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Posts Tagged ‘Egeria’

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Holy Week — A Time to Pray Together

I first met Egeria when I was in seminary.  I didn’t meet her face to face, of course, since she lived in the later 4th century.  So what I learned of her came via the pages of her diary, and among other things those pages provide the earliest detailed account of the Holy Week liturgy in Jerusalem.

I have to give Egeria a lot of credit for her gumption.  It wasn’t easy for her to set out from Spain at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of a travel industry to serve tourists.  She and her retinue may have been wealthy, but they still had to improvise along the way.  So while we modern pilgrims may complain about unfamiliar food, cramped buses and the jammed streets in the old city of Jerusalem, we have it easy compared to her.  She and her friends had to deal with life on a more basic level.  Still, despite the hazards of the route, Egeria’s narrative inspired droves of people to follow in her steps.

37E8FAD9-EAAE-4840-8670-EB1372D6ECE9I also give her credit for her liturgical stamina.  Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem went on and on and on.  But they did so because there was so much to do.  They were filled with chants and readings and prayers and processions;  and taken together they must have left pilgrims exhausted.  But therein lies the attraction.  Holy Week in Jerusalem was an awesome experience, and it changed lives.  And part of what transformed people was the common experience that welded individual pilgrims into the people of God.

I always recall Egeria during Holy Week.  It’s not because the abbey church will be jammed tightly with pilgrims, as Jerusalem can be.  Nor will our liturgies go on endlessly, though they will be leisurely and lengthy.  Rather, the experience of worship together will somehow shape us into the people of God.

Many years ago I attended the Easter Vigil at a small Catholic church in Wales.  Designed to hold about a hundred, that night nearly 200 of us managed to squeeze ourselves in.  In true Welsh tradition the choir of eight voices sounded like fifty, and together we accomplished something we never could have done had we prayed alone.  We prayed together, and as we huddled together in that tight space we became the people of God.

The important thing about Holy Week is the participation, alongside others.  Holy Week is not something people should do all by themselves.  And if some parishes or even monasteries fall short when it comes to the music or the size of the crowd, that’s of secondary importance.  It’s our praying together that forges us into a community.  It’s the readings and hymns and the presence of fellow pilgrims at our elbows that shape us into the people of God.

During this one week of the liturgical calendar it’s important that we pray together.  Nothing compares, and praying alone just can’t hold a candle to it.  So this Holy Week I encourage you to join some local congregation in praying the liturgy of Holy Week.  Better still, do what Egeria did: take some friends along for the experience.

39C94A5D-B8ED-4EF1-984B-B4874C501363NOTES

+This was not a good week for travel, and it all turned out to be a mixed bag for me.  My only commitment this week was to deliver a talk sponsored by the Program in Catholic Studies at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, MN.  It was to be an overnight trip, but it morphed into three because of a major storm.  For starters I went a day early, just to make sure I would get there.  On the day of the talk everything in Duluth was closed or cancelled, including my talk.  Snow, 55 mile per hour winds and fifteen-foot waves on Lake Superior were good enough reasons to close things, and I couldn’t argue with that.  But the snow continued for yet another day.  So one day became three days, and rather than a public lecture I delivered the talk to my hosts, the Benedictine sisters of Saint Scholastica Monastery.  They also pressed me into saying Mass for them, since their regular chaplain could not make it.  So I made good use of the time.

C74B4248-160C-4D35-ADDF-4F5C057FF635However, there was a one sad note.  On the drive to Duluth, on a two-lane road, a car about a quarter-mile ahead of me crashed into two oncoming cars.  One of them burst into flames and the driver died.  For a half an hour there was no place to go other than to sit still and watch the dense black smoke.  Finally the highway patrol diverted us onto ten miles of dirt and gravel roads, which finally led back to the Interstate.

+On Saturday April 13th a goodly number of oblates and friends of the abbey joined us for evening prayer.  That same day seventy Latinos from neighboring parishes came to Saint John’s for a day of retreat, led by Fr. Ephraim and Brother Mariano.  Then on Sunday the 14th I presided at vespers in the abbey church.

+Work on the expansion of the organ in the abbey church continues, and a recent update hints that installation might begin as early as this summer.  In the meantime last week I had the chance to see the practice organ in the music building on campus.  Built in 1988 by Casey Marin, who is involved in the current organ project, that organ serves students and faculty in the University.  On the occasion of this visit I went with Brother Jacob, who is shown at the keyboard.  Music, of course, figures prominently in the Holy Week liturgies.  Most notable is its absence following the Holy Thursday liturgy.

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A Letter from Jerusalem

Ages ago I read the account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by the 4th-century Iberian nun named Egeria.  Over the course of several years she journeyed from Egypt to Constantinople in search of the holy sites, and among other things she left us one of the best and earliest accounts of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem.  She also salted her pages with a generous portion of credulity, and it’s fair to say that openmindedness was one of her chief virtues.

