Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Weekend Away

My life is familiar to all those who work all week and then have downtime on the weekend. Sometimes you just have to get away. I am blessed by the fact that my downtime takes on special overtones when I can take off to the Mediterranean Sea or drive to Nazareth via Jericho or take a day trip to the Dead Sea.  I appreciate how adventurous it must sound (and it is) yet these are the places in reach for me. And I have learned that there are times when it is necessary to take a weekend away.

Recently I went with friends to Petra, in Jordan. This place has a special spot in my heart because my father was here a long time ago. Both sets of grandparents spent varying amounts of time in the Middle East, my parents met and lived, for a while, in the Middle East and now my brother lives in Dubai and I live in Jerusalem.  There is a beautiful colourful Middle Eastern thread that runs through our family stories. Both my brother and I have tried to take the opportunity to walk in our parent’s footsteps, and visit the places about which we have heard so much. Petra has definitely been at the top of the list.

Driving down to Eliat, at the very bottom of Israel, one can see Jordan, Egypt, and off in the distance, Saudi Arabia.  It sits on the Gulf of Aqaba and is a beautiful vacation spot.  It is green and lush but as you move away from the coast the topography changes to a desert landscape and it is not difficult to image Moses wandering, lost in the desert. It is confusing and the mountains appear bare and desolate. On the Jordan side, we drive up from the coast for a few hours gaining altitude and then - a view that goes forever. It is beautiful and far across the way, lonely and shining white in the setting sun, is Aaron’s Tomb. 

From the top, we drive down into the valley. We make our way to our hotel, settle in, and prepare for a night walk into Petra.

One thousand, five hundred nightlights have been placed along the path to mark our way to the Treasury – nearly a mile and half.  My level of anticipation is high, walking gingerly on stones and gravel and sand, through natural rock formations, with the stars overhead and the soft glow of the candles at our feet.  As we enter into the Siq (the long path to the Treasury) the overwhelming feeling of adventure – past and present – is palatable. We reach our destination and are guided to a seat on a  woven carpet. We are told the story of the Nabataeans and the city, carved from the stone, which they built here. Then the night is filled with Arabian music. Soulful singing accompanying the Ute, and the haunting melodies of the Bedouin flute. We are served sweet Bedouin tea and sit on our carpet, enraptured by the night.  I try to take pictures in the dark but they don’t really come out and there is no way to capture the feeling of the evening. We walk slowly home and I look forward to the morning when I can see everything in a different light.

The next day, we arise early and head into Petra while it is cool. I am amazed to see what I walked by last evening in the dark. Tombs carved into the rock. Jinn blocks, huge squares of granite. And the Siq, a long winding path through the rock. I pass the spot where my brother had his photo taken, just within the last month, and I am happy to think that he, too, has passed this way.

We come around a corner to see the immense carved frontal of the Treasury. It is here that I have a ‘moment’.  Once upon a time my father stood here. I lay my hand on the rock in a gentle reminder of the stance he took in an old photograph, grainy with age.  I think of how time is such an odd thing. Last year I would never even have thought of the possibility that I could be here now. Sixty years ago, I am sure my father could not have imagined that he would have a son, and a daughter, who would one day stand here too.  The rest of my day is spent looking through my father’s eyes. And I am sure that what I see has not changed too much. Certainly the view, the amazing Cardo, rock hued caves and tombs are still the same.  I see the young men running up the stone steps to the highest places, I hear their laughter, and joking about on donkeys. I see them with a cool drink in one hand and a cigarette in another. I see the shadow of my father as a young man everywhere.  My father, now, is an old man, and his recollections are fading. What an honour I have been given – to have the opportunity to embrace his memories and make them a part of my own.

Altogether, we have a wonderful day. We chat with Raami, the son of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, the author of ‘I Married a Bedouin’, I have kohl put on my eyes and wrap a scarf around my head in the way of the Bedouin women. We take donkeys up to the Monastery, another huge granite carved building. Once at the top, the site was well worth the death defying trip up, however, it is something I will not do again. The donkey ride part, I mean.   I appreciate that those animals do that trip up the mountain every day, but there are places where the steps have been worn away and there are no steps at all and the drop straight down is way down and when Sherry’s donkey tripped over its front hooves, well, that was it for me.  I will say that the walk down was just lovely, I saw quite a few things I had missed on the way up with my eyes shut tight. On the final leg home, after a long day of hiking, we rode horses. I like horses.

After our fabulous day of antiquities and exercise, Sherry and I found the Turkish Bath and indulged in the steam room, the scrub and the massage.  We went out for a lovely dinner, courtesy of Graham, and raised a glass to my dad, family and friendship. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Our weekend away continues in the Wadi Rum.  This immense desert is the land of Lawrence of Arabia.  We travel by jeep out into the desert and see the place where Lawrence lived, rubble now, since earthquakes are common here. We are taken to see petroglyphs of camel caravans and ancient trade routes. We see springs of water in the crevices of rock mountains, worn by wind and rain and sand storms. There are places where the rock looks like it is melting, still too hot to touch. We climb red sand dunes and see far off into the distance. We see herds of camels lazily marauding through the desert. And realize that the desert is alive with shrubbery and wildlife – an incredible array of flora and fauna.

We are taken to the natural Rock Arch. And in our enthusiasm of the moment Sherry and I decide we are going to the top. This is no nice and easy hiking path. This is scrambling. Straight up. Our barefoot Bedouin guide leads the way and we follow, a hand placed here, a foot indent there, and then a hand held out and we have made it half way. We follow along a slim path and through a crevice and out onto the rock bridge. We are way up and now our guide shows off by doing hand stands. I can’t look at him. I do however look out across the landscape and am indescribably amazed at what I see.  It is beautiful and the colours range from sandy to red to almost blue and purple in the light of the day.  Soon, we make our way down (much easier going down on our bottoms) and are driven to the perfect spot to watch the sunset.  There is a mist of late afternoon cloud that edges the horizon so we don’t actually see the sun go down but we watch as the colours of the day change and we turn our faces into the cool evening breezes.  

