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.