Saturday, February 9, 2013

Home Again

After over twenty-four hours of travel, we safely returned to Mundelein Seminary late this morning. We hope you have enjoyed reading about our experiences throughout the Holy Land.  This final entry officially will conclude the 2012 Pilgrimage Blog, however the sharing of stories in person will undoubtedly continue in the weeks and months, perhaps even years ahead.  

We would like to thank all who made this pilgrimage possible and those who have prayed us over these past five weeks.  We now pray, that our heavenly Father will continue to bless and watch over you and your loved ones on your own pilgrimage to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  

St. Mary of the Lake, pray for us!

Friday, February 8, 2013


On the roof of the Notre Dame Center,

Sometimes it's a simple rock, or leaf, or shell.  It might be a rosary, a statue, or an icon. Maybe even a t-shirt, or a scarf. Why do we feel compelled to bring back some kind of souvenir? Why do we want something that we can see, that we can touch? We've had such a wealth of experiences, such graced moments in prayer, and of fellowship. Why do we need souvenirs?

For the same reason that God entered into history, into a specific place and time. We are human beings. We have a spiritual side, but also a physical side. We need images, actions, and symbols to help us express ourselves when we can't quite find the words to do it.

These items are usually not great or valuable treasures in themselves, but when we see them and when we touch them, they, as if by magic, transport us back to another place.  We can hear again the noise of the streets and the refrains of the shopkeepers beckoning us into their stores.  We can feel our legs tire as we remember climbing that mountain, or feel the wave that tried to wash away the perfect shell.  We can still smell the myrrh of the stone that we pressed that rosary against. In this sense, every story of the Gospel has become like a souvenir.  Each passage calls to mind a church, or a landscape, or a savored moment of prayer. No longer will they be stories in a book - they will take on a life of their own. 

There is something sad about leaving these places behind, but it is an essential part of our pilgrimage. In fact our work is really only beginning. This gift, this blessing of spending six weeks in the Holy Land was never intended for us. It was always meant to be shared. As much as we've tried to do that through this blog, and through our photos, it could not be complete without us returning home to our loved ones and sharing our experiences face to face, and heart to heart.

T.S. Eliot penned the following lines, which seem to describe it best:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Our journey could not be complete without coming home, true, but there's something else, as well. We have changed. Our time here, spent in search of the voice and face of the Lord, has made us different. How could it not? None of us returns exactly the same as he left - but that is what happens when you encounter the Living God.

 We come back like the women from the tomb, proclaiming that Christ is truly risen, as He promised. We come back like the disciples from Emmaus, knowing that He is always with us in the breaking of the bread. We come back like the apostles bursting out of the Upper Room on Pentecost, on fire and eager to tell of the glories of the Lord.  

We come back, yearning to give away that which has been given to us.  We come back in the humble yet eager hope that we will soon be able to serve you as priests.

Thank you all so much for your generous prayers and support. May Our Risen Lord bless you, and may Our Virgin Mother keep you always under the protection of her mantle.

- USML Class of 2014

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Friends of Mundelein

Dormition Abbey
 Mt. Zion, Jerusalem

Today, we hosted a group we’ve affectionately-termed, The Friends of Mundelein. We knew a few members of the group because they were from the seminary staff. Others were from Chicago parishes that have longstanding relationships supporting the seminary financially and prayerfully. Still others were benefactors who have directly made this trip to the Holy Land possible. Needless to say, we are so grateful for their friendship.  If that wasn’t enough, after a month in a foreign country it was nice to see some friendly faces!

We were happy to play host to them this afternoon by introducing them to our favorite shopkeepers, favorite churches, and by simply enjoying one another’s company touring the old city of Jerusalem. It was great to share what we’ve learned over the last month and it was good practice for our return in just a few short days!

Being away from home for some of us has been harder than others. Although the last month has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the culture in which Jesus lived and to see these monumentally important places in of our faith, spending time away from our favorite foods and places has been an adjustment. Yet, the hardest part though has been being away from the people that have grown so influential in our lives and our vocations.

Aside from Jesus’ family, I imagine He too made friends in and around Jerusalem just like us. Walking through the streets, conversing with neighbors, going to the markets, Jesus probably had people who were drawn to Him quite naturally. The disciples must have been especially attracted to Him because they left everything, even their families and careers, to follow Him.  Jesus, returned the favor to those at the Last Supper saying, “I no longer call you servants...I call you friends” (Jn 15:15). Furthermore, after the resurrection Jesus appeared to His disciples often after because of the profound friendship they shared.