As darkness begins to fall, we are driven to where we will spend the night. Bedouin tents, tucked up against the red rock of a desert mountain.  We are the only people in the camp tonight, except our hosts. We are graciously given sweet tea before our dinner which includes lentil soup, then chicken, vegetables and rice, with yogurt. We sit in the large tent where everyone gathers. The colours of the cushions and various wall hangings are bright with different tones of reds, pinks, and blues. Some of the patterns are reminiscent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  The land is the same in many ways so the desert colours and the mountain peaks are a familiar incorporation into the artwork.

After dinner, we decide to go for a walk in the desert. We walk out a ways, into the dark, into the silence and lay on the sand gazing at the stars overhead. I am imagining who before me as seen this same starry night.   It takes a little bit of time to quiet ourselves. And we are not sure what we are hearing – is it crickets? the wind? our heartbeats?  It is so quiet.  And the distance is hard to gage. We see the headlights of a jeep way, way out there but cannot hear it at all.  We ponder the speed of light versus sound. Then, as I lay in the sand, I ponder scorpions and then I decide it is better not to think about them at all, and I just think about the mystery of the Universe.

Eventually, we slowly, softly and quietly make our way back to our tents. 

In the middle of the night I am awaken by the sound of rain.  The wind has picked up and the sand is hitting the side of my tent. There is a soft rain that dampens down the dust and turns the sand deep rust red.  In the morning it is deliciously cool and I go for a little walk around the camp area. The silence is peaceful and enveloping.

After breakfast we return by jeep, to our car, and begin our journey home. We stop for a swim in Aqaba and go snorkeling in the Marine Park.  It is like swimming in an aquarium – the angel fish and blow fish, incredible blue fish and pink fish, and the various sea anemones and coral. I float on the surface, looking down into this world of colors and beauty, and watch the sea life dance on the currents of the ocean.

This weekend away has been a wonderful respite. It has given me time to rejuvenate and to sit in the quiet of memories, the quiet stillness of the desert, and the quiet gentle flow of the ocean. I hold these times close and call them up in the midst of busy days or stressful times.  

I hope you, too, can find a quiet and restful moment in the midst of your busy life.

Salaam, Peace.


Friday, September 7, 2012

One Year Anniversary

It is Summer’s end.  But what a summer it has been - I have traveled – visiting family in England, and the United States, and friends in France.  I went on the Chunnel, the train that goes through a tunnel under the English Channel. I felt a tad of anxiety over that but the train went so fast we were in Calais before I knew it. Continuing down through the countryside, the scenery and the sunflowers of Southern France were amazing - bright yellow blankets of sunshiny flowers, faces to the sun in postures of worship.  I could see the Pyrenees in the distance and castles perched precariously on cliffs.  I wandered about the city of Toulouse, visiting old churches and cathedrals et je suis pratiquez mon français une petite peu.   And I went to places that I have only ever read about - the walled medieval city of Carcassonne (see Labyrinth by Katie Mosse).  My sincere thanks to Angela, for a lovely restful time, and for taking me out and about to the most interesting of places.

Here in Jerusalem I had friends come to visit me and the adventures continue.  

Notes to Self:

1) Never rent a car with a standard drive (gear shift) and then drive to Nazareth, in the dark, up the hills, without your lights on, because you will get caught at a stoplight on the steepest road ever and you will grind your gears and stall and have the cars behind you honk and honk and honk and then the police will pull you over.  However, all will be well and the police will guide you to where you are going, eventually, because even they can get lost in the twisting, turning, winding roads of our Lord’s childhood.

2) Remember if you are in the desert watching the sun go down – leave before eight o’clock because there is a gate and it gets locked and then you have to wait, with the beautiful Anastasia and her AKA47, for the guy with the key.  However, all will be well, because Anastasia loves practicing her English and has stories to tell about her time in Jerusalem which is much better than her time outside Gaza. 

3) If you are standing on the corner in Ramallah waiting for your friends to pick you up - be prepared to be proposed to by a man who invites you home for coffee and a chat about the impending marriage he has in mind. However, all will be well because you explain that you are not ready for marriage at such short notice and your friends will arrive just at that moment.

4) If you are in the Old City deciding where to go, do not follow a nice Jewish man to David’s Tomb so he can show you the view and then on to the Qidron Valley for that view as well  because he will propose to you too.  However, all will be well, because your good friend Roberta is smart enough to look at her watch and remind you there are places to go and people to meet and we have to leave NOW.

5) If you go to Ramallah during Ramadan remember that the buses stop for an hour at sundown and you will be caught at the bus stop, for nearly four hours, waiting for the buses to start again. However, all will be well, because you will sit with your friend, Roberta, and a nice young German student, and the station attendant, and his friends, and watch the Arabic TV drama shows, and eat corn on the cob, and drink grapefruit juice and just as you get ready to get into a taxi, the bus will come and as you look out the window to say good-bye, everyone will wave farewell.  

6) Remember what your friend Steven said: Give your soul a chance to catch up whenever you travel far from home, wherever home may be at the time.

In August I went ‘home’ for a visit. When I arrived in Los Angeles it felt sort of odd to be back in the West.  I thought I heard the call to prayer in the Mall, and I translated all dollars into shekels before purchasing anything. But it did not take long to acclimatize. It was wonderful to see my beautiful Catherine, and stay with good friends who opened their hearts and their homes to me. Thank you to Steven, Karleen and Joanne. I spoke at All Saints Church in Pasadena about My Life out of Three Suitcases and it was wonderful to see dear friends who came to support me as I told my stories. Thank you, Randy and Doni, for your organization of the event (and the flyer). I am blessed with the most generous people as my friends.  I continue to learn about kindness and care, and I pray that I, in turn, can throw it back out into the Universe for others.

When I arrived ‘home’, back in Jerusalem, it was tough to readjust in some ways. My soul took longer to arrive than I did.  It seems to me that there are times when jetlag can reach deep down into the very core of ourselves and it can take time to get all the scattered pieces back from the cosmos and into one piece. However, all will be well, and all is well.  It turns out, my soul is very happy here and I am looking forward to this coming year with just as much anticipation as last.  

