Coming from the magnificent views of Nazareth we slid through a stone gate into the intimate courtyard of the St. Margaret Convent. The stones of the surrounding walls were silent but said a lot. Flowerbeds decorated the complex in a cheerful scale of shades which added color to the black and white clothes of the nuns, who were seen here and there walking around with no hurry in between their chores. Only the nuns’ random presence in front of us reminded us of the fact that we are actually in a convent. In the dining room the tables were covered with country style checkered tablecloths, which gave the place a rural feeling, even though we could see the city spread below us through the huge arched windows that serve as a frame for the view. And what a view it is! Only we, and apparently the guests as well, have chosen to ignore the city and concentrate on the peacefulness. The high ceilings, the artworks and the silence around made me think that each meal here is the last supper... but it is not. Eventually we have arrived at our rooms – small but cozy, emanating unpresumptuous simplicity, clean and allowing cleansing and disconnecting from the hectic consumer culture outside and connecting with the true and complete inner essence. Great fun.
Trends come and go, bring with them a stimulating, surprising and exciting fresh breath of air, but some disappear as quickly as they came. It is still early to know whether staying in monasteries and convents is a new and transient Israeli trend or whether it is here to stay. Until then you can just give it a try, as staying over at a monastery or a convent has a few advantages.
Monasticism, for those of you who do not know this, has started in the Judean Desert. People who wanted to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and go back to simplicity and spiritualism went out into the desert and founded the monasticism there. It started as a "laura” – meaning a path, with the hermits’ seclusion in private caves (to which led a narrow path) during the week and meeting with the other hermits at the end of the week for joint meals and prayers. The next step in this concepts’ evolution was the coenobium – a communal monastery where the monks lived together, within a sort of an autarkic system. These places were secluded and protected and in time have turned into inns that gave pilgrims a place to sleep and stay in safety.
Since then, about 1,500 years have passed and monasticism has continued to change and develop. In Israel it has always been an anchor for pilgrims who followed Jesus’ footsteps in the holy sites, and thus it has existed and still does especially in central Christian sites. In the 19th century large inns were built near monasteries or churches – such as the Sergei Courtyard in Jerusalem – and in the 20th century development has not passed over the monasteries which continued to host pilgrims. The change in perception which took place in recent years led to the realization that at times when Christian pilgrimage is somewhat slow these inns can be used to host local guests. It is for this reason that some of the monasteries and convents have prepared guest rooms and some were renovated to become suitable for the new situation. Others have maintained their authenticity.
The advantage is dual: the travelers receive a somewhat spiritual experience (or even a purifying one), as most of these places are very simple, modest and lack any trappings, added extras or an up to date modern decor. On the contrary, their basicness dips in an atmosphere of holiness (even if of a different religion) which gets inside of you and makes you think deep thoughts. The architecture and the historic structures also serve as an exciting setting. Add to it the clean complexes, the well-kept courtyards, the attentive hosts, the warm treatment and pleasant service offered by the modest and peaceful nuns who simultaneously continue with their holy work. All in all there is a home-like feel to this place but also that of somewhere abroad that is wrapped in peace and tranquility. Your financial contribution, and usually we are talking here about small to medium sums, will go to the welfare of this place and its residents, so this is an excellent reciprocal deal.
Around Israel there are many monasteries and convents today that provide sleeping arrangements. Jerusalem and Nazareth offer the most, but there are also great alternatives in Tiberias and in the Judean Desert area. Among these monasteries and convents one can find the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, St. Andrew's Church in Jerusalem, the Rosary Sisters Convent in Nazareth, the Dir Hajla Monastery near Almog Junction and others.