Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 3, 2003
God brings out the best in us
Holy Land retreat allows sacred time to listen to the Holy Spirit's song
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
Some years ago, I was given a sabbatical and decided to spend five months in the Holy Land. I took formal courses for some three months, a program run by the Chicago Theological Union. It was moving to study the Scriptures in the places where Jesus had been and where with his disciples he began igniting a new fire for the world.
After the formal teaching was done and everybody went home, I stayed in a hostel in Jerusalem and continued private studies, taking time to visit and pray in the various holy sites that continue to immortalize the major events of Jesus' life.
Every morning at 6:30, I attended Mass celebrated in French at St. Anne's Basilica which is run by the White Fathers of Africa. The property consists of a few acres of land in the heart of Old Jerusalem, some 300 metres from the Temple Mount where the Jewish Temple stood before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
The invitationOne morning after Mass, one of the priests invited me to join them for "coffee" which really meant breakfast. I thanked him and declined his gracious invitation. He insisted: "Ubi Missa, ibi mensa."
The Latinists among you will understand that the good Father insisted that in their tradition "Where there is Mass, there also is the table."
I could not refuse and gladly joined the community for breakfast.
Meanwhile, the hostel I was living in was becoming very cold with no heat and no hot water provided and winter had arrived.
I had caught a cold, so after Mass, I approached the superior who by then had become a good friend and told him that I needed a place to stay which was heated as their house was.
I joked that if he refused me I would probably die of cold and my death would be on his conscience. He laughed and agreed quite readily to provide me with a room and three meals a day for a very reasonable price.
God is good, I thought. There I was in a strange country and I find a group of brothers, dedicated priests whose work takes them mainly to Africa, except for this island of French territory in the heart of Jerusalem.
This was truly holy land as the Crusaders built St. Anne's Basilica in the 11th century over the house where, according to tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born. Hence the name St. Anne's Basilica.
Some 50 metres away are the ruins of the Pool of Bethzatha where Jesus healed a crippled man who had been ill for 38 years (see John 5).
To live in that place was truly a special gift from a God who loves to dote on his children. It so happened that a week later the rector of the basilica suffered a major heart attack. This incident brought about a major problem: who would look after the basilica and the groups of pilgrims who needed ministry?
I watched them trying to resolve a difficult problem as all were fully occupied with other responsibilities such as teaching, and other things.
The offerFinally I interjected: "What about me? Can I help?" In seconds, I became the rector of St. Anne's Basilica in Jerusalem.
My duties were modest. It was winter, therefore low pilgrim season. I oversaw five Palestinians who did various maintenance duties in and around the basilica. When groups of pilgrims came with their chaplain, I would provide what they needed to celebrate the Eucharist and presided myself when requested. I was available also for the sacrament of Reconciliation.
I had already fallen in love with St. Anne's Basilica the first time I went there as a pilgrim. Besides its historical, religious and architectural significance, it is also graced with an extraordinary feature: it's very echo! With the four walls made of huge polished stones, any sound would take a life of its own and reverberate around the building for a full 10 seconds. So much so that a humble guitar sounded like a huge orchestra as all the notes echoed over and over again transformed into an extraordinary symphony.
The angels singThe odd time I was alone in the church, I would sing and it felt as if a choir of angels accompanied me. It was a terrible place to preach, but it did wonders to music and singing.
Once, three young women came to pray and since they were alone except for myself in the back, they started to sing Amazing Grace. After a few lines, they were so overwhelmed by the beauty they created, they broke down into tears.
These many incidents brought me to reflect as to how, when we come in contact with God, God brings out the best in us, echoing and amplifying many time over the goodness of our hearts, blessing us with beauty and harmony, revealing to us how the Lord views us as incredibly good and beautiful.
Like melodious strings, our lives reflect the radiance of God, touching people with the balm of love, blessing them with freedom through forgiveness and the gift of peace, strengthening them with inner healing, joining with them in the sweet harmony of love and unity.
Wonderfully mellowed by the Spirit who is strumming the incredibly melodious cosmic ensemble that we form, we are producing great harmony joining the heavenly hosts in offering praise and glory to our God.
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