Some say life is a journey. If so, it’s a journey strewn with distractions, roadworks and potholes for most of us, but every so often there’s a well signposted major interchange. Sue and I reached one of those interchanges a couple of years when we travelled to the Holy Land.
Some journeys in life are pilgrimages. They are the ones where we set out leaving comfort, familiarity, or predictability (or all three) behind with the aim of learning something about life and ourselves. Most backpackers are pilgrims of a sort. Those searching for spiritual peace are also pilgrims. Sometimes a pilgrimage can be a journey into our own mind. We don’t have to be ‘religious’ to be a pilgrim and a pilgrimage is not necessarily a religious enterprise although it is certainly a spiritual one. I think of a pilgrimage as a journey away from home comforts into unfamiliar territory. What we encounter there may challenge us. Often we return from a pilgrimage a changed person. Things happen to pilgrims on a journey. A pilgrim does not create a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage creates a pilgrim.
We expected our journey in 2012 to take us out of our comfort zones, but we did not start out thinking of it as a pilgrimage. However, as we learned, pretty much everyone who enters into the Holy Land is a pilgrim of sorts.
There are two main ways travellers enter Israel. One is through Tel Aviv. On the walk down the ramp towards passport control at Ben Gurion airport the soaring architecture tempts passengers to imagine the stone walls of King David’s long gone temple. The immediate reaction for many first time visitors is that this place is not like other arrival halls, and that the journey here is not like other journeys. For whatever reason you’ve come here, you will experience some things at a soul level, and you will return to your homeland changed. You are a pilgrim.
A quite different experience meets people using the other major border crossing from Jordan at the General Allenby bridge. Here the border guards are jumpy, look irritated, are very young, and carry firearms almost as tall as they are. You are an object of suspicion. There are no smiles, only gestures and directions. You feel your fate is in the hands of the passport clerk, an eighteen year old with attitude and way too much power. In the space of the half hour or so that you spend at this place, waiting for the nod to proceed into Israel, some of your comfortable western provincial certainties are shaken ever so slightly. Certainties like the safety net of citizenship, the operation of the rule of law, and that every problem could be solved, if only people sat down and listened to each other. A partial loss of innocence in less than 30 minutes. You are on a pilgrimage.
Whichever way you enter this part of the world, your visit will change you, perhaps irrevocably. Maybe when you arrive you think you understand why the hatreds here are so deep and long-lasting. Perhaps you are looking forward to walking where Jesus walked? You may never have walked through a Palestinian refugee camp breathing the hopelessness and injustice around you. You may never have stood on a high point in Jerusalem and remembered all you ever learned about Old Testament history and felt the destiny of the Jewish people, as well as their subliminal fear, living surrounded by those who would see them annihilated. Such experiences will de-stabilise you; take you out of your comfort zone.
Sue and I learned the meaning of insecurity one afternoon when, on a stroll through the old part of Jerusalem, we were confronted by a mini riot involving about a dozen young men settling a score with each other. Grabbing each other’s hand and sliding through the crowd and down a cobbled side alley, we moved quickly and, we hoped unobtrusively, as we had been told to avoid street disturbances at all costs. The police and Israeli army were known to respond quickly to things like that. The alley led downhill between overhanging walls and balconies that felt as if they had many eyes, all watching us. Soon we realised we were in the Muslim quarter and were the only tourist type people anywhere within sight. An increasing number of street urchins were beginning to follow us, calling out I know not what but it didn’t sound good. OK. Time to stop and consider our options. Continue or return the way we had come. The return option seemed the only one that offered a reasonable chance of safety so we turned around and walked very quickly uphill, not running, because we didn’t want to suggest we were in any way panicked or intimidated by our gathering crowd. We survived intact but learned a valuable lesson. In some places safety is very much an illusion that can evaporate quickly.
We were confronted time and again with sights that made us angry. Driving through a gate in the wall dividing the West Bank and reading the messages of despair painted on it, and walking through a refugee camp in Bethlehem are only two examples. I do not understand how anyone could experience things like this and not have their soul shaken. I cried out to God at the ugly evil in front of my eyes that I had simply walked past, but that others had to live in and through, each day of their lives. No! No! For the love of God! Why do people do this stuff to each other!!
Every single person in this part of the world, whether Arab or Jew or other, lives under the threat of the gun. They live in the midst of evil, without real safety and security, and many of them, without respect or hope. This was obvious to me as a pilgrim. One who did not belong here but one whose heart was changed by the experience.
This wall graffiti points to the hope someone has for a time when the power of the gun does not rule. Even in the squalor of a refugee camp, hope abides. Just down the road from patrolling soldiers we came across these little girls standing in a park, almost as if they didn’t know what to do with their few moments in the sun and fresh air.
If you like it was an Easter experience for me. In the middle of this disgrace stood a scene that brought hope. It was a strong sign of the inability of evil to stamp out good. These little girls were an assurance of the existence and even the transcendence of good in the midst of evil. A powerful spiritual experience that has stayed with me.
A few days later we stood outside the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem and were shooed aside to allow some very important and distinguished clergymen to walk imperiously through the courtyard; kings among the lowly masses. I was instructed by this episode, if I needed any reminding, that even the church (or should I say, especially the church) has embraced status and power and allowed it’s message of love and acceptance to be perverted. These black garbed individuals weren’t messengers of the Gospel. They were lords of the church flaunting their power. Forgiveness, acceptance, peace and love did not flow from them. I was too slow to photograph their faces. The arrogance on them would have been clear. How dispiriting for a pilgrim who had come to Jerusalem to see where Jesus changed the world at Easter.
Feeling intimidated, we waited till they had gone and entered the church to see the stone slab where Jesus is reputed to have been laid after his crucifixion. Something made me look up and I saw a beam of light almost touching the slab where Jesus body laid. Let them play their games, It was saying. This is what matters. Fix your soul on this and live. This was another Easter moment.
Sue and I were on a cosseted journey. We slept in comfortable beds each night, ate good meals, didn’t have too walk too far if we didn’t want to, and felt relatively safe most of the time. We left our home in search of new experiences and understanding. We did all of that; just not in the way we expected that we would. We came back pilgrims.
If you travel on a journey to the Holy Land you will find much to surprise you, much to disappoint you, much to disgust you, and much that will transform you. Just don’t go on the journey expecting to be particularly in control of the outcomes.
We learned more about evil than we wanted to, but equally we experienced more of the power of faith than we expected. This Easter I hope your eyes will be opened to the goodness and the joy of life.
Thank God there is an Easter.
Safe travels, Pilgrim.