WAITING FOR THE PRESENCE
Around ten o’clock I took a sherut to Bethlehem. As you’re driving down these roads you can’t help think of the Holy Family walking. We arrived in the central square, near the Basilica. The first thing I always needed to do was just soak up the atmosphere. So I sat down at one of the outdoor tables, ordered a little lunch, and allowed the fact that I was in Bethlehem to sink in.
As I was watching the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, watching the beautiful Arab girls and handsome men go by, the thought came to me: at a certain point in time, God simply chose one of these girls and one of these men, and involved them in the greatest drama in the history of the world – the coming of his Son, the Messiah. Imagine having it gradually dawn on Mary and Joseph that they were the main characters of this event of all events.
By faith and love each of us can assume a greater and greater part in this ongoing drama, if we want to. Each of us is a unique thought of the Father, with a definite part to play in his divine story. I think the saints were people who wanted very much to play their parts, with all the acting talents given to them. And we don’t even need an audition! Being born is the audition. After a while it gradually dawned on the saints as well that they were deeply involved in the play.
I think we have a too prejudiced view of how God chooses his actors and actresses for his great love story. There are characters, of course, with leading roles, like Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist. But I think we could all have more than bit parts if we had the courage and imagination to get onto the stage. Nobody is really called to sit in the wings and watch.
Accommodations had been arranged for me at the Franciscan Sisters of Mary on top of the hill behind the Basilica. As I was walking up Milk Grotto Road I approached a small group of schoolgirls to ask directions to the convent. One of the girls, seeing my icon, ran up to me, kissed her fingers, and touched my icon. It was a spontaneous gesture, the loveliest of all the responses to my icon since I left Combermere. Appropriately enough it was done by a child in the city of children, Bethlehem. Only someone with a childlike heart could do what she did. It moved me deeply, and I felt at home.
I had a most pleasant room in the convent overlooking the city. It was complete with an icon of the Nativity. After getting settled and resting a bit I decided, of course, that my very first step would be the Cave where Christ was born.
I would say that, after the Holy Sepulchre, the Cave of Bethlehem was a high-point of my pilgrimage. My journey was in thanksgiving for the coming of the Redeemer, and here is where he first appeared, although in a hidden, quiet, almost shy way. (His Second Coming will be a bit different.)
The ancient world thought the cosmos was composed of four elements – air, water, fire, and earth. One of my meditations had to do with how Christ, by his coming, had sanctified each of these elements.
He was already in water in his mother’s womb. Bethlehem is where he took his first breath of air and thus sanctified all the air of the world. When did Mary first put him on the ground to crawl around? Fire. Hmm. He wouldn’t have touched any flames accidentally! I’ll have to think more about that one.
It was here, kneeling before the crib of the Child, watching the tours frantically come and go, that I first noted down in my diary that I would try and write a book contra tourismo. Maybe it was because of the quietness of the Cave; maybe it was the romance of Bethlehem; maybe it was the sanctity of the place where the Word first saw the face of his Mother – I don’t know – but here, more than anywhere else, the tourist attitude “got to me” in a negative way.
On entering the Cave the first thing so many people did – before prayer, before anything else – was to take pictures. Cameras are a bane for pilgrims. As is often the case when we encounter the holy, we look around for some distraction. Cameras provide one such distraction, one such escape, from the Holy One. We know the Holy is there – that’s why we’ve come; but it’s as though we must look at God sideways, unable to gaze upon him directly with “unveiled faces.” Really, it’s as if people pretend the Holy is not there at all.
After a couple of hours of prayer in the Cave I took a walk to find the Shepherd’s Field. On the way one of the shopkeepers saw my icon and said, “Nice! Want to sell it?” I said, “No, it’s not for sale. It’s my pilgrim icon.” “Greek?” he asked. “No, it’s Russian.” “Nice.”
I didn’t actually get to the Field that afternoon, but I saw a great deal of Beit Sahur, a little town near Bethlehem. Just by walking around you can drink in much of the atmosphere.
It seemed at one point that I was heading out into the desert. I was! A Jewish man stopped of his own accord and asked if I needed a ride. I said I didn’t know, as I wasn’t sure where I was going. Turns out I was going nowhere. It was getting towards dusk, so I headed back towards Bethlehem.
