Sunday, October 26, 2014

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.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Seriously? WTH woman! I can't believe what your telling me. What an overwhelming experience. I'm learning more about the reason you gave up your cushy everything...now I am in awe. The writing of your experience instills in me both the fear and excitement you were going through before you boarded that airplane. You really blew me away with this blog. I understood that chances of getting an opportunity like this were slim, but I did not understand how slim or the conditions in which and with whom you would be living. The word SCHOOL, even an elite school, in this day and age paints a very different picture in my mind. This was not what I was expecting, it's even more awesome.

    I feel like it's confession time for some of us Sparkie's... As I was raised Roman Catholic as well, that's common for Sicilians. My parents were strict with the teaching and I went through the religious ceremonies as well. However, after instilling their beliefs my parents released me into the world and allowed for the investigations of other faiths... I have studied all manner of religion at one time or another but would consider myself well versed in none as there is so much to know, each church does things a little different and of course there is that small matter of beliefs/documents that are disputed/contested. While I'm not going to post this on my own page because I don't want anyone throwing rotten tomatoes at me or threatening to set me on fire, it's fairly safe to tell you something here. If you remember on my page I said I was a Criminology and Psychology Major and a Religious Studies Minor....Well I kind of left out the word Occult in that sentence...


    2415 days ago

    Comment edited on: 11/6/2014 12:52:04 PM
    Danielle, that is an amazing experience. I can understand your love/hate complicated relationship with religion and the fascination with studying ancient texts. Strangely, as a fellow atheist and all, it makes very good sense to me. :)

    It's a beautiful place, and must have left you a good deal of time for reflection and personal growth, as much as getting to understand people with other belief structures and experiences. I've always found older people vastly more interesting, because of the depth and breadth of experiences they've had and how much their attitudes have changed.

    Thanks for posting this blog; it's beautiful to read and your pleasure in the experience is obvious. :)
    2422 days ago
  • DTHOR6
    Wow how awesome and you truly did have a beautiful view. Can't believe I would say that about a cemetery. Thank you so much for sharing this. How awesome it must have been for you!

    2423 days ago
  • no profile photo CD1904002
    What an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing and the pictures as well. I agree, the cemetery is beautiful, especially the night shot. I too (I think I mentioned this previously), was raised Roman Catholic. 10+ years of Catholic school until I got kicked out, but still had to go to church, until I moved out of my parents house. I understand many of your feelings in regards to religion and find myself more and more leaning towards atheist. But I too, would treasure an experience like this, and thankfully, many of those priests became your friend - so wonderful and sweet. Thank you again for sharing your story.
    2424 days ago
    That is the most fascinating thing I have read in a long time! Wow. I am in awe of you right now ~ what an experience. I still can't get over it. Good for you though on doing what you wanted to do, when & where you wanted to do it... and sticking it out. Simply amazing! Thank you so much for sharing.
    2424 days ago
    like you i also had a very strong roman catherlic upbringing .going to mass every day and 4 times on a sunday plus the usual extra masses at christmas,easter,passover,sacrament for the sick etc,etc.i am sure you know what i mean and as kids we used to have to go on a two week silient retreet in st beino´s every year which was very hard for a chatty person like me.like you i also started to question my faith especially when my aunty babara wanted to marry my uncle peter.her first husband was a phycho who tried to kill her and later on also set their home on fire with her and the kids in.eventually when i was 5 he got life time prison for killing a policeman who tried to help my aunty babara.she natuarally got a divorce from him but the chuirch did not accept it so my aunty barbara abd uncle peter married by registry office.when her kids (my cousins)were old enough to be baptised the church refused to baptise them as in the churchs eyes they were illigitimet as their parents marriage wasn´t accepted.i then over the years looked into and studied various differant religions till i found islam and became muslim.a decition i have never regreated.my sister is an atheaist like you though and the rest of my family are devote roman catholics.infact my brother and other sister stopped talking to me when i turned to islam.my brother wouldn´t even speak to me when my father died.when we were at the funeral my brother wouldn´t ride in the same car as me.sit in the same row at the church and wouldn´t even come to the wake afterwards as i was there.that hurt me the deepest of all as i was a daddy´s girl.that my brother could so act to me was disrespectful to our father.so much is done in the name of religion which actually doesn´t belong truely to religion which to me should be about,peace,tolerance,friendship and love and community.i can see where you are coming from but i am glad i still have allah/god to believe in .take care and keep smiling and thanks for sharing your journey with us. emoticon emoticon
    2424 days ago
    I am just catching up with some blogs this evening; what a treat yours was! I love the way you write. What a fascinating life you have lead. I really look forward to reading more of your entries!

    2425 days ago
  • no profile photo CD5940981
    The experiences that you pursued, were granted, endured and survived have shaped you into an wonderfully complex and beautiful person with whom I'm grateful to have become acquainted.

    Most of all I hope that your time on SparkPeople adds depth to the world of experience in which you will leave your impression..
    2425 days ago
  • no profile photo CD14895051
    It must have been difficult to leave such a beautiful place, filled with boyfriend priests and olive and lemon picking nuns, surrounded by a whole crew of people who, for whatever else they were or are, were attempting to understand something profound about our existence. Conclusions varied widely I'm sure, but the bond that forms from the discussion must be exquisite.
    2425 days ago
    WOW!!! What an experience!
    2425 days ago
  • no profile photo CD5465300
    A priceless experience, and quite the adventure! I think I would have been partly petrified, partly exhilarated each day!

    I am also an atheist (well, agnostic, but close enough) raised by Roman Catholics. My mother was in the final stages of joining the convent - as in, she had already given away all her worldly possessions - when she fell in love with my father. I have been told how sad it is that I won't be with them in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thankfully, I'm not particularly worried about it. ;)
    2425 days ago
    Thank you for sharing.
    2425 days ago
    Hi Danielle,
    I have been catching up on your last few blogs...and oh my...Wow. As a relatively new spark friend, there was and is so much I did not know about you.

    You fascinate me. And your writing is fabulous which makes your blogs fun to follow. Thanks for not boring me to tears. emoticon

    But seriously. No SERIOUSLY!!!!!!

    You just got back from Jerusalem for a year? What the what?

    I am very intrigued. And very Christian, I might add. But not conservative. And not Catholic.

    Well, wait, what would "very Christian" be, I wonder? I'm sure THAT is a negative label just waiting to be applied. Perhaps, a better phrase would be quite happily spiritual and faith filled, despite having no reason to be so. And yes, I attempt to model my life after Jesus, rather than another religious figure, and therefore I a call myself a Christian.

    In any case, I have two very important questions. Has your cat traveled with you in all of these adventures. And did the Priests get to see your cat dressed like a nun?

    P.S. I spent a month living among the Hutterites during college. They do EVERYTHING communally, but the communal meals were particularly trying for me. So, I hear ya on that one.

    2426 days ago
    More more more! :) This is so interesting! When is your memoir coming out? I want to read it. Else you need to to blog more about this. :)
    2426 days ago
    Thanks for the slice, very intriguing.
    2426 days ago
    What an amazing experience. Just shows . . . . despite pre-conceived notions, you appeared to like the experience!!

    My grandmother was Polish. MG, she made a breat that could rival any hammer you've ever used!

    2426 days ago
    2426 days ago
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