Palm Sunday in ‘ordinary’ space

I began Holy Week in Calgary with an intense yearning to be in Jerusalem.  I wanted to experience again the awe, joy and excitment of remembering the passion and resurrection in the Holy Land.

It is difficult for me to believe that almost a year has past since I journey through Holy Week in Jerusalem.  My memories of walking from Bethpage to the Old City on Palm Sunday are vivid, and the feelings of wonder and awe at watching the sunrise on the Mt. of Olives on Easter Sunday still resonate deep within me.  Part of me, a stream of energy, my soul, is firmly tied to the Holy Land; there is a tug at my heart that never wavers.

But this Palm Sunday I attended my home church of St. Laurence in Calgary.

Palm Sunday procession crop

Palm Sunday procession at St. Laurence Anglican Church

The children led the procession around the interior of our church; some were adventurous enough to use their noise makers and timidly ‘shout’ Hosanna!   Later,  in Sunday School we talked briefly about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and then I introduced the children to paper bag donkeys.  The children were quick to take templates and pencil crayons and get to work; they were determined to finish their donkeys in the short time allotted.  I too was focused on cutting, colouring and helping glue ears and tails on before we needed to return upstairs for communion.  This eventually morphed into fretting during the Eucharist about how quickly we could all get back downstairs to finish the colouring and gluing  and so free up the room for the incoming adult program. When it was all said and done the donkeys had all of their parts and there were some happy young people.  I patted myself on the back for facilitating a successful craft while at the same time sternly berated myself for having operated in my normal ‘super-busy’, ‘get a successful-result mode’ rather than a ‘spiritual’ mindset.

I have since had time to reflect, and now think my judgement was too hasty.  Here’s a second description of what happened at St. Laurence on Palm Sunday:

Prior to the service I had met with the Sunday School coordinator (who I was standing in for) to find the necessary musical instruments and craft supplies.  He is a wonderful soul, and once we completed our set-up he suggested we pray.  What a gift!  As we sat together in the midst of crayons and scissors and asked God to bless our respective ministries that morning, my eyes became teary and before long I was weaping.  The tears were unexpected; who can predict when the realm of God is going to break through?

I have experienced such tears before at Jacob’s Well in the West Bank, at the Rock of Agony (in the Church of Many Nations at Gethsemane) at the Franciscan Renewal Centre in Arizona and other “thin” places.  They signal the rare times when I dissolve into God.  They are precious moments that I do not really understand.

Once the children started to arrive, I put on my Sunday School teacher hat and forgot about our time of prayer.  The experience quickly faded from my consciousness. God’s Spirit of course never left; I just wasn’t paying attention.

Palm Sunday_2013_cropLooking back I can see God incarnate in us as we paraded around St. Laurence, dancing with the parents and grandparents carrying their little ones, encouraging them to make a joyful noise.  God waltzed downstairs with the parents and grandparents who came to help their youngsters (Without them there would have been a lot of donkeys without tails!) bringing love and enthusiasm. We were all united in the One Spirit, one family enjoying each other, telling the story of Jesus.  Pretty awesome.

palm sunday excitement crop

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Easter joy! Going futher with Jesus.

I walked up to the top of the of Mt. of Olives many times while I was in Jerusalem.  Normally I set out in the afternoon after a full day of activity and under a hot sun; I would arrive at the top tired and ‘glowing’, pleased to have had some exercise.

The altar at the sunrise service.

On Easter morning Deborah and I walked up the Mt. of Olives in the pre-dawn darkness.  I was enlivened and energized by the walk; invigorated, not tired.  Neither the moon or stars provided much light and we weren’t exactly sure where the sunrise service was to be held.  But we had every confidence we would find the location, so much so that it hadn’t occurred to either of us to bring a flashlight!  Sure enough, soon after we reached the top we found friendly faces directing us onward and welcoming us to worship with them.

The service was held on the eastern side of the summit.  A small youth orchestra, consisting of a violin, trumpet, keyboard, drum, etc. was playing when we arrived. Music filled the air, but so too a happy hum.  No sitting quietly on a pew, heads down here.  We squeezed onto a rock and joined the conversations. Everyone was introducing themselves to their neighbour, where are you from, how long have you been in Jerusalem… Despite the early hour every one was fully awake, fresh, ready to usher in the new day with praise and thanksgiving.

The service began with the pastor expectantly booming, “Christ is risen!”  We responded, “Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia”  This call and response rang out throughout the service.  We proclaimed Christ’s resurrection countless times and each time eyes sparkled and joy was palpable.  A local donkey joined in, braying alleluias.

Sunrise as seen from the Mt. of Olives on Easter Sunday.

It was very hazy and it didn’t appear that we would actually see the sun. But about the time the pastors started to consecrate the bread and wine the sun poked through.  Alleluia!  As the sun rose behind the altar we saw below us the wall of separation and a checkpoint.  Looking beyond the cross we saw them both –a poignant view. In his sermon the pastor had spoken of the wall and of the many, many peace proposals that have been written and how they are all piled high on a desk somewhere. Peace is nowhere in sight.

The cross and the checkpoint. Photo courtesy of Deborah.

The music was joyous and many of the hymns were favourites of mine.  The final hymn was “Shine Jesus Shine” and I did the actions (as best as I could remember them).  It seemed I was the only one doing actions but I carried on in the spirit of Easter.  I was on the  the Mt. of Olives, the sun was shining, and it was Easter Sunday!

Eucharist on the Mt. of Olives

After the worship service on Easter Sunday at the Mt. of Olives

Deborah and I enjoyed the huge buffet breakfast served outside following the service.  We sampled eggs, bacon, pita, hummus, fruit, delicious sesame bread (a favourite of mine), olives, feta, ye old instant coffee, etc. From there we headed straight to the garden at the Cathedral guest house for ‘real’ coffee.  We were seated in the cathedral close well before 08:00 and felt like we had experienced a full day already – so much emotion and of course, a little exercise.

In reality our day was just beginning.  There was more joy to come!  Deborah and I were to have the privilege of serving as acolytes during the service at the cathedral.

There are no words to express the emotion that pulsed through me as we processed down the aisle towards the altar; I felt I would burst. Later, the bishop’s sermon resonated deeply within me.  He described Easter as a feast of emptying the grave, the grave that has constricted our lives.  The stone of our fears has been rolled away!  How true this is for me. Truly I have been given a new life.

Getting ready for the procession at the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr on Easter Sunday

God has richly blessed me over this past year.  In September I married my soul-mate, my best friend; and then in January I was given the opportunity to live my dream of working in Israel.  Both Bob and my pilgrimage to the holy land saturated me in love, freeing me to see that I am worthy, that I am loved, and that all will be well. I am now able to say ‘yes’ to the call that has been rattling around inside me from 30 years.  I have no idea where that will lead, or if the church will confirm it; that is OK.

Profound joy bubbled in me during the service and at its conclusion.  When we processed to the back of the church for the final prayers and dismissal I found myself about 2 inches from the trumpet player (who was in front of the organ). It was awesome, in the full sense of the word, to be right next to the trumpet during the final hymn and triumphal postludes.

The celebration continued for a couple of hours with a reception in the bishop’s quarters where we were treated to Turkish coffee, sherry, hard boiled and chocolate eggs, and special Easter baking.  I was fortunate to be invited to the bishop’s luncheon, a magnificent feast, following the reception.  (Easter in Israel involves a lot of eating!) The conversations were animated and it was lots of fun.

