This is a very personal post. I keep journals of my travels, and everything I have written in this post is true as best I reconstruct and recollect the events.
It was May a little over 15 years ago, and I was coming to the end of a long day of sight seeing in Jerusalem. Between the walking, the intellectual stimulation, and the heat, I was tired. My last stop of the day was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over the site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Before going in, I decided to take a break in the courtyard and sit on the steps as cooler afternoon Jerusalem air slowly blew in. That’s when things started to get unusual. Very unusual.
Resting In The Courtyard Outside the Holy Sepulcher
The courtyard was busy, not the kind of busy with the morning pilgrimage tour buses, or the pre-lunch crowd, but it was still busy. I sat on a step taking it all in.
After a few minutes, a voice very near on my left said, “Hi. Where in the States are you from?”
I was startled because I had not even noticed this guy had sat down next to me, same step, inches away. It was like he came out of nowhere. Keep in mind that on travel, especially international travel, I keep very aware of my surroundings – it’s a good practice. Yet I did not see him, sense him, or nothing. I guess maybe I was more tired than I thought.
I turned to him. He was maybe in his upper 40s, nice and normal looking man, but his eyes – they were exceptionally earnest eyes – in a pleasant way, not at all righteous or threatening.
I said, “I am from California. How did you know I was from the United States?”
He replied, “You look it.” OK fair enough I suppose.
I said, “And you, you sound like you are from the US? Or Canada? ”
I don’t remember what country he said, maybe France or Italy, but he added that he studied seminary in New York City and worked there for an extended number of years.
I said, “Oh you’re a priest?” He pointed to his clerical collar which I had somehow not even noticed when I first looked at him.
He said yes he was a priest, told me he was on assignment in Jerusalem, then continued talking about some of the things he loved about New York City. Then he suddenly changed the subject and this is when it got even stranger.
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
This man who did not exist in my life maybe 5 minutes earlier changed the subject from New York City to Reconciliation for me. He said something like, “You have not been to Penance in a long time and you would like to.”
I was taken off guard but acknowledged that no I had not been in a long time and yes I guess I would like to have the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. I nervously asked him how we should do this and he said chuckled and had me say a prayer along with him. Then instead of pausing for me to confess my sins, he said, “I am going to make this easy for you. All you have to do it acknowledge the sin.”
I said OK, expecting a generic list, something like me thinking hateful thoughts, lying, disrespecting parents, and so on.
Instead, I got a very specific and complete list of my sins that had been weighing on me.
Being rational, I should have been thinking who is this stranger and how does he know these things about me over 7000 miles from home. Is this just the power of suggestion like a fortune teller or palm reader would use? Or what exactly is going on?
I was not trying to be rational because the only feeling I really had was a type of joy. Its hard to explain in writing.
When my list was done, he led me in another prayer then reminded me that now I needed my penance. I told him I was ready and listened closely. The first part was straight forward and it was to pray more, preferable the rosary but any prayer and form of prayer that I wanted.
The second part of the penance was having me do something I was sort of doing already, except he inserted the word “more” very specifically. I told him I was not sure I understood what I was supposed to do or how to do it more. He advised that through prayer I would.
I went through absolution and we ended with a prayer giving thanks to the Lord. I gave the sign of the cross, said Amen, then turned to thank him. Except he was gone as suddenly as he appeared.
I looked all around the plaza, got up and looked some more. I have no idea where he went but there was no sight of him.
Another Unusual Happening a Few Days Later
Needless to say what happened on those steps stayed prominent in my mind for the remainder of the trip (and well beyond).
Later that week I took an organized 3 day tour to the Galilee region. One of our stops was to the crowded baptismal site of Yardenit. We were given a few hours of free time before we had to return to the van. They were really pushing the gift shop but I decided to go for a walk downstream on the Jordan River instead.
Just far enough to be out of sight from the baptismal site, I heard a man in a white robe across the river calling for me. I made eye contact and he got in the water and swam over. The river is not wide at this point, so he was over pretty quickly.
I think my jaw dropped to my chest and my eyes grew wide as this robed Asian man stepped out of the river. Recognizing my utter surprise, he said (in English), “I’m not a miracle or anything. I’m just lost. I got separated from my group and I need to get back to the baptismal site. Do you know which way it is and which side of the river?”
I told him it was close and he just needed to walk upstream for maybe 10 minutes. He was thankful and went on his way.
This should have been a totally forgotten event, except his words kept playing back in my head. “I’m not a miracle or anything.” Oh do you mean unlike what happened to me earlier in the week? Plus who gets lost at a baptismal site on a river? Was his to reinforce the message? Or was I just reading way too much into it?
I have decided that what happened on the steps on the plaza was not what really mattered. What does matter was that I had absolution from my sins.
But there was something in the second part of my penance that has stuck with me today. Because it was not clear to me what I was specifically supposed to do. I do not feel complete in that penance even today.
From Matthew: “Seek and you will find.” Should I be seeking a final meaning of the penance? Not really, because what Jesus meant for us to seek God. Maybe, probably, the penance is helping me do that.