Monday, November 7, 2011

Benedictine Value

To cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission. "To stand firm in one's promises."

Rule of Benedict (RB) 58

Saint John's School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota is part of a 1,500-year Benedictine Catholic tradition.

This tradition is guided by values distilled from the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century by St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

These values give us a set of practices for a life modeled on Jesus. They provide insight and support to students; faculty and staff; supporters; and alumni in building strong and caring family, civic and church communities, wherever life takes them.

For more information on Saint John's School of Theology·Seminary visit


by Kathleen Norris 

One way to think about what monastic spirituality says to the world, and how our world can benefit from the monastic witness is to look at some of the dire NEEDS of contemporary society. I find that many things that our culture often ignores at its peril, but desperately needs to address, are expressed in the Rule of Benedict, and in monastic life.

ONE. The first is LISTENING. That is truly listening, without trying to “best” the other person, without pretending to listen just so that you can attack and rebut what the other person is saying. Much of our media, including talk shows, so-called reality programming, and even the news, consists of people engaged in shouting matches, sniping, and belittling each other. It seems that everyone wants to be HEARD, but no one wants to LISTEN.

Listening is radical, because if we are really listening to another person, we have to shift our perspective; we have to humble ourselves and recognize that we are NOT the center of the universe, and our opinions are not God’s truth. In any business, any church, any group, communication with colleagues is vital, and it’s the one thing that people will say is lacking when they are asked to point to problems within an organization. For good reason, many people don’t feel LISTENED to.

“Listen” is the first word, the first command in Benedict’s Rule, and those of us who have Benedictine friends know that they have an uncommon gift for listening, and for fostering genuine conversation that leaves one refreshed, grateful for talk that has been mutually stimulating and beneficial. I’ll never forget the time that I invited a Benedictine friend to a literary party in New York City. He was in grad school in a nearby city, and I wanted to introduce him to some friends; I also thought he’d enjoy a break, and a night out. He did, but the main thing that amazed him was the sight of people chatting away but not really LISTENING to each other; often they were eyeing the room, to see if there was someone else, someone more important that they should be talking to, or “networking” with. He told me it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen, and I have to say that he has a point. But the joke is on US -- and our accepting such non-listening at business gatherings as the norm.

TWO. The next Benedictine values I want to discuss are Stability and Change. Americans pride themselves on having OPTIONS. We believe in social mobility, especially upward mobility; the chance to improve our lot by moving to places that offer better prospects for education or employment. Even in today’s stressed economy, with its increased threat of downward mobility for many, we enjoy a society with relatively fluid social structures. We don’t need official permits to be allowed to change careers, or move from the country to the city, or the city to the country. We don’t have a strict caste system: it isn’t necessarily family heritage that confers social status: earning a good income and becoming a philanthropist will do. 

But this basically good thing can have a bad effect on us if we fall into a pattern of having to always move on, because no one place satisfies us, no group we belong to meets the ideal we have established in our minds. Having too many options can be a trap, because the constants in our lives -- the treasured relationships with family, friends, and colleagues -- are what help give life MEANING. But if we are just drifting along, with only temporary and superficial relationship, we may decide that life has no meaning at all. We face the old “why bother?” 

BENEDICTINE WISDOM has something to offer us here, recognizing that while people need both stability and mobility, they also need some balance between them. The two vows of monastic profession that are unique to the Benedictine order give us some perspective. One is the vow of stability, in which you promise to remain in a particular community for the rest of your life; the second is a vow of conversion (the Latin name is conversatio morum). This means promising that you will remain open to change, open to conversation and dialogue with others that might have the effect of converting you; changing your opinion; changing the way you do or see things. The goal of these seemingly contradictory vows is to make you more balanced in your approach to life and the needs of your community.

