On the Road to Emmaus: the Benedictine Abbey of Abu Gosh in the Holy Land

The Benedictine Abbey of Abu Gosh, formally known as St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, is one of the best preserved Crusader remains in the Holy Land. I have a vivid memory of visiting here for the first time on a rainy day on the way to the Tel Aviv airport. It was pouring rain and we had just an hour of free time before our departure flights home. Our guide told us that morning at breakfast he had a surprise - he brought here to "Crusaders' Emmaus" (cf. Luke 24:13-35). 

When we arrived the chapel was emanating the sound of nuns singing Gregorian Chant. The hymns were ethereal, almost too perfect for this world. As we approached the chapel through the flower-filled gardens next to the church, the hymns became even more resounding. Once inside we found ourselves in a Crusader church, an architectural marvel, with perfect acoustics for the plainchant melodies of the Roman Church. Everyone in our group was deeply touched by the experience.

The abbey is a beautiful property, easy to reach just outside Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. It is nestled in the hollow of an amphitheater formed by three hills. Nearby is the Muslim village of Abu Gosh, through which passes one of the traditional roads that linked Jerusalem with the coast. The Crusaders called this place Fontenoid. The site is first mentioned in the Bible (cf. Joshua 15:9-10), a town on the border between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Later the Ark of the Covenant was kept here for some time (cf. 1 Sam. 6:21) until David brought it to Jerusalem (cf. 2 Sam. 6:2). 

In the liturgical calendar the meeting of Christ with two disciples on the road to Emmaus is commemorated in the Gospel the day after Easter (Monday in Easter week). The powerful story of Christ walking with them from Jerusalem reads thus:

"At that time, two of the disciples of Jesus were going that every day to a village named Emmaus, which is sixty stadia from Jerusalem. And they were talking to each other about all these things that had happened. And it came to pass, while they were conversing and arguing together, that Jesus Himself also drew near and went along with them; but their eyes were held, that they should not recognize Him. 
And He said to them, 'What words are these, that you are exchanging as you walk and are sad?' But one of them, named Cleophas, answered and said to Him, 'Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?' And He said to them, 'What things?' And they said to Him, 'Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, Who was a prophet, mighty in work and word before God and all the people; and how our chief priests and rulers delivered Him up to be sentenced to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He Who should redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, today is the third day since these things came to pass. And moreover, certain women of our company, who were at the tomb before it was light, astounded us, and not finding His body, they came, said that they had also seen a vision of angels, who said that He is alive. So some of our company went to the tomb, and found it even as the women had said, but Him they did not see.' 
But He said to them, "O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things before entering into His glory?' And beginning then with Moses and with all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things referring to Himself. And they drew near to the village to which they were going, and He acted as thought He were going on. And they urged Him, saying, 'Stay with us, for it is getting towards evening, and the day is now far spent.' And He went in with them. 
And it came to pass when He reclined at table with them, that He took the bread and blessed and broke and began handing it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to each other, 'Was not our heart burning within us while He was speaking on the road and explaining to us the Scriptures?' And rising up that very hour, they returned to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them saying, 'The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon.' And they themselves began to relate what had happened on the journey, and how they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread." 

Over the years the property has changed hands. It was first occupied by Crusaders who were Knights of Malta (Hospitallers of the Order of St. John). They came in 1143 seeking to locate the site where Christ "broke bread" with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They identified the site with the village of Emmaus and built the present Romanesque church with its marvelous crypt over a spring, using as its foundation an ancient Roman reservoir. 

The beautiful late Romanesque/early Gothic church, designed in Crusader style, was originally consecrated in memory of the Resurrection. It has three almost equal naves that end in three apses. Bent capitals support the double arches in the upper part or the central nave. The eastern half of the church is adorned with an ensemble of frescos, nearly 1,000 years old. 

The fascinating crypt is a sight to behold, built on two levels (with an upper level for the chapter room and a lower level where a spring bursts forth just under the last step of the stairway connecting the crypt with the church. This is a remnant from the days of the Romans who when they came to this area built stone cisterns to preserve the spring water.  

Over the years various monastic communities have lived here. After having been abandoned for centuries, the property was given to the French Republic in 1873. Thus Benedictine monks came here to repopulate the monastery, coming from the French Province of the Subiaco Congregation.  In 1900, a new monastery was completed while the original chapel was preserved. These monks were there for some fifty years until in 1953 when the monks of Belloc left the site to the Lazarist Fathers. 

Then in 1976 Benedictines again took it over when a group of three French monks came from the Bec-Hellouin Abbey in Normandy, France. These monks, still there today, are of the Congregation of St. Mary of Monte Oliveti, near Siena, Italy. A year later, they were joined by a group of three oblate nuns who also came from Bec-Hellouin in France. These are the Olivetans, founded in 1319 by Bernard Tolomei around the Abbey of Monte Oliveti. 

Today these two communities still occupy the property, living separately in different monastic enclosures, while sharing the main chapel. Their charism is to work for unity in the Church. Each community lives its daily life independently from the other, while they meet together in the chapel for Holy Mass and some hours of the Divine Office (Lauds and Vespers). As Benedictines following the Rule of St. Benedict, their life hinges on three acts: prayer, work, and study. Their three points of reference are: the Rule, the Abbot, and the community. 

Many students of art visit here to see the Crusader-era Byzantine frescos in the chapel that have all been vandalized in the past. Originally painted between 1150 and 1175, the faces were once erased by deliberate defacement with the removal of almost all facial features. Thankfully, the ancient images were recently cleaned, their exceptional pictorial quality being revealed for future generations. 

Many pilgrims also stay here as guests. Both the monks and nuns offer accommodations for pilgrims passing through, with hospitality in the Benedictine tradition, commemorating the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus who offered for Christ to stay with them. Those who stay as guests are expected to participate in at least Lauds or Vespers. There is also daily Mass at 11:30 am on weekdays and 10:30 am on Sundays.  



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