Alice in the Holy Land: Our night in the empty tomb


From January 17 until January 27, U.S. Catholic and Catholic Theological Union are cosponsoring a Holy Land pilgrimage that is led by CTU’s eminent scripture scholar and Jerusalem expert, Franciscan Father Leslie Hoppe. U.S. Catholic’s popular scripture columnist Alice Camille is also accompanying the group and leading prayers, reflections, and discussions. She is filing blog posts from the trip. Here is a description of her night spent locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

This photo is a prayer-side view of the ceiling of the Holy Sepulchre. The space is about long and wide enough to allow a grown person to lie across the floor of it in either direction, and high enough for the ceiling lamps to dangle just above your head. The four of us who elected to spend the night in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had agreed to spend our first locked-in hour in personal prayer on our own. We could choose to meditate in the Calvary Chapel upstairs, St. Helena’s cave below, the Orthodox chapel that boasts of being the true center of the world, Mary Magdalene’s chapel, or any number of side altars and silent corners of this vast interior.

After that, we came together for the second hour of silent meditation, entering the tiny Sepulchre chamber and taking up positions on the floor in all four corners. Apart from a small marble stand in the center large enough to hold a lectionary, there is no other furniture in this space. The ornate lamps hang from the ceiling and offer a muted glow in an otherwise shadowy interior. The cold is bone-chilling, sitting on a stone floor in a stone chapel inside a cavernous stone church. But you remind yourself that you’ve elected to spend the night locked into a virtual mausoleum. The grave is a cold place.

The silence is so profound, it’s almost loud. It takes very little religious imagination to hear the centuries cry out against the sins of the world that culminate in the death of Jesus.

After that hour, we were in a sort of rapture. I probably don’t have to tell regular readers of the Testaments column that I’m not given to pious statements. But inside the Sepulchre a lot of folks come face to face with their unmasked soul. You find out who you are, in the precise opposite environment of a Native American sweat lodge. And you find out that God receives you anyway. Loves you. Summons you. If holy means anything, it means what happens in that empty tomb.

We emerged shivering, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we were really cold. We retreated down into St. Helena’s cave, where our cheerful friar from Rhode Island had assured us we could break the no-singing rule if we sang quietly and no one else was present to be disturbed. Singing warms you up inside and out, if you do it right. We spent our third hour singing hymns, and then returned to the upper levels for more private meditation. I’ve often said that I’m not a champion prayer warrior or anything in that ballpark. But even a poor soul like mine can sit for hours in this one place and feel that time evaporates and Presence deepens.

To read more of Alice’s blog posts from the Holy Land, click here.

Images: Photos by Alice Camille

About the author

Alice Camille

Alice Camille is the author of Working Toward Sainthood (Twenty-Third Publications) and other titles available at www.alicecamille.com.