Human beings need some stability; think of what the word HOME signifies to you. Even the homeless in our cities frequent the same places, day after day, in an attempt to create a sense of “home.” Most of us like some routine we can depend on. But we also gripe about “the rat race,” and even worse, we find that if we over-value stability, we stagnate, and are in danger of clinging to the familiar idol of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

We also need change; it can shake us up in healthy ways. But often our first instinct is to resist it: my favorite comment about change came from a woman in a church congregation in South Dakota. They were involved in finding a new pastor, which is a major upheaval, getting used to a new person and their way of doing things. She approved the person this search committee had agreed to call, but she said, “I don’t LIKE change; even when I know it’s for the best, I don’t like it.”

Change is simply a part of our world. But like stability, it also has a downside. if we embrace change too avidly, for its own sake, we become lost, and rootless. We are unable to make commitments to the people and places that might be meaningful to us. Sometimes it takes a shock for us to recognize when we need to stop searching and settle down. I once met a young man who had gone to Thailand and tried to join a Buddhist monastery, but they told him -- “Go home and learn your own tradition; become a Christian monk first, and then you might be ready to become a Buddhist monk.” So he was slogging through a Benedictine novitiate, mopping and waxing floors, and immersing himself in the psalms.

THREE. The third Benedictine value that I’ve come to see as truly radical in our polarized and polarizing culture is that of HOSPITALITY. In fact I now regard hospitality as a monastic gift to the world.

I can look to my own experience here, a searching but confused young woman more or less stumbling across a Benedictine monastery some 25 years ago, and experiencing their hospitality before I even knew that it was such an important part of the tradition; before I had read that passage in the Rule of St Benedict, in which Benedict admonishes monastics to welcome all guests as Christ. At the time, I wasn’t even sure that I was a Christian. I’d been raised in mainstream Methodist and Congregational churches, but as a young woman had drifted away from church. I thought I had “outgrown” religion. The way that these monks, and the Benedictine sisters a few miles down the road, simply accepted me as I was, surprised me. In fact it was overwhelming. It’s a remarkable thing to find such open-ended hospitality in a world that is increasingly fragmented into “us” and “them.” We so readily harbor suspicions of anyone who is “the other,” and the only hospitality many of us experience is a commercial variety that is a pale imitation of the real thing.

After a few visits to the monastery, when I finally expressed my gratitude, I said something awkward about how surprised I was to feel so welcomed, as a woman; I’d assumed that the monks were there in part to get away from women. And the oblate director, Fr Robert West, said, “Oh. You came at a good time. We had one like that, but he died.” Hospitality can take many forms !

Lately I have been thinking about one aspect of monastic hospitality that is increasingly important in our conflicted world. Benedictines in some way are a TRIBE -- they even have a myth of origin, emerging out of Benedict’s cave. But their absolute commitment to hospitality means that they do not indulge in TRIBALISM, a human tendency which is causing so much pain and strife in the world today. Reading the news from the Sudan, including the new nation of South Sudan, Nigeria, the Congo, India, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Serbia, and parts of Russia, one might conclude that TRIBALISM, rather than terrorism, is the main human problem today. 

Benedictines are definitely “global” in their outlook, and they have been for years, long before “globalism” became a catchword. I know monks raised on farms in North or South Dakota, in tiny villages that are no longer on the map, whose studies have taken them to Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Louvain; whose foundation work and lecturing for novices and junior monastics has taken them to Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Australia. Some wags suggest that a new Benedictine motto is needed -- join the monastery, see the world. But the Benedictines demonstrate that people who have a stable grounding in one community can expand their world-view far beyond its confines, without suffering a loss of “tribal” identity. It’s precisely because they have a strong and clear identity that they can open themselves to others.

In America, I think many people are drawn to retreats in Benedictine monasteries as “safe houses” in which they can be free to explore their faith. Ancient and medieval monasteries were indeed safe havens from the hazards of the road -- often the only place a traveler could stay without being robbed or worse -- and I think they still provide that kind of safety, in a spiritual way.

When I got to know the Benedictines, as I was reconnecting with my own Christian faith as an adult, I was impressed with the way that monastic people incarnated faith. Because they are living it daily, in such an overt and disciplined way, they can afford to wear it lightly. Not pious, not holier-than-thou, not pretentious, not philosophizing, but LIVING their faith in an utterly realistic way. But Monastic people get a bad press, and you hear people say that it’s a shame that these talented people are hiding away in monasteries, withdrawing from what they call the “real world.”