I got lost here as well. I spied a man on crutches and stopped to ask directions. He spoke fairly good English. When he found out I was a priest from Canada he invited me into his home to meet his family and have some coffee. I accepted.
Turns out that most of Beit Sahur is Christian. They knew all about Archbishop Raya! And were delighted to know I knew him. I had a very pleasant visit with Joseph and his family. Joseph’s brother-in-law stopped in. He was the principal at a local school and also spoke fairly good English.
Before I left I enquired about Joseph’s leg. Seems he had had an accident. I asked if he wanted me to pray over him for healing. He said he did, so I prayed over him. He had given me hospitality, so I wanted to give him something in return. His brother-in-law then drove me to within a short distance of Bethlehem.
A Maccabee beer at the local Inn. Supper at the convent. Correspondence. And so to bed. End of Day One in the city of David.
The Milk Grotto
The convent where I was staying was on Milk Grotto Road, so named because Mary stopped here to breast-feed the Child on the way to Egypt. This was my first stop the next day.
There were at least a dozen paintings in the church from a variety of traditions, depicting Mary giving suck to the Child. Coming from my – yes, rather puritanical - Christian culture of North America, I don’t think I had ever seen a picture of Mary breast-feeding the Child. I copied down some of the scripture quotes used on the walls and beneath the pictures. They led me into different aspects of the mystery of our Lady’s place in the Church’s understanding.
Mary is the Mother of the Church. However, I had never applied to her this text from Isaiah: “O, that you may suck fully at the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts” (66:11). Freudians (unfortunately) would have a field day with that one: Christians nursing themselves at the breasts of our Lady!
There is a profound spiritual sense in which the above statement is perfectly true. St. Peter says: “Be as eager for milk as new born babies – the pure milk of the Spirit to make you grow into salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (2:2-3). We are God’s children. One of our deepest nourishments is to be fed by our Lady, that is, by our personal relationship with her as Mother of Christ.
I prayed here for all those struggling with devotion to Mary, those who have been turned off for the wrong reasons. She herself says to each of us, again in the words of Isaiah: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk” (55:1). It must be a great sadness for the Mother of God that she cannot pour out her maternal care on all her children. Many children have become too sophisticated to drink milk from her breasts.
It occurred to me also here that Mary was a refugee, so she is our Lady of Refugees as well; and there are so many millions today.
As I was sitting, praying in the shrine, I saw some women come in, dip their fingers in the oil of the vigil lights, and touch their breasts. There was an inscription, so I went over and read it. It is believed that the oil from the lamps burning before the breast-feeding Madonna is a blessing against breast cancer. I prayed for Marian, a dear friend of mine, who had had both of her breasts removed a few years ago. I put some oil on my breasts too!
Another friend of mine, Mary, used to be very involved in the La Leche League, an organization to foster natural breast-feeding among mothers. I remembered the first time I saw natural breast-feeding. It was during a visit to a family here in Combermere. A mother was holding her child and, at a certain moment, she simply exposed one of her breasts and began feeding her child. I couldn’t help watching. It was very beautiful. In our culture, breasts are associated so much with sexuality in an impure sense. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost the perfectly natural sight of seeing moms feeding their infants at the breast. Mary, give us pure eyes towards our sisters.
The Monastery of Theodosius
This was to be a particularly exciting day for me because, for the first time, I would be touching some of the most ancient monastic settlements in the world. My next stop was to be the monastery of the great cenobiarch, Theodosius.
He was born in Cappadocia in 424 and entered the monastic life at an early age. Around 475, between Bethlehem and the monastery of St. Saba (which I also hoped to visit), he established a great monastery of over four hundred monks of different nationalities. He also founded a home for the aged and the poor, and a vocational school. He died in 529 at the age of one hundred and four. (It seems he didn’t take good care of himself!)
Besides my personal interest in monasticism, these monasteries were significant to me for another reason. According to Fedotov (The Russian Religious Mind) Russian monasticism, and hence much of Russian spirituality, was profoundly influenced by the Palestinian concept of the Christian life. Another Theodosius, a Russian, along with St.Anthony of Mt.Athos, was the founder of the famous Caves Monastery of Kiev. He was named after this Palestinian ascetic. And just like him, he combined monastic life with service to the poor. This was a marked departure from much of Egyptian and Greek monasticism, and has colored Russian monasticism ever since.