When she asked to see the burning bush of Moses at Mount Sinai, for example, the monks produced it on demand.  She got the same friendly service all along the route;  and if we can fault her gullibility, we have to give her credit for initiative.  She travelled;  she wrote about it; and her stories stimulated a pilgrimage traffic that shows no sign of letting up.

6A52E943-878D-4725-A3D8-8C16915C7B3AAt the moment I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s been inspiring to see both the familiar as well as the less familiar sites.  As for the latter, most pilgrims would not take the trouble to find the church of Saint John, alongside which Frá Gerard ran a hospice for pilgrims in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  He and his successors eventually became the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;  and so it was a thrill to pose for photos at the door of this really really hard-to-find Orthodox Church.  It was closed, but that did not stop us from reciting the prayer of the Order while we stood outside.

As anyone who has visited Jerusalem can attest, this is a very crowded city that challenges the faint of heart.  Chief among the obstacles to contend with are the crowds, which makes negotiating the narrow streets both fascinating and an ordeal.  It’s also easy to get lost, which is why we were happy that forty-two of us went in and all forty-two of us emerged at the end — a little rattled.

AA1F757D-EB00-4DF8-8759-EA79CB684E22What makes it such an ordeal is not just the issue of too many people in too little space.  Added to that is the fact that there is the organized competition among groups, all trying to force their way through to the front of lines.  Naively we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and there our group had its first lesson in this sort of thing.  Once inside our guide quickly formed us into something of a military phalanx.  With precision he shaped us into a potent force as we maintained our place in a line leading to the cave where Jesus was born.  It took two hours to get there, and as we inched forward we kept in a disciplined formation that expanded and contracted at our guide’s command.  Our guide also advised us not to be shy about using elbows — “because that’s why God gave them to us.”  It was a triumph by the time we reached the grotto, but even there we were still fending off competitors.  All the same, after it was all over a few people came to me to ask if we had to do penance for behavior we would never tolerate in church at home.

The same sort of perseverance was a real asset at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a dose of courage also came in handy.  It’s amazing that no one gets seriously hurt on the very steep steps leading to the site of the crucifixion.  All the same, some of us gasped as we watched a young woman slide down a few steps.  Thankfully she was unhurt.

C4CAC1E1-AE0C-415C-9448-662B78DF0C3CThe crush of pilgrims intensified as we entered the line to the shrine that encases the tomb of Jesus.  Advised that it would be another two hours of creeping along, prudence won the day.  That’s when we voted, unanimously, to retreat and try our luck another day.

In sum, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is strenuous business.  The crowds are formidable.  There’s lots to see.  And the Bible comes alive before your eyes.  At the same time, there are still the stories that beguile modern pilgrims, just as they did Egeria.  Not a few tested my credulity and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief.  Once again I was impressed by the ready market for such material.  But then again I should not have been surprised, given what people will accept uncritically off of the internet.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem both challenges and strengthens one’s faith.  Pressed together in a sea of humanity it dawned on me that people will never cease in their search for meaning in their lives.  Walking in the steps of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem is a reminder that faith can never be merely an intellectual enterprise.  Walking through life with fellow pilgrims requires patience, fortitude, courage, and along the way we may even have to resort to the use of our elbows.  But on such a pilgrimage we discover that if we fall, the Lord quickly sends a brother or sister to help us regain our footing.

1D961EB8-FAC6-4B98-B932-6C03ADAA5E7DNOTES

+It’s not possible to cite everything that has impressed me in the course of this pilgrimage, but a few sites are worthy of comment.  In particular, I had never visited the ancient city of Jerash, which is in Jordan.  Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, its array of architecture is nothing short of dazzling.  Unlike Rome, the modern city has not engulfed the ruins, and the result is a fairly complete cityscape.

+On March 2nd we had the opportunity to visit the Order of Malta maternity hospital in Bethlehem.  Each year the hospital welcomes 4,500 babies into the world, and the staff maintains the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region.  They provide a vital service to mothers who have few if any alternatives.  The French Association and the three US Associations of the Order of Malta share in providing the funds for the hospital.

+Our pilgrimage ends tomorrow, after which I have to get back to my day job.  All the same, it’s been an amazing experience, and if you’ve ever considered a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this is a good time to go.  It’s peaceful, and crossing the border from Jordan was smooth, as was the trip into the Palestinian Territories.  On the other hand, the relative quiet has encouraged the crowds to come.  All the same, it’s worth the effort.

+One of the unexpected benefits of standing in place for two hours in the church of the Nativity was the opportunity to take photos that might not otherwise be possible.  The photos in today’s post were the result of having nothing to do for two hours — except taking pictures and being vigilant that no one got ahead of us in line.

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