Friday, August 29, 2008

More Prayers from Pio

As I continue my research for my current project ("Lenten Reflections with Saint Pio of Pietrelcina"), I am finding many more prayers or expressions of prayerful sentiments in the letters of Padre Pio. For example, he wrote to Padre Benedetto (Mar 26, 1914), "I no sooner begin to pray than my heart is filled with a fire of love. This fire does not resemble any fire on this lowly earth. It is a delicate and very gentle flame which consumes without causing any pain. It is so sweet and delightful that it satisfies and satiates my spirit to the point of insatiability. Dear God! This is a wonderful thing for me, something I will perhaps never understand until I get to heaven." Here from his letters are some other prayers that Pio "prayed" as he was writing:

I beseech you, O my good God, to be my life, my ship and my haven. You have placed me on the cross of your Son and I am trying to accustom myself to it as best I can. I am convinced that I shall never come down from that Cross and that I shall never again see a clear sky.
I am convinced that I must speak to you in the midst of thunder and hurricanes, that I should see you in the burning bush, amid the fire of tribulations, but to do all this I see that it is necessary to take off one’s shoes and give up entirely one’s own will and affections.
I am ready for everything, but shall I see you one day on Tabor, in the holy sunset? Shall I have the strength to ascend without growing weary to the heavenly vision of my Savior?
I feel the ground on which I tread giving way beneath my feet. Who is to strengthen my steps if not you who are the staff of my weakness? Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me! Do not make me feel my weakness any longer!
May your faith once more enlighten my intellect, may your charity warm this heart of mine which is crushed by the fear of offending you in the hour of trial!
Dear God! How painful is this awful thought which never leaves me for a moment! My God, my God! Do not oblige me to suffer agonies for you any longer! I am unable to bear it any more!
(--Letter to Padre Benedetto, Nov 8, 1916)

Oh, where are the happy days of my life when my most sweet Good was with me and dwelt in my heart? To live is wearisome to me: allow me, dear God, the freedom to complain in my affliction of heart! O most merciful Father, do not now remember the sins of my youth which you had already forgotten. Ah, my God, allow me to weep over my wickedness! Much better for me would it have been had I died in my mother’s womb before any eye had seen me.
(--Letter to Padre Agostino, May 27, 1914)

O life, how cruel you are to me! How long you are! O life, no longer life to me but torment! O death, I do not know who can fear you, for through you life begins!
(--Letter to Padre Benedetto, Jul 7, 1913)
O my God, delightful repose of those who love you, grant at last this rest to a heart enamoured of your beauty, to a heart that lives for one purpose alone, for you alone will and can reduce the torment of a soul that is wasting away from the desire to be united with you forever.
(--Letter to Padre Agostino, Sep 4, 1915)

O Good of my soul, where are you? Where have you hidden yourself? Where can I find you again? Where am I to look for you? Don’t you see, O Jesus, that my soul wants to feel you at all costs? I seek you everywhere but you do not permit yourself to be found….
(--Letter to Padre Benedetto, Oct 17, 1918)

My supreme Good, where are you? I no longer know you or find you, but I must necessarily seek you, you who are the life of my dying soul. My God, my God! –I can no longer say anything else to you—why have you forsaken me? I am aware of nothing but this abandonment, I am ignorant of all else, even of life, which I am unaware of living.
(--Letter to Padre Benedetto, Jun 4, 1918)

O God, the King of my heart, the only Source of all my happiness, how much longer must I wait before I can openly enjoy your ineffable beauty? You pierce my heart with the arrows of your love; you are that cruel One who opens deep wounds in my heart although they cannot be perceived; you kill me without taking any care to raise me up again in your own heavenly abode!
What comfort will you offer to this soul which finds no consolation here below and can have no peace while far from you?
(--Letter to Padre Agostino, Sep 25, 1915)

Praise be to God who does not leave for long without comfort those who hope and abandon themselves in him.
(--Letter to Padre Agostino, Sep 1, 1916)

Dear God, I am rowing and sailing for you; be my pilot and my oarsman yourself.
(--Letter to Padre Agostino, Nov 19, 1916)

For those who are interested, I have a new pamphlet now available from Liguori Publications: Advent Meditations With Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. Here's the link to the publisher's listing: .

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bet Alpha

The ancient synagogue of Bet-Alpha is famous because its mosaic floor is one of the most beautiful ever discovered in Israel. It is large and very well preserved, still brightly colorful and quite striking, though the style is a bit “primitive,” indicating that a younger craftsman may have been the artist.

The central section of the mosaic is a depiction of the Zodiac, with the symbols of each of the months and their names in Aramaic and Hebrew. One can still see the two fish for Pisces, the scorpion for Scorpio, the bull for Taurus, and so forth. In the center of the Zodiac circle is Helios, the sun god, mounted in a chariot drawn by four horses. Outside the circle, at each corner of the compass, is a woman representing one of the seasons.

Above the Zodiac section is another wide panel that shows a collection of Jewish ritual objects: the Ark of the Covenant surrounded by lions, birds, and other animals, fruit, geometric designs, and a menorot (candelabra). This upper panel would have been closest to the area where the synagogue’s ark or sacred objects/scrolls would have been stored.

