Abbaye Sainte Marie de la Résurrection, Abu Ghosh, Israel

Hospitality transcending language and faith: Celebrating the Easter Feast at Abbaye Sainte Marie de la Résurrection, Abu Ghosh, Israel

By: Kyle Desrosiers, Tel Aviv, Israel

Setting up for Mass. (or playing with candles?, I am not sure.)
Roman Catholic Easter Feast at Abbaye Sainte Marie de la Résurrection, Abu Gosh, 2022.

I have had the privilege of spending the two Easters I have lived in the Holy Land at the French Benedictine monastery at Abu Gosh, Israel. During both visits, I felt a spirit of community and celebration as the sisters and brothers running the monastery made the Easter feast day extraordinarily special.

Sacred Spaces #6

The monastery is situated in the Judean Hills in the small, mostly Arab Muslim village of Abu Ghosh. It is a community of monks and nuns who follow the Benedictine rule, which calls for the special pursuit of peace (pax) and centers on the motto "pray and work" (ora et labora). Benedictines emphasize tightly bonded communities and a contemplative life. As such, they have a special charism for peace-making in the world. Since this particular community is situated in the Holy Land, the Benedictines of Abu Ghosh are especially dedicated to interfaith dialogue.

The sisters baked special bread in the shapes of
fish, bunnies, bears, and other animals.

As the website of Abbaye Sainte Marie says, the religious vocation of this congregation is "to be present in the same place where the unity between the Church and the Synagogue was torn apart, the germinal place of all division and discords among Christians." At least since the Second Vatican Council, this community has placed special emphasis on Jewish-Christian dialogue. It has a special library dedicated to this purpose. The monastery has also held evens, created community, and engaged in dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its lay congregants who attend regular Catholic liturgies come from predominately local Arab and also French, Central African, and other European expat backgrounds, and its religious men and women come from France, the Congo, and the Holy Land.

This community finds itself in a complicated geographic location in a diverse corner of the world. Yet, while never compromising their Catholic commitment to teaching and worship, its members embody an extremely warm attitude of welcome and encounter with the world outside. Attending both the vibrant liturgy and the lavish Easter feast (for two years in a row!), I noticed an absolutely unabandoned sense of joy and celebration. It was clear that the sisters and brothers had chosen a special life in service of their faith and the world. This was especially obvious in the way they worked hard to make the day special through a lavish feast, beautifully gardens open to visitors, and the special Easter egg hunt planned for the dozens of children (and also for us adults!) in attendance.

The Liturgy with voices raised in unison.

In April 2021, when I first visited the monastery at the recommendation of a Paulist father back in the states, the world was just beginning to see the "light at the end of the tunnel" of the Covid pandemic, thanks to increasingly available vaccinations. As such, that Easter, and the Passover seder that I had attended the week before, were the first communal, congregational events I had gotten to attend in more than a year. 

 That spring, we all began to sense a feeling of optimism and hope. Easter and Passover are holidays centered on the message of new life, reconciliation, hope, and deliverance from despair. It is no accident that they also occur as spring begins to bloom strong in the northern hemisphere. This year was no different in that Easter in this Holy Land fell on a dreamily beautiful day. When my friends and I arrived at the stone complex that of the monastery and entered its gates, we immediately noticed the teeming garden filled with vibrants blooms of all kinds. Arriving early for the Easter liturgy, we encountered the laughter of small children running around the gardens, playing and chasing an old dog who was simply called "Doggie." 

Dog is the universal language.

We wandered through the garden and were greeted by several brothers and sisters who were congregating in preparation of the Liturgy. Dozens of lay visitors had also begun to arrive. We entered the cool stone sanctuary and admired the 12th century Byzantine frescos, which have weathered "earthquakes, war, weather, and human ignorance," but nonetheless survived to the twenty-first century, as the monastery website explains.

I sat and watched people trickled in to fill the pews. I noticed fresh flowers everywhere, and the lit candles on sconces all around the room, as they cast gentle, waving halos of light. On the side altar, there were baskets containing adorable bread shaped like bunnies, fish, and bears at the foot of a side altar. People speaking many languages were present. 

