Reflection: Sabbatical in the Holy Land

Joseph Juracek, OFM Features

Joseph Juracek prays at the house of Joachim and Anne, Mary's parents, in Jerusalem.

Joseph Juracek prays at the house of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, in Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Joseph)

For many, January is a time of transition and fresh starts. For a friar who returned last month from a sabbatical in the Middle East, it is a time to settle back into parish life in the United States and to share his experiences.

After 31 years of ordained ministry, I decided that it was time for a sabbatical. Through online research, I found Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, which offers a three-month program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame. I liked the idea that the program was ecumenical, and I liked that the program included seeing all the holy places in Israel. The trip also included classes about Scripture, Islam, Judaism and the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

My class at Tantur comprised 23 people from 11 countries. Most of us were Catholic priests, but we also had three sisters, two laywomen, one Baptist minister and one Anglican priest. I enjoyed hearing different nuances of insight and perspective from all the participants. For evening prayer, we took turns putting prayer together, which made for a wide variety of forms and experiences.

Joseph Juracek celebrates Mass at Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

Joseph at Dominus Flevit Church, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Joseph)

Meditating and Experiencing
The highlight of the sabbatical was visiting the holy sites. There is something truly special about reading a text from Scripture at the very place it happened. I loved when we were at a site that wasn’t too crowded and I had the opportunity to prayer and let the Scriptures sink into me.

Before this experience, I would conjure up a picture in my mind of different biblical texts to help them become more alive for me. But because being in the Holy Land is like experiencing a fifth Gospel, there is no need to conjure — only to sit and be moved by what is in front of you. In all my years of conjuring, I never once came close to imagining what the biblical text was actually like. On free days or afternoons, I would go back to these places and sit, meditate and experience the intimacy of God in new and wondrous ways.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you can sign up to be locked inside overnight. The experience is limited to 10 people at a time. The night that I had the honor of being locked in, there were only five of us. I went into the Tomb of the Resurrection to pray. I read and meditated on the passion according to Matthew. Before I knew it, four hours had passed and I had tears running down my face. I then went up to Calvary and sat by the stone where Jesus died. Here, I read and meditated on the passion according to John. Again, time sped by and before I knew it, they were setting up for the first Mass of the day right where I was sitting. It was a perfect ending to a perfect evening. I will never forget that night.

The classes that Tantur offered were, for the most part, excellent. I learned so much about the Scriptures. Rabbis taught us the Scriptures using Midrash, Mishna and the Talmud. It was very interesting comparing the Tanakh with the Septuagint and reading from the Jewish Annotated New Testament. I am grateful to have had the time to do this kind of study.

Observing Division and Violence
It was sad to see so much hate, division, conflict and violence in a land which is called holy. Newspapers do not really tell the whole story. Every morning, I would wake up and see the wall around Bethlehem, a clear reminder that Jesus’ prayer that we all be one has not yet been fulfilled.

One day, a group of us went into Bethlehem and, on our way back to Israel, we ran into trouble at the checkpoint. Israeli soldiers were not letting any Palestinians through the checkpoint even with the proper paperwork. There was a big commotion. People on the Palestinian side were banging on the fences, yelling and shaking their fists. On the Israeli side, soldiers with M16s patrolled the area with guard dogs. The checkpoint was closed for almost two hours before I was allowed through. It was my first experience of what life is like in an occupied territory.

The Palestinians are happy to tell you that they like Americans as individuals, but they hate our government policies that help Israel and keep Palestinians poor and victims. I tried to buy all the gifts I was bringing home from Palestine to, in some very small way, help their economy. Tourism is down because of the conflict, which affects the lives of those who depend on tourism to live. I could go on about bus searches and the violence I witnessed, but I don’t want them to overshadow the good. I never felt that my life was in danger.

I’m very glad to be back at Pompton Lakes, where I can share what I experienced. If you have never been to the Holy Land, I suggest that you go. If you are looking for a good sabbatical program, I highly recommend Tantur.

Fr. Joseph is a pastoral associate at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J. He was in the Holy Land from Sept. 8 to Dec. 8, 2014.

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