Below the central Zodiac section is a wide panel that tells the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, as recounted in the book of Genesis:
After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, "Abraham!"
"Yes?" answered Abraham. "I'm listening."
He said, "Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I'll point out to you." Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him. On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, "Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we'll come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
Isaac said to Abraham his father, "Father?"
"Yes, my son."
"We have flint and wood, but where's the sheep for the burnt offering?"
Abraham said, "Son, God will see to it that there's a sheep for the burnt offering." And they kept on walking together.
They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.
Just then an angel of God called to him out of Heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Yes, I'm listening."
"Don't lay a hand on that boy! Don't touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn't hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me."
Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Abraham named that place God-Yireh (God-Sees-to-It). That's where we get the saying, "On the mountain of God, he sees to it."
The angel of God spoke from Heaven a second time to Abraham: "I swear—God's sure word!—because you have gone through with this, and have not refused to give me your son, your dear, dear son, I'll bless you—oh, how I'll bless you! And I'll make sure that your children flourish—like stars in the sky! like sand on the beaches! And your descendants will defeat their enemies. All nations on Earth will find themselves blessed through your descendants because you obeyed me."
Then Abraham went back to his young servants. They got things together and returned to Beersheba. Abraham settled down in Beersheba. (Genesis 22:1-19, The Message)

There are two inscriptions near the mosaic. The first, in Greek, reads, “The well remembered artists who carried out this work Marianus and his son Hanina.” The second, in Aramaic, states, “The Mosaic was laid in the year … of the reign of Emperor Justinus for the price of one hundred measures of gain donated by the villagers.” Justinus reigned 515-528 C.E., so the inscription helps date the structure to the sixth century.

One each side of the mosaic are the remains of a row of three pillars, which separated the main floor area from the areas set aside for more private prayer. Benches would have been located against the outer walls. The synagogue is aligned to the southwest, facing Jerusalem, which is about 60 kilometers away.

Archaeologists believe that an earthquake destroyed the synagogue at the end of the sixth century and that it remained hidden until discovered by members of the kibbutzim Bet-Alpha and Hefzi-Ba in 1928. It was excavated by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1929.

The wonderful mosaic is now protected from the elements; tourists can view it from a raised platform in the darkened room; the site of the synagogue has been partially reconstructed and is now a national park.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dome of the Rock and El-Aqsa Mosque

With apologies in advance for the "edge" in the tone of this entry, I would like to mention the mosques of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, our 2008 visit to Israel did not include any Muslim sites. Indeed, our tour had a distinctive Zionist flavor from start to finish. So we did not get the chance to visit either the Dome of the Rock or the El-Aqsa Mosque—we were not even granted the opportunity to walk the surrounding grounds of the mosques, which now occupy Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the large plateau where King David and King Solomon had constructed the First Temple, and where King Herod had constructed the Second Temple. (For more historical details, please see my blog on the Wailing Wall.)

From the Mount of Olives, a viewpoint overlooking the entire city of Jerusalem, one can see the prominence of the Dome of the Rock in the Jerusalem skyline:

The Dome of the Rock is a most impressive structure, perhaps the most impressive and recognizable in all of Jerusalem. Surmounted by a golden dome, it is decorated in exquisite mosaics/tiles over its entire exterior. A place for private prayer and reflection, it was constructed in 692 C.E. by Abd-al-Malik. Within is the exposed rock at the summit of Mount Moriah, where tradition indicates that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac and where, again according to tradition, Mohammed is said to have placed his foot as he ascended to heaven.
The Mosque of El-Aqsa was built in the 11th century C.E. as a place of worship: there is room on the floor for about 4,000 persons to prostrate themselves in prayer on the exquisite Turkish carpets. The name means “the farthest,” meaning farthest from the holy city of Mecca. The interior space is very large: 75 columns and pillars support the roof; there are 42 clerestory windows of contemporary stained glass.

When I was in Jerusalem in 1983, I was able to visit both El-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. Leaving shoes and cameras outside, my shipmates (this was during a port visit to Israel, when I was in the navy) and I first entered the vast worship space of El-Aqsa—the sense of space is literally breathtaking. Then we toured the Dome of the Rock, seeing Mohammed’s “footprint” in the bedrock of Mount Moriah, viewing the hair from his beard in the shrine, visiting the sacred cave below, and in general marveling at the artistry of the decorations. It was, as they say, an awesome experience.

