Three faiths, but one journey to Holy Land


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It's a rare and wonderful thing for a Christian to see the Holy Land. Recently, with the help of many friends and family members, I was able to count myself among Israel's pilgrims.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2009 (5173 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a rare and wonderful thing for a Christian to see the Holy Land. Recently, with the help of many friends and family members, I was able to count myself among Israel’s pilgrims.

Simply being there was not what made the journey so rare and wonderful. Walking the land with Jews, Muslims and Christians of other traditions changed what might have been just another stamp in my passport to something that rewired my heart.

We were a mixed bag: raw and seasoned travellers, cynical and faithful followers, naive and scholarly minds. Some had been raised in mosques and synagogues, others at Bible camp and Sunday school. Right away though, shared experiences began to pull together the gaps between us. When one of the Muslim students was detained for almost two hours at the airport in Tel Aviv, the rest of us waited. We were not sold separately.

For eight days we moved, en masse, from one holy place to another. I woke one day to the morning sun spilling out over the Sea of Galilee, at the food of the mountain where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Another afternoon had me listening to Luke’s gospel at the place of Jesus’s birth, and later standing where Jesus told a leper to take up his mat and walk. I saw ancient olive trees, still laden with fruit, in the Garden of Gethsemane. I walked Jesus’s own walk of passion through Jerusalem’s cobblestone core.

Understandably, the Christian sites were the most memorable for me. Names that used to just disappear into the rest of the scriptures became real: Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethlehem — that place with the best baklava, that place with the kitschy souvenirs, that place where we finally found public toilets. All those felt-board Bible stories suddenly spilled out at my feet in aged mosaics and crushed pop cans.

Exploring ruined temples and poised basilicas moved me, but not in the way I’d expected. Instead of being diminished though, the biblical stories–as G.K. Chesterton said of the Eucharist — were made more mysterious by their visibility and absence of secrecy. The longer I spent there, the deeper my hunger grew: for biblical theology, true worship, and Christian community.

Over midday falafel pitas, my Muslim and Jewish friends shared how different sites had touched them: Ahmed had been able to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque — where none of his family members had been since his grandfather was expelled. Approaching the Temple Mount, Rachel suddenly could not walk on the place where the Holy of Holies is said to dwell. In them, I saw glints of reverence I never had before.

As I took it all in, I couldn’t shake the pressure I felt to have one of my own “spiritual experiences.” There was something telling me to just be, to soak it in as I would exposure to any other culture. But there was a tugging that I couldn’t name, as if Israel was pressing me, as Jesus had Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”

Doubt and the Holy Land are awkward companions. It’s easier to be disappointed when it’s bad wine in Italy or bland curries in Delhi. All over Israel, religion is both a Jesus air freshener peddled on street corners and a force that shuts off the West Bank with a menacing wall decked in graffiti. Faith seemed childish in the face of it all, yet somehow the only way up.

Moments of true reverence came for me, too, most of them far removed from the legions of tourist buses swarming the holy sites. There were brushes with things more real than another church built by Constantine’s mother where something is said to have happened.

They came as surprises: In Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, drifting up to us on a ridge where we could see not only Israel, but Lebanon, Syria and Jordan; singing familiar hymns at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral; joining the Jewish women at the Western Wall on Shabbat and wanting to join their worshipful dance, just for awhile.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee,” the Psalms proclaim. We’re given no further instructions on how exactly that love should look, but nationalism that displaces thousands of people, and Uzi’s carried around like purses seem like gross misinterpretations.

The conflict in the Middle East, like so many complicated things, is much easier to ignore. But now when I see the headlines, something different happens to me. Travel has made those places, and the stories of the people who live there, real.

In her book, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes that she retreated to the Cascades Mountains “to study hard things — rock mountain and salt sea — and to temper my spirit on their edges.” I went to Israel with friends of different faiths, and had my edges tempered by their spirit.

I’m not sure what to do with what I’ve seen. I suppose I will keep on living my life, and telling my stories and the stories of my friends. In the meantime, my Easter prayer this year is simple: that peace there would someday look like friendship — the kind that’s surprising and new.

Jennifer Ward is a Winnipegger studying journalism at Syracuse University in upstate New York. She travelled to Israel recently with an interfaith group from the university, and wanted to share her experiences with her home faith community during this season of Lent.

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