by David Kruse
It's officially been a week since we arrived here in Israel and today, the first full free day, was filled with holy adventure! Deep into Palestine there is an ancient monastery built into the mountainous cliffs of the Kidron river valley which flows from Jerusalem into the Dead Sea. It is actually considered to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. A few seminarians and I thought it would be fun to try and make our way over to this ancient place. Our only option at first was finding a cab, which got very complicated very quick trying to get across the border of Israel into West Bank. Our bus driver Addel caught wind of our plan and graciously volunteered to drive us and arrange the rest of the transportation.
We departed at about 9:00 a.m. after Monsignor Lajiness celebrated Mass for us in the Crusader Chapel of the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher. We drove 45 minutes into Palestine and transferred to a smaller shuttle bus which took us the rest of the way. As soon as we crossed the border, we immediately noticed the stark difference between the beautiful, well-maintained Israel and the much rougher and poorer Palestine. It was a shocking change and the entire drive was narrated with fascinating information about Palestine by our interim tour guide bus driver. After transferring into a smaller shuttle bus, we journeyed high into the mountains and could eventually see the vast Dead Sea in the distance. Eventually, the huge Kidron valley canyon tearing through the land came into sight: the canyon containing Mar Saba monastery and ancient caves in which even the doctor of the Church St. John Damascene himself dwelt in the early years of the Church.
When we arrived, we immediately noticed the beautiful view that the monastery had of the entire valley. We walked up onto a high point next to a towering chapel made of huge sand colored stones and looked across the valley at the ancient caves in which the ancient monks dwelt and prayed. On our side of the valley, from above, we could see the monastery complex. It contained cliff-like edges and towers and chapels, all made of this same desert stone. We only had an hour at this holy place so we quickly hurried to the entrance after snapping a few photos and soaking in the beauty as much as we could.
We entered the men-only monastery and made our way to the main chapel where every inch of every wall was covered in Greek icons. It was unbelievable! With prayer lanterns hanging all over and the overwhelming depth of the icons this chapel made me feel like I had officially entered into a truly foreign place. On the edge of the chapel was a glass case containing the 1485 year old corpse of Saint Sabbas. As I knelt next to his body, and looked upon his unrecognizable face and ancient, dried up fingers, I was moved to know that he was my brother in faith. He lived an extreme love for Jesus and succeeded in his quest for holiness. Albeit a much older brother in faith, I still found it comforting to know that we share the same journey.
Another very mortifying thing we saw there, which was powerful for me in a similar way, were about 120 skulls of martyrs who had been killed by Persians in the preceding centuries. In one room dedicated to their commemoration, three walls of skulls in glass containers looked with hollow eyes at whoever entered. At the center back wall, three cases lay open so that any willing hand can touch the bare skulls of these holy martyrs or a touch a rosary to them. I can honestly say I've never even seen a real human skull before, much less touched one (and I don't know if I ever will again) but I can already tell that the experience immediately changed my outlook on death and therefore on life as well.
These monks lived close to the earth. Their lives were filled with beauty, humanity, fraternity, and a deep and moving relationship with God rooted in ancient monastic traditions. They handed themselves over to God through prayer and liturgy to be witnesses to his enduring love. These monks and all that preceded them were huge witnesses to me in my vocation.
As we left the monastery after the short visit, we were all astounded at the marvel of the experience. It was truly surreal. The witness of our brothers in faith by the monks at this monastery and all those who have lived there over the last 1500 years ought to inspire us to a deeper sense of radical love for Jesus which transforms us and everything we are about in life. God loves us so much. Amen.
David KruseDavid Kruse is a second-year theologian studying for the Diocese of Winona.