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Living In Israel as a Christian
Meeting the People of the Country
Israel is a country abounding in life, energy and vitality, in spite of all that the people have gone through, and in spite of the continual threat of violence and war. My life is one small part of the rich mosaic of life here in this country. I live in a convent of the Sis ters of Sion located in En Kerem, a suburb of Jerusalem, in a community that has had a continued presence here since 1862. We have a guest house located in a beautiful garden on a hill overlooking the Sorek valley. Peoples of all religions and nationali ties are welcomed here. Most of our guests and visitors to our garden are Israeli. There is a great interest on the part of many to visit the various monasteries and convents here, from an educational, cultural point of view. The inner workings of a convent and monastery are of great interest to them, even though often this form of life with our vows that deny our possibility of family and family life, are not understood by the majority of these visitors. But as places of prayer, of quiet, of solitude, of people seeking the Absolute, of something beyond the material: this is understood by many.
But we also receive many people who come from all parts of Israel to spend time in our guest house. For many of them it is the first time they have been in a Christian house. They do not know what to expect and often there is an evident nervousness. But as they spend time here and come to realize that they are welcomed here as Jews, that we do not missionize in any way, then slowly trust is established. I have welcomed hundreds of our Israeli guests, have spoken with them, and have listened to their stories. Unbelievable stories, most of them touching the holocaust in one way or another. Stories from their childhood in Europe during the war when they were hidden in the barns of Christian families, or passed as Christian children in convents in Poland. Others, people who spent time in the camps or in the forests, people who have lived ten lives in one. And here they are today, fathers or mothers or grandmothers, people who have picked up the shattered remains of their lives and have rebuilt them in Israel. A few days ago a group of painters came to paint here in our garden. Among them was a woman born in Poland in 1946. I said, "I'm sure you have a story". She replied, "We all have stories".
These stories humble me as a Christian and at the same time fill me with an awe at the tenacity of the human spirit. And I can only pray that in the telling of the story and it being received into the heart of a Christian, or in simply offering a welcome though our hospitality, that some kind of peace and reconciliation takes place. And as I listen to the story or welcome our visitors, I am aware that I belong to the church that through the long ages stigmatized and demonized them through our theology, forced them to live on the fringes of society, thus contributing to the creation of the conditions in which such a horror as the holocaust was made possible. Our histories are linked.
Receiving from each other
But I also receive so much from just living here, here in the Biblical land. Living in a culture which is a lived expression of Judaism and the Jewish people as they are now, in a country whose language is the original language of the Hebrew Bible, is a way of meeting the Bible in a living, vital way. The Biblical feasts are national feasts, lived out and celebrated, nationally, in harmony with the yearly cycle of the seasons, as is legislated in the Hebrew Bible. They are celebrated differently, of course, depending on whether one is a religious Jew or secular Jew. To be here when a whole country prepares for the spring feast of Pessach in which is remembered the "passing over of the Israelites" from Egypt, across the sea, into the desert of Sinai, and at the same time, we Christians celebrate the Pessach experience of Jesus as he passed over from life to death which we remember and celebrate during the Easter vigil, is profoundly meaningful. Or, fifty days after, at the time of Shavuot, or Pentecost, to see in the ripening and harvesting of the fields that the Jewish community are celebrating the feast of the wheat harvest and the giving of the law at Sinai, that we as a Christian community celebrate the same feast of the Spirit who is to write the law in the heart (Jer.31). To experience a Shabbat in Israel and especially in Jerusalem is a learning experience for us Christians as to what it means to "keep holy the Sabbath day". The land, the seasons, the religious cultural expression of the Jewish people living here in Israel is an education in itself for Christians in how to understand our links to the Hebrew Bible and to the Jewish people, past and present.
Central to us Christians is Jesus, or Jeshua, which is how he was called when he lived here. Jesus lived out in his daily life as a religious Jew what I see around me and experience here, modified, of course, by the passage of time. There are Christians who are already learning from Jewish scholars here...about Jesus, the Jew. And there is not a Jewish person here who does not know that Jesus was Jewish. The Jewish people are more aware of this than most Christians. After living here among the Jewish people and having entered into a living relationship that has been nothing but grace for me, I sense that this Yeshua belongs to them in a way that he can never belong to me, a gentile. I know him by faith but he is "bone of their bone", part of their history, of their religious tradition, much of which remains today as he would have known and lived it in his time. And perhaps, in the passage of time, as the Jewish people become more and more rooted and secure here as a people, the land which gave them birth religiously and nationally centuries ago, can again be a source of new life for them, and that they will indeed become a clearer "light to the gentiles" and that we can share in what they can teach us about this Son of David, this Jeshua, whom we call Lord.
Memories and Hope
The Jews have returned to their ancient Biblical land, finding it, like they found the first time they entered it that it was already inhabited. Our convent was once an orphanage-school for the children of the surrounding villages. Then came the "troubles" in the fall of 1947, that is, strikes, closing of roads, sudden violent attacks, all these following the vote in November of that year at the United Nations to partition Palestine. The parents, fearful for the safety of their children, came to fetch them before Christmas of that year... and the children never returned. These same troubles caused the Arab villagers here in this village first to take refuge by the hundreds in our house; then finally to flee also, never to return. Then, in the winter of 1948 the village became populated once again, this time by Jewish families, many of them from Morocco and Yemen, feeling bewildered, lost, trying to start a new life in a village damaged by war, with no electricity, no water, no work. And once again, the sisters, still grieving the loss of the children who never came back, opened the big iron gate of this house, and more important, their hearts to share in the suffering of these families who had also been dispossessed.
This land is a land of peoples who each have their own memories. As a Christian who is part of a community who has a living presence here of 140 years, and of a community of sisters who have served in turn the Arab community who lived here in this village, and then, the Jewish community who came after the establishment of the State of Israel, we, too have a memory as a community. But memories give rise to future hopes. Writing to the sisters in the light of his long experience in the Holy Land, Alphonse Ratisbonne, the founder of the Convent, expressed - in the language of his time -his hope and also his respect for people and their distinctive identity, in these words: "We need to enlarge our hearts...and make no distinction between Latin Catholics and Greek Orthodox, between Muslim and Jew...but to embrace all in love." Such words still have meaning in our day and if the realisation of such a programme seems impossible, let us remember that this land is a land where the impossible happens. Let us never lose hope!
is a Sister of Our Lady of Sion who has lived in Jerusalem for more than twenty years. At pre nt she is in charge of the house at Ein Karem.