My first full day in Bethlehem, Israel

My first evening in the Bethlehem Monastery was a curious one. Having arrived from such an ordeal in Jordan, I was in little need of fellowship and much need of rest. Meanwhile, I found that I was a much-anticipated celebrity in the monastery as Gil had been hyping my arrival for some time. Everyone who I encountered was extremely friendly and desirous to get to know me and spend time with me. I wish I could have communicated my desire back to them, but the language of choice in the monastery is Italian and despite my lineage, I am ignorant of this tongue. I tried my best to communicate through smiles and handshakes, and hope that the Friars would understand my desire for friendship. They did.

That first night Gil gave me some of his clothes to wear at dinner so that I would look presentable (Tommy Hillfinger jeans and shirt - leftover from his trip abroad). Shortly after dinner, he took me on the terrace, so I could briefly check out Bethlehem at night. It was overwhelming to be in the city of Christ's birth and I was so excited to start my journeys. Unfortunately, my body was still troubling me, so Gil graciously let me retire after only ten minutes or so. I snuck back to my room and called it a night.

I slept like a rock.

I woke up the next morning around 7AM and grabbed a snack from the kitchen. The friars have two meals a day (one is at 10AM and the other is at 8PM). There are snacks, fruit, and ingredients for sandwiches, etc. available during the day for anyone who wants them. Believe me - they manage just fine.

Since it was Sunday morning at the monastery, most of the friars were in-and-out of different masses throughout the morning. There are several services held by the Franciscans every Sunday morning to benefit the Christian community in Bethlehem. They also have daily processions to and from the birthplace of Christ, which is believed to be in a grotto in the attached Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity (the true location of Christ's birth cannot be confirmed).

I spent the morning in my room, still trying to recover from my ordeal. I didn't feel very good at lunch and at around 1PM, I took another long nap and ended up sleeping the entire day away until 6PM. When I got up this time, I was feeling more like myself. Cheery and energetic, I had Gil take me back up on the rooftop of the monastery, where I watched my first sunset over Bethlehem. It was incredible. The bustling town of Bethlehem bears little resemblance to the "little" town made famous in Nativity lore. There are buildings, and houses, and traffic, and crowds, and a good deal of noise throughout the day. However, when the sun began its slow decent, and the bright whites turned to passive golds and oranges, and the desert sands sparkled with darker shades of yellow and brown, and the stars of the night sky began to shine onto an indigo horizon, the beauty of modern Bethlehem won me over forever. I soaked up every ounce of the beautiful scenery and marveled at the grace of the landscape encountered by my biblical heroes.

O little town of Bethlehem

connecting with the Holy Land

Bethlehem sunset

disputed Israeli settlements

the landscape of the patriarchs

posing before the "Shepherd's fields"

At around 8PM, the local minaret tower warms up and starts screaming Muslim chant. This directly coincides with the Friars dinnertime. Officially called the "Evening Call to Prayer," I dubbed it the "Evening Call to Dinner" and would listen for it as a guide to remind me where I was supposed to be. Dinner on this night was a real treat. For the first time in three days I was feeling awake, energetic, not sick to my stomach, and I had a healthy appetite. This evening was the first time that I was able to truly "connect" with the Friars. Several of them spoke decent English and they were the easiest to communicate with for obvious reasons. Gil was gracious to translate for me with some of them. All in all, it was a rewarding experience to eat with them and spend time getting to know them.

After dinner, the Friars have a time that they call "recreation." During this time, they all go into a large room and spend time together in various pursuits. The seminary students generally gather in small groups and play cards, backgammon, or other small games. The older friars congregate in another circle and talk and laugh. And then there are a few Mavericks. Father Severino usually turns on the television and watches some kind of sports. Auto Racing was a favorite of his while I was there. Father Georgio, Gil, and myself would generally read the newspaper or talk in small groups. It's a nice little time together and a refreshing way to tone down the day.

After recreation, the older friars return to their room and the younger friars go to a smaller room in the students area and have "extended recreation" which for the most part consists of more television. However, on this night there was a special treat. A large group of the Friars decided to go on a walk through Bethlehem and they wanted me to go with them. So, I decided to go.

As we marched out of the complex, I was extremely fearful for several reasons. First, I was walking through bustling, Arab streets at night and I am white and look suspiciously like a Jew. Second, unlike my Friar friends, I was not wearing a tunic, which identified me as a Friar and this made me extremely uneasy. Third, I am white and look suspiciously like a Jew. Fourth, we were unarmed and we were constantly passing by people who were heavily armed. Fifth, I am white and look suspiciously like a Jew (did I say that one already?) Anyway, my fears were running very high and although I trusted the judgment of the Friars, I feared for my life with every step (mostly because I was white and looked like a jew.)

What I found surprised me.

It turned out that the Friars in Bethlehem were extremely well loved by the people (both Muslim and Christian). People would see us walking and honk their horns, shout out loud, and one car even stopped and everybody in the car got out to kiss the hand of Father amjad- (Father Amjad is an extremely nice Palestinian Christian who is in charge of the Seminary school). While I was with the Friars I felt extremely safe. Walking around with them was like hanging out with rock stars. It was clear to me that what Gil had been telling me all along was in fact true; "the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Land have been in Bethlehem for seven centuries proclaiming the message of peace through the gospel of Jesus Christ." The people seemed to respect them for their faith despite whether or not they agreed with the message. It was a neat thing to experience.

While on the walk, I was able to spend some significant time talking to Gabbi and Ibrahim who both spoke pretty good English. Gabbi was a Palestinian Christian while Ibrahim was Syrian. I found them both to be friendly and funny and I especially appreciated getting to know Ibrahim. We seemed to connect immediately and become good friends.

Walking through the city of Christ's birth was quite an experience, one that I will never forget. However, the city is not much different structurally from most Middle Eastern cities, and lacks the antiquity one would expect from such a legendary Biblical edifice. Still, there is no denying that this is the city of Christ's birth and the very knowledge of that fact seems to be carried on the wind. The aura surrounding one's every step is somehow enhanced by this unavoidable conclusion.

Upon returning to the monastery, I quickly went off to bed. I had hoped that the following day would be a huge day for me, one that I had been planning for a very long time. I knew I would need my rest and wanted to be certain to turn in early.

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