The Monastery of Mar Saba
After our regular morning classes today we took our first “field trip”. Our first destination was to a remote monastery founded by Mar Saba (Saint Saba), a Byzantine hermit from what I think was the 7th century. As our bus left the city of Bethlehem, it didn’t take long to see just what a desert this place really is. As we got further and further out in the middle of nowhere I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could live out here. We eventually arrived at the very simple monastery located basically on the side of a cliff. As much as life in a monastery out in the middle of the desert seemed to be difficult enough to me, our guide told us that the monks actually lived in caves in the side of the cliffs and only came to the monastery once a week. They ate only bread and water and, once, a monk was caught dipping his bread in his water and was immediately punished by the Saintly founder. As I looked at the monastery I assumed we were looking at a historic site that had been preserved for us to look at. However, we then realized that there were still monks living here. It is the oldest continually occupied monastery in the world. About dozen Greek Orthodox monks live there now in much the same conditions as those first monks in the 7th century. It’s a great witness to see how, in this age of technology and constant communication, God still plants a desire in certain people to get away and leave it all to go be at peace and pray. I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us. As we read the Gospel of Luke in class I notice how Jesus even needs to get away by himself and pray. The monastery of Mar Saba and the life of the monks I envision live there does have a sort of appeal to me. The monks don’t live in the caves any more, so we rang their bell, hoping to meet them and see the monastery, but they were busy praying…which seemed rather fitting to me and so I was not too disappointed. An interesting note is that our guide is the same guide the Mundelein pilgrims had 7 years ago when we last had the pilgrimage quarter in the Holy Land. To give you an idea of how remote and desolate this place is, the guide said the last time he had been to Mar Saba was seven years ago with the previous Mundelein pilgrims.
Pictures Inside Church at Shepherds’ Fields
After our visit to Mar Saba we went to the location of the Shepherds’ Fields where the angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus. This location has had some kind of a monument marking the spot since at least the 4th century and a monastery was first built there about that time as well. The site is located in the hills overlooking a valley with fields below. The fields were somewhat barren at this time of winter, but our guide said that they would be green by March and that shepherds still bring their sheep here. There are caves up in the hills where the shepherds would sleep, and use to bring the sheep inside for protection. We had Mass in one of these caves. I didn’t really know what to expect from our visit to shepherds’ fields, but I ended up having a very powerful experience there. As we finished Mass it was getting dark and I could just picture it being sundown on Christmas Eve 2000 years ago. I found myself looking up at the sky and picturing what this place would look like with “a multitude of the heavenly hosts” all hovering about the sky. I tried to put myself in the place of the shepherds. What a wondrous night that must have been, to hear the voice of the angel…Glory to God in the Highest! The little town of Bethlehem would have been about 20 minutes away. My mind returned back to my visit to the Church of the Nativity and I imaged the shepherds running haste there and entering the little cave to find Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Shepherds’ Fields is such a powerful place to meditate. I really wanted to be there 2000 years ago and be able to observe the scene from my spot on the hill. As it grew darker and became time to leave, I thought in my mind that hopefully in heaven I will be able to come back to this place and really experience what it was like that first Christmas Eve.
Shepherds’ Fields at Sunset