Tuesday, June 12th -
Ein Kerem, "Mary worship," Intifada violence,
and the Bethlehem Shepherd's Fields

After a truly tremendous and special birthday, I did not have too much planned for the 12th. However, opportunities sometimes come along and I decided to take a hold of one. One of the priests (Father Giorgio) happened to be going to Ein Kerem for a good portion of the day and asked if I might like to go along with him. I was grateful for the opportunity.

Ein Kerem is a familiar place to most friars as it is usually where the seminarians spend their first year before being re-assigned to other areas. I had been invited by the friars to go earlier in the week, but was not feeling up to it. I was pleased to get a second chance.

Nestled in the hills north of Jerusalem, Ein Kerem was officially annexed as a northern suburb of Jerusalem some years ago, and today is most noted for the massive Hebrew University and Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center. The largest medical facility in the Middle East, Hadassah touts 12 famous stained glass windows by Chagall depicting the blessings bestowed by Jacob on his sons. The Hebrew University has over 18,000 students and is considered by most to have one of the clearest and most majestic views of the Old City. Unfortunately, I would not have the time or energy to see either.

Father Giorgio and I departed around 8AM. Father Giorgio had been in the Holy Land for about 15 years and was originally from the Washington DC area. It was nice to spend some time talking with him and I appreciated both his well-spoken English as well as his knowledge of my hometown area.

After a brief stop in Jerusalem, we arrived in Ein Kerem at the Church of St. John around 9:30. Ein Kerem is traditionally considered the birthplace of John the Baptist. The church of St. John is in a small valley built over a grotto that contains his birthplace (according to legend.) Halfway up the hillside is a beautiful church, which I was encouraged to visit, which Father Giorgio called, "the Visitation" (more on this spot momentarily). At the top of the hill was the aforementioned Hebrew University and Medical Center. Both the church and the University lie above the beautiful valley of Sorek, which is said to be the exact location where Sampson went down to meet Delilah.

  • Judg 16:4 "And it came to pass afterward, that he (Sampson) loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah."

The Church of the Visitation marks the spot where Elizabeth and Mary met.

  • Luke 1:39-42 "And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda. And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."


Sorek Valley of Sampson

Shimmering church of St. John the Baptist

The church was like a white gem shimmering on the hillside. Surrounded by lush green trees and an attractive walkway, there was a very beautiful and enticing feeling that drew me to climb up. Father Giorgio was there to teach a music lesson and set me free to wander through the town and hillside. Sparsely populated and fairly far from the West Bank, I felt a pervading peace being alone. I started my trek from the valley up the walkway that eventually lead to the church. Climbing the impressive and ancient stones, one had a beautiful view of the Sorek Valley.

As I approached the top, I marveled at the beautiful church. Somebody in the Catholic faith must have been skilled in the arts of real estate. "Location, location, location" is a popular realty concept and the Catholic church seems to have the best properties no matter where one seems to venture in the Middle East. Although beautiful, something disturbed me about the Church of the Visitation. It was a recurring theme that would echo for the rest of my journey and the rest of my life. I would write about it in my journal.

Journal Excerpt:
Since my arrival in the Holy Land, I have been very disturbed to find many shrines and icons dedicated to Saints, Historical figures, and Biblical and extra-Biblical events. I believe in God Almighty, existing eternally in three persons. I believe that the entire focus of our entire life must be on Him. I believe that ANYTHING that distracts our attention from Christ must be destroyed and abandoned. Therefore, what place can shrines and icons have in our Christ-centered lives? I understand the points of debate. I understand them pro and con. Yet, I have seen two churches today in Ein Kerem that both contain giant and beautiful altars, which do not contain images or reference to Christ (beyond crosses). Where then is our faith if Christ is not at the forefront? Who are we worshipping? Do we even have a faith, or a perverted form of polytheism?

I can swear before God with a clear conscience that my devotions are to Him alone. Albeit I am prone to sin and fall from grace, I at least know whose graces I am running back to. My prayers do not rise to the Virgin Mary, or saints, or to any other created entity. My thoughts and meditations are not focused on the Virgin Mary, or saints, or any other created entity. I do not share my heart, make my requests, focus my energies, or hope for Salvation on the Virgin Mary, or saints, or any other created entity. My heart is grieved beyond words and greatly disturbed at the wealth of sacrileges that I have seen today. I believe they undermine much of what the Gospel of Christ seeks to establish. In the Spirit of Jefferson, I swear upon the altar of God eternal hostility upon anything, which distracts man from the uninterrupted and indivisible worship of the one, true God.

Beautiful altars and paintings

Mary is the focus

a side wall of "the Visitation"


Gorgeous altar at St. John's

No Jesus here

Even the stained glass bear the image

"Birthplace" of John the Baptist

Dismayed and discouraged, I departed Ein Kerem after lunch, which the friars at the Church of St. John were gracious enough to serve to Father Giorgio and myself. We returned around 2PM and I took a brief nap and then did some studying and praying.

Dinner is normally served at 8PM in the monastery, yet on this day it would be served earlier at the Shepherd's Fields to celebrate the end of the seminary term. About 15 minutes away from the Franciscan Monastery lay another Franciscan property on the outskirts of town. Excavations at that spot have revealed the remains of an ancient, Christian church built by the Crusaders and destroyed by the Muslims. Due to its position in the area, it is believed that the Crusaders built the church near the place where the Shepherds were tending their flocks by night and encountered the host of Angels. Due to the lay of the land, this would appear to make sense, but as for most places in the holy Land, we cannot be certain of the exact location.

Gil encouraged me to walk with him to the dinner and many of the other friars decided to do the same. Gil and I had occasion to walk past several heavily armed Palestinian guards. As long as I was with Gil, I felt pretty safe. However, that would change about 5 minutes into our walk. All of a sudden, there was a tremendous thunderstorm. Yet, it was sunny and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I was rather taken back and flinched momentarily. Gil nonchalantly strolled onward. I asked Gil if that was a bomb. He said that they were probably shelling on the other side of the hill, but not to worry because the bombs weren't landing near us. Very interesting theory, but I am unaccustomed to the real-life repercussions of living in a war zone. I live in a suburb of an American city, I'm 29 years old and have never heard a live shell drop. Gil has seen worse, of course, with the Intifada now 9 months old. By the time we had arrived at the Shepherd's Fields, we had heard another couple explosions and there were probably another dozen during the 2-hour dinner.

We decided to drive home from the dinner and it was a very non-eventful trip. Father Severino let me use the computer that evening and I e-mailed home to my friends.

Excerpts from E-mail sent on 6/12/01
I spent today at Ein Karem, about 30 minutes north of Jerusalem. I returned in the evening and my friend Gil and I walked down to the traditional Shepherds fields where the friars were planning a nice dinner. While we were walking, the bombs began falling. I have never felt live ammunition fall before, and it is a terrible and hideous feeling to be near the action. It feels like a very angry and profound thunder that shakes and rattles the landscape. However, the reality is that each thunder spells probable death for whoever is unlikely enough to be near the concussion. I am overcome with emotion as I hear and feel the ground shake. My friend Gil doesn't even flinch, as it is relatively "old hat" to him. Besides, the bombs are not landing near to where we are, and there is a fairly regular routine to the targeting. Still, it is quite the terror for me, and I have been apprehensive for much of the evening (it is 9PM now in Bethlehem.)

Please be in continued prayer for my safety as hostilities occur and tensions run extremely high. You all are in my thoughts and prayers and I miss you very much."

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