I mention this because Theodosius the Russian became the model of the Christian life for all of Russia. Catherine Doherty, our foundress, carries on this tradition in her formation of our Madonna House community. So, at the monastery of Theodosius in Palestine, I was touching one of the deep sources of Catherine’s spirituality.
I took a taxi to the Holy Trinity Monastery of Theodosius. The driver dropped me off ten feet in front of a large iron gate. I pulled the bell rope and waited. An Orthodox nun opened. I asked if I could come in and see the church. She opened the gate and led me into a little courtyard. As I hesitated, she motioned me further into the magnificent church.
I am not given to exaggeration, but there must have been at least a hundred icons in there. I was overwhelmed with a sense of really being in the presence of heavenly beings – of being in heaven, actually. This would be the first of many similar experiences.
I began reverencing the icons, especially the ancient ones of Theodosius. Then I prostrated on the floor and prayed. My mind and heart were flooded with all the tales of the monks I had ever read about. What a holy place I was in! How many hundreds of thousands of hours of prayer have ascended to the Lord Christ from this holy place! Oh, I just wanted to stay here for hours.
But it was not to be. The nun was nervous. She began making noises in the back of the church. Finally, after about twenty minutes, she came over to me and motioned that it was time to leave. Too bad. It would have been spiritually delicious just to sit in the church, or in the courtyard, and soak up the monastic presences of the centuries.
I kissed the holy images of Theodosius once more, gave the nun a donation, thanked her, and left. It was a brief visit, but very holy. “Your abundant tears made the wilderness sprout and bloom, and your sufferings made your labor fruitful a hundred fold; you became a shining torch over the world, O Holy Father Theodosius. Pray to Christ God that he may save our souls” (Troparion for the Feast of St. Theodosius).
Outside the monastery gates I took out my little map and went over to where several men were standing. I pointed to the monastery of the great Mar Saba, the Sanctified, as he is called in the liturgy. (“Mar” is the Syriac word for “Saint.”) They gave me some directions and I set out. I had planned to do a lot of walking that day, a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for all the desert fathers. It was not an extremely warm day, but it wasn’t cool either. I began my walk into the desert.
Several years ago I had drawn up a “Litany of Hermits” that I used to say. I wished I had brought it along with me. However, I knew enough desert fathers to pray some of this litany as I made my way to Mar Saba:
Jesus, King of Hermits on the Cross, have mercy on me.
It was my first walk through a real desert, and I was going to visit the great Mar Saba. My heart was filled with gratitude for all these desert fathers and mothers who, by their courage and love, bequeathed to us such magnificent treasures of the spiritual life. One of the reasons we should be so grateful to the saints is that they showed us what human nature, joined to the Spirit of Christ, and is capable of. Without them, our vision would be so small, so mediocre. We would tend to consider the Gospel “beautiful but way out of our reach.” The saints reveal to us the possibilities of holiness, and give us hope by putting flesh on the vision of love.
As I was walking along I thought too of the thousands of miles walked by the desert father during their lifetimes. It is recorded that Anthony of the desert (on whose feast I am now writing) could still walk twenty miles up to the day he fell asleep in the Lord. He went to God at the age of one hundred and five. I prayed for a share in the spirit of all these great men and women.
Finally, I arrived at the top of a hill and came in full view of the monastery of Mar Saba. It was a thrilling sight. I sat down for a few moments and just took it all in: the first ancient monastery of the desert fathers I had ever seen. There was a sign at the entrance of the road: “Monastery of Mar Saba. Entrance to women forbidden. Please respect the sanctity of this holy place.” I thought it unfortunate that the two concepts – “women forbidden” and “respect the holy of the place” – were so juxtaposed! Maybe it could have read: “Only men allowed. May the holy women pray for us.”
As I was to learn shortly, this road spreading before me towards the monastery was only a few months old. The government for tourist purposes had built it. The monks didn’t want it because it brought more visitors into their life. Like me. It seems tourism is one of the new gods, and everything is sacrificed to it, even holy places such as this. I arose and began my descent along the new road.
On the road to the monastery a monk came walking towards me. My first Palestinian monk! I wonder if he speaks English? Oh, no! Turns out he is an American from California! He wasn’t a professed monk, and had only been here two years. He wasn’t sure if he would stay. It was a very difficult life. He had been born and raised in the Catholic Church, but it was only here, in the East, that he discovered the sense of mystery for which his soul was hoping.