But I don’t think that monastic people are escaping the world at all; if anything monastic living draws people deep into the world of human relationships. To better understand this, just think of a group to which you belong. Maybe the people in a church congregation, or at your job. Now imagine that you have committed yourself to remain with these people, living, eating, working, and playing with them for the rest of your life. Some of them you may love; some you tolerate; some you can’t stand. But now you are supposed to thank God, every day, for bringing all of you unlikely souls together. That is the challenge of monastic life, and it is completely grounded in the real world of human community. One Benedictine sister described it to me as like living in a rock tumbler; which is fine, she said, if you believe that eventually you’ll come out good and polished. Another sister had a profound insight that I think is at the heart of the REALISM of monastic life: “Benedict understood,” she said, “that just living in peace with other people is the only asceticism most of us need.” This is definitely an asceticism, a spiritual practice that any of us could take into our own worlds -- in our families, or our workplaces -- and put to good use.

I’ll end with a story about how I became an oblate at Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, When I started visiting there, they no longer had an active oblate program, but one monk still had the title of “oblate director,” and the two of us invented a program of study for me. This revealed to me something essential about monasticism: as tradition-bound and disciplined as the life is, it is also an experiment. A testing and playing with human nature in a remarkably flexible way.

At any rate, I kept showing up at the monastery, deeply attracted to the liturgy of the hours and also the fact that the monks had a good library. Eventually someone suggested that I become an oblate. I would be their first Protestant oblate, and Fr Hilary of this abbey was visiting, who announced that St John’s already had a number of Protestant oblates. And I said, “Oh, St John’s. Is that a Benedictine place, too?” You can imagine the response !

I appreciate being an oblate, because of the opportunity it gives me to attempt to practice Benedictine values in my daily life. They are remarkably portable and adaptable; it’s just that I have to remember to apply them. And that is the challenge. But it’s one that any Christian might take on: to remember that we are holy and beloved in the sight of God, and to share that good news with the community of believers and the whole world.

(These are Kathleen Norris comments from a Saint John's University School of Theology•Seminary board retreat on Benedictine Identity.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Benedictine Value

To look for God in the ordinary events of each day. "We believe that the divine presence is everywhere." Rule of Benedict (RB) 19.1

Saint John's School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota is part of a 1,500-year Benedictine Catholic tradition.

This tradition is guided by values distilled from the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century by St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

These values give us a set of practices for a life modeled on Jesus. They provide insight and support to students; faculty and staff; supporters; and alumni in building strong and caring family, civic and church communities, wherever life takes them.
For more information on Saint John's School of Theology·Seminary visit

Monday, September 26, 2011

Benedictine Value | Hospitality

Saint John's School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota is part of a 1,500-year Benedictine Catholic tradition.

This tradition is guided by values distilled from the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century by St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

These values give us a set of practices for a life modeled on Jesus. They provide insight and support to students; faculty and staff; supporters; and alumni in building strong and caring family, civic and church communities, wherever life takes them.
To offer warmth, acceptance, and joy in welcoming others. "Let received as Christ." Rule of Benedict 53.1

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Eureka, California and Resources for the 21st Century Pilgrim

On the road again! I left Eugene five days ago on a Greyhound bus, traveling a mere 120 miles to Medford/Ashland in order to make up some miles and because, as good and necessary as it was for me to stay in Eugene, it had also become a kind of vortex of inertia: I wanted to propel myself far enough from its pull to ensure that I really was on the move at last.