I feel settled. The adventure of newness is waning (although, I am sure, there are still many to come.) I know my way around the city now. I have my favourite Falafel guy on the corner of Nablus Road, across from Damascus Gate (only 7 shekels for the best falafel sandwich, EVER!). I have my favourite shop in the Old City where I take my friends to buy scarves and skirts and Bedouin pants. I know how to take the bus to Ramallah, find the Palestinian stitchery shop, and get myself home.  I am prepared for the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. I am prepared for those moments when I miss my family and friends with a deep ache and yet I am also thankful for the support of the friends I have here in St. George’s Close. We have made for ourselves a caring and loving community.

I attended a panel discussion organized by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, with our very own Fr. Hosam Naoum, Dean of St. George’s Cathedral speaking on the Jewish-Christian Relations in the Holy Land.  And although I continue to be frustrated with the political situation I also continue to look for, and find, the hope that is in the people, of all religious faiths, who live here.  

And so with the arrival of September, it is my one year anniversary.  Much has happened this past year and not a whit was expected or predicted.  I jumped out of my box and landed in a life that is full of surprises and unexpected adventures.   

I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Spring has arrived in Jerusalem. The flowers are blooming and the warm weather has begun. It is very welcome after the cold months of winter. I was quite surprised at how cold it actually was during those months. But now the blankets are folded and put away and the summer clothes are out.

This has been a very busy month for me. I have had friends come to visit and was able to play tour guide in my new home town.  My friend Steven and I went to museums and Caesarea Maritima. We walked along the Jaffa Port and came across a Youth Art Exhibition in one of the warehouses and saw some very interesting work. We had a serendipitous moment when we walked through a very narrow back street and heard a piano playing and a beautiful tenor singing from a music studio. We stopped to listen and clapped in joy and appreciation when they were done.

My friend Louise, arrived a few weeks later, and we went to Masada and spent a day amazed at the views and the history of this mountain. On the way home, we decided to go on an adventure and went off on a side road to see what we could find.  We saw a cross on a hill so we stopped to take a look and over the top and down in the valley we saw the monastery of St. George’s.  It was beautiful. A lovely quiet moment in the desert.

I have also been hiking in Palestine.  The hikes have been wonderful, the perfect way to get out of the city and clear one’s head.  Although I only found out about this hiking group at the end of the season, as it is now getting way to hot, I did hike the last two sections of Abraham’s Path.  The second to last section was out in the rocky, hilly desert part of South Hebron.
We came across goats and camels and ancient cisterns, even a 5th century abandoned monastery – so cool in the shade and so quiet.
The following week, we walked the last portion, ending (appropriately) at Abraham’s tomb.  That was very interesting, going into the Mosque in Hebron.  It is shared with the Jewish community so there are sections where one can look at the ‘tombs of Abraham and Sarah’ and see the place on the other side where they, too, can look through, although there are a lot of opaque windows obscuring any real view of people.

I also did a hike in the north, near Jenin and Nablus. Beautiful views. We stopped for coffee and tea in a Bedouin’s tent. Their hospitality is renowned.

At the Cathedral we celebrated the installation of Fr. Hosam Naoum as the first Arab Dean of St. George’s Cathedral. That was an especially lovely day.

I have also had some rather interesting and unexpected experiences:
Many years ago my Godmother worked for a very generous man who gave a lot of money to build a clinic here in Jerusalem. This clinic served all people, regardless of race or religion and she asked me to find the building. She even sent photos from the time it was opened so I would recognize it. So yesterday I decided to go on the hunt. Well, as it turns out it is no more than half an hour away from where I live, however I didn’t know that when I headed out and I ended up walking to the end of Jaffa Street (which felt like half way to Tel Aviv).

Anyway, as I was wandering down the street I found myself walking toward a young Jewish man, very conservative, wearing his fedora and black suit. I have learnt to just keep walking and avert my eyes. However, he came straight toward me and stopped me. He asked me a question but I don’t speak Hebrew and his English was limited. So I asked him if he was lost (although I was totally lost but you never know if you can help) and he asked me if I was from America. He told me his mother was from America (all in very halting English). He told me that his name is Isaac and asked my name (I was so thankful for my biblical name because I was kind of concerned – this just doesn’t happen). Then he stuck out his hand and in automatic response I put out mine and we shook hands.  We smiled at each other and said,’ Have a nice day.’ And then off he went and off I went -totally stunned.   This was highly unusual.  I don’t know what it was all about really expect to say that all the people I met during my lost excursion were very kind and helpful. I walked through a number of orthodox neighbourhoods and really they are not that much different from anywhere else - people out walking, kids playing ball, children with melting popsicles. 

These experiences constantly remind me that at the end of the day we are all the same.  I look deeply for the hope in them.

I did, eventually, find the building but sadly the clinic is no longer there. It is now a Torah School. I may go back to see if I can find out what happened to the sign, as I could still see where it had been.  But that will be for another day.

The highlight of my month was spending the night in the Holy Sepulcher.

It turns out (I think it is the best kept secret in Jerusalem) that one can sign-up to sleep in the Holy Sepulcher. Well, not sleep; there are 3 rules - no singing, no lighting candles and no sleeping. But I didn't sleep anyway as time just flew by. There were four of us. ONLY 4 (and various monks we didn't really see) with the whole place to ourselves. And so the three of us and one fellow (who made a bee line to the tomb where he sat crossed legged, meditating and praying until he was unceremoniously booted out at midnight so the priests on duty could perform their oblations) spent the night. We watched the door close and be locked and then looked at each other, sort of wide eyed and took a deep breath. Wow!

I felt compelled to begin my night at Golgotha – I just laid my head there. I prayed for everyone I could think of and every name brought to mind another name.  I made my way to the anointing stone and it was awash with perfumed oils. I ran my hands up and down the stone reveling in the sweet aroma of the incense and the almost soft touch of the marble.