I only thought of it afterwards, but I should have asked him if he ever visited the Camaldoles in Big Sur. He would have got a good taste of mystery there. (So many of modern Catholics don’t know the contemplative possibilities in their own tradition. I bet he never heard of the Camaldolese.) Much of modern Catholic practice has lost this sense of mystery and of the transcendent sacred. This young man was a product of that loss, and he had come halfway around the world to quench his thirst for mystery.
Whenever I meet someone who has left the Catholic Church, I consider that I am still his or her spiritual father. Indeed, the mind of the Church is that the priest is the father of all the people in his area, whether actually Catholic or not. I experienced this sense of fatherhood even as I was speaking with him.
He told me I was arriving on a very special day, the feast of the return of Mar Saba’s body from Italy. The Crusaders had carried it away in the twelfth century; Pope Paul VI had it returned in 1965. Saba’s body is incorrupt. (The Crusaders are blamed for a lot. I don’t know about these relics, but sometimes people from the East themselves actually brought some of the relics to the West for safekeeping.)
He also told me what recent archaeological findings were revealing. During Saba’s lifetime there were cells here for 15,000 monks. Archaeologists say that the monks kept building out from the caves so that the total effect would have resembled a six-story apartment building. Before we parted he said, “be sure to ask if you can see the tomb of St. John Damascene. They don’t show it to everybody.”
I arrived at the monastery door, rang the bell, and a monk opened the door. He seemed relieved to see that I was alone, and looked around to see if a tour was behind me. His attitude raised hopes that I was in for a special treat. I was not disappointed.
As did the nun at St.Theodosius, this monk likewise escorted me into the catholicon, the monastic church proper, the most sacred place. And I had the same experience as before: you are suddenly engulfed with waves of holiness and spiritual presence. There are icons everywhere. And in this particular monastery the worship of Christ had continued uninterrupted for 1,500 years. He then led me to venerate the incorrupt body of St. Saba the Sanctified.
I can’t put into words the profound spiritual experiences this venerating of the body of Saba was for me. I have a great love for the desert fathers and mothers, and for their unparalleled contribution to Christian life.
Saba was a disciple of Euthymius the Great (377-473) who lived in a cave between Jerusalem and Jericho. I believe he had met St.Anthony the Great. (When I was in Thessalonica, on my way to Athos, I bought an icon print of St. Anthony and St. Euthymius, side by side.) Euthymius touched Anthony; Saba touched Euthymius; now I am touching the body of Saba. The kissing of his relics suddenly deepened my relationship with all the desert fathers. In some new way they became living persons for me.
Saba was born in Cappadocia in 439, and he entered monastic life while still a youth. Because of his maturity of mind, Euthymius called him the “Young Old Man.” When Euthymius died in 473, Saba spent five years in complete seclusion in the wilderness, and then established himself in a cave on the left bank of the river Cedron.
As part of my tour, my gracious monk-host led me outside to a porch overlooking this same Cedron stream. He pointed to a cave where Saba lived. One day our Lady appeared to him and told him to build a church in this natural cave here, on this side of the Cedron.
The original church I had just been in was, in fact, a large cave. Celestus, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, had it transformed into a church which he consecrated. On the same occasion he ordained Saba to the priesthood and established him as Grand-Archimandrite over all the hermits in Palestine. (The title “Archimandrite” was usually given to the head of a monastery. It means, “shepherd of the sheep.”) Saba died on December 5, 532, at the age of ninety-three. I guess he didn’t take good care of himself.
I was then taken to a little chapel where the skulls of hundreds of monks were kept. The Persians had martyred many of these in the 6th century. I prayed for the grace of courage in the face of opposition to the Gospel. It makes one realize that down through the centuries hundreds of thousands of people have been killed for their faith; it is still happening. How small my crosses seemed as I looked at that stark pile of skulls.
Next, I was taken (without having requested it, so I knew Our Lady was opening doors for me) to venerate the tomb of St. John Damascene (d. 749). He is one of the great Fathers of the Church. In patristic literature he is often called the “Last of the Father” because his writings summarize the tradition that went before him. He spent many years as a monk of this monastery, and died here at an advanced age. Living during the occupation of Islam, he was equally revered by them as a holy and learned man. In the West, Pope Leo XIII declared him a doctor of the universal Church.