Incidentally, travelling by Greyhound on bicycle tour is not recommended where other options are available. In this case, the ticket cost me a little over $30, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable. But the bike had to be broken down, boxed, put back together at the other end in the bus station parking lot, all for an additional $30! I am still kicking myself for having spent so much money to cover a relatively small distance. While train tickets are generally more expensive, the cost for taking a bicycle on Amtrak is minimal, and often the bike can simply be rolled up and onto the train without being boxed. Fortunately, since then, my friend Mandy from WithinReach turned me on to Craiglist rideshare listings: dozens of people potentially headed your way, willing to take you along for the ride in exchange for splitting the gas cost. I easily found a ride in this way from Ashland, Oregon to Crescent City, California, covering another 120 miles for a fraction of the cost of the bus. In addition to Craiglist ridesharing, I’ve also benefited from the generosity of good folks I’ve met through, an online network of bicycle tourers offering hospitality to their fellows on the road, and, a similar but larger, less specific network of travelers and adventurers. Be sure to check into these resources the next time you’re planning a road trip: informal, off-the-grid, cooperative hospitality and transportation.

I arrived in Crescent City three evenings ago. Knowing that there’s a LONG climb immediately upon leaving town, I offered my driver another $5 to get me to the summit (well worth the cost if you ask me, especially considering it was already 7pm!). Near the top, we came upon a state park with camping. We turned down the drive, and drove down and down and down another 2 1/2 miles, almost enough to negate the climb out of town! At the least, I had a place to lay my head without having to wear myself out to get there. I shared the hiker-biker site with two other tourers and was grateful to be sleeping outdoors again, cradled by the redwood forest. Pedaling/walking the bike back up to the highway the next morning, I was greeted by my first pair of bright, bulbous banana slugs gleaming from a utility box, as if to say, “Welcome to California!” The very good news is that I biked 45 miles that day without a hint of pain, beyond ordinary soreness and fatigue. And though I miss the sun already, it’s a sheer blessing to see and hear and touch the Pacific Ocean again. In fact, I intended to spend 2 days pedaling to Eureka but was stopped on the way by two men in a pick-up who had pulled into a turnout and were attempting to lure me with a banana and two granola bars. Easy prey, I took the bait. One of them was curious about my recumbent bicycle and wanted to ask me questions. A delightful conversation ensued, until finally they asked me if I needed a ride. “Where are you headed?,” I asked. “Eureka.” Ah, serendipity.

First Sight of the Pacific Ocean

Unfortunately, hiker-biker campsites in the California State Parks are now $5 a night, up from a mere $1 less than 10 years ago. This puts me in something of a quandary. $1 is mere pocket change, but $5 is significant when my average daily living expenses while biking are in the range of $7-15. My philosophy is that often the less money I have on tour—short of destitution!—the better. I say this because in my experience, when money is short I am forced to use ingenuity and creativity, which generally makes for a more satisfying, if less secure, journey. Furthermore, an extended bicycle tour has a way of weaning me from the sense of needing what I often take for granted when I am settled. The most obvious example is shelter. When I landed in Big Sur on my last bicycle tour, even though I had a room of my own, I still preferred to sleep in my tent, even on cold nights. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in being woken up by wild turkeys making their morning rounds, stepping out of a tent at 3,000 feet above the Pacific, and peering over a vast sea of clouds below.

In other words, on bicycle tour I tend to have fewer options in many respects than ordinarily. I live simply, eat simply, sleep simply, am exposed to the elements in an often inescapable way. And the longer I stay with that simplicity, the more my values and attitudes are analogously simplified: I come to value this simplicity more than I value conventional securities and comforts (within reason, mind you). To me, this transformation of mind and heart is what makes bicycle touring so worthwhile. Not only do I come to a deeper appreciation of the ordinary and simple in life, but when I do have the opportunity to enjoy something beyond this threshold, I am all the more grateful for it. In fact, the more I undergo this transformative process, the more I realize that many of the values I leave behind were not truly “mine” in the first place but an inherited distortion of heart (“original sin”?) received from family, culture, religion, and so forth. This in turn gives me the opportunity to discern more clearly the values and aspirations that truly matter. What can short-circuit this process, however (or at least mitigate it), is having the resources on hand to choose the restaurant, the fancy foods, or the hotel, not as an occasional treat but as a habit. Of course, now I am in the ambiguous position of having a fair amount of money, but it’s been given to me by others with the understanding that I’ll put it to good use toward a particular purpose, and it’s meant to last a very long time.

