Israel travels

Monks in Zion

The Benedictines who serve at Abu Ghosh’s Church of the Resurrection set aside hours and sometimes days for meditative silence, but when they do speak, it’s often in colloquial Israeli Hebrew with their Muslim neighbors

The church's interior (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The church's interior (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Every year on Christmas Eve, hundreds of Christians, Jews, and Muslims stream into Abu Ghosh and fill the Church of the Resurrection to overflowing. Asked by the monks to respect the sanctity of the church (and to turn off their cellular phones), they sit waiting, expectantly, in a hushed and uncharacteristic silence. The images in the church’s brilliant frescoes, painted nearly a thousand years ago, seem to hold their breath in anticipation.

Suddenly, the pungent fragrance of incense permeates the air. Splendid music echoes through the high and ancient ceilings as, dressed all in white, Benedictine monks and nuns proceed solemnly into the sanctuary. Midnight Mass has begun.

Nuns at the altar during a mass, Church of the Resurrection (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nuns at the altar during a mass, Church of the Resurrection (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

For centuries, there were no services in this church. In fact, when the first Benedictines reached the Muslim village of Abu Ghosh they discovered unruly shrubs growing on the roof, the inner walls, and interior, covered with manifold layers of grime and calcium deposits. The whole structure was on the verge of collapse.

Ownership of the church in Abu Ghosh and the land on which it stood had been transferred from the Ottoman Turks to the French government in 1873. It had taken over 25 years to find a group of monks willing to take on the task of restoring the abandoned and neglected sanctuary, built during the Crusader era and located in the center of an Arab Muslim village outside of Jerusalem. Franciscans, White Fathers, Assumptionists — all had refused the offer.

But now the Benedictines had come. As soon as possible they erected a beautiful stone monastery against one of the deteriorating walls to act as its brace. They then began repairing the rest of the walls, which had remained standing only because they were unusually thick. When they finished they christened the sanctuary the Church of the Resurrection.

Half a century later the Benedictines left and were replaced by Lazarists who remained only until 1974. Now the French looked for more permanent caretakers. They found them at Le Bec-Hellouin Monastery in Normandy, France, an establishment whose abbots had always had strong feelings about Judaism and felt a deep-seated connection to the Jewish people.

Obedience and humility are highly regarded virtues in the Benedictine world. The Rule prohibits bitter or disgruntled behavior… It also states that a guest is to be treated as if he were the Messiah!

Dom Grammont was abbot at Le Bec in the 1970’s. When he learned about Abu Ghosh he felt a divine call to send some of his monks to the village. Three of them embarked on the journey in 1976, one of whom would serve as their spiritual father for decades. A year later, Brother Olivier, today the monastery’s prior, joined the community in the Holy Land.

“I forged my earliest bond with Israel when I was about 13 and saw the movie Exodus (the story of the founding of the State of Israel),” Brother Olivier once told us. “For the first time, I understood that there were idealists in the world, people who were motivated by a cause. Then, when I entered Le Bec and prepared to become a monk, I would open Psalms or the Bible and read “Zion, Jerusalem, Israel.” And every time, I would feel a pull to come to this country. It had all come together for me: Exodus, the Bible, Judaism, Zionism.”

Unlike other monks, Benedictines take a vow to remain in their chosen monastery their entire lives. Of course, living forever as a family and in such close quarters requires discipline, and Benedictines are governed by a set of regulations written over 1,500 years ago that detail every facet of communal life. The Rule of St. Benedict charges monks to worship 7 times a day, directs them to set aside hours and sometimes days for complete silence, and allows plenty of time for contemplation and meditation that help the monks to reach new spiritual heights.

Obedience and humility are highly regarded virtues in the Benedictine world, notes Brother Olivier. The Rule prohibits bitter or disgruntled behavior, as that would completely disrupt the sense of family. It also states that a guest is to be treated as if he were the Messiah!

Every morning after the second set of prayers the monastery’s monks meet in a corner of the vaulted crypt beneath the church and listen as the Abbot reads a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict. It is here, in this solitary place, that they also discuss major decisions.

One of the frescos at Church of the Resurrection, Abu Gosh (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
One of the frescos at Church of the Resurrection, Abu Ghosh (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Not far from the semi-circle of chairs in what the monks call the “chapter”, a spring flows underground. In the second century, the tenth Roman Legion built a fort and an enormous cistern above this spring. Nearly a thousand years later the Crusaders identified Abu Ghosh with the biblical Emmaus (Luke 24:13-36). Utilizing the vaulted reservoir as a crypt, they constructed a beautiful church just above it and decorated the walls with stunning frescoes that were just recently restored. “The experts who worked on them added only what they were sure had been there before,” emphasizes Brother Oliver, “so what you see today are authentic Crusader-era paintings, rarely found in Israel.

When the first monks came to Abu Ghosh they felt quite lonely and isolated. Fortunately, Arab nuns living in the region made them feel welcome. “They were like mothers to us,” says Brother Olivier. “This opened our hearts to another world, and although we have never abandoned our primary and special relationship to the people of Israel we also have many connections to Palestinians in Bethlehem and Muslims from the village.”

Brother Olivier, born to an unreligious and blatantly anti-clerical Catholic family, learned his English as a hip teenager rocking to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. His incredibly colloquial Hebrew is the result of hours spent conversing with an Arab from Abu Ghosh who, like everyone else in this steadfastly friendly village, speaks Israel’s national language to perfection. “It is the ultimate paradox in a land of multiple contradictions: a Benedictine monk learning Hebrew, in Israel, from a Muslim villager!” he exclaims.

Brother Olivier, Church of the Resurrection, Abu Gosh (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)
Brother Olivier, Church of the Resurrection, Abu Ghosh (photo: courtesy Shmuel Bar-Am)

Like the other monks, the affable Olivier passes his mornings in prayer and study. Most of his afternoons are spent with individuals and groups who are interested in Christianity and want to learn about life in a monastery from a “real” monk. Many curious Israelis come on their own, while others are with groups from the Society for the Protection of Nature, or studying in institutions offering courses on Jerusalem and Jewish history. For years, the Israel Defense Forces brought soldiers in the IDF’s educational program, although lately, and for various reasons, their numbers have dwindled. “I tell them,” says Olivier, “one and all, that with mutual respect, good will, and an open heart, anyone can become friends.”

Olivier loves to reminisce about a young Israeli from a coastal city who he has known for many years. During his army service, the youth “returned” to religion, but called the monk to say that even though he is now ultra-Orthodox they were still brothers.

One day the young man came to Abu Ghosh and the two embraced in greeting as they always did. “It was only afterwards that we realized people on the grounds had stopped short and were looking at us in shock,” laughs Olivier. “Watching a black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jew, with long forelocks hugging a Christian monk dressed in white in a Muslim village — they certainly must have thought that the Messiah had come.”


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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