imperialism. We presume Jesus came because none of these religions were good enough to save us, and this is still true. To desire that the Jewish and Moslem peoples believe in Jesus is not anti-Jewish or anti-Moslem. It is simply our belief that this is God the Father’s plan for the world, the true fulfilment of the faith of our common father, Abraham.
On my pilgrimage I was overwhelmed by the world’s rejection of Christ: God became a Man and we did not recognize who he was. Thus, I couldn’t reconcile going to see the Mosque of Omar with what God was doing in my heart. Christ on the Mount of Olives was not just weeping over his own Jewish people: He was weeping over the blindness of the whole world.
Along the Via Dolorosa, not far from Ecce Homo, is the prison where Christ was kept overnight. The Greek Orthodox have been entrusted with this holy place. Every prison in every age is bad enough, but what must the prisons in those days been like! Not more than holes in the ground. I descended the stairs and sat in this place where Christ had been held prisoner.
Christ as Prisoner! He really identified with us in everything. This cave was one of the lowest geographical levels of Christ’s descent into our world: He descended right into our foul and stinking prisons. I guess I never thought much his being a Prisoner, never having been one myself. I’m sure many prisoners have meditated on this mystery.
Christ as Prisoner! Here he sat – bound, guarded, caged in – and yet he remained the supremely Free One. By becoming a Prisoner Christ has set all prisoners free, if only they believe in him. Bound and restricted externally, Jesus was free; so, too, prisoners, even in solitary confinement, can become perfectly free if they give their freedom to Christ. If we believe in Christ, we are free, no matter what external bondage we are under. (In the 20th century, some of the greatest Christian literature has come out of prisons.)
This prison where I am sitting was dark and hopeless; yet it was filled with the Light and Hope of the world, filled with hosts of angels who, at his word, could have blasted open the doors and walls just as they did for Peter and Paul. But their power was restrained. Instead, they worshipped in awe the Prisoner who was setting all prisoners free.
There is a lower prison here called “the Prison of Barabas” where the hard-core prisoners were kept. Dismas the Good thief was there also. If only all prisoners who are justly in prison for their crimes could believe that Christ is there with them, just as he was that night with Dismas.
I believe that the presence of Christ in prison that night began to work in the heart of Dismas even before his extraordinary profession of faith on Calvary. Death was approaching on the morrow. Dismas was thinking about his relationship with his God, how it would go with him.
Dismas should be the patron of all those on death row. (Unfortunately, such rows still exist.) No prisoner needs despair. Like Dismas, their prison can become a meeting place with Christ. And, as far as we know, it was this prisoner who was one of the first to enter into the paradise that had been closed to us. If a thief and a criminal like Dismas can get into paradise through one act of faith – Bishop Fulton Sheen said he finally even stole paradise – we should all have immense confidence in God’s mercy. What magnificent words Jesus spoke to him: “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” What a wonderful Saviour we have!
Recently we have had an outstanding modern pictorial image of the presence of Christ in prison – Pope John Paul’s visit to the man who attempted to assassinate him. By going himself the Pope became an icon of the forgiving presence of Christ who is always in all the prisons of the world. Many prisoners might have said to themselves, “Oh, if only the Pope could visit me too!” You have with you someone greater than the Pope: Christ. Christ is with you. That’s what the visit of the Pope means. God allowed himself to be put in chains so he could break the interior chains of all prisoners. Can I say it too often: What a wonderful God we have who identified with us in all our miseries so as to set us free from them all!
. . . o o o . . .