My heartfelt gratitude to the Harrison and Wheeler families for their unfathomable generosity and patience, and for making me feel right at home. Special thanks as well to Gregg in Ashland, Larry the Driver, Bert and/or Ernie and Phil, Amy and so many other good people in Eureka.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Community Is Not For Me
“Community is not a good goal in itself but is a beautiful byproduct of seeking God’s kingdom together.”

From a talk entitled “The Five Myths of Community“ by Mark Scandrette, a man I hope to meet when I hit the San Francisco Bay.

The “myth” that I resonate with the most in Mark’s talk is what he calls the myth of belonging—the insidious expectation that, if only I find the right community, my needs for companionship, direction, and growth will be met. This reminds me of a talk I attended years ago by Dorothy Maclean, co-founder of the Findhorn Community in Scotland. A young man stood up at the end of the talk to ask her a question: “My friends and I are interested in starting a community. What advice do you have for us?” Her response: if you’re interested in creating community for community’s sake, don’t bother. This is a recipe for disaster. A community bent on self-fulfillment will implode under the weight of accumulated disappointment, because this is not what community is for. Rather, a community must first be comprised of people with a shared intention that carries each out of themselves in some form of service. With so much talk of longing for community and meaningful connection in our day, I believe this understanding is crucial. And it would seem to present an odd paradox: in a sense, community as a goal must be aimed at indirectly, arising from the aspiration to serve rather than for the fulfillment of the legitimate personal need for community.

As anyone who has lived in community for any significant amount of time knows, this is not as simple as it may sound. Even with the best of conscious intentions, the unfulfilled needs and wounds of the past will insinuate themselves in the form of subtle or not-so-subtle demands on our community-mates. How we respond when this happens makes all the difference, especially in a dominant culture that may seem to exuberantly affirm us in our perception that our needs will be better met elsewhere, providing us with all manner of seductive images of greener pastures. And of course, sometimes it’s true—sometimes we simply need to move on. But when we do, we will as likely find ourselves haunted by the same unfulfillment in a different guise. The script remains essentially the same, only the actors and stage props change. What then?

In his Rule, Saint Benedict provides a startling contrast to the rootless search for fulfillment that has so many of us in its grasp. Everywhere we are confronted by a radical de-centering, from ourselves to the other who is Christ, especially as encountered in the person of the abbot or abbess, to whom is given willing obedience; in the stranger or guest, whose needs press upon the comfortable rhythms of the daily round; in the sick, who require our care and attention; in all our sisters and brothers, with their unavoidable foibles and weaknesses. At the heart of this Rule lies the 12-rung ladder of humility, outlining the descent of the self in terms that even many contemporary monks and nuns find jarring.

Difficulties with language aside, this is actually my favorite part of the Rule. Why? Because if in my obedience to Christ whom I meet in others I can quietly embrace suffering in my heart, without weakening or seeking escape, in times of difficulty, dissatisfaction, or even injustice (fourth degree of humility), then I am no longer ruled by suffering, disappointment, insult, or injury. Pain no longer compels hand or heart. If I can be content with what is deemed the lowest occupations and pursuits (sixth degree of humility), and believe in my heart that I am nothing, a nobody (seventh degree of humility),* then I am liberated from the feverish pursuit of trying to be a “somebody”; liberated from the rivalrous game of comparison. Then, I am liberated from the allure of the whole array of symbols our culture (and subcultures) dangles before us as bearers of the rewards of prestige, security, power, love, fulfillment. Only then can I be free of the burdens of anger, lust, the urge to retaliate; free to forgive, to be an agent of peace and reconciliation, to love Christ above all else.

Of course, contemplating this “lofty” downward trajectory of the path of monastic transformation makes me painfully aware of my own radical insufficiency and failings. After all, I am attracted to this topic of cutting through the illusion of community as a source of self-fulfillment because I have been guilty of it time and time again. This is why I value such wisdom from the monastic tradition, not as a measuring stick to compare myself to an impossible ideal (which would be to create yet another symbol of self-fulfillment), but as the North Star pointing away from self-concern to the face of Christ who meets me in every person, every encounter, in the sacrament of this very moment. This, as I see it, is the way of Christian community, or any mature form of intentional community: a way that is not for “me.” And for those of us who are followers of Christ, we tread this way not because we choose it but because we first experience ourselves as chosen for it; not because we love but because we first experience ourselves as loved, with a love that increases in our hearts the more that we give it away.