Friendship is one of God’s most treasured gifts to us as men studying for diocesan priesthood. A friend with whom we can share life’s sorrows and joys is priceless. Without a doubt, we seek intimacy primarily from our Lord in prayer and study, but we also depend on the friendships we’ve made throughout our time at the seminary to sustain and charm our lives. Today was one of those days.  Even though we are over 6,000 miles from home, it was a great day to spend with friends.

“Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.”  -Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thy Will Be Done…

Just outside the ancient city of Jerusalem nestled in the valley is a grove of olive trees. Here, under the night sky, Jesus experienced His agony in the garden, as His disciples waited nearby.
Garden of Christ's Agony

Tonight we too were here, in this very place. Sitting under the olive trees in the garden, we looked through their branches and into the dark sky, contemplating this scene in the gospel. Imagine Jesus here, praying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Deep down He knew this was the Father’s will, but still in His humanity, He also knew the great limits He would be stretched to in the hours that would follow. Yet, despite the trials unto death, Jesus wanted one thing: “Thy will be done.” In His humanity He trusted the Father with every ounce of his being, and low and behold, on the third day He rose from the dead, bringing salvation to all of humanity.

After this, we made our way into the Church of the Agony adjacent to the garden, for an hour of adoration before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. As the hour came to a close, we made a Eucharistic procession back through the garden outside. The priest led us, with our Eucharistic Lord held high in the monstrance. Imagine, here in this garden, the Lord was arrested, and taken away to His death, while the disciples followed with fear and sadness. Now tonight our Lord returned to this garden, in the Eucharist – and this time, as He led the procession, we as His disciples followed Him with confidence and joy.
Preparing for the Eucharistic Procession
Each of us, and each of you want nothing more than to be close disciples of our Lord Jesus. Sometimes we will undergo trials in our lives, but don’t think God the Father can’t bring good from it. Here, in Jesus we have both a companion in our suffering, and a mighty God who has conquered evil, winning the reward of eternal life.

Lord Jesus, give us the strength to persevere in following you. As we continue our pilgrimage through this earthly life, unite us more closely to you, so that when we pray the words in the Our Father, “Thy will be done,” we may have the courage to follow through.

The Glory of God

Annunciation to the shepherds

"Interesting, how the glory of God is related to the good will of his people," Abbot Thomas reflected. 

After a few weeks of pilgrimage, everything begins to look the same. In a sense, we begin to feel like residents on alien soil. Had the human heart been so inclined, it would turn so easily to other matters and forget the goal altogether - to find God in the places where many can no longer find him. But something more than human is at work here. There is a power that warms the blood in the veins of the city of David, and it keeps everything alive. 

A few knocks on the doors of the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Sabbas got us nowhere. An exchange of Arabic words, "Abuna...something, something, something" can be heard from behind the doors, but entrance was forbidden this day. If you thought these holy places stood as an effigy of a past life gone by, you couldn't be more wrong. The monastic heart is still beating in the desert, even on the aged and sharp ridges of Mar Saba, where John Damascene once lived. They thrive on their long and ascetic tradition, an anomaly almost lost to our western sensibilities.

Our sojourn then led us to Shepherd’s field where we had Mass in the remains of an old cave made chapel. Just above and off to the side is the main octagonal-shaped church designed by none other than Barluzzi. 

Shepherd's field

Beyond the site and toward the horizon, you can almost make out the roof top of the Church of the Nativity. There, on the threshold between news and deliverance, one gets a sense that we are here, the place where the shepherds became the first to hear about the birth of the true Shepherd, and where the liturgical hark was heard for the first time on earth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!" This ephemeral event heralded the joy of a father over the birth of his son. 

We leave to find God in the places where many have gone before us. We do this knowing all along that we will have to leave behind the familiar, which acts a lot like a rib cage to a heart that longs to expand. Maybe we come to know it best when we travel away from home for an extended period of time. 

Our experience is all the sweeter when we know that we will be travelling back home again - never the same. Yet, much like Jesus himself, we find no place to rest our heads, except in the company of the most unlikely people, no place to call home but in the kindness that hastens in the time of need, no sense of the familiar except in the crutch of our brothers' arms. It is interesting, indeed, how the glory of God is related to the good will of his people, since it is the good will of others, and thus the glory of God in man, that makes us all a people fully alive.

The Greatest Gift...
(Reflection after Mass at Shepherds Field)
Clay Elmhorst

I can't help but wonder what it must have been like, to be sitting in the middle of nowhere, on a hill a field, or in a Cave, with the smell of sheep –listening to them bellyache about the cold wind...
And I can't help but imagine what it must have been like looking out towards Bethlehem, wondering what it’s like to have a non-shepherd life; to have real respectable work, status and money –wondering what it’s like to have other talents and skills, a successful farm or maybe be a fisherman.

