Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)


“The Little Oratory”: A New Handbook for the Home

The new release from Sophia Institute Press, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home is not at all what I had expected – but you will definitely want to keep reading to find out how you can enter for a chance to win a free copy.  Written by David Clayton and Leila Lawler, with illustrations by Mr. Clayton and Deirdre Folley, this volume is certainly a work of Christian spirituality, but one geared very much toward practicality.  If you are in need of a guide on how to bring devotional spaces and practices into your home and daily life, this is very much written for you.

Mr. Clayton and Mrs. Lawler use as the focal point for their book the idea of the “oratory” in the Christian home: a physical place set apart for prayer, and containing visual reminders of our relationship to God.  Beginning with the Early Church, they make a compelling historical and aesthetic argument for having a dedicated area in the house, no matter how large or small it may be, made over for religious use.  Over the course of the book, one begins to understand how doing this can help integrate one’s faith into one’s environment, so that spiritual life grows beyond attending Church on Sunday, into something for every day of the week.

As it happens, I have a cabinet in my own home which I always refer to as my oratory.  It stands about six and a half feet tall, with shelves making up the top 2/3 of the piece, and drawers on the bottom third. Spread out symmetrically across the shelves are devotional works of art, family photographs, and little items reminding me of important people and events in my life.  The largest of the shelves is just at the perfect height where I can kneel in prayer, and rest my hands on its ledge; the last shelf contains my Bibles, prayer books, and those spiritual books I return to most frequently.

One could also call this piece of furniture a shrine, although as the book points out we need to be careful about how we define that term in the home.  “The shrine we speak of,” the authors write, “is meant to be simply a place of beauty, directing our gaze through carefully chosen representative objects toward the transcendent.”  In my case, the cabinet certainly does that, since it’s the first thing one sees when entering the room.  In addition, because the wall sconce hanging above it shines light down directly onto an image of Christ Pantocrator, His gaze is the first I meet when I enter the room.

In this context, although we Catholics say so all the time, it deserves repeating that we do NOT worship such images.  “The Christian veneration of images,” as the authors of the book note, “is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols…the honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone.”  Having a framed picture of a revered or beloved dead relative standing atop the piano in the living room, for example, does not mean you are worshiping them as a god, nor do such objects substitute for the person themselves.  Rather, they are simply visual reminders of them.

Once we can understand the importance of having this space an these cues set apart for prayer, the authors argue, we can then go on to try to incorporate those devotional practices of the Church which we may know about, but find difficult to integrate into day-to-day life.  The huge list of possible prayer practices, from the Liturgy of the Hours to the Rosary, litanies, novenas, examinations of conscience, and so on, may be too overwhelming to try to take on all at once.  Instead, the authors present the practical plan of starting with the space first, and then gradually building from there, as circumstances permit.

Key throughout the book is the authors’ repeated emphasis that the Christian home, and the relationships we enjoy there, must not be maintained separately from the spiritual life.  Rather, the home should be united to faith, in imitation of Christ’s own life. “God came to live among us as one of us,” they point out, “also being born in a family and growing up in a particular place, in order to make evident to us the importance, not only of these human relationships, but of the divine relationship which is the Trinity – three persons in a relationship in the one Godhead.”

Particularly for families, this book can serve as an instructional manual on how to get the kids to develop a deeper prayer life in the home, working with you rather than against you in order to make that happen.  The micro-site for the book even has a number of beautiful coloring pages that you can download and print out for the kids.  For singles, there is plenty for you here, as well – and not only the set of beautiful icon prints that one can can detach from the back of the book to help set up your own little oratory.  The authors take pains to point out how the single person, who is able to more deeply reflect on his own faith in his own space with fewer distractions, can be used to aid others, particularly families, in creating a more prayerful, spiritual home life.  Just as in the monastic houses, all are Brothers and Sisters, becoming someone’s spiritual aunt or uncle, brother or sister, can also be a way to help grow in faith, including by helping them to establish a prayerful space in their own home.

There really is something for everyone in this book, not only in terms of looking at spirituality, but also regarding how to actually go about employing that desire for spiritual growth in real terms.  If I’ve piqued your interest, you can enter for a chance to win a free copy of “The Little Oratory” from this blog, courtesy of Sophia Institute Press.  One entry per reader, please, and I’ll announce the winner this Friday, June 13th.  And of course if you can’t wait, then visit the Sophia Institute Press website, and order a copy directly from them.  I’ll think you find, as I have, a wealth of knowledge and ideas in these pages, which you can draw upon for many years to come.

