MOUNTAINS SURROUND JERUSALEM, SO THE LORD SURROUNDS HIS PEOPLE (Psalm 125.2). Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, the temple, and indeed the whole of the Holy Land, (Erets Israel): each of these geographical places that are so often spoke of in the Bible, very early became a symbol for heavenly realities. They have had a strong drawing appeal for Jews and Christians from their beginnings. Canaan was the land promised to Abraham and by virtue of that promise was a symbol of God's fidelity and of his Providence. Thus knowledge of God was so intertwined with the land he swore he would give to Abraham and his descendents that the two were inseparable in the thought and aspirations of his children. The history of the people of God is in large measure the history of the land that the Patriarchs and the prophets after them received in fulfillment of the trust and faith they placed in the God of Abraham.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph unquestioningly accepted this understanding of the significance of the land of their fathers, along with all their religious contemporaries. So did the apostles and the whole of the early Church in Jerusalem. St. Paul was one of its most fervent adherents. When he and the other apostles went forth to spread the faith to the nations they did not reject this believe but gave a fresh interpretation to this conviction. In Jesus, a son of Israel and a man of Nazareth, God's promises find a definitive fulfillment. The land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple all became symbols of God's presence and active guidance of those he redeemed through the blood of his Son, shed in the promised land, just outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried nearby in a garden, he rose in that same locality, and just east of the city, on Mt. Olivet, he ascended into heaven.
Ever since these events the places associated with them have served as reminders of the major happenings that marked the redemptive work of our Savior. Today these and other localities that were the site of significant events in Jesus' life, such as Bethlehem where he was born, Nazareth where he was conceived and then lived many silent years, and the Lake of Galilee, where he preached and taught his apostles, have been frequented by his followers. They are viewed as sacramentals, that is to say, material objects that communicate grace to those who use them with faith.
To judge from my recent experience at these places they continue to be efficacious in stimulating piety and in deepening faith. Peoples from all over the world and of all ages frequent these places in large numbers even today where there are considerable tensions and even a certain danger in traveling in Israel. Some perhaps are tourists, but many are true pilgrims so that much fervent prayer, reading of the Bible acts of devotion are in evidence. Quite by chance I came across groups from Korea and Turkey, people from England and Kansas. An Armenian choir of about 40 seminarians was singing at the Holy Sepulchre some of the most moving religious music I have ever heard, led by a man with a magnificent, manly voice.
Just one hundred years ago this year a group of monks from the Abbey of Sept Fons in France founded the monastery of Latroun. Thus the community's centenary coincides with the 900th anniversary of our Order. They have passed through many vicissitudes since, including a number of wars. They have lived under Turkish rule, Arab, and now Israeli government. During two wars their monastery, which occupies one of the most strategic sites in all of Israel. They occupy a hill located at the area where the highway that ascends to Jerusalem makes a sharp turn and begins to climb more steeply. The property is at the border between biblical Judea and the Philistine territory. Five of the main Philistine towns of the Bible are situated in the vicinity. From the terrace, on a clear day Gaza can be seen. Their property was in the officially designated strip of no-man's land, so they lived between the Israeli and the Jordanian armies. During the fighting on one occasion they were hit by some 500 shells. There have been innumerable other difficulties and dangers they have had to encounter but they continue to live there happily and fruitfully.
At present there are some 22 monks living at Latroun Abbey. Of these nine are novices or juniors. After a period of 25 years without a single profession, about four years ago young people began to apply and enter. Three more are preparing to try the life now and an annex house in Lebanon has some seven members. Soon it is planned to establish it as a foundation. The community consists of various nationalities: Lebanese, French, Israeli, Jordanian, Ruwandese and Belgian. While a number of the monks speak Arabic some also speak Hebrew and all speak French or are learning to do so. The liturgy and chapter talks are in French and that was the language I used for the talks I gave there. The reason for this is to avoid being identified with either the Arabic or the Israeli factions that so divide the country. This tactic seems to have proved its value, for there are both Jews and Arabs who come to the Abbey in large numbers.