My experience of venerating his tomb was similar to that of reverencing Saba’s relics. I had never in my life been this close to one of the Fathers of the Church. As I kissed his tomb, Basil and the two Gregories, and Clement and Athanasius, all the Fathers of the Church came flooding into my heart. They all took on flesh and blood. I had only a few moments at St. John’s tomb, but it was enough: I had touched him. I am forever linked with him and the Fathers in a new way.
I was served a delightful lunch of wine, bread, olives, fish, and fruit. I ate alone on that little balcony overlooking the many caves in the hills. I was allowed to stay for None and Vespers. It was to be the first of many prayer experiences with Orthodox monks. Presently there was only a dozen or so in this monastery, but I thought to myself, “if they’ve come through 1,500 years, it’s difficult to imagine what could possibly put an end to such perseverance.” They’ll probably be there when the Lord comes again. I prayed for their fervent continuation.
I will always be grateful to this monk. He was a true son of the hospitable Theodosius and Saba. The night before he had been up nine hours chanting the whole liturgy of the feast of Saba. He looked very tired, and yet he spared no time and effort to make my visit a fruitful one.
As I was about to leave I asked his blessing. He said he wasn’t a priest and therefore couldn’t give a blessing. We shock hands and I slipped out one of the old wooden doors and returned to the desert.
There are still bandits in the area; we call them children. In the earlier part of the day all the bandits are kept in one place; we call it a school. But at this time of day, late afternoon, the territory is dangerous.
Some of the bandits are lovely. As I walked away from Mar Saba I saw two little shepherd girls run a very great distance to waylay me. It was a pleasure to be robbed by them, and I was generous. But one cannot always be generous, especially when a whole band attacks you.
As I continued on I watched a whole game of kick-ball mysteriously move from a field into the street where I had to pass. Sure enough, the game stopped at some secret signal and I was surrounded. In such a situation, if you give to one, you must give to all. It unfortunately got a little unpleasant, but I managed to escape.
They were trying to find out what language I spoke, so I muttered some tongue that was incomprehensible, even to myself. Walking can have some of these inconveniences, but the advantages, as far as I’m concerned, were worth it. I arrived at the bus station and rode the rest of the way back to Bethlehem.
Return to the Cave and Shepherd’s Field
I learned from one of the Sisters that liturgies took place at the Cave in the early morning. So I rose and went to the shrine about 6 A.M. Sure enough, an Orthodox priest was preparing the gifts. Because of the presence of the Eastern rite at Madonna House, I was familiar with this very symbolic preparation of the bread for the Eucharist.
When the first cut is made in the bread the priest says, “as a sheep he was led to the slaughter.” At the second cut, “as a spotless lamb silent before its sheerer, he opens not his mouth.” And cutting into the symbol of the lamb, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.”
As the priest was performing this rite I thought I would go up and ask him if I could receive Communion. I told him I was a Roman Catholic priest. He thought for a moment and then said, rather gruffly, “No!” I wasn’t too surprised – a bit disappointed, but it was okay. It was a bit of a long shot.
I went to the back of the Cave since I was intending to stay for the liturgy. I began praying for the priest’s peace, and that our little exchange wouldn’t dampen his spirit before the liturgy. (I also prayed for better East/West relations!)
All of a sudden the priest’s assistant came over and motioned me to go and see the priest again. The priest said, “Where are you from?” I said, “Canada.” He said, “You may go to Communion.” I did stay, and was given Communion. This experience was the first of many where the pain of Christian unity entered my heart in a new way. It was that very morning when I first began thinking of doing more penance for the unity of Christians, especially between the Catholic and Orthodox.
I took a walk around the town of Bethlehem that morning. I was given a private tour of an ancient Syrian Orthodox Church by an affable old deacon who was on visitor duty. I reverenced an Aramaic Old Testament that was 5,000 years old and a New Testament 400 years old. He handed me a prayer card on which the Father was written in Aramaic. I asked him to recite it for me, and he did. It was the first time I heard the Lord’s Prayer in sounds similar to how Jesus first spoke it. He also had in his hand what seemed to be prayer beads. I said, “O, your prayer beads?” “No,” he said, “I’m an old man. These are not for praying but for playing.”
