Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pilgrimage 6: Homeward Bound Reflections

Entry for 22-23 May 2015:

Saint Ann's Church, Bethesda, Jerusalem
1. It was very good to be completely yanked out of my familiar places and routines. It’s been years since I had a real vacation, where I just went away and did almost no work.  It has taken something like a pilgrimage to achieve this:  A project in itself that has been so absorbing and demanding and yet at the same time wasn’t work.   I’m exhausted, so obviously it wasn't a rest; it was more of a balancing or a grounding. 

2. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, we became unstuck in time, as we flipped back and forth first between stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions, but also between ministry, death and birth parts of the Jesus story.  Such lived-through re-tellings are impossible to tell in straight narrative order, one thing after another; instead as we traveled from place to place, we looped through time, and sometimes it seemed as if everything was happening at once, and that the places overflowed with surfeit of meaning.  I hope to be able to make sense of more of it afterwards, when enough of the pieces have been collected and there is space to assemble them into something more useful than “complex and difficult”.

3. The big, technicolour places -- Bethlehem, Gethsemane, the Church of the Sepulcher, which incorporates Golgotha and the Tomb – I was disappointed by these.  I was distracted by the shear crush of people, the multi-layered weight of history and expectation, and the watchful proddings of the guardians of these places telling us to move along, be quiet, dress appropriately etc.  In these places I felt as though I was going through the motions, like walking through a movie; it was more of an intellectual process.  These places were interesting but for me ultimately not very involving or transformative.

For example, I never imagined the Birthplace to be the centre of the modern city of Bethlehem that has grown up around it.  The 2.5 churches (Roman Catholic and Greek/Armenian Orthodox) competing for pieces of the cave/stable don’t really bother me that much, even though they’ve divided the place amongst them like the woman who told Solomon it was OK to cut the baby in half to share with the other mother-claimant.  But I was unprepared for the urban, commercial nature of the place.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, given that tourism is after all their main business, and has been for many centuries. No wonder there’s a shopping centre two blocks from the cave, and there are sales everywhere, providing constant distraction.

4. These Big Places just made me homesick for Galilee, the wilderness, and the desert, where we started: The falling-down ruins, the wildflowers, the hyrax or “rock badger” (think wood chuck or large rat), the Sea of Galilee, where the sun glints and the wind dimples the water.  In the same way, far more satisfying than places like Church of the Sepulcher or the ornate Barluzzi shrines, were the simple Franciscan chapels where we often stopped for prayer or a brief reading.  The white limestone, clean lines, and lack of ornate decoration, marking various Little Places, made a space for me to appreciate the smaller moments.  
Saint Ann with young Mary
5. One of these simple but deep places touched me greatly: the Church of Saint Ann, next to the pool of Bethesda, just a bit north of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There, unexpectedly, I encountered something about my mother (and by extension about myself), that I had never put together:  My mother wasn’t just named after her grandmother Anna and her grandfather’s sister Annie, she was also named after the Virgin Mary’s own mother Ann, that is to say, Jesus’s grandmother.  I think that this had a lifetime impact on my mother in lots of ways, but most obviously through her fascination with Mary and the image of the Goddess, which I have inherited.  (It’s no wonder that several days later at a Palestinian collective store in Bethlehem I found myself spending rather more than I had intended for a lovely Russian Orthodox icon of Madonna and Holy Infant.  This is now part of a little Marian shrine in our living room.)

6. A welcome pleasure of this pilgrimage was how much archeology we did, seeing all the layers of history, one after another: ancient ruined synagogues and mikvahs (ritual baths); Roman camps, towns, temples and forts; massive Herodian structures; the half-demolished Byzantine churches, with their floor mosaics and rows of broken columns; even recent but abandoned structures like the mosque at Banias (Caesarea Phillipi).  For me, these places, particularly places by Sepphoris, Tel Dan, Chorizim and Capernaum (to name just a few) provided a kind of antidote or counterweight to the crowds and the commercialism.

7. We left as we arrived, in the middle of the night, like the Magi. Instead of camels, we mounted the large Nazarene Express bus one more time, passing through the streets of Jerusalem, still full of people (though not so many as during the day).  The highway to Tel Aviv airport was busier than the ones we took 11 days earlier to Arad in the south.  Surrounded by darkness, our time here now seems almost dreamlike, rich with experiences and images that resonate deeply but often contradict one another.  It is a big dream, like the one Diane had the other night. We will be a long time figuring this one out, all the more so because it is full of fear, confusion, pity, and wonder.  It is at the same time both dreamlike and as real as anything in our lives, or maybe even more so.

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