*For those of you who may be cringing at this point or have cringed while reading this part of the Rule, what made the ladder of humility come alive for me as a vivid description of the path of spiritual liberation was a simple insight a teacher once shared with me. The humility being asked of us—for instance, believing in our hearts that we are the lowest among human beings—is not first a psychological reality but theological: we are made humble because of the growing appropriation of the insight of our “nothingness” before God. This living, transforming insight in turn radically reconfigures our relationships with other people, along the lines that Benedict and his sources such as John Cassian outline. It is intimacy with God, and the dethronement of self-centeredness that this entails, that underlies and permeates the ladder of humility, not self-loathing. Obviously, a pathological conviction that one is literally the lowest among all humanity is a gross inflation of self-preoccupation. Rather, to my mind, to believe in your heart that you are the lowest kind of human being is to see in yourself the potential to be what you most despise in others—that at heart you are no better than the rapist, the murderer, etc. And furthermore, God does not love you or anyone else the less for it. To see oneself as “good” leads to arrogance, hard-heartedness, and self-delusion. To see and accept oneself as in solidarity with the lowest of the low not only liberates from comparison but yields compassion, forgiveness, and creative action; or as Benedict assures us, yields the spontaneous love of God that is its own reward, uncompelled by fear or self-concern.

Monday, June 13, 2011

2011 Holy Land Study Tour - Reflections on the last day

Reflections on the last last day:

After promising not to write on the Holy Sepulcher, I find myself eating my words. To clarify, I am not “the blonde,” nor am I Jane. This is Siobhan, now safely back in Pennsylvania and still reeling from my experiences in the Holy Land.

Jane, Ashley, and I remained at Dormition Abbey a full day after everyone else spirited away in the dark of night. It was a bit surreal: at dinner there were 10 of us, after cards 6, and after dawn only 3. The ladies remained, and at 5:30 we met in the garden. The morning was chill and misty, as I’ve come to expect from Jerusalem mornings, and we set out for Holy Sepulcher on my third dawn-time journey.

I love Jerusalem in the early morning: the streets are clean, glistening with morning dew and soft sunlight, almost empty but for a few stray cats stalking birds and a few other people, pilgrims, I like to think, strolling toward their holy destinations. At Holy Sepulcher there are maybe 20 or 30 people inside, including the Franciscans, Armenians, and Greeks responsible for its upkeep, the three of us, and a healthy handful of other pilgrims who decided to beat the crowds by arriving early. Like the streets of Jerusalem, in five hours the church will be packed with bright colors, whiffs of incense and perfume, and languages as varied as Babel.

Speaking of Babel, I like to think of Holy Sepulcher as a post-Incarnational answer to that ancient tower. Holy Sepulcher is a bit like a beached ship, washed ashore with a crew of disparate personalities who love their vessel but are suspicious of one another. In 1517 when the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem, they found a large Christian church filled with Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholics, each group resenting the presence of the others. They had their own little rituals, refused one another entry to specific chapels, and only compromised by saying, “On Tuesdays Catholics get the tomb from dawn to 7:00, Armenians 7:00-10:00, Greeks….” The Ottomans looked in on this arrangement and thought it wasn’t worth the agony to try to get the different groups to get along, so they passed the “Status Quo Law” which stated that everything that happens in the Holy Sepulcher must happen exactly as it did in 1517, or one of the other sects can take over the failed sect’s time/space. This plays out as the Franciscans making a procession every single day at 3:00 in the afternoon, during which they MUST arrive at a specific location at 3:05, another at 3:07, etc.

When the British came in, they renewed the Status Quo Laws, as did the Jewish when Israel was declared an independent Jewish state. Hence the Babel metaphor. But a lot has happened since 1517, and the various sects are not quite as disparate as they once were---I don’t mean theologically, but ideologically. We’ve all grown up a bit, and we know that God doesn’t like his children fighting. So yes, the Franciscans still do their processions and get to the same place at the same time each day, as do the others, but there’s not so much hostility: the people of Babel are learning multiple tongues, communicating across languages.