I went by bus to see the church of Mar Elias. A young Greek monk let me in. Again, behind the drab exterior of the building was a magnificent church filled with beautiful icons. There was an ancient icon of Eliseus, beseeching Elias for a double portion – what courage! - of his spirit. This also became a theme for me – asking for a portion of the spirit of these great saints I was visiting. Here I asked for a share in the spirit of Elias – not a double portion! – but a smaller share, according to my limited capacity.
Then I went back to the Basilica to visit the cave where St. Jerome wrote his commentaries and produced the Latin Bible.
I just sat there. Initially the spiritual significance of these places interiorly immobilized me. This is where the most holy Book was produced which laid the spiritual foundation of Western civilization. It was contact with the great biblical tradition of the Church. Just to be in the little cell where Jerome worked was to touch the birthplace of a Christian masterpiece.
I breathed a prayer of gratitude for the thousands and thousands of people – mostly monks – who down through the centuries spent many a cold day in the scriptoria, copying manuscripts and sacred texts. With printing so commonplace today we forget that for most of the Christian tradition the bible had to be copied by hand, consuming untold hours of love for the Word of God. I often imagine our brothers and sisters copying, by the dim light of candles, this holiest of books, which we now pop into a bookstore and buy in five minutes.
While sitting in Jerome’s cave my thoughts also turned to his feminine companions, Marcella and Paula. They and their followers were very close to Jerome. The women had monasteries in the area, but they also must have spent quite a bit of time with Jerome, tending to his needs, profiting from his direction and learning, helping to “domesticate” his somewhat famous irascible temper. (Did they also help with copying?)
Their relationship was one of the earliest and closest associations of men and women united in the spiritual quest. I prayed to Jerome, Paula and Marcella to intercede for us here at Madonna House. Our community of men and women has also been called to strive together for holiness. We are the distant relatives of this early community.
Next, I walked to the Shepherd’s Field. The Canadian people built the church there, so I sent Prime Minister Trudeau a postcard, telling him how much I appreciated the chapel, and that I prayed here for the Canadian people. (The country needs prayers more now than ever.)
As I walked around the open field I was moved to pray for a deepening of the sense of wonder. The expanse of sky out here was immense. The angels are always praising God in decibels too loud for us to hear. But, here, in these fields, at least for one night in the history of the world, the sound barrier was removed. Some poor shepherds were admitted to the heavenly symphony that is always being performed. And the angels, who really understood what they were announcing – God himself coming to our little planet – how they must have sang that night with all their angelic lungs. The shepherds heard and believed. May we also be able to hear the angelic choirs, at least with the ears of our faith.
Tour guides say some peculiar things. I copied this one down, word for word, as I was sitting in the cave where tradition says the shepherds were lodged that holy night. The guide said: “Catholics give a great deal of importance to places. We Protestants are closer to the Jews who worship the idea. The Greek Orthodox go to the other extreme and worship places.” I’m sure he wasn’t aware that a Roman Catholic priest was listening to his profound explanation.
An impish urge to respond took hold of me, but I resisted. I did feel like standing up and saying something like this: “Well, if places are not really that important to you, why have you come half-way around the world to be here in this little cave? Why didn’t you just stay at home and worship the idea of the cave?” But such a rebuttal would have destroyed the prayerful atmosphere, both for the group and me.
And is the Wailing Wall an idea?
Actual places are important to Christians because we believe God really became a Man and lived in our physical world. Pope John Paul II speaks about “Sacred Space,” places that are holy because God acted there. This sacredness is intensified in the places where the God-Man actually lived.
Our religion is not an idea. The Christian faith is all about God entering our history, actually inserting himself in our flesh, living in our towns, sitting on our hillsides. Places are important because our incarnate God really was there. The Protestant tour guide really reflected Protestantism’s rather discarnate approach to Christ.
Shortly afterwards a Black Pentecostal group came in. It was a totally different scene. They were singing and praising God with all their might. Several came over to where I was sitting and wished me the peace of Christ. At these shrines you witness devotional practices of different Christian denominations. It is a visual and audial education in the diversity of Christian cultures and attitudes.
You will remember that I had given away my little New Testament. Well, as I was walking back to Bethlehem I saw a sign that read, “Bethlehem Bible College.” I went in and asked if they had any pocket New Testaments for sale. A man graciously went into a room and came out with just what I wanted. He wouldn’t take any money for it. “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you,” say the Scriptures.