Unfortunately, during our summer 2008 trip, Rusty and I were not able to visit these mosques. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, entry to the Muslim sites is forbidden to all except practicing Muslims. But even more unfortunately, our tour did not even schedule a time for us to visit the grounds and view the exteriors of the mosques: entry to all except Muslims is prohibited from Thursday afternoons until Sunday mornings, and guards (Israeli? Palestinian?) are stationed at all the entrances to the Temple Mount to keep non-Muslims out. So the best we could do was to stand at the end of the alleyway and view the Dome of the Rock from afar. Here’s what we could see (via a zoom lens):

We could see the mosques from the Garden of Gethsemane area (again, these photos were taken with a zoom lens, and enlarged by means of the computer):

You can see some of the exquisite detail of the exterior.
And from the Citadel (the Tower of David), adjacent to the Jaffa Gate (the Garden of Gethsemane area is in the background, just below the Orthodox church with the onion domes):

The gray dome of El-Aqsa Mosque is on the right (below):

As we approached the Wailing Wall from outside the city, we were able to see the mosque, as below:

I really wanted to show Rusty these gorgeous buildings—they are truly exquisite artistically—so I was quite disappointed that our tour did not include them on our itinerary, perhaps even more disappointed than he was.
Here’s what I was able to see in 1983. First, a view from the Garden of Gethsemane:

These next views were taken on the grounds of the mosques, atop Temple Mount. Note the visitors.

When I took these photos in 1983, I was not using a zoom lens, and I did not enlarge these shots on the computer.

The colors of my photos have faded a bit in 25 years, but one can still see how spectacular these buildings are.

Perhaps when people in this area learn to co-exist peacefully, we will not be excluded from enjoying the best that human culture of any flavor has created.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bet She’an-Scythopolis and Tel Bet She’an

Bet She’an is the site of the remains of a splendid city. Located about 60 kilometers north-northeast of Jerusalem, it covers an area of about 400 acres and features an imposing view of Jordan from the top of a high hill. It was extremely hot and dry when we were there, though it was easy to imagine how pleasant and pretty it would be during the rainy season.

This land was probably first settled about seven thousand years ago—it is a fertile area, close to the Jordan River, and was crossed by the major trading route. About 4,500 years ago, during the Late Canaanite period, the Egyptians conquered the land and made this city their power center. King Saul and his sons were unable to lead the Israelites in victory over the Canaanites in the battle at Mount Gilboa, and the Philistines hung their bodies from the walls of Bet She’an as a warning (see Scripture). Not long afterward, however, King David was able to conquer Bet She’an and make it part of his united kingdom of Israel, and King Solomon made this city an administrative center.

When the Assyrians under King Tiglat-Pilesser III invaded in 732 B.C.E., they destroyed the city, and the area remained unsettled until the [followers of Alexander the Great]Greeks built Nysa-Scythopolis on this spot. The Hasmoneans conquered the area in the second century B.C.E., and the city became predominantly Jewish. But when the Romans conquered Judea in 63 B.C.E., the city took on an entirely new look and became the most important city in the north, with magnificent public buildings, a theater, a long boulevard, and many adornments.

During the Byzantine era, the population of Bet-She’an swelled to 40,000 persons, primarily Christian; a wall was constructed, along with many churches and monasteries. The city declined after the Arab conquest. The earthquake of 749 C.E. practically destroyed the city; it became known as Beisan and became more of a rural village than the thriving metropolis it had once been. It remained small and unimportant through the Abbassid period, the Middle Ages, the Crusader period, and the Ottoman era.

“Rediscovered” at the beginning of the 20th century, Bet She’an has become a vast archaeological site, though only about 10 percent of the city has been uncovered. Excavations are ongoing, and archaeologists continue to learn much about ancient life in the Middle East.

This Byzantine bathhouse contained hot baths (caldaria), tepid baths, and cold baths (frigidaria), with an elaborate heating system for the hot baths. Colored plaster covered the walls, and stunning mosaics and marble slabs served as floor paving.

Public lavatories were built adjacent to the bathhouses and near the theater, for the use of visitors. One can still see the channels where the waters would have flowed.

These mosaics were located alongside the bathhouse, but also quite near the site of the synagogue:

Known as “Palladius Street,” the main boulevard is 150 meters long and extends from the theater to the slopes of the Tel. The street dates from the Roman period but was renovated by the Byzantine inhabitants. In its day, shops lined the street. The date of the boulevard’s construction is known because of an inscription that indicates the portico to have been built during the time of Palladius, governor of the province.

Along Palladius Street is a concourse from the Byzantine era that is referred to as the Sigma. Brilliant mosaics decorated this concourse, some of which are nicely preserved. There are plant and animal motifs, geometric designs, and inscriptions:

In the 2nd century C.E., the Romans built a hippodrome outside the city for horse and chariot racing. During the 4th century, this hippodrome was converted into the theater whose ruins are now visible. This theater originally held about 6,000 spectators and was a venue mostly for hunting displays and other entertainments. The Crusaders removed much of the stonework from the theater when they constructed their nearby fortress, so only about three rows remain of the original seating. Archaeologists have been reconstructing the site in order to provide an educational experience for modern visitors.

Bet She’an is a really spectacular place, and the size alone is monumental. What is perhaps most interesting is the way that the city was built over a village that had been built over a trading center that had been built over a settlement. Each new conqueror or owner “borrowed” building materials from the existing structures to construct new buildings, streets, shops, houses, and over time much earth and debris filled in the older habitations as the new literally rose above the old. This is why modern archaeologists spend so much time digging down through layers upon layers, going back in time as they go deeper into the ground. It is fascinating what one can learn just by seeing where people used to live.