My name is Cody Feikles, a 24-year-old Graduate Student working on a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in Boston, Massachusetts (USA). Toward the beginning of my first year of studies, our student cohort was notified about an opportunity to study abroad for 3 weeks during the summer of 2018. The opportunity was about a joint collaboration between Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, Boston University, Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem. It was about the chance to take a 3-week course in Scripture at the École biblique, studying and exploring the life of Christ as narrated in the Gospels and foreshadowed in the Old Testament messianic prophecies, while getting the chance to gain experiential knowledge through visits within Jerusalem and field trip excursions all throughout the Holy Land. The instructors were Fr. Eugen Pentiuc, Fr. Oliver-Thomas Venard, OP, and Fr. Lukasz Popko, OP.
Needless to say, upon reading about this opportunity, I immediately recalled an experience I had during undergraduate studies, in a course on Christology, where my professor showed us a series of pictures of his trip to the Holy Land. I remember him emphasizing repeatedly that if any of us ever got a chance to go, we must. After all, the land of the Bible is known as “The Fifth Gospel” according to St. Jerome: “Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.” Thus, with excitement I applied to the trip and eventually I was fortunate enough to have been accepted. This truly is an exceptional trip; our group is the “pilot group” for this experience; in other words, we are the first to be able to have this opportunity amongst our fellow Bostonian comrades.
I personally wanted to come for several reasons. Along with the inspiration from my undergraduate professor, my first year of Graduate Studies has been something of a rollercoaster ride – many ups, downs, twists, and turns in my personal and professional life. My faith has grown as I have had to confront who I am as being present-to-myself, along with longer and more frequent times of solitude and prayer with Our Lord. My worldview has also grown and expanded – I have become more informed about worldwide news, law, politics, and issues of justice. As such, when considering an opportunity to visit the Holy land, the land of the Israelite people of the Old Testament and of Jesus of Nazareth, the land continuously wrought with political strife, division, and tension, the land that means so much to so many different people, I knew it was the right time for me to go. I knew that my relationship with the Lord, the world, the Scriptures, and myself was growing and maturing enough to appreciate an experience like this, in the hopes that, perhaps, the Lord would speak to me in a new way through it. My prayer for the trip was for the Lord to open my eyes like He did with the man born blind (John 9), to give me life-giving water as He did with the Samaritan woman (John 4), to speak to me in my quest for happiness as he did the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19), and to allow me to rest with Him, growing in faith, hope, and love, as did the Beloved Disciple who reclined on the bosom of Jesus, and as did the apostles who allowed their feet to be washed by Jesus (John 13).
Thus far, I can say that my experience has been exceptional. The École is an amazing institution; the biblical research and archaeology that happen through it has yielded outstanding results. It is a blessing to be able to access its library and virtually any of its resources at a moment’s notice, not to mention the benefit of the wisdom of the Dominican Fathers and the Graduate student workers here. In regard to the course, it’s divided into two main parts: the in-class lectures and the field trip excursions. The lectures and readings provided hitherto by Fr. Eugen on the Old Testament’s cosmic and anthropic character through the lens of the human existential, grace, law, and “Anthropos,” the birth of the Messiah, the mother of the Messiah, and creation as God’s Temple, along with Fr. Oliver’s lecture on John the Baptist and the Messiah have been invigoratingly original and superlative. Moreover, Fr. Lukasz’ wellspring of knowledge about the Holy land, its history, its theology, its politics, and everything in between has been nothing short of phenomenal. We have visited many places thus far – including but not limited to: The Wailing Wall, The Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa, all the Jerusalem Gates, the Herodian, Bethlehem, Mar Saba Desert Monastery, Ecce Homo Church, the Mount of Olives, Dominus Flevit, Garden of Gethsemane, the Basilica of the Agony, the Tomb of Mary, the Kidron Valley, the Tomb of David, Samaria/Nablus region, Mount Gerizim, the Church of St. John the Baptist, Jacob’s well, the Byzantine-Era Holy Precinct, the Shrine of Our Lady, Ancient Shiloh, the Holy Sepulcher, St. George’s Church, St Anthony Coptic Monastery, the Pontifical Institute: Notre Dame of Jerusalem, the pools of Bethesda, and St. Anne’s Basilica. At each place, Fr. Lukasz has been able to bring their stories to life, carefully and thoroughly walking us through the history of each place, privy to extract formidable theology while delivering expert lessons in archaeology!