Before I left the building a young man briefly engaged me in conversation. He was interested to learn that I was a Catholic priest. He himself was born in the Greek Orthodox Church, “but now I have been saved from all those practices,” he said. I prayed that some day, as his Christian soul continued to mature, and after some of his perhaps more experiential religious needs had been satisfied, he might once again return to “those practices.”
I arrived back in Bethlehem about 4:30 in the afternoon and decided to spend more time in the holy Cave. I could never get enough. I went in and sat in prayer for about a half-hour or so. Only a Franciscan priest and myself were present. I decided to approach the sacred spot on the floor marked with the fourteen-point gold star, one point for each of the generations of Christ’s ancestry. (One of the guides said it was for the fourteen Stations of the Cross!) I prostrated full length on the floor with my head on the altar. After a few minutes I was all alone in the Cave, prostrate on the spot where God came forth from Mary.
I think that, after the Holy Sepulchre, that period of fifteen minutes was the high-point of my pilgrimage. In the tomb he returned to life; here he first came forth into our world. There were no thoughts. I was just flooded with wonder and praise and thanksgiving for the Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
No, I was not worshipping this spot, this place, this cave. But our God, by touching this spot, by taking on my flesh, by having a Mother, brought his reality into our human tent in a way no mere idea or doctrine could ever accomplish. This is why when anyone professes belief in this God who became a man, a whole new dimension of reality is opened up inside that person. The God whom we cannot see becomes a reality. We call this the presence of the Holy Spirit, who effects in us a living relationship with the unseen Father. “If anyone loves me, my Father will love him and we will come and make our home in him.”
It was time to lock up. I was asked by the caretaker to leave. Fair enough. Thank you, Lord, for reserving the Cave for me for these precious moments. O Bethlehem! Land of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, City of David! Home of Saba and Theodosius, of Paula and Jerome, of John of Damascus, how blessed you are! Truly you are by no means least among the towns of Juda. I love you, Bethlehem, House of Bread that housed the Bread of Life! I kiss your ground and your soil and your fields.
My last day in Bethlehem arrived. There was to be a solemn High Mass at the Manger. (The Greek Orthodox take care of the site of the Birth of Christ, and the Latins take care of the Manger that is just a few feet away.)
The Mass was beautifully done. One of the graces received during the celebration was a profound gratitude for being a Roman Catholic. Maybe this grace flowed from the sense of belonging and of being welcomed at that liturgy. Whatever the cause, I experienced a marked freshness and vitality about the liturgy that morning. The prayers of the Mass were all in Latin. It communicated sense of reaching back to the early centuries of the Latin West.
On the other hand, the universality of the Catholic faith was also there: the young Italian Sisters who were present sang light and melodious hymns in their own language. I will always hear those lovely songs in the Cave that sang to me of our ancient faith that is ever new. It will never die. Truly, the liturgy is a combination of the old and the new, blended in a marvellous way. I was happy and proud and thankful for being a member of this Church that continually brings out of her treasury “things old and new.”
I knew this would be my last visit to the Cave, perhaps for the rest of my life. There was no sadness, no regret. I was always aware that, in some real way, I didn’t need places. The deepest truth is that, wherever I am, I can enter ever more deeply into the beauty of Bethlehem. The mystery of the Presence is everywhere now because “Christ is in you, your hope of glory.” The saints who had never been to these holy places were present to Christ in their hearts. (Gregory of Nyssa is certainly correct on this point!) In this way they imbibed the riches of each of the aspects of the total mystery of Christ. And I could too; with God’s help, I will.
I remained praying for almost an hour and a half, and then the friendly caretaker came through again on his faithful rounds: “Ten more minutes! Ten more minutes!” Altogether during these few days I had spent five or six hours in the Cave. What a gift!
Finally, I rose from my knees and went to kiss the Star for the last time. As I walked out of the Church I didn’t have the feeling that I was walking away from the Star. The Star is everywhere now. On Christmas Day (in the words of W.H. Auden) “everything is a You, and nothing is an it”: The whole universe becomes personalized because heaven has wedded earth: God has become one of us.
It was a great grace to have kissed the place of Christ’s birth; it will be even more of a grace to kiss him in every person I meet and in every aspect of creation.
. . . o o o . . .