I flew out of Tel Aviv just three days after Easter. To say I left on a ‘high-note’ would be an understatement.

Me in Jaffa, with Tel Aviv in the background.

In some ways it was hard to leave Israel and I suspect that part of my heart will always lodge there.  I felt very much at home in Jerusalem.  No doubt my comfort was due in large part to having good friends there that I could be ‘me’ with; but there was more to it than that. Prayer flowed unbidden and I knew I was where I was meant to be.

Kalandria checkpoint early on Maundy Thursday.

I miss the calls to prayer at noon, mid-afternoon, and evening, the ring of the church bells and my friends. I hope that I will return sometime soon, with Bob.

Eucharist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Photo courtesy of Hayward Learn.

As I continue my journey in Canada, I pray that I will recall and share what I have received.  I want to carry with me memories of: pulling up the bucket of water from Jacob’s well as the story of the Samaritan woman at that very well was read, listening to the Syrian Orthodox priest at St. Mark’s Church declare that nothing is more powerful than prayer, praying at the Western Wall, participating in the Eucharist on the Sea of Galilee while hearing the fisherman slapping the water with his nets a few feet offshore, and just walking in that Holy Land.

Wall of separation between Jerusalem and Bethany on the Mt. of Olives.

I heard and saw much that was disturbing.  Isreal-Palestine is not idyllic, there are terrorists, much hatred, injustice, anger, and fear. Jerusalem is not yet a city of peace. ‘Salem’ means wholeness and without wholeness there can be no peace. Yet the land is holy and God is there. With time and much prayer, those with hearts for sharing and understanding will hold sway.

Jacob’s well

As I move on, I know I will sometimes forget Gabriel’s words to ‘fear not.’ But my faith will not waiver, I am utterly convinced  that Jesus will always go before me.  And so I will journey further, praying that I will become what I have been given.

Wadi Hamam – a valley that Jesus and his disciples would have walked through from Galilee to Capernaum.

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Holy Exercise

Holy Week has been emotional and tiring.  In the words of my friend, Deborah, we have been doing a lot of ‘holy walking’ and getting lots of ‘holy exercise’.  My legs, my heart and my soul have received quite a workout.

I was priviliged to be the crucifer at the Maundy Thursday service at the Cathdral.  I wore a beautiful alb, the tall gothic arches of the cathedral seemed more majestic than ever, the acolytes ( the children of Canon Hosam) were as cute as could be and incense filled the air.  At several points in the service I had to look  very hard at the ceiling, the clergy and the unfolding drama to convince myself I was really a part of it.

Procession on Maundy Thursday

The service was traditional.  The bishop washed the feet of any who wanted to come forward while a small choir (created especially for Holy Week) chanted.  I want to take part in as much as possible, so of course had a foot washed.

Final gospel reading at the rear of the cathedral just prior to leaving for Gethsemane.

A week or two ago, during the Palestine of Jesus course we stopped briefly (the rain was torrential and very cold) at a spot believed to be the site of the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18: 1-5), where the three angels visited Abraham.  The first thing Abraham did  when the angels arrived was offer them water.  Father Kamal explained that it is the responsibility of the host, or the father of a household, to offer guests water to wash their feet upon arrival.  This was standard Middle-East hospitality.  (After a day of walking in the sand at Petra, I completely understood this practice!)   Hence at the Last Supper it would have been natural for Jesus, the host of the meal, to offer the disciples water to wash with.  Jesus of course went further, he actually washed the disciples’ feet.  Jesus always calls us to go further.

Following the service in the Cathedral we processed to the Mt. of Olives.  The congregation followed the cross, so I was at the start of the procession (I didn’t carry the cross far as people took turns carrying it).  It was a warm evening, and being the eve of Passover there was a full moon.  We walked a short distance beyond the garden of Gethsemane, past a jeep and several soldiers, and stopped on a side road for reflections and prayers.  It seemed somewhat appropriate to have soldiers ‘guarding’ Gethsemane….  (Note, I am aware that Jesus was  arrested by temple guards not Roman soldiers; Luke 22:52. ) We stood a couple feet above a grove of olive trees and had a view across the Kidron Valley to the Old City of Jerusalem.

There were police sirens wailing for a very long time and then the Muslim call to pray began, adding to the barrage of sound.  We were between two minarets, one above us on the mount and another in the old city and the songs were different.  Life in Jersualem was carrying on as per usual.

Father Yazeed eventually gave up waiting for the sirens to cease and spoke of how in this land, on this evening, the drama was the same, the plot was the same, only the players were different from the night almost 2000 years ago when Jesus came here.  Canon Hosam referred to the traditional passover question – what makes this night different from other nights?

There was so much to reflect on: the Last Supper, Jesus’ agony, his trust in God, the arrest and finally, Jesus being led across the moonlit valley to Caiphus’ house.

Interior of St. Peter in Gallicantu church

I could visualize the disciples asleep in the grass just a few feet from me; I imagined Jesus sitting under one of the trees, weeping.  The pictures in my head were vivid and and my emotions intense.  It would have been easy to spend many hours simply looking at the olive trees  and being.  Reality intruded though and like the disciples I needed to sleep; Deborah and I walked home quietly.

A large group of hardy souls met at the Cathedral bright and early Good Friday.  We left at 6:00 a.m. to walk the Via Dolorosa with an ecumencial group made up of people from various denominations.  We used the liturgy in John Peterson’s book which is excellent.  We finished at the Lutheran church close to the Holy Sepulcher and following the service I sat and contemplated the cross.  A profound morning.

On the way to the Old City, early Good Friday morning: The Rev. L. Hilditch, Canon Hosam and Bishop Suheil

In the afternoon I walked across the Old City and down to  St. Peter in Gallicantu on the east side of Mount Zion, overlooking the Kidron valley.  The church is built where Caiaphas’ house was; this is where Jesus was taken from Gethsemane and where Peter denied Jesus.  I placed my hand on a step that was for sure, in existence at  the time of Jesus – it is thought that he probably was taken up that very staircase the night of his arrest.  He certainly would have used it at one time or another…  I sat with my hand on the step and prayed for some time…

Via Dolorosa on Good Friday morning

Holy Steps at the house of Caiaphas

In less than an hour I will be attending the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral.  This is my favourite service of the church year!  I can’t wait to find out what it will be like.

On Easter morning Deborah and I are planning to do more holy walking.  We hope to attend the Lutheran sunrise service at the top of the Mt. of Olives – we will leave here at 4:45 a.m.!

One of my Easter prayers will be to continue walking with Christ, to go beyond where my imagination and fears have previously kept me.

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A Jubilant Procession!

Decorating the Cathedral on the Saturday prior to Palm Sunday.

I am spending Holy Week in the Holy Land!

On Palm Sunday I left the college at about 6:30 a.m to walk down to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.   I wanted to prepare for the afternoon’s joyful procession by seeing the place where the triumphant  parade eventually led. I think it was my fourth visit to the church, and definitely the best.  Normally it is jammed with hundreds of people; there are usually numerous services going on, processions happening,  bells ringing, etc.

Coptic priest at Jesus' tomb on Palm Sunday morning.

There were at least two small services underway when I arrived (the place is vast), but for the most part it was quiet. There were maybe a dozen people in line to get into the tomb (it is not uncommon to stand in line for up 2 hours!) so I joined the queue.  I had the usual 5 second visit and was grateful for it; I was lucky to get in as they closed the line down behind me to prepare for something or someone.   There is a lovely stone bench inside indicating where Jesus’ body was laid: people kiss it and kneel before it to pray (as I did).   I have been inside twice, but it doesn’t evoke much emotion from me.  Jesus is not there – Alleluia! Thousands visit the tomb daily, and the worn stones at the entrance are a lovely testament to their devotion.

