Monday, February 25, 2008

Justina, Pray for Us

It was if it had been meant to happen. There were so many accidents of fate leading up to it.

My son, Winslow, had come to spend the weekend with me in Jerusalem, his first visit to the Holy Land.

We had aleady spent a couple of hours on our own walking tour of the Old City, which at one point included climbing the 200-odd steps up the narrow winding tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.

I was beginning to tire, but it did no good trying to steer Winslow toward an early lunch. Now he wanted to see the Jewish quarter. Reluctantly I gave in, and off we started down more narrow and often winding streets. We quickly found it too sanitised and boring (read: no shops), so I started navigating us out, taking streets I had never seen before and trusting to my sense of direction.

Just as I was rounding a corner, Winslow behind me, I heard him say: "Hey, why don't we check this out?" It was St Mark's Syrian Orthodox Church, said to be built over the house of the Evangelist Mark, and in whose Upper Room the Last Supper was held.

I couldn't really resist a suggestion by my own son, who had already been forced to endure visits to a number of churches, to visit just one more.

Neither of us had any idea what awaited us inside, but it kept us spellbound for more than half an hour.

It was actually she, Sister Justina, who seemed to be a sort of custodian and who asked if we wanted her to give us a tour of the small church. More out of politeness than any real interest, I replied yes. When we finally gave Justina a kiss good-bye all that time later, I was in a state of blessed spiritual agitation.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I defer to Canadian Anglican priest Kevin Dixon, who wrote the following account of his meeting with Justina last June and which I found on his blog, holybuzz.

"Justina is a nun of the Syrian Orthodox Church. This stream of Christianity represents a tradition that has been passed down in Jerusalem from the very first followers of Jesus. Some of the beliefs of this church are different from our own; for instance, Syrian Orthodox Christians believe that God first gave the Church the Holy Spirit not at Pentecost (Book of Acts, ch. 2), but rather when Jesus on the cross gave up his spirit and “breathed” his last. In the Syrian Orthodox view, with this last breath came the Holy Spirit.

"Sister Justina met us at St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church. She is a little woman, maybe 4′ 6″ (137 cm), and quite wide in proportion to her height. She was dressed all in black so only her face showed. When she began to speak in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, I wasn’t sure if we were being welcomed by a hobbit or a character from Shakespeare.

"She told us about her own mystical experiences in the seven years she has been resident at St. Mark’s. For instance, she described her own 'Pentecost' when she greeted a visitor who spoke Hebrew and no English. Sister Justina doesn’t speak Hebrew, but she said that over the course of a one hour conversation they understood every word that was said. She also showed us an icon painted on leather in the first century by St. Luke the Evangelist himself. The power of her belief was compelling. It underlined for me that one person’s faith, shared, can touch the heart of another deeply.

"At the conclusion of her remarks, she sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic -- the language of Jesus, and the liturgical language of the Syrian Church -- in a beautiful, keening, Arabic style. It brought tears to my eyes, not least because in recent years the Lord’s Prayer has taken on new depth and meaning for me."

Kevin Dixon's description of Sister Justina is spot on, and closely traces much of what Winslow and I experienced. I would add that she wore a black wool stocking cap that seemed to be too small: She would keep pulling it down to her eyebrows as if she were cold, and it would immediately pop a couple of inches back up her forehead.

I would also add that she spoke in a powerful and compelling voice, often punctuated by references to how she had shed her tears in long hours of solitary prayer in the church.

What Dixon didn't mention was that Justina had spent nearly 20 years teaching math to high school seniors in Nineveh before leaving Iraq, and that she was extremely anguished by the fate of the tens of thousands of fellow Iraqi Christians who had been driven from their country, with others martyred.

She also spoke of having personally been involved in the healing of a young woman from cancer and of how the image of St Luke's Virgin and Child had appeared in the Florida home of a family whose seriously ill newborn was being prayed for, and how the Virgin had brought healing to the infant.

I did't ever look at the time, as the time passed. For most of the time, Winslow and I were privileged to be alone with Justina, though an Irish gentleman eventually joined us. But I do know that occasionally I would anxiously glance in Winslow's direction to see if he were growing restless, and he showed no sign of it.

I wish I had thought to ask Justina if I could take her picture, but the image of her sweet but impassioned exposition of her faith in the Blessed Trinity and of her special love of the Holy Spirit will always remain in my heart.

Pray for us, Justina.


Albion Land said...

BTW, the icon said to have been painted by St Luke was supposedly done from an actual "sitting" by the Blessed Virgin, and not from memory.

Another Lukan icon has pride of place at the church of the monastery in Kykkos, Cyprus, according to authorities there.

Robert Brown said...

Where is St. Marks in relation to The Cenecle (see

Albion Land said...


It is nowhere near the Cenacle, which lies outside the city walls.

It is in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, but very close to the Muslim Quarter.

Alice C. Linsley said...

A wonderful atory! May God grant this experience as a source of spiritual strength to you and to Winslow.

Anonymous said...

I am in Jerusalem right now, Albion, staying in the Old City. Can you email me and let me know more specifically where this place is, if you know? My address is (please don't post my email address here - thanks).