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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Saint John of Jerusalem’

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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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Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

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imageThe Great Siege of Malta, 1565

My first trip to the island of Malta was a real eye-opener.  I’d been director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University for only a few months, and I had to get up to speed on the various projects on HMML’s plate.  So I flew to Valletta to visit the National Library, where HMML had assisted in photographing the archives of the Order of Malta.  Since I’d been to other islands already, I assumed that this one would be like all the rest, save for the library.  I was completely wrong about that.

Physically, Malta is not very big, and from its medieval capital of Medina you can see the whole thing spread out around  you.  And it’s crowded — really crowded.  There’s also a lot of stone there.  From stately buildings to the simplest homes, the tan-colored stone gives it the feel of the Middle East.  And the landscape is so strewn with stones that you quickly understand why the Maltese have to import most of their food.  In fact they import nearly everything, except for capers.  Those bushes grow everywhere, like weeds, and they’d take over if people didn’t chop them back.  The latter seems a shame, because I love capers.

For what Malta lacks in vegetation it more than compensates with its history.  In fact it wears the past on its sleeve, and everywhere you turn it tells a larger-than-life story.  Its neolithic temples are among the most ancient structures on the planet, and traces of a succession of foreign rulers show up all over the place.  The fact that outsiders like Romans, Arabs, French and English occupied the place continuously for 2,000 years means that Maltese self-government is a very recent experiment.

imageUndeniably it is the Order of Saint John that has left the greatest mark on the island.  Now known as the Order of Malta, it began in Jerusalem as a hospice serving sick and poor pilgrims, run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey.  From Pope Pascal II in 1113 Blessed Frá Gerard received a charter that brought formal recognition as a religous order, and in Jerusalem it served Christians, Muslims and Jews.  Later, after the Order’s expulsion from the Holy Land, the knights ended up on the island of Rhodes.  There they stayed until 1523, and in 1530 they settled on Malta, where they remained until Napoleon dislodged them in 1798.

As an influential and accomplished group in the Middle Ages, the Knights of Saint John earned both admirers and enemies, as did their peers in the Order of the Temple.  But they fared better than did the Templars and were never suppressed, though they came perilously close to extinction in the early 19th century.

imageAlong the way there were days when members must have wondered why they’d ever signed up for such a life. One such occasion was the siege of Rhodes in 1480, when the Ottoman Turks came close to dislodging them.  The Turks finally did succeed in 1523, but as a gesture of respect the sultan gave the knights honorable passage off the island and into exile.

The sultan’s successors came to regret that decision, and in 1565 the Turks sailed to Malta to rid the Mediterranean of the knights once and for all.  What followed was one of the nastiest sieges ever, and I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood has never made a movie about it.  It would be a blockbuster, with violence and bravery scarcely imaginable.  But the knights held out against huge odds, until on September 8 the Turks lifted the siege and sailed away.

The knights learned several things during that siege, and among them was the disadvantage of defending lower ground in an artillery duel.  The Turks had commanded the high ground, and after the siege the knights hastily moved their capital to those heights.  And they named the city after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, who had led them through the crisis.  Today Valletta’s stately government buildings are the visible record of the knights’ 268 years of residence in Malta.

imageOn September 8th the Order of Malta celebrates the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the siege.  Both Maltese citizens and members of the Order will gather in Valletta to mark the occasion and to celebrate what has happened since.  After all those centuries the Maltese at last rule themselves, and the knights and dames of Malta have rededicated themselves to their original charism of service to the sick and the poor.  The festivities in Malta will remind them of that latter commitment when they tour the vast 16th-century hospital in Valletta.

Meanwhile, at HMML the work of the Malta Study Center continues, as does its efforts in various archives in Malta and more recently at the Grand Magistry in Rome.  This week HMML marks the event with the opening of an exhibit of books and documents on the history of the Order of Malta, as well as a lecture on the siege by Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg of the University of Malta.

imageSince my first visit to Malta I’ve had the chance to lead several tours to the island, and to a person the place leaves each and every visitor in awe.  Each invariably has the same reaction as I did when I first looked down from the bastions of Villetta to an aircraft  carrier docked directly below.  And for knights and dames who visit Malta, there’s a sense of respect for what their predecessors in the Order sacrificed.  Thankfully we no longer serve on the battlefield or on the seas, because at our age and physical condition we wouldn’t last ten minutes.  But we can be grateful for what others did to keep the ideal of service alive.  Those who sacrificed their lives in 1565 ensured that later generations in the Order would continue their care of the sick and the poor.  Thankfully the siege did not mean the end of the history of the Order;  rather, it was the opening of several new chapters.

To all this I must append a footnote.  Some people find history boring and tedious, but at the end of my first trip to Malta I learned how important it is to remember the lessons of history.  As we drove our rental car onto the highway to return to the airport, the three of us were chatting away as we breezed down the road.  Suddenly one of our number pointed out one great legacy of the English occupation.  Had it been Minneapolis, driving on the right side of the road would have been just fine.  But this was Malta, and just as in England they drive on the left side of the road.  There we were, tooling merrily down the wrong side of a divided highway.  We all shreiked and sweat bullets, and I thought of Saint Benedict’s advice to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  That morning history was no longer an academic exercise.

imageNotes

+On August 28th the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks for vespers.  And as is the custom of many years, they broke into small groups afterwards in order to “meet a monk” and learn about our life in the monastery.

+On September 1st I presided at the burial service of Mary Foley, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Bob Foley.  The burial took place in the abbey cemetery.

+On September 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon through this link to The Lord’s Demands on Us.

+On September 5th I attended the opening game of the Saint John’s University football season.  We hosted the University of Dubuque, and happily our team won the game rather handily, 45-9.

image+Dr. Daniel Gullo, the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, kindly supplied five images from HMML’s current exhibit of books and documents illustrating the history of the Order of Malta.  The first is a book of Statutes of the Order, printed in 1556.  The second is a map of 1597, showing the harbor of Valletta, with the new city scarcely developed on the left of the map.  In the map of 1762 you see the fully-developed city, built on a modern grid pattern.  The fourth page opens the 1480 edition of Pierre D’Aubusson’s narrative of the siege of Rhodes; while the fifth image is taken from the Statutes, printed in 1588.  All are in the collection of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  In a separate gallery I have presented some of my favorite photos, illustrating the architecture of the Island of Malta.

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