I made my way to the Edicule and (sharing space with our friend); I sat in the tomb for what seemed like ages.

Eventually I began to slowly walk about this immense church.  I got up close and laid my head on almost every altar, looked closely at every icon and tried to touched every cross engraved in the stone, thinking of crusaders and pilgrims and the millions of people who, throughout the ages, have come here to pray and cry and sit in silence among the throngs. It is such a hectic place during the day that sometimes it is hard to be in touch with the holy.

 At midnight the Greek Orthodox priests and the Coptic priests wash the tomb and then cense it and every other altar in the church. They then chant – the Greek Orthodox chant, the Coptics chant and the Franciscans chant.  It was wonderful to watch the night ministrations. This is a very busy place in the wee hours of the morning.

I brought with me my bible, a poetry book and a journal. I went down to the very bottom to The Chapel of Saint Helena (where she allegedly found the Holy Cross) and sat and read awhile. I opened my bible - and it fell to 1 Corinthians 13-14 – Faith, Hope, and Love - just what is needed to be living here.

Lectio Divina is a meditative exercise of which I am particularly fond.  It means Divine Word. A passage of scripture is read and then you meditate on it, perhaps a word or phrase sticks in your mind. Then you read it again and ‘look’ for an image that associates with the phrase and then third time round, read it again and see if there is a feeling that binds it all together. I happen to like this exercise and suggested we give it a try. So at 4 in the morning the three of us gathered in the little chapel (Adam’s Chapel) under Calvary and we used that particular week’s lectionary - the Gospel of John 15 v 7-11-- Abide in me – as our scripture verse. My phrase was 'that my joy may be in you' - and my image - I was just overwhelmed with the joy that Jesus must have felt - God in the flesh - seeing, touching, smelling all the beautiful things He had created - the flowers and birds and ladybugs and us too. The roses here are delicious and I could imagine Jesus with his nose in one. I do that every morning as there are a number of rose bushes by my tower door and they are intoxicating. My feeling was of incredible thankfulness. Just for everything - my life, being here, the amazing things that keep happening to me. I am so thankful because I know there really is no reason for it - it is just a gift.

And you know, I was never scared - it is a huge place but I didn't even think about being concerned. I was just wrapped in the prayers of centuries. At 5am when the door was unlocked, I was ready to go home but not really. As we left, we saw people rushing to get there as it opened, and there we were walking out, no rushing, just quietly leaving.

I am not sure how to process all this - as one of the women I was with said - God set aside this particular time just for us to be here. How personal is that!

And I am thinking I may not ever need to go in the tomb again - He is NOT there! That is what came to me when I was sitting in it –‘I am not here. Get out and see the sky. Be among the living’.  I resonate with the women at the tomb who spoke with the ‘gardener’ on Easter morning.  

And so ever since then I have been sitting out on my tower roof under the beautiful blue sky or hiking in the country or walking in my neighbourhoods.