When the Mass began, all fell quiet to enter the spiritual time. The Mass itself was said in French and Latin. The beauty of being Catholic, of course, is the universal nature of the rites, and the familiar order of the liturgy and sacrament. 

The sung chant of the sisters and brothers was unique to this day and place. Their songs created a beautiful harmony of adoration and celebration, as as they echoed off the stone walls just as they have for centuries. The liturgy was both simple and accessible, and yet possessed an incredible reverence and clear connection to tradition, the style of singing that has been handed down and used by monastics for centuries.

At the offering, a procession of children brought the baskets of bread to the foot of the main altar. An elderly Congolese sister guided them in the right direct as they giggled and chattered, excited by their special role. The Eucharist was then co-celebrated by a dozen of the brothers, who are also ordained priests. 

After the Mass came the feast. Both in 2021 and 2022, we enjoyed a delicious spread with foods symbolic of spring, celebration, and new life. I very much enjoyed talking to a brother Oliver and practicing my Hebrew skills with another brother, who was the chef of the meal, who knew Hebrew and French well, but not so much English. The first year that I came, I brought with me American friends, none of whom were Catholics, and we ended up siting for the feast next to a Conservative rabbi, whom I would later on become friends with. The second year I brought my Israeli Jewish boyfriend. I pat myself on the back for teaching him a lot of things about Christianity, hoping that new, positive experiences can challenge the impressions he might have previously had from watching the Divini Code! 

At the feast, we ate salad, soup, fish, pastries, and breads. This was followed by a lavish desert and coffee. All was accompanied by wine. As we sipped the orange wine made specially by the brothers (most religious communities make something special which they often sell to fund in part the operations of their congregations), we sat in the courtyard, admiring the garden and the spirit of the day. The feast ended, and we were all gathered, young and old, for an Easter egg hunt. It was Sagi's, my boyfriend's, first time to hunt eggs. We can in about 30th place. In a spirit of welcoming all, everyone was recognized, and names were called out in French to recognize all the participants and award them with chocolate.

(left) awarding egg-hunt participants with chocolate!
(right) Abu Ghosh orange wine!

The day was lovely, and left me with lots to contemplate. It was a time of celebration, both spiritually and in a communal way with new friends. To be Christian is many things. There is no succinct explanation neither for doctrine and theology, nor for how to live one's life. Platitudes fall short to contain the breadth and depth of the tradition–and also fall short in articulating the Gospel's potential to draw the world into greater fraternity, cooperation, forgiveness, humility, and peace. What I will say, however, is that day at Abu Ghosh, I was deeply inspired by the sisters and brothers. 

In their faces, and through the generosity and joy they lavished through the feast and through their conversations with friends and strangers alike, I noticed a complete presence, openness, and respect for all they encountered. I said to myself, "what a life they must lead." These visit at Abu Ghosh came amid a difficult couple of years with COVID-19 and the war we experienced in the Holy Land. Yet, these visits also uplifted my heart and soul–something spirituality and community should do. 

The remains of centuries-old frescoes.

Visiting Abu Ghosh reminded me one way that the Christian life is manifested: in generosity, in encounter, and in welcome. Religious life in the monastery is certainly not meant to be for everyone. I also believe that each and every religion has beauty and insight to teach in order to transform the world. Yet, I also had a very unique experience at Abu Ghosh, one that helped me remember what I love the most about my faith. It also reminded me how spirituality and transcendence are still very much needed in this modern world, and that tradition is not antithetical to inclusivity, despite what some might say.

in bloom! 

When you find yourself in the Holy Land, put the Abbaye Sainte Marie de la Résurrection in Abu Ghosh on the top of your list. Without a doubt, it is my favorite church in the entire country. Saint Sepulcher, Golgotha, and the rest must be seen. Yet, the noise and crowds there can sadly make it hard to draw into spiritual depth. Other sites in this land sometimes give one a better sense of how the faith was cultivated over centuries and allow one to better imagine ages past. At Abu Ghosh, one will encounter an ancient community thriving–and not thriving in isolation–but living among and serving a diverse and large community outside. My Easters with them will always be remembered. However, I have no doubt their joy and celebration carry out through the entire year.

The author, Kyle (left), before the feast in 2022!


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