There are many experiences of homecoming in my life. The very first one is, of course, the one I always recall with the greatest fondness whereby I received the gift of life and the love of the people closest to my heart: my mum, my dad and my sister. Going home is, and will always be, something special and unique. As I grew up and left that home I was called to live in the one given to me through my vocation to consecrated life. The religious community would never be a replacement for the family life I knew as a child and young adult but it is, and should be, a home. Home is the place of safety and joy and also sometimes of arguments, heartaches and tension. But home is most of all the place to which we all want to return; it is a bond, a relationship which we create with one another.
This July (04-25 July, 2018), I was privileged to participate in three weeks’ study of the Book of Leviticus at the Bat Kol Institute in Jerusalem where each year Christians have an opportunity to study the Bible within Jewish milieu, using Jewish Sources. The program was intense and filled with many experiences. Almost every day started with learning and praying the Siddur, the Jewish daily prayers, followed by Hebrew lessons and various lectures delivered by rabbis from the various synagogues, reflecting on many key themes found in the third book of the Old Testament. There were many opportunities for “Havruta” study of the Bible which traditionally involves breaking open the Word of God in small groups of 2 – 4 students. The participants and teachers came from various parts of the world: Israel, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Ireland and they represented many other nationalities by their country of origin (Brazil, Korea, Canada, Ireland, Poland, Tonga, United States and Britain.) Among them were three priests, consecrated brothers and sisters and pastoral ministers. Each week students were invited to join the Shabbat dinner at the accommodation (St Charles Hospice) and to prayer in the reformed synagogues in Jerusalem. The richness of these experiences broadened our horizons of thinking about our faith and were truly inspirational. We discussed what we had learnt and increased our learning through our shared experiences. We prayed in the Jewish tradition and gladly celebrated the Eucharist in our Roman Catholic rite.
What really united us with our Jewish neighbours was our faith: different faiths perhaps, but both striving to understand the divine and connect it with the human experience. Some of the participants from the congregation of the Brothers of Sions currently live in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Their being local was extremely helpful (as our generous, knowledgeable tour guides!) for those of us who were there for the first time. We used every break we had, every moment of free time, to reach out and touch, see, smell and taste the places where our Lord lived and died. There were tears of emotion shared in the Garden of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Visitation, and many other places. For me, as a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Church of St Joseph in Nazareth were extremely special. Powerful moments of emotion happened for me when I brought to these places in prayer those people I love (and/or don’t love enough yet!), those who asked for prayers, those I would love to have been there with me, and those I know who have dreamed all their life of being in the Holy Land but cannot yet be here.
It is impossible to be with others on such a personal journey without sharing our life stories. Our group was both lively and loving. Many of us moved from being mere classmates to becoming friends, knowing that even separated by distance because of our different home countries, we will be friends staying connected by prayer.
After three weeks of intense study and immersion in the Jewish tradition, the Book of Leviticus became more understandable for us. Following the call of the Vaticanum II expressed in the declaration Nostra Aetate, we started to make our journey home aware and encouraged to be the sign of dialogue and unity between Christians and our Jewish brothers and sisters. Although the study never ends, we know at least a bit more of what constitutes the basis for holiness: being able to contemplate God and be in awe of our God.
On the last day of the course, each of us received a special blessing and blessed others. The Bat Kol Founding Director Sr Maureena Fritz, Academic Director Dr Marcie Lenk and the Executive Secretary Rev. Gill Putnam, sent us off with encouragement to never give up learning, to find Bible study partners, continue learning Hebrew and…to return to Jerusalem.
The last day was also exactly twenty years since my final profession as a sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth. My classmates surprised me with an occasional speech, song and gift. At the end of the day, I prayed with gratitude and tears, simply feeling overwhelmed with the blessings I have received in my life: the day God gave my parents the grace of giving me life, calling me to consecrated life and allowing me to enjoy these past three weeks in the Holy Land.
The experience in Jerusalem was like coming HOME….