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ST. JOHN'S IN THE DESERT.
I have just returned from St. John's in the desert, and now give you the particulars of my visit to that monastery.
The road leading to it is, like all those in Palestine, stony and almost impassable: it is but slowly and with great difficulty that you can travel along it.
I was accompanied, as usual, by my dragoman. We turned a little out of our road to see a convent that belongs to the Georgians, and bears the name of the Holy Cross. If we may credit a pious tradition, this convent was built on the spot where the Jews, after the condemnation of our Saviour, cut down the tree which they made the instrument of his execution. The church is clean and decorated : it is chiefly lighted by a very beautiful dome. The walls are covered with paintings in fresco, the colours of which are almost effaced by time.
When we had got back into our road, my dragoman pointed out to me, a little farther on, a very high ground, upon which, according to the general belief, the ark of the covenant was set down for some time.
After an hour's march, or thereabout, from this spot, we perceived the village of St. John, towards which we descended. It is two leagues distant from Jerusalem.
The monastery is situated in the centre of the village. It is a remarkable edifice, raised on a vast platform, so as to overlook the country to a great distance. The church, taken away and profaned by the infidels, remained for a long time in a state of ruin. Louis XIV. recovered it from their hands, and caused it to be repaired and adorned in such a manner that it is now one of the
MONASTERY OF ST. JOHN.
handsomest and most regular in the East. It belongs to the Franciscan Fathers of the Holy Land, who send Spanish monks of their order to do duty there.
The site of the house of Zachariah, where St. John Baptist was born, is within the church itself. A sanctuary has been constructed in it like most of those that are to be seen in Palestine. You descend to it by a flight of marble steps, and come to an altar where the good Fathers say mass every day. Around this sanctuary are magnificent basso-relievos, representing the birth of the holy Forerunner, the baptism of Christ, and his death. At the centre, in the pavement, is imbedded a circular marble, likewise surrounded with relievos, on which is this inscription :
HIC PRÆCURSOR DOMINI NATUS EST.
The Turks who live at St. John are more malignant than most of those who are masters of the country around Jerusalem. They omit no opportunity of annoying the Fathers of the monastery by their extortions and injustice, and not a year passes in which these poor monks have not a great deal to suffer.
Not far from the monastery is the valley of Turpentine, so called from the great number of turpentine-trees growing there.
It is five or six hundred paces in circumference, and the soil is fertile : the hills which border it are covered with olive, pomegranate, and fig. trees. On this spot were encamped the Hebrews commanded by Saul, when they were insulted by Goliath, I have seen the brook in which David picked up five stones, with one of which he slew the giant.
CHAPEL OF THE VISITATION.
A quarter of a league distant is the place known by the name of the Visitation. It is situated on the slope of a hill, where Zachariah and Elizabeth had a countryhouse. Tradition relates that the Virgin Mary first went to the house where Elizabeth usually resided, in the village which now bears the name of St. John Baptist, and where John was born, but, not finding her cousin there, she went on to her country-house.
On the site of this house, St. Helena caused a very handsome church to be built. There are still left considerable ruins of it, from amidst which rise large trees, one of them majestically overtopping all the rest. In exploring these ruins, the aspect of which is truly picturesque, I came to a sort of open chapel, at the farther end of which is an altar formed of several large stones rudely placed one upon another, and I learned from the guide who accompanied me that the monks of St. John go thither every year on pilgrimage, and perform mass there on the day of the Visitation. This chapel, if such it can still be called, stands on the very spot where Elizabeth met her who was to be the mother of the Saviour of mankind, and who was inspired by the Holy Spirit with that admirable hymn, the prophetic words of which, repeated from age to age, have resounded for eighteen hundred years in all the solemnities of the Christian church.
I remarked upon the altar two small earthen vases containing flowers, which were beginning to fade. These were, no doubt, the homage of some poor Christians of St. John. I wished in my turn to leave an humble tribute to the mother of Jesus, to my patroness, to her whose name, becoming my own on the day of my religious
HOMAGE TO THE VIRGIN MARY.
profession, was given to me as a pledge of grace and blessing. I went forth, and, searching about in the neighbouring fields, I picked up a few fresh flowers, and formed with them a little bouquet, which I respectfully deposited upon the altar.
What I had just done, however, was not sufficient for the emotions of gratitude and love that I felt so deliciously springing up in my heart. Since I have been a monk, I have never attended any of the services of the church, especially on the days set apart for honouring the Virgin Mary, when the Magnificat has not exalted my soul, and awakened within me the most soothing thoughts, the tenderest affections. How many times have I not asked myself how words so grand, so sublime, so divine, could have issued from the lips of an humble girl, born of poor parents, without education and without art; how that obscure virgin, who never knew the world, and whom the world never knew, could foretell that the whole world, that “all generations” should not only know her, but “should thenceforth for ever call her blessed !” And to the questions which my surprise suggested, I saw, as I still see, no other answer than the very words of Mary's hymn: It is because “ the Lord regarded the low estate of his handmaiden ;” because “ he that is mighty had done great things for her;" because “he had shewed strength with his arm, and scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
And, in the transport into which I was thrown by such a prodigy, I could not sufficiently thank God for having decreed that well-disposed men should find in the Magnificat one of the finest prophetic evidences of the
GROTTO OF ST. JOHN BAPTIST.
divinity of that religion which Christ came to bring
But who could then have told me that I should some day have the happiness to stand upon the spot where Mary had stood, amid the ruins of that unknown dwelling, whence the divine canticle issued to spread to the uttermost ends of the earth! That happiness thrilled me. That I might be able to give more free scope to the feelings with which I was penetrated, I ordered my dragoman and my guide to withdraw for a short time; and, being left alone, I began to sing the Magnificat with a loud voice, though tremulous with emotion, and I chanted it to the end, pausing at every verse to enjoy the delicious feelings, the consolation, the admiration, which it excited.
On quitting the chapel of the Visitation, we pursued our course towards the grotto of St. John Baptist, a league and a half distant. My dragoman pointed out to me by the way a stone, or mass of rock, which attracts the notice of pilgrims, because, according to tradition, John frequently preached there to the multitude that followed him.
The desert is dry and barren. On the surrounding hills are, nevertheless, to be seen some mean villages, and among them one very near the grotto which the saint inhabited.
This cavern is in the interior of a rock, the access to which is rugged and difficult. In climbing up to it with too great haste, I had so severe a fall that, for a moment, I was afraid that I should not be able to go any farther. For some minutes I lay stunned by the accident, and