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If it weren't for his white robe, you might not believe that Brother Olivier is a monk. He is charming, outgoing, charismatic, and extremely knowledgeable about history as well as life outside the walled community. Speaking gaily to Travelujah , the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land, about his daily monastic life for the last 27 years within the confines of the Benedictine Monastery in Abu Ghosh, Israel, Brother Olivier says, "We are devoted to prayer and work." He pauses a moment for effect. "Torah and Avodah just like a kibbutz," he continues. "We must be self-sufficient."
And they are. The compound hosts an on-site ceramics studio where the residents design and create pottery and glaze in their own unique Benedictine motif. The beautifully designed products are sold to the public in their gift store, which is owned and managed, of course, by the monks. They also produce their own wine, called Verbena, as well as olive oil and their own brand of Limoncello.
"Can you drink it?" we asked. "We have to taste it," explained Brother Olivier, "and now we are changing the flavor so we must taste a lot." He smiles.
Nine monks reside at the Benedictine Monastery, which is one of the most beautiful Crusader buildings to have survived in Israel. It is situated within a historic compound set in the heart of Abu Ghosh, a predominantly Moslem-Arab community with a population of 7,000 people, including 45 Jewish families, located approximately 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem. The Monastery is home to Roman Catholic Monks who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which means that they have avowed themselves to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In addition to the Benedictine Monks, there is a separate clergy group of 12 women, who are part of the Sisters of St. Joseph. They live in a separate, free standing building within the Monastery, a practice not common in the old Benedictine tradition that began with St. Frances of Rome which dictates that men and women be contained in separate communities. And while they share the same Monastery and pray together together three times a day, the sisters have completely different responsibilities than the monks.
"Don't think the sisters are cooking for us," quipped Brother Olivier.
When not tending to tour groups from abroad that visit almost daily, Brother Olivier can be found tending to the expansive gardens. He explains that the Rule of St. Benedict dictates that each monk must engage in work, including cooking. "I cooked and was asked to go back to the garden," he says.
Every monk has a job. Some press grapes necessary to produce wine, one is a medic, one is the launderer, and another is the cook. All of the monks enjoy meeting the thousands of people who come to visit annually. Brother Olivier explains that hospitality is a very important aspect to life as a Benedictine monk. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, one must host as if he is hosting the Messiah. In fact, they have a small guesthouse with five rooms for individuals seeking a full retreat into silence where they are able to share prayers with the brothers and sisters.
For visitors to the Monastery, the 12th Century Crusader Church of the Resurrection with its magnificent medieval frescos and the underground crypt from which a small stream of water flows well below the basement floor of the Church are must-sees. Built by the Knights of St. John, now known as the Knights of Malta, the monks meet regularly in the crypt where they discuss and vote on important decisions. Superior acoustics are a well known feature of the Church, a fact not lost on us as we stood in rapt silence listening to the spontaneous concert performed by Brother Olivier who sang a Hebrew hymn.
Abu Ghosh is situated just outside of Jerusalem in a region known as the Yoav Yehuda area. A visit to Abu Ghosh can easily be combined with other places of interest in the area such as Kiryat Yearim , situated at the highest hilltop of Abu Ghosh, where the Notre Dame de l'Arche d'Alliance (Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant) and its small but quaint Christian guest house is located. Built in 1924, this church stands on the remains of an ancient Byzantine church and also offers perfect acoustics making it the venue for the annual Abu Ghosh vocal music festival, a renowned annual event that draws between 8,000 to 10,000 people. Kiryat Yearim is biblically significant, identified in several texts as one of the sites where the Ark of the Covenant rested for twenty years at the house of Avinadav and his son Eliezer "on the hill" at Kiryat Yearim (1 Samuel 7) until King David relocated the Ark to the Temple that he built in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).
The Monastery usually hosts special concerts in celebration for Christmas. Check back on Travelujah to find out about upcoming concerts for this holiday season.
For information on nearby places:
Abu Ghosh Monastery: Holy Land Tours - Travelujah
Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve: www.neot-kedumim.org.il
Ella Valley Winery: www.ellavalley.com
Guest House at Notre Dame de L'Arche d'Alliance - Holy Land Tours - Travelujah
Yoav Yehuda Tourism Association: http://www.touryoav.org.il/english.pdf
Saint Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, Abu Ghosh www.abbaye-abugosh.info (French only)
Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival: www.agfestival.co.il
Elisa Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah, (http://www.travelujah.com), the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. Travelujah is a vibrant online community offering high quality Christian content, user and expert blogs, pilgrimages and travel tours for people interested in learning more about and connecting to the Holy Land.