Jerusalem, my happy home.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

And you never know when it’s going to hit you…


I have come to appreciate the lack of build up to our Christian celebrations here. Although it is odd to see chocolate bunnies and eggs being sold in the souk, it is not with same intense marketing that has become the norm in the West.
For me, Holy Week came with the sense of anticipation of revisiting an old story in a different way. Living here where the Easter story actually played itself out, adds a deeper layer of sadness and human understanding to the unfolding of a tragic scene. Even when we know the end of the story, the path that leads to the Empty tomb is a long one.
Maundy Thursday, we gathered in the Cathedral for the traditional Service of Foot Washing, stripping the altar and leaving the church in silence. We then assembled in the court yard and following a cross, processed down the street, and up the Mount of Olives to a small grove of olive trees, across the way from the formal Garden of Gethsemane.  It is hard to explain the feeling that came to me as I looked across the valley at Jerusalem. Under a full moon, imagining this place 2000 years ago, it was not hard to understand the disciples being exhausted and falling asleep. Nor was it difficult to imagine Jesus praying in solitude in this little olive garden. We sang ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ And it was quite moving. It was a beautiful somber evening.
Good Friday, we got up very early.  The Christian Churches walk together as an ecumenical group to do the Stations of the Cross.  We are a growing number as we follow the cross to the Via Dolorosa.  I have walked this walk a number of times and each time holds its own in my memory.  When I was here with the Youth Pilgrims we would share the readings and prayers by picking, one each, out of a basket. The year I was here with my daughter, she picked the reading for Station 2, fourteen youth later, my turn came and my slip of paper read - prayers for Station 2 – Jesus receives His Cross. It was profoundly moving to share this experience with my daughter. She was given the opportunity to carry a cross, and I was asked if I would help her – I thought that was quite symbolic.
Today, I have been asked to read the prayers again. I am handed my paper and I look down to see I will be praying at Station 2. 
We walk and stop at each station along the way, mingling with others - pilgrims, nuns, and other religious. We stop at Station 4, Where Jesus meets His Mother.  It’s a funny thing, being in the Holy Land, surrounded by Holiness and Holy Spirit, and you never know when it’s going to hit you - the overwhelming sense of being loved, and of being part of a never-ending story in which we each play a part. And as I am thinking of my mother and my daughter and all the important women in my life, whom I love and have loved, and all who have loved me, I look down at my program. The hymn selection is my grandmother’s favourite - 'There is a Green Hill Far Away' -  And then it hits me.
 The Easter Vigil and Easter Day are celebratory occasions. There is singing and bell ringing and lots of joy.  Those of us, who live in the Cathedral Close, and other friends and family, are invited by the Bishop to join him for an Easter Lunch. The weather is beautiful and it is a lovely day.
And then, we get to do it all again the following week for the Orthodox Holy Week and Easter!
Although I did not participate in every Orthodox service I did get to the end of a Maundy Thursday Service. The service I went to was at St. Mark’s Assyrian Orthodox Church - the site of one of the oldest Christian churches in the Old City. Here is the Upper Room Down, where, perhaps, Jesus and his disciples had the last supper. It is a beautiful little church and at the end of the service the Patriarch is carried out of the sanctuary on his chair, upheld by men of the congregation and followed by Palestinian Scouts playing Bagpipes and Drums. It was quite the sight to behold and the music was fabulous.
On Orthodox Holy Saturday, some friends of mine were invited to go the Holy Sepulcher to witness the Holy Fire. I asked if there was room for one more and yes, I can go too.
We get in line at 9am at Zion Gate and begin the wait. We are drawn out of the crowd to meet with our group and wind our way through the Old City to the Holy Sepulcher. Security is very tight and many of the routes have been closed off. We get in the church at 11am. The crowd is beginning to build and there is no room. We are squished in and more keep coming. In our section, young men begin to chant and climb up the side of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulcher (The Tomb of Christ).  They are singing and shouting and beating on drums and waving flags. I am not sure whether to participate or not.  I am not sure whether to be a bit frightened or not. Some of the elderly nearby look a bit frail amongst all this and it is very hot. The security guards have been pushing people into some of the smaller chapels and I can’t imagine how hot and breathless it must be there. After a time, I see people leaving, it is too much.
And in the midst of all this, a fellow in front of me, with his hands up in the air waving his candle and shouting away, stops to sniff under his arms. I am not sure what look was on my face – shock or near hilarious laughter – but he caught my eye and said ‘It’s good. I don’t smell so bad but if you go over in that corner, agh, they smell terrible.’  I don’t even know what to say.
At one point I turn and see a battered silver plate being passed from hand to hand over the heads of the people nearby. Each person is taking from the plate, sharing and eating and passing it along. They are crossing themselves and saying silent prayers. It comes my way and I am struck to find that it is bread, blessed bread. I take my portion and can’t believe that I have just had communion in the Holy Sepulcher.  This touches me deeply. For all the speculation about any of the Holy sites, for me, anywhere that people have come, for thousands of years, to pray and weep and search for God, it is a Holy place.
It is now nearly 2pm.  I am standing on the wrong side of the security barrier but I was sort of put there and haven’t moved much. But now we are told to make room for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, His Beatitude Theophilos III, and his retinue, who will be walking around the Empty Tomb three times as tradition dictates. I do my best to become as small as possible but I am still so close, I can reach out and touch them as they pass by.
From my spot I cannot see this but I understand that on the third time round, at the entrance to the Tomb, the Patriarch is patted down (no incendiary devices are allowed) and enters the Tomb, and there, after I assume much prayer, the Holy Spirit lights the Holy Candle with Holy Fire and it is sent out through a small opening to the world at large (the flame is actually sent to Rome and 14 other countries around the world).
By now everyone is yelling and shouting, in a myriad of languages – Come Holy Spirit Come!
And then - it really happened so fast. One minute there was no light and the next I see a flame carried out from the tomb – whoosh - and then candles are being lit off of the flame and then everyone is lighting their candles off of each other’s candles and the bells are ringing and the drums are drumming and the people are crying and shouting and praising and carrying on. It was quite amazing!  I lit my candle from a neighbour and then I just sort of stood there. I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to be caught up in the fever and fervor, but I was really overwhelmed with the joyous mayhem. I really just wanted to watch and relish in the joy of all the people around me. It was wonder-filled.
Eventually, I slowly made my way out of the Holy Sepulcher. I met my friends and we stopped for a fresh pomegranate juice. And it was delicious – slightly tart but truly refreshing.  And that just seemed so appropriate. The perfect way to end Easter in the Holy Land - as the pomegranate is the Christian symbol of life, hope and eternal life.  
May you continue to revel in the Joy of Easter. The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is it Lent, or is it Life?

I find a certain comfort in the church calendar. The rhythms of the year, forward moving but ever circular.  For me, Ordinary time is usually anything but and the rest of year has deep layers that need re-looking at whenever it is time, again, to live through them.

Lent comes wrapped in its own mystery. Another waiting time of year. But unlike Advent, when waiting is full of anticipation and expectation of joy and birth, Lenten waiting, for me, is steeped in sadness. I know what’s coming and it is not good. Even with the hope of Resurrection, I must live through the suffering to get there.

This Lent in particular has been all about the waiting. And perhaps the ‘God moments’ I have witnessed are the precursor to Easter morning but it has been a rough 40 days.

I have found myself waiting in a number of places and for the most part I usually don’t mind but some of my waiting has been emotional and that is never easy. My mantra these days is – ‘I am where I am supposed to be.’  This gives me a great deal of peace when I find myself in places where I am uncomfortable or where waiting is  difficult.   

Earlier this month I found myself waiting at the US Consulate. For whatever reason, visas always seem to be an issue here, whether they are for this country or another.  And so I went to work out my situation.  I sat waiting for 2 hours, until it dawned on me that perhaps something wasn’t quite right and of course it was true, I was at the right time but in the wrong place. But in the meantime, I love to people watch and it was interesting to observe the others in the room who were waiting patiently for their appointments.  And my bright shiny moment came when a young Jewish man turned, saw a friend and greeted him with a warm handshake and quick hug, ‘Mohammad, Shalom.’ And they sat together and chatted as they waited for their turn.  My issues are still pending but my hope is alive and well.

I had an interesting experience with a friend of mine who has friends who live in West Jerusalem. We were invited to join them for a quick dinner and the screening of a documentary. Without going into detail, the evening was quite intense, mainly because it became apparent that this couple lives in a state of fear – waiting, it seems, for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I am hearing stories now of regular drills on the train – what to do in case of a bomb; where to find your local bomb shelter and for some the constant reminder of the wall is – the enemy is at hand.  I do not live in this world. I am not afraid.  The question posed by that evening was – when the terrorists attack, will you be on our side?  The answer is an easy one – of course. I am against terrorists. However, I think our opinions differ when it comes to who, we think, are terrorists. And so they wait in fear.  And I wait in sadness and cling to the moments I come across that give me hope.  (Please see above.)