Originally the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was known as the Church of the Resurrection.  Eastern Christians still prefer the original name; I do as well.  As Christians we are called to spread the news of the resurrection and to preach life, not death.  Jesus has left the tomb.

Authorities and scholars are convinced that the site of the Church of the Resurrection is authentic. An amazing thing about the church is that it encompasses Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and the area where the women anointed Jesus’ body.  Golgotha is about 100 yards away from the tomb, up a long, steep set of very worn stairs.

The Church was completely destroyed in 1009.  The “tomb”  that you enter today was constructed in 1810; the original tomb is 12 – 15 feet below the current structure.    The entrance to the  tomb is controlled by the Greek Orthodox church.  At the rear of the tomb (not accessible by the Gk. Orthodox entrance), there is a small shrine controlled by the Coptics; they believe that this is where the head of Jesus lay.

The altar at Golgotha. Underneath the altar is a place where you can touch the rock.

I went up to Golgotha and thankfully there were very few people there.  I spent several minutes kneeling with my hand touching the cold, hard stone.  I needed to be grounded.  I imagined the stones weeping in sorrow as they bore the weight of Jesus and his cross.  Afterwards I went directly under Golgotha to Adam’s Chapel.  Here you see a large split in the rock which makes up this hill.  Evidence of the earthquake on Good Friday?  Perhaps.  I can imagine it happening.

The entire church is heavy with divisions.  The Ottomans exploited the divisive nature of the Christian Church by selling parts of the Church of the Resurrection to different churches.  Though the Holy Sepulcher marks the birth of Christianity there is little light within the church and not much evidence of joy.

At mid morning I joined the congregation of the Cathedral in front of the College for the Palm Sunday service.   The bishop blessed the olive branches and palm crosses which we processed into the cathedral with.  A few people, mostly young girls, had beautiful palms that had been woven into ornate multiple basket–thingies for flowers.

Bishop Suheil blessing the olive branches and palm crosses on Palm Sunday.

The service was a combined one for both the Arabic and English congregations.  It was wonderful to hear the prayers said, and the hymns sung, simultaneously by the congregation in English and Arabic.  It just feels “right” to hear people praying in their own tongues.  The English congregation received an abbreviated version of the sermon.  Bishop Suheil spoke of how Jerusalem was founded as a city of peace, but tragically has experienced very little peace. The sermon concluded with a reminder that Jerusalem is the city of the resurrection and God is God of all people.  The bishop asked us to pray for the day when everyone has free access to worship God in this holy place.

The afternoon was the best part of the day!  My friend Deborah, Graham (the dean of the college) and I left the close at 1:00 p.m. to walk up the west side of the Mt. of Olives and then part-way down the other side to the church at Bethpage.  We joined thousands of Christians (one report said there were 15,000, but I think there were far more) for the Roman Catholic procession to St. Anne’s Church in the Old City.  The  atmosphere in the church and courtyard  was festive, the music was loud and joyous – it felt like a Mexican fiesta!  There was expectation in the air.  As we waited for the procession to begin,  I wondered how Jesus and his followers had felt when they gathered here nearly 2,000 years ago.

Painting above the altar at the church at Bethpage. Note the man on the left under a piece of cloth - it is thought that he is Lazarus, and is covered so as not to draw attention to himself.

The procession left sometime around 2:30 and we were nowhere near the front, so couldn’t see the cross, donkey and whatever else there was at the beginning of the parade. We were in the midst of palms, olive branches and lots of music.  There were: violins, oboes, guitars, drums playing African rhythms, hymns being sung in numerous languages, dancing (great fun), boy scout and girl scout bands, etc.  Father Yazeed led us and people attending a course at Tantur in hymns such as All Glory Laud and Honour, Dance, Dance Where Ever You May Be,  Ride On, Ride, On, etc.  At times it felt as if there was a competition between the various groups trying to out sing each other!  Other times, people from other groups joined in our refrain or looked over our shoulders onto our song sheets.  We in turn joined the Hosanna choruses that were being sung all around us.

The parade down the Mt. of Olives

Father Yazeed on the Mt. of Olives.

Music during the Palm Sunday procession on the Mt. of Olives.

There were numerous groups from Catholic parishes in the West Bank.  They carried signs identifying them as being from Palestine.  A reminder to me of the political overtones of  the original procession by Jesus.

As we approached the gate to the Old City the level of excitement grew.  The Lions Gate is small and thousands needed to pass through.  As we waited to funnel through,  I joined a group that had  begun dancing with joy and abandon.  By now it was sometime after 5:00 p.m. Once through the gate, people showered rice on us from their balconies.  I had no idea what that was about until a nun explained that it was a blessing (same idea as throwing rice at weddings).  Cool!

Approaching the Lion's Gate

We then had to squeeze into St. Anne’s Church through 3 small doors – people applauded as the parade shuffled in.  Once through the tight bottleneck,  the group I had joined tried to continue dancing, but the press of the crowd made it impossible.

Deborah and I wove our way through the crush of people to where the Latin Patriarch  was going to appear.  Amazingly we got close enough to see and hear him when he gave a blessing utilizing a relic that is said to be from the cross of Jesus.

Joyous music!

Deborah and I left right after the blessing – we were exhausted.  We later heard  that the scouts (there were numerous boy scout and girl scout troops present and many had bands) processed through the old city, exited through one of the gates and then around the city.  We were sad to hear that we missed this.  The scouts must have been beyond tired by the end of the day!

Golgotha and the empty tomb are holy places.  My prayers there came from deep within me.

But, Jesus left the tomb.  He went into the garden, called Mary by name and told her to tell his brothers and sisters that he had risen.   Jesus was with the thousands of us who walked down the Mt. of Olives.  My heart sang and my body danced as I walked into Jerusalem; truly we were all one in the body of Christ.

Palms at the front of the Cathedral

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The past eleven days have rushed by.  Our course, “The Palestine of Jesus,” has taken us as far south as Masada and north to the Golan Heights.  We have seen the ruins of Qumran, Caesarea Maritima, Caesarea Phillipi and Capernaum, ornate churches and simple chapels, a sycamore tree in Jericho, verdant Galilean hillsides, dessert and more.

View of the Dead Sea from Masada

A summary of the eleven days in a few paragraphs is impossible.  The days have been  exceedingly full and I have not begun to process all that I have seen.  For now, I offer only a “Coles Notes” version of my shared pilgrimage with the course participants..

Caesaria Maritima

My responses to the many sites and sights has been unpredictable. The beautiful church on the Mt. of Beatitudes is surrounded by manicured gardens and throngs of visitors. To me, it felt like a tourist site, and I told a fellow Canadian that this was not how I had imagined the spot where Jesus preached his sermon.  Then we walked down the mountain to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Ahhh, this was what I had come for: the wheat and the weeds growing together, butterflies, caterpillars, and the song of birds.

The Church of the Beatitudes viewed from the Sea of Galilee. This was taken on the clearest day we had in the Galilee area; the local description for our weather was "sandy days."

We were tasked with picking a stalk of wheat and a tare.  This is March and the wheat is green; could we tell the difference?  It wasn’t easy.  Jesus’ parable became crystal clear.  Had time allowed, I could have sat on the Mt. of Beatitudes for hours…

A stalk of wheat and a tare picked by me on the Mt. of Beatitudes.