To be a shepherd is something different. During the time of Christ, a shepherd is the last thing you would want to be; as Fr. Lodge said, "It is the Lowest of the Low.” Sometimes you face discrimination, sometimes rejection, and sometimes, you simply have no other place to go. "Here's a few Sheep," your Uncle says, (your only relative) “Good Luck.”

Even though you want to see how green the grass is on the other side, you know very well God Wills all things. And you know He's calling you to feed His lambs, tend His sheep, and feed them. You know very well, who you are; a lowly shepherd, and nothing can change that. (John 21)

And then something amazing happens. I can't imagine what it must’ve been like, to be sitting on a hill, pondering these things and have an Angel appear to you –with the glory of God shining around them. (Luke 2) I can’t help but reiterate the most important part of this scene; “Of great joy, and for all people." And lastly to hear," For today in the city of David a savior has been born, for you who Is messiah and Lord…O what a sight it must’ve been, to see a myriad of angels, hundreds if not thousands, singing and praising to the World,

“Glory to God in the highest, an on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

   -It seems life as a shepherd is not so bad after all...

Last year, when I was on a thirty day retreat, I had an experience I would never forget. During the first week of this retreat, I was taken on a silent journey (literally) through St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. Using the spiritual senses, a director and Holy Scripture, I had to spend 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, on simply being quite. I had to immerse myself into the mystery of Christ, and the only way to do that was one hour at a time, in silence –it was painful. Around the 5th day, I found myself in the nativity scene, where my director kept asking me, who I was, what I felt, and overall what I was doing there...
In the exercises you are taken into, very quietly and subtly, the Word of God; almost at times placing your whole being into the Gospel scene. Using the spiritual senses you become in-tune with Scripture –literally. Sometimes these meditations can take you far, sometimes they don't at all, and sometimes you can experience something mystical...

When I entered the infancy narrative, I was either a character in the passage, an angel standing by or myself in modern clothes. At this particular scene I entered the cave as a shepherd; an ordinary smelly shepherd. All my senses, my perspectives and energies where channeled through the shepherds eyes, it was through the shepherds lowly heart that I contemplated these meditations.

Upon entering the cave, my attention was solely on Mary the Mother of God. I was so overwhelmed by her beauty and poverty, my breath stopped. She was humble and simple, and I couldn't bring myself to look up at her. Because of the smell, and the memory of past sins, I only let myself see fleeting glimpses of her –this it seemed, made her laugh. Her presence was very modest; full of love.  Mary the little Mother was simply Immaculate.

At first I didn't enter, as all I could think of was how bad I smelled; remembering my sins an all the reasons I shouldn't be there, I wanted to turn away. And then it was Mary, who in all her love, pleads for me to come in –to come see her Son. After two days meditating on this scene, I finally allowed myself to enter the cave.....letting go of everything. After two days, Mary was no longer alone, but there holding Jesus. And it was there, with her same laugh and smile, she offered him to me. In all my unworthiness and insecurities, my smell and the memories of past sins, I kept refusing. Bundled up in his swaddling clothes, I struggled to allow myself to hold the Messiah.

When I came to, Mary kept pleading, "Please, it’s Ok," all with her laugh and constant smile. It took time, but soon after I let go of everything, and allowed myself to hold our Lord. I felt fear in holding the maker of Heaven and Earth. (Maybe like that of the shepherds on seeing the angels) My arms trembled, my body froze and my heart simply beat frantically; as if my whole being knew itself, the Divine Power it was holding.

At first I couldn't see Our Lords face, and it took me many hours afterwards to finally allow myself to be able to. I don’t know why, but His face was just too bright. It seemed I had to adjust and let myself “take in” the Reality of what I was doing. When it became easier, I eventually saw the face of God –Emmanuel. In all his littleness and humanity, I finally began to appreciate what it means, "For in Him God is With Us."(Mt 1) When I could make out his features, there he was...the little boy who saves. It was so quiet…there was peace, joy and silence. It was amazing.

   -It felt like going to Perpetual Adoration after a Good Confession

And then He let out a giggle, and Mary had to cover her mouth from laughing too hard. I smiled too. And from that moment on, it became easier and easier to hold the Messiah. After a while, I was looking forward to spending time with him; always the same place and time. I will never forget those hours visiting the Christ Child, and every moment afterwards hearing His laugh, holding His body, and seeing His face.