Many of the visitors are Arabic speaking Christians, a good number of the Russian Jews are also Christian, but Muslims and Jews not of our faith also seem to feel free to come. In Hebrew the name used is "the monastery of the men who do not speak." By making French the language of prayer and the language of instruction and at least a good deal of the intra-community conversation, another advantage is that the monks have ready access to the broader cultural world of the West. Their library reflects this opening to European culture and more specifically French. Though there is a considerable section of Arabic works and some interesting Syria volumes, the largest percent of books is French. Of course, there is a good Latin representation especially the Migne Patristic works.
The liturgy is very reverent and prayerful and decidedly more formal than ours. The fact that they wear the cowl for every hour of the office contributes something to this, but the chief factor for me at any rate, was the solemn beginnings of the hours, especially the major hours. Expressive, solemn music well sung introduces Vigils, Lauds and Vespers with the French translation of Agios Theos, O Holy God, and a prayer addressed to Mary sung in response. After a few days I became aware of how effectively this introductory chant set the tone for the hour and contributed to a sense of God's presence. Their liturgy seemed well adapted to their community and their Church which is an impressive structure entirely make of cut-stone taken from the property.
The monastery has over 500 acres of land, which is a very sizeable property for a country as small as Israel. It is quite fertile when irrigated. Irrigation is made possible because of an ancient well, 3,000 years old the archeologists say, which has large and long hand-hewn passages extending along the floor of the valley below the surface. The monastery has extensive vineyards and produces a number of fine wines in its cave. This is its chief source of revenue and is sold in a store at the gate. This attracts a large number of visitors who, through the store, get to know something about monks and a monastery. They also make several types of vinegar, one of which we had at table and which I found to be very flavorful. A number of fields are planted in olive trees and olives too are sold at the store They raise a good deal of their fruits and vegetables in a garden close to the house: oranges, tangerines, dates, grapefruit, almonds and pomegranates are also cultivated. They have a number of chickens and thus produce eggs for the community. The guesthouse is popular and groups come fairly often as well as individuals.
I was able to visit some other monasteries while there: The Sisters of Bethlehem at Beit Segal, The Community of the Beatitudes at Emmaus, next door to Latroun, The Carmelites in Bethlehem and the Poor Claris in Jerusalem. The Sisters of Bethlehem came from France, not too long ago, and already have 30 sisters, more than their newly constructed convent was built for. They come from many nations: Thailand, Korea, and Philippines as well as Europe, and live a very strict hermit life along the Carthusian model but with fewer recreation periods of talking than the nuns of that Order. On the whole, however, due to the political pressures in recent times, Christian communities are diminishing in number, with the exception of Russian Jews who are Christian by conversion. Two among that group are coming soon to try out their vocation.
Latroun is well integrated in the local Church and is a center for prayer and liturgy, and is obviously a considerable moral support for the Christians of the region. Since the monks speak the languages of both peoples, Arab and Jews, as well as French they have been taken to the heart of many from the various elements there in Israel. The witness of the monks over these hundred years has been a very significant and supportive presence witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus and reaching out in sympathy and with understanding to a divided country and to those who have made the Holy Land their mission field. The retreat was well received, and I found the brothers very friendly and certain of them quite open, not least the Abbot and guest-master, both of whom are friends of long-standing. The courage and persevering dedication shown over the years by the community has assured a true monastic presence in that conflict-ridden country that is peaceful and, within limits of the possible, reaches out to all groups. Above all, Latroun is a place that witnesses to the living, risen Christ in the land where he was born, taught, suffered, died and rose from the dead. The monks there are living the same vocation as we do, and feel a real union with us in our common way. They deserve our prayerful support and our fraternal affection, and I recommend them and the Church in Israel to your heartfelt prayer.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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