Our scheduled visit to Beer-Sheva was cancelled due to the rocket attacks in the area.  In the eyes of some, the Holy Land is once again occupied territory (others consider it disputed or contested territory) and like the disciples we are under constant surveillance by the military.  I pay little attention to the soldiers anymore, but the first time I saw a young woman  wearing a purse on one shoulder and a machine gun on the other,  I was rather taken aback.

In Hebron many in our group were surprised to find that the Patriarchs’ tomb is divided.  Jews can visit one half of the site, and Muslims the other (Christians are privileged in being to enter both).  The tomb of Abraham lies between the two sides (with a bullet proof barrier) allowing everyone to see it.  The Jewish section contains the tombs of Sarah, Leah and Jacob.  Muslims lay claim to the area with Rebecca and Isaac’s tombs.  Entry to both sides requires passing through security check points.

The Jewish area was dingy, loud and cramped making it difficult to move without being jostled. (They have access to only 20% of the site.)  A particularly loud and very angry sounding sermon was being preached when we were there.  There were women in the site, but visitors were predominantly male.

The womens area in the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

We had to wait for the conclusion of the noon prayers before we could enter the mosque.  Once they finished, we were warmly welcomed into the mosque which was spacious, immaculate and in places quite beautiful.  We women-folk had to wear a very confining hooded cape in the mosque.  (It was difficult to keep the cape on your head and covering your shoulders.)  The cape effectively removed our identities, all women looked the same unless you could see their faces.

It was a wonderful surprise to see a large group of women sitting in a circle next to Isaac’s tomb studying the Koran.  Similarly it was good to see children praying and simply being children inside the mosque.

Our visit to Ein Kerem, in “the hill country of Judea,” the hometown of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39) was an eye-opener.  The hills are lush with pine trees and flowers;  at the time of Jesus it was renowned for its vineyards.  A new understanding of what John left behind to live in the wilderness dawned; he left behind his family, shaded paths, fruit trees – abundant vegetation.

Ein Kerem is 120 miles from Nazareth.   Mary made quite a journey to visit her cousin!  It was interesting to note that the gospel writer left out the name of the man that surely accompanied Mary.

Statue of Mary and Elizabeth at the Church of the Annunciation

The Magnificat has been a favourite canticle of mine.   A teaching that Father Kamal has shared with us is that Biblical names always have meanings.   Understanding the names of Mary’s hosts in Ein Kerem adds a depth to the Magnificat which I now treasure.  Elizabeth means: my God feeds beyond satisfaction, God feeds plentifully; Zechariah means:  My God remembers, John: Have mercy.  Read the canticle and look for the names, they are there!

Similarly, I have been pondering anew the story of Zaccheus coming down from the sycamore tree.  Sycamore means rehabilitation and Zaccheus means innocent.

I confess that until now I have skipped over geographical names when reading the Bible.  The gift of walking in Galilee, Nazareth, Ein Kerem, Kursi, etc. has been a new set of lens to read the Bible with.  I have been impressed by the long distances Jesus and the disciples traveled (eg. from Galilee to Jerusalem), and conversely, surprised at how short other distances are.  (Yesterday afternoon I walked from the College up the Mt. of Olives, down through the Kidron Valley and then up Mt. Zion – tiring but easily done in a couple of hours).  It never occurred to me that spending time here would change the way I read the Bible. God’s grace continues to surprise me.

On Palm Sunday I will walk the route Jesus did down from the Mt. of Olives into the Old City…

There are 37 pilgrims sharing the same air on the bus and one by one, everyone is slowly falling victim to the dreaded “cough.”  We have become friends and fellow sojourners;  we share our diverse theologies, our throat lozenges, our shekels when needed to pay for a toilet or coffee, our prayers for each other, and have developed our own wry sense of humour regarding our travels and its challenges.

Thistle at Tel Yizre'el, where the palace of Ahab and Jezabel is believed to have been located.

Today is going to be a particularly difficult one for all of us, many of us are bracing ourselves.  We are going to visit Yad Vashem which is the holocaust museum, a Jewish settlement and then a Palestinian refugee camp.

I know though that God goes before us and will be there with us.

“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.”  Psalm 125:2

View of Jerusalem and the Mt. of Olives from Mt. Zion

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St. George's College with snow. Jerusalem received its annual amount of precipitation in January and February!

The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the dessert before arriving at the Promised Land.  Their route from Egypt was anything but direct.  Pilgrimages seem to be about the journey, the people you  meet along the way, the learning and the struggle, not the destination.

The Ramban Syngagogue and the Mosque of Sidna Omar in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem.

Last week I left the Holy Land and traveled  to Prague to meet  my daughter, Allison.  Our tourist caps were on firmly and we visited many sites.  The architecture is stunning – everywhere you turn there is a building worthy of a photograph.  The buildings range from Gothic to Art Noveau, with baroque and everything in between and since!  The churches are incredibly beautiful – almost surreal; sadly they are beyond my photographic abilities (impossible without a wide-angle lens and skill ).  The city itself is lovely; the largest castle in Europe is perched on a hill which dominates the old city in the valley below.  A river winds through the city and is spanned by ornate bridges.

Art and music are evident everywhere.  We attended a rehearsal of the Prague symphony in the beautiful Municipal House for the cost of $5.00! There was a large choir and the orchestra was wonderful.  Puppetry is a traditional art form in the Czech Republic and so we went to a fun [clearly aimed at tourists and families] version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni performed by large-sized puppets.  It was great fun – Don Giovanni receives a bath, the conductor is slightly mad, etc.

View of the Prague Castle from the St. Charles Bridge.

The troubled history of the Czech republic is seen by the boring buildings built during the communist era and by numerous memorials.  The Czechs are very proud of their recent history – their endurance of the Nazi regime and the velvet revolution in 1989 which brought the communist era to an end.  It seems they view the future with some wariness.  History has taught them that nothing lasts forever; freedom is precious and often rare.

Plaque on a street in Prague.

I very much wanted to see (but wasn’t able to) the statue of Tomas Masaryk  (died 1937) in Kutna Hora.  Masaryk founded Czechoslovakia after the First world war.  My interest was piqued by a guide book’s description of the statue and the plaque at the back of the statue’s pedestal.  The plaque details the history of the statue.  The townspeople of Kutna Hora erected the statue in the 1930’s to celebrate Czech independence.  It was  torn down in 1942 by the occupying Nazi’s who didn’t approve of the idea of Czech independence.  The freedom loving locals erected it again in October 1948,  then the communists tore it down in 1957 because they felt Masaryk was an enemy of the working class.  It was erected yet again on October 27, 1991.  The Czech’s ever cynical, have left a blank space after the last entry on the plaque.

We  successfully traveled via  tram and train to Kutna Hora.  The Czech countryside reminded us of Alberta with its rolling landscape and plowed fields.   The Sedlec Bone Church is decorated by 40,000 skeletons and surprising I didn’t find it macabre.  Rather it reminded me of all the souls who died trusting in the resurrection and of eternal life with God.  All I could think about was the incredible devotion that must have gone in to placing the thousands of bones; the chandelier contains every bone in the human body and truly is a work of art.  Saint Barbara’s Cathedral in Kutna Hora  is beautiful.  It is known for its  frescoes, but everything is ornate: the high altar, the pulpit and the pews.  The decoration is not overdone; I found the church to be peaceful and it called for my prayers.