Perhaps the most difficult part of Lent this year was waiting the outcome of a family member who had suddenly fallen ill. Four weeks ago he had trouble breathing and went into the hospital. Two weeks ago he died. My son sat by his bedside every day. He held his hand as he breathed his last breath. He prayed over him. And waited. He waited for miracles and he waited for peace. And in many ways both have come. Perhaps not as expected but they have come.   And for me, as always blessed, I caught a flight home within hours of receiving the news that I was needed.

On the way, there was an emergency on our flight and we landed in Munich for a couple of hours. Consequently, those of us with connections missed them. And so I found myself waiting in Newark for the next available flight to Montreal. As I sat there I witnessed a lovely moment – a young girl calling home to reassure her family and friends that she was well; her first time ever on an airplane had been fine, exhilarating in fact. I caught her eye and smiled as with every phone call, her experience expanded from   ‘Take off was scary at first.’ to ‘Of course, I would do it again, it was fun!’  And I thought - I am watching this person grow in front of me, her world will never be the same again.  It was worth the wait just to witness the expansion of this person’s universe.

Once home, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Family and friends abundant and supportive. Our shock at death becoming a celebration of life. Our tears healing.  Searching for the meaning of life and the reminder that it is such a quick transient gift.

And so is this Lent, or is this Life?  The waiting with expectation of life and death.  Both equally difficult, I think.  It seems to me, that everyone is waiting for something – be it the worst life has to offer or the absolute best. Either way, there is a journey to be experienced. My prayer is that we can embrace the gift we have been given and  welcome all those we meet with grace and peace.
Salaam, Shalom, Peace be with you.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Times like These…

Amazing things happen in Jerusalem - on the world stage and in the lives of the people who live here and visit here.  These past few weeks I have been having some very serendipitous moments of my own.

I have a pile of books in my apartment. They sit beside my chair and beside my bed and I dip into them as time permits, or as the feeling of needing to curl up with a good book overtakes me on these cold and rainy Jerusalem nights. At the moment I am reading ‘Once upon a Country- a Palestinian Life’ by Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian, scholar and head of Al Quds University, and co-written by Anthony David. I also have ‘Living Buddha, Living Christ’ by Thich Nhat Hanh and ‘Holy Land?’ by The Revd Dr. Andrew Mayes, past Course Director of St. George’s College here in Jerusalem.  And to lighten the load I have ‘Runaway Jury’ by John Grisham and ‘Winter Nights ‘by Kate Mosse.  I have eclectic taste to be sure.

That being said I begin –

I was invited to a lecture at Tantur, a study institute just outside Bethlehem. I went to hear a discourse on Bach. I don’t know much about music, other than what I like, so to learn about the faith of this man, how it inspired his work and how he incorporated into his music a transcendent feeling of the passion of Christ, was quite fascinating.  I quite enjoyed being back among the scholarly elite (Cambridge being heavily represented) and the round table dinner discussion.  These open lectures are held regularly so I expect to return.  

As I was waiting for my taxi, which was not forthcoming, the fellow who had been sitting beside me at the lecture walked out towards the parking lot. I am getting rather bold as I learn to maneuver the ways of this country, so I stepped after him to ask if perhaps he was heading to Jerusalem and could I get a ride. Yes, he said, no problem. So I cancelled my taxi and jumped into his car. 

Now one of the things I love about this place is that there is no end to conversation starters. Everyone has come here from somewhere, has a story about why they are here, and is here for a certain amount of time. So the conversation begins - What brought you here? And this fellow says, ‘Well, I am a writer and I came here a few years ago, met Sari Nusseibeh and wrote a book.’ And I say, ‘Once upon a Country?’ and he says, ‘Yes, that’s me, Anthony David.’ And I say ‘I have that book! I am reading that book, right at this very moment!’ (Please see above) I couldn’t believe it.  This world, this Jerusalem, is a very small place.

Later in the week the Archbishop of Canterbury visited here for a pilgrimage with a small group of clergy and laity. Near the end of his time in Jerusalem, he had some elite dinners to attend and so I was asked to help host a dinner for his pilgrims at the Guest House of St. George’s.  It was a lovely evening, chatting with these people who, like many before them, had spent a week visiting holy places and learning about life here.  After dinner we were standing about giving our farewells for the night when a fellow approaches me and introduces himself. ‘Hello, I’m Andrew. Thank you for having us. I used to work here and it is lovely to be back.’ And I say, ‘Andrew Mayes? Holy Land?’ and he says, ‘Yes, that’s me. Do you know my book?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I have that book!’ (Please see above) I couldn’t believe it. In the space of a week I had met two authors of two books I actually own. And to top it off I was so graciously given a signed copy of a small volume ‘The Dwelling of the Light - Praying with Icons of Christ’ written by His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself. So now, in one week, I have met three authors and have their three books.  I must say, I love getting up each morning because I never know what the day will hold and it always holds something unexpected.

And so I must write of my wonderful Thursday morning –

Thursday morning was the end of the pilgrimage for the Archbishop and his group.  They were to have a last Holy Eucharist together, and with the permission of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Theophilos III, His Grace was able to use a small side chapel, Abraham’s Chapel, in the Holy Sepulcher. This is an exceptional honour, as it takes quite a bit of organization and protocol to be allowed to have a service in the Holy Sepulcher. The history is long and I am not going into it but trust me when I say this is not done regularly.  I asked my Bishop if I might join them and was told yes, you are very welcome, and my new friends from the previous evening were quite pleased to see me.

Clementine, who works at Lambeth Palace in London, and I walked through the Old City to the Holy Sepulcher, and there is something so amazingly special about walking through the early morning streets of Old Jerusalem. The shops are just beginning to open and the fresh baked bread is arriving in the souk. The smell of coffee wafts through the air, with the hint of fresh produce and the spice of baked sweets. There is no rush of midday so the avenues are easy to walk and I just love it! I am a romantic at heart and I allow myself the indulgence of the feeling of walking through an Arabian Adventure. Although, truth be told, I think it is my reality.

