So far the pictures have been easy to find and post via Instagram and Facebook. Beautiful images of this Holy Land; landscapes and ancient churches, biblical sites and sacred shrines that are the work of human and divine hands. Truth be told, however, as for words I’ve been at a complete loss.
In the last (nearly) three weeks at Tantur we have heard talks, lectures and presentations from people who are residents of this place called the Holy Land: Jean-Jacques Pérennés, director of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, came and spoke to us about the Trappist monks of Tibhirine and the many faithful (Muslim and Christian) who were with them. Stephanie Saldaña presented us with research for her upcoming book about the lives of asylum seekers and refugees from Syria and Iraq, among other places; she recounted stories and showed us pictures of love, and loss; loss of home and livelihood, the loss of everything… but hope, and skill. Monks from the Armenian, Coptic, Maronite and Syrian Orthodox churches in the Old City have told us the stories of their churches and about how at one time or another in their history, their people have been oppressed – or cleansed (could there be a more ironic word for this) – from their land and heritage and as such, from their identities. But even now they hold on. They pray.
As I write this I’m listening to Arvo Pärt’s musical interpretation of Psalm 122 (Peace upon you, Jerusalem) and recalling how earlier this week two citizens of Israel, David, a biblical scholar who is Christian and Deborah who is an Orthodox Jew, spoke openly to us about their growing hopelessness in regard to any resolution of “the conflict” here in Jerusalem and this Holy land.. . But even still they hold on, they pray.
Regardless of where they begin, all of the stories, in the end, carry with them a similar refrain, a refrain always characterized by (hi)stories of displacement, persecution, genocide, and war, and a refrain that is driven by a chorus of deep complexity; by strongly held convictions, both religious and political; by lust for power, by right and by righteousness; by the need to retain and maintain particular identity, and by holy contradictions and competing megaphones, despite the volume of which all sound a similar note of the longing of the poor and the oppressed – a longing for Salam and Shalom; for peace, for prosperity. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever (Psalm 13)?”
None of these stories have been easy to hear, and three weeks into a sabbatical designed for rest and renewal I find certain words of Jesus echoing in my ears: “What then did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes? Look, those who wear fine clothes are found in kings’ palaces… (Matthew 11).
Tomorrow we begin a five-day trip North – to Galilee – and in some ways this feels like a relief and in some ways also feels like my experience thus far is kind of like reading the books of the Gospel in reverse, having begun our journey in Jerusalem – the city that kills the prophets – and then making our way to Galilee, the place where Jesus was baptized and where his ministry began; we are leaving the place of Jesus’ death and going to the place where his disciples were first called out of their boats, “such happy fisher folk before the Lord came down.” For the disciples Galilee was the beginning of a journey toward Jerusalem and to becoming “fishers of men:” those for whom the love of God, in time, would “fill their hearts brimful, and break them too (William Alexander Percy).”
At least twice since I’ve been here I’ve heard people, somewhat playfully, quote Churchill in regard to the Holy Land: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” I first came to Israel as a seminarian in 2001. That experience, as I remember it, was magical. Perhaps I was more tourist than pilgrim? In returning here, eighteen years later, I had expected some of the same kinds of feelings, feelings of which I have only glimpsed or slightly felt, and which well may come, in due course. But for now, all feels different. I wonder, have I changed, or has this place?
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all out exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half heard, in the stillness Between the two waves of the sea. Quick now, here, now, always-- A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything) And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one. Little Gidding V, Four Quartets. -- T.S. Eliot (1943)
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you.
Peace be upon you, and upon this place. Jim