High altar at St. Barbara's Cathedral

Allison and I did see memorials in Prague to two students who immolated themselves in 1969 in protest of the lack of freedom experienced under the communists.  Fresh flowers had been placed on them and a candle burned on one.  They were only meters away from a statue of  St. Wenceslaus; his ‘good’ rule of  Bohemia is fondly remembered.

The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague serves as a memorial to all Jewish Czech citizens who were imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp and later deported to extermination camps.  The names of 77,297 people who did not return are inscribed on the walls. It is heartbreaking to see wall after wall filled with names.  The names make manifest the sheer inhumanity of the holocaust; I felt desolate.  One room in the synagogue exhibits reminders of hope,  and evokes cautious smiles.  It contains an exhibition of drawings by  the children of Terezin.  More than a few people were sniffling as we looked at display case after display case filled with drawings of the camp and dreams of what life outside the camp would be.  Some were of camels depicting the hope of a life in Palestine, one was of butterflies (by Margit Koretzova who died at age 11), others of Prague.   All of this art was made possible by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (d. 1944 in Auschwitz).  She scrounged paper and art supplies to teach art to 100s of children living in the camp.  She worked to encourage their creativity and enable emotional freedom and hope.

Don Giovanni Puppet Show

The restored Spanish Synagogue is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  It is decorated in a Moorish style (hence the name) with geometric shapes in green and gold gilt.  The abundant frescoes and sculptures which decorate opulent churches and cathedrals are of course absent, but are not missed.  During the war the Nazis used it to “store” the belongings of the Jews…

Photography was strictly forbidden at all of the synagogues that I visited so I am unable to share any pictures.

The Prague Symphony Orchestra at the Municipal House. We listened to pieces by Sommer, Musorgskij and Beethoven.

My pilgrim self surfaced unbidden during my trip to Prague.  The parallels between Palestine and the Czech Republic were striking.  Prior to beginning this journey I doubt I would have seen the similarities or connections; now they are unavoidable.  I have not come to any conclusions, nor will I about how the histories of Palestine, Israel and the Czech Republic compare or differ.

History is still unfolding here. My archeologist friend continues to work in Ashkelon; he heard the sirens during this week’s rocket attacks but seems nonplussed by the situation.   I don’t know how to respond to the conflicts here in Israel, other than to listen to those who live here.  What disturbs me is that hearing stories of life in the midst of violent strife is becoming ‘normal.’

My course here at the college started this evening.   We are a large group with lots of Canadians, including 6 military chaplains.  The schedule is intense from early every morning till  late at night so I will be too busy to write much.

Fun in Prague!

I am no closer to a destination on my pilgrimage than when I started.  What I hope for is that it will continue well beyond April and into the years to come.

“Instead of loving peace, love others and love God above all.”  Thomas Merton

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Daily life

Interior of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr

The Reverend Charles Hadley spoke the other evening about pilgrimage.  He described it as an intentional way to do what we strive for in our normal daily life.  On pilgrimage we search for meaning, for a way to enter into the resurrection life.

I have never quite managed to achieve a good balance begtween work, play and prayer.  A fitting blend of these important parts of life eludes me; I tend to get caught up in whatever seems to be pressing and let it take centre stage.

I came to St. George’s College with several purposes: 1. to work as a volunteer,  2. to participate in the course, “Palestine at the time of Jesus” and 3. to figure out what God is calling me to do in the coming years.  My course will start in mid-March.  In the mean time I wear my volunteer cap and my pilgrim’s shoes.  I  try to work hard enough to justify the generous remuneration I am receiving: accommodation in a spacious room and meals when there are courses in residence (I am getting the better half of the deal!); but I also want to take advantage of the opportunities that surround me.

Front entrance to the Cathedral

The college is within the close of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr, Jerusalem.  Also within  the close is the Pilgrim Guest House, beautiful gardens, the diocesan offices and numerous apartments.  I haven’t seen many of the apartments, but from what I have seen the bishop’s secretary has one of the best; she lives in a tower. Getting there is almost magical.  The large metal door to her home is partially hidden by a lemon tree; you go through the door to a tiny entrance hall and then up a very steep, narrow spiral staircase to her tower.

A view of the Mt. Of Olives with the Church of Mary Magdalene (Russian Orthodox) and the Church of Many Nations

Living in the close means being part of the community.  Families, individuals on sabbatical and of course the staff members all contribute to a vibrant and loving atmosphere which I am privileged to be part of. Pot-lucks occur spontaneously when we have visitors in our midst and prearranged gatherings and feasts  occur regularly.  Recently we celebrated the birthday of the dean’s wife with an English tea.  Everyone contributed (I was in charge of cucumber sandwiches) and it was great fun.  Last night I attended a dinner party at the deanery.

As mentioned in a previous post, the focus of my work here has been the museum housed in a renovated Byzantine cistern within the close.  It contains an invaluable collection of pottery excavated from the western cemetery of Tell Dothan in the northern Samarian Hills.  Tell Dothan is a prominent mound atop a hill which rises above and dominates the passes utilized by traders and armies for millennia through the Sharon plain and Jezreel valleys.    The items in the museum are Canaanite, predating the arrival of the Israelites in northern Israel and are dated between the fourteen and twelfth centuries BCE.  Some of the pottery from the cemetery is also displayed in the college library.

Display case in the museum containing kraters, pixides, juglets, etc.

I arrived knowing nothing about the museum.  Slowly but surely I have begun to get a handle on what needs to be done. Most of the staff at the college came here years after the museum was created and hence have little knowledge of the collection.  Frantic prayer on my part and a little digging on the internet resulted in an e-mail from the gentleman who oversaw the excavation of the cemetery.  He said that I was an answer to his prayers!  I was ecstatic when I opened his e-mail as he was most definitely an answer to my prayers.

An archaeologist who has been working here for 38 years has been very gracious about taking time to share some of his knowledge with me.  He has patiently explained what the pottery in the collection may have been used for.  Also, he was a tremendous help to me when I was putting together recommendations for the care of the collection.

In early March the fellow who was the dean of the college when the museum opened, will be visiting.  I look forward to meeting with him and getting the answers to many of my questions.

God has continued to shower blessing upon blessing on me. I continue to be amazed at how God brings people together at the right time.  With the help of all of these wonderful people, and the resources of the college library I am working on the second draft of a brochure which will serve as an introduction to the museum. I have also produced some descriptive labels for the display in the library.  It was fun to give a few tours of the museum and tell the story of the director of the excavation project for Tell Dothan, Joseph Free.  He was a pioneer of biblical archaeology;  he wrote, “it may be said that two of the main functions of Biblical Archaeology are the illumination and the confirmation of the Bible.”

There is much work that remains to be done in the museum and with the collection.  Hopefully, I will have the brochure completed prior to my return to Calgary in April.

I spend far more time following pursuits unrelated to the museum.  Balancing my  time between work and play has become an even greater challenge than at home.  Did I mention that there is a bar in the basement of the Pilgrim Guest House?  What a treat to have a scotch with a friend and relax when the woes of the world feel too heavy!  (Don’t worry, I have only been there once – honest.)

Current church hall at Emmanuel Church, Ramla

Spending time with friends, both new and old is an important priority for me here.  I am very interested in hearing stories of how they live in this divided land.  It would be very easy to spend all of my time visiting and listening.  So much of what they deal with on a daily basis is completely removed from my reality in Canada.  Some people live with fear, many live with discrimination and  all live with an uncertain future.  I pray for them all and for peace in  this holy land.