We arrive at the Holy Sepulcher. We are taken through a side door and up and along a hallway that is under renovation and find ourselves in a very small, very old chapel. Underneath us is the Coptic Chapel.  I am so honoured to be here! I have met the Archbishop, very briefly, before but I have never participated in such an intimate service with him as this. He has the most lovely, rich, measured and soothing voice I have ever heard. We celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Archbishop speaks to us of how this is the beginning of Jesus’ time here. It is in the temple that Simeon first recognizes the Son of God and that we, through Jesus, are also held up to God. And as the Archbishop raises his hands in the gesture of Simeon raising Jesus to heaven, I am profoundly moved.

As we leave this little chapel, I take a moment to look closely at the fading iconography that decorates the walls and ceiling of this place. It is beautiful. Once the colours must have been so bright and rich and I can see the delicate detail that has gone into each biblical scene. My hope is that these too will be restored as the renovation is completed.

We head to the Mount of Calvary. We ascend the stairs and gather around the altar that sits atop Golgotha. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch includes the Archbishop in an importune morning service. This is unprecedented. We stand in awe as the Head of the Anglican Communion is offered to participate with the saying of the Lord’s Prayer.  And while we stand in silent reverence of this moment, the world makes itself known, as around us the tourists are arriving and snapping photos of all the ancient art and silver and gold décor and I think to myself, if you just turned around you would get the most amazing photo, a once in a life time shot, of the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, and yet you are oblivious. I think there is an analogy for a sermon in there somewhere.

And the morning continues - we are invited to the back office of the Patriarch and we go through to a little room of ancient relics. Now this was very interesting. I am not fond of bones and skulls and bits of people at the best of times but these relics of saints are so holy to the Orthodox priests, and for that reason alone I give pause to pray and give thanks for the lives of the saints that have gone before us. Everything is carefully preserved in glass or decorated in silver and the left hand of the wife of St. Basil is ensconced in a beautiful silver glove.  On the wall was a painting of Mary with the most beautiful face I have ever seen. I was so struck by her calm, her delicate sense of mystery, and the peace that overwhelmed me when I looked at her. 

We are offered cognac (a pleasant surprise at 9:30 in the morning) then chocolates, lemonade, coffee and candy. The never ending hospitality is overwhelming. One image I will keep from this visit is the sweet sense of pleasure that came over the face of one of the priests as he ate his piece of chocolate. Yes, chocolate transcends all denominations and religions!

The Archbishop is given gifts and one of his entourage, who travels regularly with him, to document his experiences, is also given a gift. The Patriarch has remembered that her name is Nicola and has brought, from his home, a beautiful icon of St. Nicholas. He says he wants her to know that the Greek Orthodox Church is inclusive and this is for her. I know that all of the women in the group, myself included, were deeply moved by this heartfelt gesture.

Our visit comes to an end and we head out. At this point, the Patriarch wants to show the Archbishop the ritual of the closing and opening of the Holy Sepulcher. Now the keys of the Holy Sepulcher are held by two Muslim families (long story there) who lock and unlock the large heavy ancient doors to our most Holy of Holies.  And this happens in the morning and in the evening – I am not sure if it ever happens in the middle of the day but today it does – we watch as the doors are closed and the trapdoor is opened, the ladder handed through. On the outside, I have seen this done only at night, the key holder climbs up the ladder and locks the lock placed high up on the door. He then comes down the ladder and hands the ladder back through the trapdoor and from the inside the trapdoor is locked.  There is no coming in and no going out.  There is then a knock at the door and the whole process goes in reverse and the door is unlocked. 

And the door swings open and the sun shines in, and I realize I have been holding my breath, I think since early this morning, and I breathe deeply of the wonder of it all, and then, at once, our time together ends and we scatter back to our real world of planes to catch, places to go, and people to see.

And I walk back to work through the Old City, the busyness of the day increasing and I am trying to assimilate the past few hours in my brain and I think – ‘Wow. Now I can say I have actually been locked inside the Holy Sepulcher (even if only for 30 seconds)’.  And I realize that amazing things really do happen in Jerusalem. Amazing things happen to me in Jerusalem.   And it is in times like these that I stand outside my body and watch with wonder the life that I have been given.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Christmas in the Land where it all began

I realize that this is a little after the fact but I wanted to have the whole experience before I set my thoughts down in writing.  Christmas in the Land of the Holy One was very interesting.  And as always, there are stories -

There is no Christmas fever here. No stores or malls blaring Christmas music. But every so often, from somewhere, I hear very quietly, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Silent Night or ( I love it in Arabic) Jingle Bells.  And every service of Lessons and Carols is exuberant.
For Christmas Eve, this year, I have been asked to sing. Not in a choir, as there are not enough of us, but in a quartet.  And I said yes, mainly because I was needed and also because when I was a little girl I sang in a choir. And even if I didn’t sing very well, whatever the sound that came out of my mouth, it came out with joy. And so this Christmas once again, I will be making a joyful noise to the Lord.

The days before Christmas are full of institution parties and I have been so blessed as to be invited to go with the Bishop to a number of them.  We went to St. Luke’s Hospital, Nablus for their annual Christmas Lunch. You have to imagine this – a relativity small type parish hall, packed with tables and plastic chairs. And the tables are set (I kid you not) with multi-coloured paper cups that say ‘Over the Hill’. (I think there may have been a miscommunication here or a sale on party ware.)
Everyone is there – the Governor of Nablus, the Mayor, the Police Chief, a lawyer with the P.L.O. and everyone must thank everyone else and it is beginning to get quite warm. And then the food comes out – first the salads then the chicken and rice. And then the desert! The Knafeh! It is hard to explain but it is rich and cheesy and sweet with honey. Nablus is famous for its Knafeh.

We finish up about 4ish and our next stop is Nazareth.  We get stopped at a check point and we must all get out of the car and go through the scanner (like the airport) even though the Bishop is dressed in his full purple robes but such is life here.

