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One of the crowd: a modern pilgrim in Jerusalem

One of the crowd: a modern pilgrim in Jerusalem

Clark Berge SSF

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ It’s a siren call to all People of the Book. For thousands of years, Jews, Christians and Muslims have alternately fought over the city, and shared it more or less testily. I have always wanted to visit Jerusalem and in late November 2012, I got my chance.

I arrived in Israel at the end of the afternoon, and as the plane banked over Tel Aviv I had a glimpse of a modern city; gleaming high rise building, roads with heavy traffic. It all looked very peaceful. But only days before bombs had been dropping on the city: evidence of the on-going struggle between Palestine and Israel.

I was met by a Roman Catholic friar of the Custody of the Holy Land and he drove me through the hills to Jerusalem. This is the way pilgrims and Page 6 Clark in Jerusaleminvaders have always gone from the sea coast to Jerusalem. Despite the modern transport I had a sense of being not-so-different from other pilgrims in my excitement and anticipation, wondering what Jerusalem would be like and what I would experience there.

It was dark as we drove down the Jaffa Road into Jerusalem. The Sabbath was just over, and the trams were clanging along the tracks, cars swelling the roads. And then the car made a sharp left and through a stone arch in the Old City wall; a gate slid open, and we were coasting down an incline to the parking lot of St. Saviour’s Monastery, the Custody of the Holy Land.

Built in the 1530s, St. Saviour’s is just inside the New Gate built in 1892 to give access to the Christian Quarter by Abdul-Hamid II, the Ottoman Sultan. The friars conduct their community life in Italian; most of their neighbours seem to speak Arabic or English; Jerusalem has long been a polyglot wonder. I was relieved, at dinner, to find myself seated next to an American friar.

The friary was home base for me for food and lodging. Not far away in East Jerusalem was St. George’s Anglican Cathedral where I went for the Holy Eucharist. It was quite a joy to hurry along the early morning streets, watching vendors set up shop on the cobbled sidewalks, school children scrambling along through the traffic. The Dean of the Cathedral does a virtuoso act every Sunday morning at 9:30, conducting the service in Arabic and English, even preaching first in Arabic, then flipping his pages, delivering the same sermon in English. My first Sunday was Christ the King, and the church was full of pilgrims from India. The Cathedral hosts Anglicans from all over the world.

As I headed out after the liturgy I met a member of our Third Order from the European Province, Ann Leigh. Spotting her tau cross I asked: ‘Are you a Tertiary?’ ‘Yes!’ she replied with a great smile. ‘Which one are you?’ ‘Clark.’ Saying she had been praying for me for years, she took me under her wing.

It was, as Ann said, a ‘God event’ meeting up like that. She has been to Jerusalem many times and was able to show me around, imparting just enough information to enlighten, but not overwhelm a first time visitor. She had her own itinerary, and I was happy to tag along, since she was visiting every place of interest to me and then some: we scrambled though dank tunnels, clambered up stone walls, peered into ancient ruins, studied some of the beautiful exhibitions. We did the Old City, Vad Yeshem and Bethlehem. She was keen to try out trams, buses, and different restaurants as she was scouting for a pilgrimage she will help lead later this year. She was able to deal fearlessly with the hucksters and conmen that loom up everywhere, with firmness and grace.

Ann and I went to Bethlehem one day. We took the bus on a very circuitous route in order to go through a check point. All passengers had to produce identity cards or passports. I feigned nonchalance as a nervy young soldier cradling an assault rifle studied my picture. This is daily life for Palestinians. Through the centuries as power has shifted from Arab to Jew to Christian each group has fought, murdered, violated and oppressed the others to greater or lesser degrees; there have been significant periods of peace as well during the past millennia. In Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Holy Nativity—the old Crusader Church and a more modern church next door. We even went to visit the Milk Grotto.

Pilgrims encounter much that is new, strange, perplexing: the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem is a fine example. For me, from my background in a simple country parish in Washington State, USA, contemplating the place where Mary’s breast leaked droplets of milk was a bit of a stretch. I found myself having to go back, over and over to first principles – Creation, Incarnation, Salvation – in order to find a place for the pious imagination and aids to devotion. More accessible for me was the Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. But here again the pilgrim is quickly disabused of fundamentalist thinking. Jesus did not walk along this street, it didn’t exist! But he did carry his Cross. I have prayed the Way of the Cross in tropical jungles and urban parishes. I loved being in Jerusalem with pilgrims from all over the world jostling with local people shopping, others from other religions pursuing their devotional journeys, sometimes at cross purposes to the Christians. That entire hullabaloo gave the experience some verisimilitude. Every Thursday the Catholic friars plough through the crowds and lead pilgrims on the Way of the Cross to Christ’s Tomb.

page 6 via dolorosaThe highlight for me was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was glad to find out that it actually is the place of the Crucifixion, but the church is the second or third one in that place, and it has a variety of styles and heavy dark décor. But I suspended all worries about whether or not it was there in Jesus’ time or ‘original’ in any way, and entered into the experience of being for the moment part of the great flood of humanity that has found its way to that place full of hope and prayers for renewal, forgiveness, and perhaps a vision for a way forward in life.

And that is exactly what I found. I joined a long queue to go into the Tomb: people from a Slavic country ahead of me with a long bearded priest shepherding them; pilgrims from an African country rested on some steps near the sanctuary, singing Amazing Grace. Behind me some Filipinos were reciting their Rosaries fervently. Joining the queue is what it is all about. I had a lot of advice about how to beat the crowds, to go early or stay late. But in the end, I opted for the crowds: noisy, sometime aggressive or fickle as Jesus discovered, I was one of the crowd.

Jerusalem did not deliver the pure spiritual exaltation and joy I thought I might experience. But it gave me a jolt of reality and a sense that what makes it so holy is that God is in all the turmoil: God is in all the wondering and anxiety, all the prayers of the many different people from many different religions. In the end I realized again, God is everywhere: Jerusalem, New York, London, Honiara. f