My Spark-page clearly states that I am an atheist. It neglects to point out that I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic environment by French parents (English is my second language)------I've been baptized, communionized, and confirmed. My page also fails to mention the fact that I have spent 10 of my (almost) 14 years in university studying Biblical texts and, perhaps more significantly, Biblical languages. My relationship to religion is, to say the least, complicated. These days when people I meet ask me what I do, I tell them I am a refugee from Biblical Studies. Because it is true: I deviated from Biblical studies and plunged head first into an alternate field of study. The irony comes from the fact that I chose to take refuge from the Bible in a monastery in Jerusalem.
The monastery in question is not ordinary. It functions as a research institute. While the priests are also monks who live a cloistered life, every single one of them is a scholar, and a select handful are famous in their respective fields. Well-known secular scholars from all over the world (Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Berlin, Paris) pay exorbitant rates to spend time living in that cloistered environment for the opportunity to socialize with other scholars and to access the monastery library which is the absolute best in its field. The monastery museum, small yet notorious, houses an impressive (and sometimes highly contested) trove of archaeological treasures collected by the scholar-priests over the last 170 years from every corner of the Levant: Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula. The school also plays host to visiting diplomats and dignitaries. The place overall has the "air" and elegance of a 19th century colonialist enclave for wealthy and privileged white folks who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in the Middle East.
The priests accept a only a small number of students each year, all of them at the doctoral level. During my stay in Jerusalem, about 15 of the doctoral candidates were theology students visiting from the Pontifical Institute in Rome. The non-priest students, of which I was one, are the minority and during my stay, we were four. I list them all here for you as it was an interesting mix: first was N, a baroness, whose recently deceased grandmother was the Princess of Bavaria and the Arch-Duchess of Austria; second was A, engaged to the eldest son of a castle-owning French Count (I actually attended the wedding in 2013 but that is a post for another time); third was G, whose wealthy grand-mother in St. Tropez keeps his bank account nicely topped-up and surprised him in 2009 with a beautiful flat in Paris for his birthday. I was the fourth and we hardly need to revisit my financial status (or lack thereof). I should point out, however, that I am a leftist from way back. Marx, particularly in his early writings, makes me laugh. So this all took some getting used to.
The property as a whole is stunning: a series of quaint old buildings including a Basilica, the main cloister and library, the nun-house, the museum, and the old convent where we students had our cells. Everything sits charmingly in the midst of 5 idyllic acres of prime Jerusalem real estate.
My cell was adorable. It had 16 foot ceilings and old limestone block floors:
The carpet in the photo is a priceless hand-woven antique from Kurdistan, loaned to me by one of the priests who has been living and working in the Middle East as an archaeologist for over 50 years now. He has acquired quite a collection.
My windows, built in the French style, opened out onto a Muslim cemetery. I loved my view. If you look closely, you can see the minaret and palm trees in the distance. Here is a photo of the cemetery at night:
The gardens, a little wild, are a peaceful, pristine getaway from the political tension that permeates the very air of Jerusalem 24 hours per day. The property is gated: sixteen-foot walls surround the school and all comings and goings are monitored electronically. The school is in East Jerusalem and sits right on the controversial so-called "Green Line" in Palestinian territory. More specifically, the school is about a one minute walk away from one of the only eight entry points to the old city: the Damascus Gate.
I won't lie to you. I felt a great deal of resistance to the idea of living with 40 priests. I am not religious. I am a woman. And, at an academic level, I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with anything Biblical. On a scale of 1-10, my expectations were about at zero. On some counts, I was absolutely justified. Most of the resident-priests are waited-on hand and foot by nuns. As a woman, this was hard to swallow. The nuns are Polish immigrants who are largely unable to communicate in any of the languages spoken at the school: English, French, German, and Arabic. The nuns do the laundry, they harvest the olives and lemons that grow in the cloister garden, and they are also responsible for everything kitchen-related [word to the wise: limit your exposure to Polish cooking. Trust me on this one]. Some priests---not all----treat foreign (i.e.: non-Caucasian) students very badly. Some priests are terrible snobs and not particularly bright. I have excellent instincts and many of my original concerns were right on the money: sexism, racism, religious fanaticism, etc ...
But if truth be told, it wasn't all bad. We ate together----priests, visitors, researchers, students----in the rectory. Three times per day, every single day, 365 days per year. I had a hard time with communal meals because I like my space. The few times I did decide to take my lunch and eat it outside or in my room alone, about 40 people would later come over to ask me if something was wrong! As a result of these weird eating practises, we all got to know one another very well indeed whether we wanted to or not. Anyway, once everyone stopped thinking they had to find me a husband (I put a stop to that in my second week there), I managed to develope some very close friendships with 5 of the priests, all of whom are over 70 years old. All five are incredibly complicated individuals and not particularly easy to get to know. I came to love each of them for different reasons: some are geniuses, some have led absolutely fascinating lives, others are simply extraordinary human beings. In each case we had some sort of strange affinity. I refer to them as "my boyfriends" and we all find this very amusing. And when it finally came time for me to leave, I didn't want to go. Part of me could have stayed and lived in that monastery forever.