This past week I have been able to spend a couple of days with Samuel; we went to seminary together 25 years ago and had not seen each other since.   It was wonderful to visit his parish church in Ramla (previously called Ramleh)  and hear about his varied ministries.  The congregation is small but has a very active Sunday School and Bible study group.  They are currently trying to raise money for a much needed church hall to replace the one that was built by the youth group when Samuel was a member.

Samuel also took me to Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), a village that is intentionally make up of 50% Arab families and 50% Jewish families.  Samuel worked there as a counselor for a number of years prior to going to seminary; he continues to be involved in the Peace School there.  Neve Shalom provided me with a welcome sign of hope.  It is located on the top of a hill, perhaps it can become beacon for those who despair of finding peace in Palestine and Israel?

Emmanuel Church Ramla (Ramleh)

We ended our travels the first day with a visit to Jaffa (the Biblical Joppa), a short drive from Ramla.  I got my first view of the Mediterranean!  The climate in the  Jaffa-Tel Aviv area is quite different from Jerusalem.  It was over 20 C.; between the ocean and the warm sunshine I was in heaven!  Joppa has Biblical connections of course.  Jonah embarked on his ocean journey there, and Peter received his vision in Joppa while staying at the home of Simon the Tanner.  We saw the exterior of Simon the Tanner’s home, and spent time sitting inside St. Peter’s church which is quite beautiful.

The whale and I at Jaffa

The lives of people here have jagged edges, but to date, everyone has been willing to share their stories with me and help me as I journey in this sacred place.  Surely this is what Eucharist and the resurrection life are all about.

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Tears along the way

It is difficult to witness the strife that simmers in the background of this land. My gratitude at being here is immense; I am truly blessed to be in this city and living at the college.  But I have struggled mightily and pretty much nightly, to begin to understand life in Palestine and Israel.

Nablus Road east Jerusalem

It seems that different people live within distinct realities, that multiple realms exist.  I work, shop and live in east Jerusalem where streets are often crowded with people, peddlers’ wares and aromas, and Arabic is the predominate language.  Ten minutes walk from here the character of the streets changes dramatically; in west Jerusalem the streets feel much more western and open, many buildings are newly built, there are malls and Hebrew is the common language.  Security is tight on the western side and scanners are common; you need to walk through them and have your bags checked to enter the post office, the hospital or the high end shops, etc.

Last night I attended an ecumenical prayer service for the people in the Middle East, especially the people of Syria.  It was held at the Dominican Church  just down the road from us.  As you walk down the street to approach the church all you see are high cement walls.  But when you walk through the metal gates you find yourself  in a beautiful courtyard in front of a lovely church which is quite massive.  It feels as if you are in an entirely different world of beauty and peace.

West Jerusalem on an exceptional warm and sunny day

In a recent trip to the ‘other side’ I had a bit of an adventure.  I was in a hurry so decided to take the train back to the college rather than walk.  I boarded the train, we rode to the next stop, the train moved forward again and then we stopped.  An announcement was made in Hebrew.  There was no reaction, the passengers all sat quietly.  After about five minutes of going nowhere I searched for and found someone who spoke a little English and was told that there was a bomb threat.  Another 10 minutes or so passed and I decided it would be much faster to walk home.  I walked as far as the next station where I saw a police van parked across the tracks.  An officer wearing a helmet and  visor exited the van carrying a heavy black box and walked up to and boarded a train.

A couple of minutes later the officer exited the train carrying the ‘suspicious package,’ an insulated lunch bag.  Within a few minutes we were all on the train and moving towards my stop.  According to a staff member at the college this happens weekly.

West Jerusalem

Almost a month ago I accompanied the previous course group down to the Jordan river to the site where John is said to have baptized Jesus.   It is on the west bank and a militarized zone populated by oodles of Israeli soldiers.  Access is via a road surrounded by mine fields and the remains of churches destroyed in the 1967 war.  Down at the river ( a creek really, which is less than 20 ft. across) we renewed our baptismal vows and sang the requisite “On the Banks of the Jordan River,” which sounded more beautiful than I have ever heard before.  I was profoundly moved by the experience.  The river is muddy and brown, but I very much wanted to dive in.  I had to content myself with just putting my hand in, as military regulations prohibit putting your foot in the water without a permit.  The other side of the river was guarded by a lone Jordanian soldier.

Painting of Mary Magdalene at the Dominican Church. Mary is a patroness of the Dominican Order.

Road to the Jordan river. Note the mine signs (red triangles).

To get anywhere from Jerusalem you have to cross through check points. The wall is a sad edifice.  It seems to me a monument to humanity’s failures, of how we have not learned to live in peace and harmony.  A depressing sight.  My Jewish friends see it as necessary to their security; for my Palestinian friends it is a clear sign of oppression and occupation.

It can be extremely difficult for a Palestinian Christian to travel  from Bethlehem to worship in Jerusalem’s churches.  My Jewish friends are barred from entering Bethlehem for their own security.

I was fortunate to go to Bethlehem last week.  Our small group ate at a fantastic restaurant (we were served at least 15 salads at our table and the bread was straight out of the oven) which had an expansive view of  the hills of Bethlehem.

We saw boys herding sheep and it was easy to imagine a young David shepherding his family’s flock.   I envisioned Samuel anointing David on one of the hills.  As we ate I thought of David eating bread and olives as he sat watching his sheep.   Father Kamal explained that this is where Ruth returned with Naomi.  I created a picture in my mind of Ruth gleaning in a vast expanse of open fields.

Through the lens of my 21st century glasses I saw fields, Palestinian homes, the wall and a large Israeli settlement.

Sign posted at an entrance to Bethlehem

We went to the church of the Holy Nativity.  I stood in line to touch the stone on which Jesus is believed to have been born, and prayed.  Then I touched the spot where Jesus is believed to have been laid in the manger.   The historicity of the site is credible in part because the Roman Emperor  Hadrian built a shrine on it – he intentionally built shrines to Roman gods on Christian holy sites; a happy mistake!  Centuries later, remains of a Roman shrine  point to a spot’s importance (he did the same thing at the site of the Holy Sepulchre). Of course the local Christians remembered this was the site of Jesus’ birth.

Military post overlooking Bethlehem

Others have reminded me that in the time when Jesus was born, the world was in the midst of darkness. Palestine was an occupied land, innocent people were being killed and families were removed from their homes and moved for a census taking. Peace appeared to be out of reach. How have things changed?

I hear from my Jewish friends of the bombings that occurred in their neighbourhood ten years ago.  My Palestinian friends tell of how the land their family farmed for generations has been confiscated by settlers. The settlers are issued guns, and they will use them if Palestinians approach their settlements.  One of the areas that I shop in has been slated for demolition; what will  happen to the shopkeepers?

A course participant and I made our way to see the Chagall windows at the Hadassah Hospital. While waiting to catch  the bus back we had a conversation with two ladies.   Tom mentioned we had toured the hospital with the Dean of the College and one of the college speakers who is a resident of a settlement.  One of the women said, “We don’t call them settlements.” Tom asked, “What do you call them?” In a firm, very different tone, she replied, “Israel.  It belongs to us.”

I hear completely disparate explanations regarding the current state of affairs in this land depending on who I talk with.  Remaining neutral takes all the energy I have.  As a Christian I am called to manifest God in the world, to love my neighbour. How can I embrace the people on both sides?   I have cried in despair, for not having the answers, the love , the wisdom that this dilemma requires.