Once through, we go to a lovely large hall where Christ Church School is having their Christmas do. Oh my, goodness, they started bringing out the food, and I thought they would never stop – 16 salads – I started to write them down - hummus, tahini, eggplant, corn, carrots, Turkish Salad, Fatah salad, fried cheese, sausages, mushrooms, deep fried chicken pieces, tabouli, kabob, meatballs, more cheese, cucumbers/lemon/carrots/cheese (again) and pita bread – I may have missed something as they were literally piling plates on top of plates because there was no room on the table. And THEN they brought out the main meal – chicken and potatoes and grilled vegetables. At that point I was done in and said no to the main course. We didn’t stay long enough for desert – thank goodness – even my stretchy pants have a limit.

They also had a standup comic for the evening’s entertainment. I have absolutely no idea what she said but whatever it was, it was hysterical. Everyone was laughing so hard that it was just infectious and I laughed as if I actually knew what was going on. It was a wonderful day and evening.

The Friday before Christmas Eve, I was asked to take photos at St. George’s School across the street – I have become the resident photographer (my new camera gives the impression I actually know what I am doing). So off I go to St. George’s, which is a Christian school with more Muslims than Christians in it, and I see all these children in Santa hats singing Christmas carols. I totally had a moment. And when Santa arrived in his SUV, they all went wild. It was awesome.
The schedule for Christmas Eve begins in the afternoon with a service of Lessons and Carols in the Shepherd’s Fields in Beit Sahour.  We gathered just outside a cave and had music and singing and lessons. Then when it was over, we were invited in to the cave for a meal of lamb that had been cooked in the ovens of the cave while we were worshipping. We were told that this had been a tradition from long ago and, for whatever reason, had stopped 55 years ago but it was being reinstated this night. The lamb was fabulous; it just melted in my mouth. So here I am in a shepherd’s cave, with Bethlehem in view, on a slightly cloudy night. But I did see a star and it was beautiful.

Driving home all the decorations were out in Bethlehem and it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

When we arrived back at the Cathedral, we went over the final details for our return to Bethlehem for the Lessons and Carols service in the Church of the Nativity. There are three buses going (about 150 people) and I have been asked to be ‘Captain’ of one of them. People are already beginning to arrive and it is also just beginning to drizzle.

At about 7:30pm we leave for the Church of the Nativity. We drive in convoy, through the Wall checkpoint, with the Bishop at the lead with police escort. By the time we get to Nativity Square  (we had to walk a bit since the buses couldn’t get right up there and the security was thick), the rain  is pouring  down, and it is windy and really cold.  And all the umbrellas are turning inside out and not being of any help what so ever!

So here we are, all soaking wet and trying to 'enjoy' the adventure (we all agreed we would not want to be pregnant and on a donkey) and really making the best of it when we finally, after almost an hour of waiting in the rain, with hundreds of people trying to push their way into our group, get into the church. One at a time, we go through the little entrance door (built back in the day so horses with riders couldn’t gallop into the sanctuary), and then as Security is important, we each get scanned, our bags searched and cameras checked.  We then passed through the nave to a side staircase, which goes up to an open courtyard, to wait once again, in the rain, to get into the Greek Orthodox chapel where we are having our service. However, I was bringing up the last group when they shut the doors (no room at the inn) because President Abbas was inside with his entourage.

At that point an elderly  fellow comes over to me and just lets me have it. He was so angry at me. He went on to say that “This was the worst thing ever, and if I organized it, I did a piss poor job”, etc, etc. I was so shocked. First, because I am not good with people yelling in my face; second, because it wasn’t like this had only happened to him; and third, it was Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake!  I swear I almost laughed, seriously, like I can control the weather? And then I was told the entourage was leaving the chapel and I needed to move everyone to the side. And this guy won't move. He says, ‘Why should I move? Who’s coming out, the bloody queen of England?’ So I said, ‘No, the president.’ And he says, ‘The president of what?’ And I'm like - The President of Palestine! That sort of stopped him in his tracks. 

Anyway, we finally did get in to the chapel and I have been praying for that dear old soul ever since. But the service was lovely - all of us so thankful to be in out of the weather and singing carols and listening to the Christmas readings, right there where it all began.

And because God is Good, and to remind me what it is really truly all about, and to make the evening truly blessed, as we passed through the horrid wall on our way home, the young Israeli guard wished me Merry Christmas. As you can imagine, I welled up and thought: This is where I see the hope. And oddly enough, the only other person to say Merry Christmas to me (other than in the church) was a Muslim shop keeper in Nablus. Aaah, Peace and Goodwill to all. I like it!

And Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was lovely. All of us wet but happy. And our singing – well,  our practicing paid off and we sang the Hodie Christus Natus Est, a gregorian chant, and Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, and in the end our singing was beautiful.

In keeping with tradition, after church we had hot chocolate which was very welcome. Then I took the 1:45am sharoot to the airport, caught the 5:30am flight to Montreal (via Zurich) and landed home at 3:15pm Christmas Day. A few hours later Catherine came in from Los Angeles and the surprise was wonderful.  How blessed am I to have my son and daughter with me.  And then my brother turned up from Dubai and my mother and father were just overjoyed. We all agreed it was the best Christmas ever.


To end on a reflective note:

It was pointed out to me the other day, that in the time when Jesus was born, the world was in a most distressing way. Babies were being killed in Egypt; families were being removed from their homes and moved about for a census taking. The people were living in an occupied land. It was rather hopeless and the people lived in darkness.  I am not sure things have changed very much.
Going to Bethlehem for the Lessons & Carols Services, we have to drive through the Separation Wall, and every time I see it I feel sick inside.  Once passed, we drive through Beit Jala on the way there and Beit Sahour on the way back. Two predominately Christian villages all dressed up in Christmas lights and beautiful decorations. Yet they are on the list to have large areas of their villages taken away so as to expand the nearby settlements.
And I look at these settlements and I think how sad it must be to live in little box houses, huddled in fear and paranoia. There is no personality, not one flash of blue or yellow to mark an individual. And so they have become as faceless to us on this side of the wall as we are to them on that.

It does seem hopeless at times, yet just like long ago, hope is here. Hope was born here.  I am thankful to all who are reading this – for your prayers, support, friendship and love.  My hope is that we can all have a joyous and peace-filled New Year.

Best wishes and blessings from Jerusalem.