When the meditations came to an end, I felt it time to move on. And yet, my heart didn't want to go. My director insisted, "you can always come back later.” I knew then, it was more than prayer, it was a gift from Christ Himself; and it became easier to let go of it. But before I moved on into the exercises, something Mystical happened –something mysterious and explicit. In that last hour in the cave, just before I was about to hand back O Lord to His Mother…I stopped. For in that moment, Our Lord did something he had never done before.

In all His beauty and brightness…in all His littleness and weakness...He held out his hands towards my if wanting something. Without pausing to figure out what it was, (and for a split second wondering how exactly swaddling clothes swaddled) I looked up at Mary, startled...And she looked surprised too, holding up her hands up to her face.

With His hands outstretched, almost waving them to get my attention, Our Lord drew me in…I finally realized what he wanted me to do. And after a moment to conduct myself, I heard Mary say quietly, "Go ahead, its Ok," looking up to her, I then lowered my head to that of her Son.

In the stillness of that moment, where time and space seemed irrelevant…I felt the Christ Child place his two, tiny hands on my face, one on each cheek and pull me in towards him....face to face, I looked into the eyes of God...and the infant Jesus pulled me closer, and gently kissed my forehead...and when he was done, I heard in the recesses of my Heart, His Voice echo…”Become like unto me, O' Brother.”

To this day, that experience has left one of the deepest impressions on my person. Although a spiritual exercise, in my heart it was as real as if it physically happened; for in that hour, I truly believe my heart and soul, were totally in-tune with Gods. So much so, the spiritual experience left a physical impression –a memory.

To me, the Priesthood is the Greatest Gift of all…for in it they become uniquely close with Christ as True Brother –the Image and Sacrament of God. In Him, they become self-gift for the Church –as He was on the Cross. They are intermediaries of His Sacraments, and Intercessors of His Mercy. They are most importantly, Mediators of His Body and Blood. They continue His Ministry through the succession of His Apostles, and they help build His Kingdom.

Not a trillion dollars, the perfect life or fortune, could outweigh the gift of priesthood. For through the priest’s ordination and mediation, we physically receive God in the Eucharist; for in Him and for His Church, they are His gift to all. To me, the priesthood is the Greatest Gift, for it is Christ become a Priest for Christ, is to become another Christ....It is Gift and Mystery, all at the same time…for they truly are… In Persona Christi Capitis’

“Glory to God in the highest, an on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

 -It seems life as a shepherd is not so bad after all…

Monday, February 4, 2013

Shrine of the Book

“‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’”~Jeremiah 23:29

In this passage from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God discloses to Jeremiah the extraordinary power of His authentic word. But then the question arises, how do we know if it is truly God’s word? The Lord answers this question in Isaiah 55:11 by saying: “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” In other words, we will know it is God who speaks when we see what is said completed.

Yet as powerful as that authentic word is, when it is written down, God’s word becomes remarkably fragile. Originally written on parchment, or processed mammal skin, the early Scripture scrolls would eventually tear, wear out, or become brittle and break. To give you some idea of how rare such manuscripts are today, before 1947 no Hebrew texts of the Old Testament prior to the tenth century CE were known to exist.

That changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found by a Bedouin boy looking for his lost goat in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea, the Scrolls have given the scientific and faith communities the most ancient Biblical texts to date. Such a discovery’s effect on the Jewish people at the time is hard for us to comprehend. As “the people of the Book”, such a find bolstered and intensified Jewish identity and patriotism at a time so close to Israeli independence and the first Israeli war in 1948.

While we had visited Qumran (where the Scrolls were found) and the Dead Sea more than a week ago, our trip today took us to see a sampling of these scrolls kept in the Israeli museum called “The Shrine of the Book”. Inside, photography and talking are prohibited; photography because of the destructive effects it has on the scrolls, and talking out of reverence for their sanctity.

A lesser known but also important book on display is the Aleppo Codex, considered by many the most accurate Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament available even though it is now incomplete. Although limited space prevents the telling of its more than 1,000 year history here, its creation and survival amid events ranging from the crusades to being smuggled back into Jerusalem during the 1950’s reads more like fiction than fact.

But perhaps in this history of Biblical manuscripts we can know the power of God’s authentic word. We see it enduring not only on the brittle, written page, but also in the hearts and minds of believers transformed by its fire and strength. Without their belief that God was speaking to them and fortifying their spirits with these texts, nothing would have been saved for us discover, whether we find it in the arid caves of Qumran or in our daily reading of God’s Holy word.