Needless to say, thus far our first week has been packed full of walking, learning, sweating, sun-burning, discussing, reflecting, and resting. On top of all the educational aspects, I have found myself developing great relationships with each person in our group, as well as the staff and faculty at the École. I am slowly picking up on some French and Arabic phrases while encountering new cultures. Some of what I have experienced thus far has been a bit shocking; there are many tensions in this land. For example, the rigid social divide between men and women within Jerusalem, the separate license plates and the reality between the Israeli state and the Palestinians, the live interfaith tensions made apparent through Muslim-Ramadan practices along with the Jewish and Christian practices happening at the same time (example: the Muslim call to prayer driving people out of Haram esh-Sharif, Muslim prayers being sounded throughout the city while Eucharistic adoration was going on in the Catholic Basilica of the Agony), the clash of modern graffiti and antiquity of early and sacred architecture (all over the city and other parts of the land), and the tension of feeling like a tourist, an outsider while knowing that in a mystical and sacred way I am connected to this land by virtue of my Baptism. These are some of the many tensions that have characterized my experience thus far – it’s a feeling of being both an alien yet at home.
In sum, my personal experience of the École and the Holy Land has been marked with immense feelings of gratitude; I have been extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to come here and learn from such great teachers and resources. My experience in the land has provided many rich opportunities to pray, reflect, think, dialogue, question, and struggle with the reality at hand. My experience has revealed many tensions to me, however I consider that a good thing. If you ask me, what marks the history of this land and our Catholic faith, is a history of tension. As Fr. Eugen has pointed out to us, man is set between God and God and doesn’t really have a home; he is caught between heaven and earth; between the tensions of anxiety and peace; the “already but not yet”; home and not home. It’s the existential, geographical, political, and sinful tension that characterizes and marks the Jewish and Christian people throughout time. It’s the rationale behind St. Augustine’s “Civitate Dei.” Existentially, we might even say there is something divine about it. Certainly there is nothing divine about sin, corruption, and injustice, but recognizing our people as historically and existentially in a state of tension says something to me. It reminds me that the point is not to overcome these tensions. Rather, as Paul Tillich would say, the point is to learn that we have to have “the courage to be” in the tensions of life order to freely live and be open to God. In fact, to recognize our tensions is to be the most human, the most Christian; I believe it is unrealistic to think that one can come into this land, and have a pristine, perfect, and clean experience. Very naturally it will be an experience of raw and real humanity, often times messy, sweaty, and marked with impatience and tiredness. For example, when I visited the Basilica of the Agony I was looking at the Rock inside and thinking about Jesus’ agony, but I think what prevailed more immediately to me was how tired I was, how I just wanted to sleep, how I was hurting from sunburn, and how the nagging tourists everywhere needed to stop being pushy. In that moment, when I was honest with myself, I gained an appreciation for the sleepy disciples (Peter, James, John) when they were in the garden (Mark 14, Matthew 26, Luke 22). When at night, after a long day of walking, the weather, climate, and exercise tires you out! It’s understandable why the apostles were so tired. Our job is to simply present ourselves before the Lord, doing our best to stay awake with him, praying without ceasing so as to draw near to He who will draw near to us (1 Thessalonians 5, James 4).
I am very much looking forward to my next two weeks here at the École; I feel like I have already been here for many weeks from all the exploring and learning we’ve done, as well as all the memories I’ve made. I highly recommend that anyone pursue an opportunity like this if given the chance; the École does great work and has a lot to offer to serious students and faithful devotees of the Gospel, the Church, and ancient Biblical and Semitic history.