Of Many Things

Though I grew up within the confines of New York City, at heart I am not a city boy. My boyhood home on the north shore of Staten Island stood on a dead end street. Just a block long, the street was bordered on two sides by woodlands. At the far end of the block was a private park with more woods, streams, a marsh and a pond. There we would scamper after salamanders in the spring and collect unlucky box turtles to carry home as pets. Much of the year we awoke to the crowing of pheasants as they fed in the neighboring yards. We lived, a Jesuit retreat master quipped, in “the garden spot of the cement and asphalt jungle.” It was a life that left me with an affinity for the land and its problems.

At certain times of year the church’s liturgy reminds me of my attachment to the land. In the summer, for example, readings of the parables of the kingdom and stories of Jesus’ ministry out in the open, on the water and hillsides, bring to mind the landscape of the Holy Land, the wildflowers of Galilee, the bird life on the slopes of Mount Zion. The late Benedictine biblical archeologist and geographer Bargil Pixner called the geography of the Holy Land “the Fifth Gospel.” “Whoever has learnt to read and peruse this ‘book’ of biblical landscape,” he wrote, “will experience the message of the four Gospels with a new and greater clarity.”


Pixner’s own feel for the landscape of the Holy Land and his scholarship grew out of his 12 years at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee, where he acquired a sense of “the distances from one place to another, and for the seasons of drought and of rainfall. Each season,” he wrote, “has its particular wind direction, times of heat and cold. I have learned much about the lake and about fishing and navigations....” Attention to the details of landscape, climate and the habits of fishermen and farmers gave him confidence in the authenticity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. In two books, With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (1992) and With Jesus in Jerusalem: His First and Last Days in Judea (1996), he spelled out his reading of the geography of salvation.

The biblical landscape Pixner loved, however, is fast disappearing. Thousand-year-old olive groves have been bulldozed to deny terrorists cover, and ridge lines have been obscured by settlements intended to dominate the surrounding region. At Shepherd’s Field, a Franciscan shrine near Bethlehem, a decade ago pilgrims could watch as shepherds moved their flocks down the opposite hillside and then east into the Judean desert, but today pilgrims no longer have the opportunity to enjoy that scene, and the Bedouin shepherds themselves have been removed.

First came Har Homa, the Israeli settlement built on a hill where a forest once stood, anchoring the southern end of the security circle around Jerusalem. By 2000, middlemen had purchased much of the adjoining open land for settlement expansion. While it could, until 2000, the Palestinian Authority aped the Israeli “edifice complex,” building homes right up to the edge of the land it then controlled beneath the hill. Subsequently the security barrier, or wall, built to keep Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel, further scarred the terrain. Like the Great Wall of China, it is now an unavoidable feature of the landscape.

Ein Kerem is a Judean hill town associated with the birth of John the Baptist. Situated in a narrow valley between forested ridges, it was famed for its natural beauty and moderate climate. Eventually artists and craftsmen discovered Ein Kerem and made it a hideaway; then development began encroaching. When I was last there, a forest atop the mountain to the north was over-towered by construction cranes, and the plain that spreads out beneath the valley was sprouting more housing.

In the 1990s, the Holy See frequently made preservation of the historic biblical environment one of its hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Many pilgrims, both Jews and Christians, lament the passing of the biblical landscape. But today conserving the geography of salvation is a moot point. Much of it is buried beneath concrete and steel. Pixner’s “Fifth Gospel” has been sacrificed to the twin gods of fear and security. In the meantime, the woods near my boyhood home were purchased by a conservancy that will protect one, small “garden spot” in “the cement and asphalt jungle.”

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Maria Leonard
10 years 5 months ago
Last year I visited Israel/Palestine for the sixth time since 1990 and I left weeping over the changes I experienced in the country. Almost 300 miles of a separation barrier/wall/fence and illegal settlements, segregated highways and over 500 checkpoints and physical barriers have forever marred the landscape and altered the living conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians. Yes, I am a romantic who would like to see the hills and small towns as I remember them on my first visit. However, as a realist I believe that those in control of the land could have been more respectful of the long history and traditions of all faiths in this Holy Land. And they could, had they so chosen, acknowledged the (often centuries-old) rights of long-time residents and land-owners.
10 years 5 months ago
We met Father Bargil at Tabgha where we had Mass on the shore. Hearing him tell the the stories of Jesus in that setting was truly inspirational. He was a great man.
Bruce Snowden
10 years 5 months ago
"Of Many Things" by Drew Chritiansen, S.J., (America 8/4/08)about what's happening (has happened) to the "Fifth Gospel" of the Holy Land is exceedingly alarming. The bulldozing of two thousand year old olive groves, the destruction of biblical landscape, wildflowers, ridges, sacred shrines and more,by Israeli authorities concreting sacredness for "security" reasons, is scandalous! I wish I knew how to help prevent further desecration of the Land where not only the footprints of God and the Prophets have left their mark, but also where the breath of the Lord Jesus, still mixes with the environment of that blessed place! Indeed, breath from the nostrils of God premeates the Holy Land! Come to think of it, (just as an aside) the destruction of Benedictine Fr. Bargil Pixner's "Fifth Gospel" is, I think, "type-related" to the destructive work of scriptural reconstructionists, who by way of so-call investigative scholarship, cafeteriaize or bulldoze the remaining Four Gospels. They do so in the interest of "security" that is, cover with their own kind of "concrete" earthyness, Gospel realities! In closing let me say, Fr. Drew Christiansen's revelation that as a boy living in the "wilds" of Staten Island, hunting salamanders and box turtles, reminded me of my own boyhood on another Island "St. Thomas, Virgin Islands." There as a boy I used to hunt lizards and big hairy spiders which lived in craftily designed earth tunnels. We boys used to take a thin reed and loop its frilly flower into a loose knot, to look like a "spider" then insert it into the spider's hole. The creature would grab the "intruder" and we'd slowly pull the big hairy spider from its home, then run for cover! Such mischevious fun! Thanks for a very thought-provoking essay, Fr. Christiansen. May God preserve the "Fifth Gospel!"
10 years 5 months ago
Thanks for all you do to make America Magazine such a wonderful read. The faith stimulating timely articles make my week. This year items of special connection have provided added delight, e.g., "Poland’s ‘Best Cook’ Releases DVD". Did you know this Sister is a member of the same Congregation that has St Joseph Hill? And that same issue highlighted John Gerhardt, SJ in "Of Many Things". He served for many years as the Sister's chaplain. It is particularly enjoyable for me to see such wonderful mention of my favorite and native Isle. I was surprised to see you write that you are from the North Shore. In a previous article you wrote and described, if memory serves me correctly,that your home area was situated in a wooded valley. I thought perhaps, out near High Rock in the interior of the Island or perhaps in a recess in Concord/Stapleton that abuts Grymes Hill. Now I'm thinking - Randall Manor? Could it be West Brighton, Sunnyside, or even Westerleigh? I am pleased to hear that the woods of your part of Staten Island have been purchased by the conservancy. The Staten Island of my youth was a wonderful mix of towns and woods,farms and fields, streams and ponds that we freely enjoyed. It's good to hear that some of that has been preserved. Again, thanks Marianne Bilyck


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