The Little Oratory





Premiering Tonight: The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land

Those who are regular perusers of these pages will remember my review of Diana von Glahn’s terrific series “The Faithful Traveler” on EWTN.  Well now, Diana is back with a new series, premiering tonight at 6:30 pm Eastern on EWTN, which she and her husband David talked about with us recently on the Catholic Weekend show.  In “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land”, the von Glahns take us on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and you will most definitely want to come along for the trip.

Employing a mix of documentary-style footage, unscripted observations, and interesting interviews, with – I have to say – some beautifully photographed segments and well-designed, appropriately helpful graphics, this six-part series covers many of the places most of us only know from Bible stories.  From Mount Carmel, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, to Jericho, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we are shown all over Israel and Palestine.  Along the way we see many amazing things, we meet interesting people, we laugh, and we may even shed a tear.

We also come to appreciate why seeing these places is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to understand their faith on a new level.  As Diana takes great pains to point out, we cannot know for certain, in most cases, whether a particular contemporary structure does in fact stand on the site of the original one from Biblical times.  Yet without focusing so much on that issue, she helps the viewer to consider the broader historicity of the Bible.  For example, St. Luke in his Gospel describes the Virgin Mary as proceeding in haste to the Hill Country in Judea, to visit the now-pregnant St. Elizabeth.  Well and there it is, on screen: the Hill Country of Judea, which as Diana shows us, is very hilly indeed.

Throughout this well-produced series, it is difficult to imagine a more engaging on-screen travel companion in the land of the Bible than Diana.  She has done her homework, as any good guide should, mixing a careful balance of providing information of interest to all, with offering some clarification for those who might not have heard of a particular term or concept before.  She is a charming, natural tour guide, never saccharine, and clearly enjoyed the experience – that comes through in spades during the series.  At the same time, she is also realistic about things, such as how exhausting all of the walking is going to be if you do go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One technical aspect of the show I personally appreciated, and which a lesser producer would not have bothered to take the time to do, was the incorporation of subtitles when needed.  While someone on camera may well be speaking English, we have all been in a situation where we can understand what someone with a thick accent is saying when they are speaking *to* us, but not when they are recorded.  The show makes certain that if there is any question about whether the speaker can be understood, the subtitles go in to help the viewer.

I also appreciated the fact that Diana does not just visit the sites one would expect her to, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although of course she does so and takes part in the pious devotions associated with them to show us how it’s done.  However she also takes the time to visit some lesser-known gems in the Holy Land, which I might not otherwise have seen or heard about.  The beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for example, is much smaller than the Basilica of the Annunciation nearby, and yet to my mind is a far more beautiful structure.  And I was surprised to learn about the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with its beautiful blue and white azulejos and religious art from Spain, given that I have a particular devotion to his birthday and connection to that country.

The fact that there were these two beautiful churches, among many highlighted in the series, surprised me a great deal, as I have seen so many images of really hideous structures over there.  Of course, there is the sweep of history to consider, and Diana makes the point of explaining – and in some cases being able to show us – how layer upon layer of Christian buildings were built one atop the other, as styles changed and wars and time damaged older construction.  Moreover, when she likes something in a building, she likes it, and when she is not so fond of something, she is charitable about it, which is a virtue I could certainly get better at practicing.

Diana also takes time to draw attention to the fact that the native Christian populations in the Holy Land are declining, a phenomenon we are seeing throughout the Middle East.  One comes to understand and appreciate that in many cases, these pilgrimage shrines are not just historic sites, but people’s parish churches, and a part of their community fabric.  So often in these conflicts the plight of Christians caught in the middle are completely ignored by the outside world, while not-so-subtle threats are posted – as Diana shows us – against those who choose to practice Christianity.  The safety and well-being of these communities is something all of us ought to be keeping in our prayers.

You can watch a preview of “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land” below, and for air times for all six parts, as well as re-air dates, be sure to check the EWTN website.  You can also purchase copies of BOTH series from the von Glahns at their own site, and particularly for those of my readers who are homeschoolers, this might be something very much worth looking into.  It is a real pleasure to see my fellow Domer Diana back on television again with such a terrific series, one which I highly recommend to my readers.