Skype is a wonderful part of my life as it enables me to  speak with Bob daily.  Bob reminds me regularly to put on a UN peacekeeping helmet; I am grateful for the suggestion each time.  I now have an even greater respect for Canadian soldiers who served in peacekeeping missions than I  had previously – and my opinion was pretty high.  It is really hard to listen, observe and not judge.

On the Mt. of Olives there is a chapel built in the shape of a teardrop, the Dominus Flevit  (The Lord Wept) chapel. It is worth the steep hike to visit the chapel; the window over the altar has a spectacular view of the Dome of the Rock and the Old City.

‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.  ….They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ Luke 19: 41, 42 44b

No doubt others have had the same thought I did there; Jesus must still weep over Jerusalem.

Window at the Dominus Flevit Chapel

In my desire to hear and listen to the stories of the people here I went and saw the documentary Unmasked: Judeophobia the threat to civilization the other evening.  To see the trailer go to:

Similarly I have spent time on the web site for Breaking the Silence. For information on this group go to:

If you wish to better understand what I am trying to process, I encourage you to visit those websites.

I love being here.  But Jerusalem is definitely not paradise.  We have been exiled from Eden.

Attending services at the Cathedral on a regular basis has been enormously helpful to me.  This week’s collect was particularly appropriate and I have posted it on my bulletin board:    Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children;  through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever. Amen.

I ask for your prayers for peace in this land.

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Staying on the path

When I set out from the college on foot I  see mosques, churches, clerics in religious garb, observant Jews in black, Muslims wearing their head coverings,  and stores and stalls selling all manner of goods (Valentines Day kitsch has sprung up and overwhelmed some stores and stalls recently) .  Within minutes I can walk to the Western Wall or the Via Dolorosa where signs denote the stations of the Way of the Cross.  On the way to the Holy Sepulchre and the Christian quarter I pass vendors offering religious trinkets, and t-shirts saying, “Be Happy.  Be Jewish.”

The walls of the Old City are on the left and the Mt. of Olives is in the background.

Leaving the Western Wall during Shabbat

There is so much to take in; will I remember the smell of the meat grilling at the stall,  the sweet aroma of the strawberries piled high on the cart and the rich scent of coffee I just passed?  If I pull out my camera will I be able to capture the atmosphere and action? No,  the angle isn’t quite right and its too dim to get the shot.  The slight disappointment of a photographically challenged tourist niggles at the back of my mind.

People from all corners of the globe flock to Jerusalem and other biblical towns. 80% of Bethlehem’s economy is based on tourism. Tourist buses line the road approaching the Mt. Of Olives.  A Palestinian hawks post cards in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt.; the taxis are lined up outside and the drivers are constantly yelling, “Where do you want to go?”

My tourist-self is energetic, compelling me to spend hours trying to master the myriad of settings my camera has.   I “have” to be able to get the perfect shot wherever I go.  I catch myself operating as a tourist all the time; I think it is my norm.

Mamilla mall just outside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City (west Jerusalem).

People are drawn to this Holy place. The magnificent churches, the mosques, the crowds of people at the Western Wall all point to the mystery and wonder of God.  But the divine one is beyond a camera’s depth of field, and cannot be purchased with shekels.  A frenetic tourist can miss experiencing the sacred presence who abides in the quiet moments.

The nave in the Church of Many Nations. Through the gate is the Rock of Agony where Jesus is said to have agnonized in the garden of Gethsemane.

A pilgrim seeks to go farther (Mark 14:35, Luke 24:28).

My pilgrim-self requires nurturing.  It is a deeper reality and  I seek to live in it.  This takes effort and of course grace.  I am truly blessed as grace is the theme of this pilgrimage.  Grace brought me here, fulfilling a dream I had for over 30 years.  Here, God’s Spirit is at work, encouraging and reminding me to take the time to pray, to sit and simply be. I do.

Sometimes I am surprised by grace.  I visited Jacob’s well in Samaria (John: 4:6) with the group that was here attending the course.  One of the members of the course let down a bucket and drew up water (the well is over 40 ft. deep) for us to drink.  When I drank the water I was overcome by tears – caught me completely off guard.  At evening prayer recently, tears came from nowhere as we read Psalm 119:14 (I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices in great riches).

Icon at the Church of Jacob’s well.

The group that was here for the course was permitted to celebrate Eucharist at the Benedictine monastery at Abu Ghosh (one of 3 sites that claim to be Emmaus).  The words of our opening hymn, Seek Ye First reverberated throughout the church; it seemed we were surrounded by a heavenly chorus.  The melody and words that I sang were echoed a moment later in the voices of other people. The alleluia chorus was an alleluia moment! I wasn’t as surprised by my tears this time, by the beauty and grace, yes, definitely.  We administered communion to each other there – I really do not have the words to describe that; ‘amazing’ is insufficient.

A couple of weeks into my pilgrimage I have found that prayer at holy sites and tears often go together.  Kneeling in prayer with my hands on the Rock of Agony was like being immersed in the Holy Spirit.

I am not always as fully open to the Spirit though.  Yesterday I went back to the Armenian Cathedral of St. James so that I could attend the 3:00 service.  The church contains the head of St. James the Apostle.  When I touched the stone which is laid atop James’ head I felt moved to pray to St. James, but I have never got into asking saints to intercede on my behalf…so it was kind of weird.  The chanting during the service however, was magnificent.  There were about 30+ seminarians, at least 6 priests, 2 deacons and the bishop (patriarch ?) participating.  The robes the ordained men wore were stunningly beautiful, rich reds with gold.  The seminarians et. al. lined up approximately 10 inches in front of me to form a procession (in preparation I think for the reading of the gospel) while a priest chanted something;  the seminarians were whispering quietly not seeming to be paying attention to the service.  Then all of a sudden, the bass section of the seminarians burst forth in a glorious chant.  Wow!

St. George’s has an extensive library.  To date I have been responding to the call of the streets and sacred sites, and haven’t been doing much recreational reading  (aside from studying my camera book). Karen Armstrong’s book on Jerusalem, and others, are calling my name though.  I am spending time in the library helping with some data entry.  The cataloging system is similar in some ways to archival description so I do have some aptitude for the process.  I have also of course been looking for materials on the excavations at Tell Dothan and have been reading them.  I will write more about my museum work in another blog!

Interior of the Church of Jacob’s well.

We had rain here yesterday, but that was after several days without any precipitation.  Today the sky is blue and the sun is radiant!  Due to the inordinate amount of rain that has fallen Jerusalem is very green.  Flowers and bulbs are in bloom within the cathedral close where I live, and the lemon trees are heavy with fruit.

As I work and explore I try to remember that Jesus always goes ahead of me; God is always there before we are.  Often I am a tourist, but occasionally I hear God whisper in my heart.

Wood and ivory sculpture of the “sleeping” Virgin Mary at the Church of the Dormition.

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Touching down at the airport in Tel Aviv was routine; the airport was much like any other.  Once I was through customs I quickly found the taxi vans.  The vans are configured so that there is a row of single seats on one side, double seats across the aisle from them and a bench seat for four at the back.  I made myself comfortable in a single seat and prepared to wait.  (The vans do not leave the airport until they are full.)

Only two women and a gentleman had preceded me, so there were lots of seats to fill.  Slowly but surely women filled the seats. Then at last, a Jewish man with a large black hat atop his hair curled into long locks and dressed in a black suit appeared to fill the last seat; it was between two women on the bench seat.  The gentleman asked me very politely if I would move so that he would not have to sit between two ladies, I obliged.  I am not in Canada. Faith and religion are readily apparent in daily life here.

