Seventeen women gathered for Sabeel’s annual 2-day clergy wives retreat September 19-20th at the beautiful and peaceful Hortus Conclusus, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Garden in the village of Artas near Bethlehem. These women—13 clergy wives and 4 lay people — came from their homes around the West Bank (Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala & Zababdeh), the Galilee and Jerusalem to visit this sacred oasis run by 6 nuns of the Daughters of Mary of the Garden.
The first day the nuns received the group with a warm welcome, and Sawsan Bitar of Sabeel introduced the program and Sabeel. The first session was an academic one led by Sister Virginie Habib of Rosary Sisters, who is an educator of Christian religious studies at Bethlehem University. She is also in charge of the Catechetical Center of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and in charge of Christian education in primary and high schools in all of Palestine. Sister Virginie instructed the women to take turns reading and reflecting on Psalm 119 in order to analyze it and capture its meaning. Through this practice she gave the group tools on how to read the Bible: 1) read the text; 2) reflect on the text and analyze it; 3) internalize the text and 4) contextualize it and see what meaning it has for us today. Then, the women were divided into three groups and given parables to practice this.
After lunch, the group took a tour of the grounds, including a kindergarten and nursery and a clinic with free services offered to the community. It was explained that at the school the nuns neither teach the Bible nor the Koran to their Muslim students; but rather, they live out the Gospel through their actions of love. After the tour, the group debriefed with a discussion about the sessions and tour. Next, the women visited the Heritage Center in the village of Artas and met youth who explained how the center collected old things, such as old farming and cooking tools and clothes.
The women enjoyed a dinner prepared by the nuns and throughout the day sang hymns that lifted their spirits and created a joyous atmosphere. Sister Rosa, who has lived at Hortus Conclusus for 28 years, then gave a presentation about the location (also called Solomon’s Garden), which was built in 1901 in honor of the Virgin Mary and also includes a convent, cathedral, numerous gardens and orchards. This is also the location where it is believed that King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs.
On the second day, the clergy wives group was led in meditation by Linda Touma, wife of an Orthodox priest in Jerusalem. She spoke of the importance of encouraging young people to go to church and become active members of the Christian community, and led a discussion of this topic. Finally, Cedar Duaybis, a co-founder and long-time volunteer of Sabeel, taught a Bible study around the topic, “The Bible and the Palestine-Israel Conflict,” which is also the theme of Sabeel’s upcoming 9th International Conference in November. She also presented the adopted theology described in the ground-breaking Church of Scotland report, “The Inheritance of Abraham?” which was followed by a discussion.
Participants evaluated the program and their experiences, and although the location was far for some to reach, they felt the sessions were educational and spiritual. In particular, some felt the presentation of the Church of Scotland’s adopted theology (influenced by Palestinian theology) was interesting and eye-opening to them and they left with an appreciation for the discussion and new questions about interpreting the Bible.