The diversity of Holy Sepulcher is one of its most endearing qualities: it’s a shabby building, clean but a bit run down. It was with the help of a Massachusetts couple that the dome over the tomb was renovated within the past couple years, but the whole church has a lived in feel, like a family home with a lot of kids. Arriving at 5:30 in the morning is like being the harried mother that gets up early to enjoy her cup of coffee before the kids start running around, screaming and tattling with a thousand spiritual needs.

To the right of the entrance a tucked away staircase climbs Calvary: at the top there’s an Orthodox chapel where the True Cross once stood. I spent a lot of time in that chapel. During the day, hordes of people wait in line to spend a few seconds in the Tomb before being asked to leave in consideration for others, at the place of the True Cross, occasionally a modest line of 20 people forms, but usually the chapel is left completely empty. Perhaps most tour guides only mention the tomb, or perhaps most Christians are only interested in the Resurrection, but like my fascination with Gethsemane, it is the Crucifixion that seems to me the most important event remembered in that building. Christ died. Christ suffered and died. Yeah, Christ is Risen, but I’m confident God could and would have raised us on the last day even without the amazing resurrection of his Son. What makes our God really special is that he became human, so human that the beginning and end of his life was marked by blood, sweat, and pain.

It is because the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us that I can look with confidence to the resurrection on the last day. What a proof of God’s Love.
The main church is arranged like a wheel: the hub is the Tomb, the spokes a dozen little chapels devoted to the soldier who recognized Jesus as the Son of God, to Mary Theotokos, to the pillar on which Jesus was whipped, to a rock stained with blood. . . . Beneath the wheel, like an axle, lies the spacious Armenian chapel where a charcoal drawing of a boat and a few people was discovered with a caption in rough Latin, “Iddimus Dominus” or, “we go to the Lord.” This drawing has been dated to the first century, when a pilgrimage to Christ’s tomb would have involved sneaking through tunnels beneath the Roman army to the place where the Roman emperor had erected a temple to Venus (out of spite? ignorance?) under pain of death. It is a great reminder of how much our ancestors would risk to touch a place Jesus touched. It also indicates how strongly the link between Jesus the Nazarene and the Lord God was felt so early in the tradition.

Beyond and below this chapel, another Armenian chapel is built over the place where St. Helena found the True Cross.

But I know what you’re really interested in is the Tomb.

The tomb was almost entirely destroyed by the Persians; what stands now is a reconstruction, not the stones Christ Jesus touched. The floor, however, is the original tomb, the bed rock of the area which the Persians could not destroy. The entrance to the tomb is like a little church all to itself: a domed, pink structure decorated by cherubim and a dozen giant golden candle sticks, surrounded by the sweet-smoky clouds of over a thousand years of incense. Ducking into the ante chamber, six or seven feet across and twenty feet high, you enter into silence, suddenly realizing how loud the whispering of other pilgrims is on the outside. In the center of the antechamber is a little table supporting a single candle. The only light.

A second small door, four feet tall, a foot and a half wide, waits for you on the other side. Inside, you can see a chamber just large enough to hold a body and not much else. Entering, you kneel, resting your head, your arms, on the stone worn down by pilgrim hands and tears, you touch it, you cannot imagine standing to leave again, for your heart has suddenly been pierced by that sword of love uniting us to the sufferings of Christ and him to ours. There is enough room for three people to bow their heads against to funerary stone, though I have crammed in there with as many as six. There must be decorations in the tomb: I have a vague memory of something glittering around me, but I do not know what they are. The plain, grayish white limestone where Jesus was laid and the angels reported the good news had more opulence than any amount of gold and jewels throughout the church.

When you leave Holy Sepulcher, there is no holy water font to mark your going, just solid wooden doors, which I always find myself touching like a mezuzah, and then you are away again, back in the streets and market places where Jesus once walked.