In Israel I seem to float between the ordinary and extraordinary; which is more important to pay attention to?

View of Mr. Gerizim from Nabulus (biblical town of Sychem) in the West Bank.

As we drove towards Jerusalem we passed one clump of rather unattractive concrete apartment block after another, ”block” being a precise description.   Incredibly the road signs read: Maccabean tombs and Tomb of Samuel the prophet.  When we started to climb a hill I knew we were approaching Jerusalem.  “Let us go up to Zion!” I was both exhausted and thrilled.

We arrived early in the morning and there were multitudes of children dressed in school uniforms and Jewish business men (identified by their dress) and women pushing baby strollers all in a hurry to get where they needed to be.  The driver’s style was such that we frequently stopped suddenly within an inch or so of other vehicles immediately in front of us and once attempted a u-turn in the middle of a narrow street – this was aborted half-way through.

As mentioned in my first post, a portion of my first day was spent exploring the Old City with course participants.  A couple of us split off from the main group for a bit and wandered at random.  Two Jewish men were chatting and leaning against the corner walls of a quiet intersection; they stopped us and said we “had to” go up the smaller street as it was the prettiest street in Jerusalem.  Conversation ensued. Moses was an American, his friend, Abraham, was from Toronto.  The opening topic was hockey but they quickly steered the conversation to politics.  According to Moses, Harper is loved by the people of Israel but Obama is despised as it is believed he will  “sell out to the Arabs if re-elected.”   On my first day in Israel I spoke with both Moses and Abraham!  Their prophesy to me: religion and politics are closely related here.

Tom and I did explore the small street and it was pretty.  There was a lemon tree planted in the centre of the street which  was open to the sky, and the homes were obviously new with decorative planters in front of them.  This street bore no resemblance whatsoever to the residential ones that I have seen in some areas of the Muslim quarter which are grungy and dark.

We rejoined our group for lunch at the Armenian Tavern, an elaborately decorated restaurant built in what was once a well.  Most of ordered the starter platter so that we could try a variety of foods – all of them were quite yummy though the sausage was a bit too rich for me due to its high fat concentration.

Armenian Tavern in the Old City

The course ended at the college a week ago and since then I have spent a fair amount of time doing ordinary things such as shopping for groceries and buying kitchen utensils and equipment so that I can cook.  Shopping trips are best done here Sunday – Thursdays, as most Muslim shopkeepers are closed on Fridays and all the Jewish ones are shut tight during Shabbat.

The streets are filled with people in all kinds of different costumes and various kinds of headgear.  There are numerous styles of headdress for both Jewish and Muslim men, and several different ways that women cover their head with scarves.  To buy groceries I go to various vendors selling specific types of  goods.  The spice stores are beautiful with spices piled high in trays, sometimes in elaborate shapes.  Most stores are small and extremely narrow.  Aisles are miniscule and require careful maneuvering to avoid knocking items off the shelves with your bags.

I am cooking mostly vegetarian meals but the other day went to a butcher hoping to get some ground beef or ground lamb.  To enter the store I squeezed between several carcasses hanging at the front of the store (lambs?) and an upright freezer containing various patties and things I didn’t recognize. There were several men behind the counters cutting meat, grinding meat and mixing ground meat with herbs to form patties which they then wrapped in strips of fat.  Towards the back of the store were open boxes of fresh fish.

My lunch at the tavern

I asked for ground lamb, and one of the men grabbed a chunk of meat and asked if it was ok; I nodded yes thinking he was going to grind part of it….eventually I ended up with nice lamb chops… Without thinking I backed up from the counter to pay and  of course banged  into a hanging carcass.

Yesterday (Friday afternoon) I went through the security scanner and had my bag inspected, so that I could pray at the Western Wall (it is sometimes called the wailing wall due to the grief caused by the destruction of the temple on two occasions) and watch people gather for Shabbat.  I prayed with my forehead and a hand resting on the wall, adding my praise and petitions to the millions of prayers uttered there over the years.  It felt right to be there along with  the other ordinary people pleading for their needs and the needs of others.  The Spirit draws us all to this most holy site, despite its destruction and its locus in the midst of strife

Hundreds gathered in the plaza and at the wall as the sun dropped lower in the sky.  By the time the sun had started to set there was a sea of black on the men’s side of the wall, punctuated with the odd patch of colour, indicating people who were not as orthodox, or from a different cultural background. The exception was one corner populated by young soldiers in uniform with their machine guns slung over their shoulders.

Preparing for Shabbat at the Western Wall

Entering the men's area of the Western Wall just prior to the start of Shabbat

In the centre of the men’s area I heard a young rabbi(?) exhort a group of men to sing from the heart and to make this a Shabbat to remember.  As Shabbat started they sang with enthusiasm, but it was the soldiers tremendous joy and total sense of celebration that caught my eye.  There were well over 50 young troops.  They formed a circle, with a few non-military men and children in their midst – a young boy was passed over the wall from the women’s side to join them and they all sang and danced with abandon.  There were  young men not in military uniform, (I assume doing some other form of national service), who were leading the worship.  These leaders were doing amazing moves as part of the dancing – walking on their hands, jumping from a one-handed hand stand to their feet while small circles  of soldiers danced around them, all within the larger circle of soldiers.

I wanted to be part of the dancing, to worship and to praise God with my whole being.

The women’s side of the wall was very quiet while the men’s side pulsated with energy. Apparently it would be offensive to the orthodox men to see women dancing and singing on the other side of the wall.

As I left the wall to share the Shabbat meal with my Canadian friends here,  the Muslim call to worship began and I listened to the sound of a voice singing in Arabic.  I have come to appreciate having this call punctuate my day.

Walking from the Western Wall last night towards the Jaffa gate was like being a salmon trying to swim upstream.  I was walking, dodging, through hundreds of people rushing down to the wall.  There were young men, groups of friends, young couples, and families dressed in their best –the men in black accompanied by their wives in gorgeous outfits, many of them pushing strollers over the cobblestone steps.

The sacred and the ordinary. A view of the Dome of the Rock.

Once I exited the Old City I continued to be passed by groups of people hurrying to the Western Wall.  I was surprised to overhear a young woman say “Shalom Shabbat” to someone on her cell phone– obviously not a particularly observant gal.  A more conservative Jewish individual would not carry a cell phone, let alone talk on it during Shabbat.

I had a wonderful Shabbat with my friends. On the surface it was a feast of good home cooked food served in a cramped apartment.  But it was holy time.  Their prayers were part of a ritual that is integral to their lives and in part defines who they are.

During one of the course lectures, the speaker remarked that for Muslims, “religion is what you do.”   It is so easy here to recognize people who have made a commitment to their faith.  It is evident in their clothing, when they work and don’t work, and by where they are going.”Rush hour” (people walking at full speed as opposed to cars parked on a freeway) occurs five times a day when the call to worship sounds from the Mosques, and also on Friday for  Shabbat.

I ponder how the ladies of St. George’s and I, all good Christian women, had no qualms about shopping at Ikea after church last Sunday afternoon, on our holy day.

Living at St. George’s means it is easy for me to worship daily at the cathedral.  I try to attend at least one service a day and am more intentional about taking time for prayer and meditation here.  The liturgy here is traditional which has meant an adjustment on my part, but each service has been very meaningful.

My faith and that of others does shape my life here.  I wonder if that will be the case when I return home?

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