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The simple truth

Despite its religious significance, despite the hoards of pilgrims of all faiths who besiege it with a fervor that would make you wonder why there is any unrest in the world at all, and despite the countless millions of holy trinkets that embody the faiths of nations, the essence of the Holy Land was epitomized for me in one short piece of text, prominently displayed on the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

It wasn’t drafted by a great scholar, a famous theologian, or a savvy politician. It wasn’t the product of years of discourse or months of negotiations. It wasn’t designed to clever or witty or tweetable. It simply tells a story.

I’ve prayed to my God as long as I can remember. I’ve asked and been disappointed and then relieved as prayers went unanswered. I’ve asked, been happy and then disappointed when what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted at all but I was stuck with it anyway. It took many years to realise that despite my prayers, I get what’s given to me for a reason. Mine is not to second guess or even to figure out the reason why, but rather to accept my part in the divine plan and make the most of it. Everything happens for a reason.

Now, I’m well aware that sort of talk might cause some to retreat behind crossed index fingers and reach for the clove of garlic; others might go as far as to question my frame of mind. For one that can occasionally appear to have a brain in her head, it might defy belief that I could be so willing to believe that while the waters ahead may be unchartered, I have a map and a guide and complete faith that I’ll arrive eventually to wherever it is I’m supposed to be, with whomever it is I’m supposed to be with, whenever I’m supposed to be there – and not a shred of scientific evidence to back up that assertion.

As a child, I learned to pray by rote. Nowadays, my prayers are more like conversations. Open conversations. At times argumentative, at times truculent,  at times weary, always grateful.  While I might think I know what’s best for me, I’m rarely right. And when, piece by piece, a plan is revealed, I can either delight in the process or sulk … because it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. And I can sulk with the best of them. I’ve had plenty of practice.

My method of prayer might be unorthodox. I’m not overly concerned with religious propriety. I constantly remind myself that the Catholic Church, like all religions, is a  man-made institution and therefore far from perfect. I don’t agree with many of its teachings and mostly observe its rituals out of habit; it has little bearing on my relationship with my God. But faith I have, in spades.

I’ve long-since struggled to encapsulate what this faith means to me and how it manifests itself in my life. I’ve struggled to make myself understood when it comes to explaining rationally why I believe. I’m the last one you’d want in a debate on creationism vs evolution. But when I read this piece on the wall in Bethlehem, something clicked. If I went to the Holy Land seeking affirmation, this was it.

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When walls tell stories

It may seem like I’m a little obsessed with the wall around Bethlehem and perhaps I am. Oddly enough, it was the non-religious aspects of the Holy Land that intrigued me most. The Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, the Wall. What that says about the state of my religion is anyone’s guess. I’ve been trying to figure out why a church-going Catholic might have had difficulties in the holiest of holy lands and have come to the conclusion that the pundits were right. I must be of the pick’n’mix variety. But I digress.

Back to the wall.

IMG_8525 (600x800)IMG_8545 (800x600)In addition the graffiti, there are posters depicting snapshots of the lives of those who live there. They tell their own story. I’ve posted a few here, those that resonated most, and can’t help but believe that any one of them would touch the hardest of hearts.

IMG_8452 (589x800)IMG_8456 (600x800)IMG_8460 (600x800)IMG_8497 (600x800)IMG_8505 (600x800)IMG_8499 (600x800)IMG_8510 (600x800)IMG_8521 (600x800)I hope so, too.

 

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IMG_8447 (591x800)I’m a fan of graffiti… not the aimless posts of I wuz ‘ere or the the like … but the clever kind, the witticisms, the art. So on that night a few weeks ago, when I crossed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, I was so absorbed in reading the graffiti on the wall that I didn’t really notice the wall itself. Having only just landed, I wasn’t nearly brave enough to do something stupid like take out my camera, but emboldened by some degree of familiarity that came with five days of residence in Bethlehem, I got up early one morning and, accompanied by the very able (and somewhat imposing) MM, headed back to said wall to take some photos.

IMG_8564 (800x600)IMG_8466 (800x599)IMG_8526 (800x600)Bethlehem is contained within parts of what is known as the Israeli West Bank barrier – a division, that when finished, will run about 700 km in total. The jury is out on what it’s actual name is: Israelis describe it as a separation, anti-terrorist, or security fence while the Palestinians call it a racial segregation or apartheid wall. The BBC prefers to call it a barrier.

IMG_8476 (800x599)IMG_8446 (800x600)Right now, the 8-metre (26 ft) wall that runs alongside Bethlehem for about 15 km is an open page for graffiti artists the world over. Probably the most famous of them all, Banksy, visited in 2005 and left his mark on the city. Unfortunately, so early in the morning, the Banksy shop hadn’t yet opened for business (good to see, though, that some enterprising soul is making a living from the art).

IMG_8508 (800x592)As we wandered roundIMG_8534 (597x800), what stuck me most forcibly was that I hadn’t even known this wall existed. Unlike the Berlin Wall, it doesn’t seem to attract the same degree of infamy. Once again, I was reminded at how sheltered I’ve been and how little I really know about what is going on in the world. It’s as if I live in a bubble far removed from anything bad or evil. And while I might read about what is happening elsewhere, I can’t really even begin to understand what it must be like for people living with this every day. For me, crossing over from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and having to walk through the checkpoint was a little exhilarating the first time; an inconvenience the second. To accept this as part of everyday life would, I’m sure, not take very long, but what is lost in that acceptance?

IMG_8538 (800x600)I stopped dead at one point and felt a surge of helplessness. What could I possibly do that would in any small way make a difference? There is so much bad going on in the world, so much injustice, that were I to sit and think about it all, I’d surely go slowly mad.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some wall stories with you – but today, as I look back on the last few weeks of travel and the different places I’ve been, I’m truly grateful that the novelty of packing a suitcase and going hasn’t yet worn off. It might be fading just a fraction, but the chance to see new places, experience new things, and create new memories is one for which I’m eternally grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

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I have long since imagined Bethlehem as a little mountain village with perhaps one main street, an inn, and a manger. I had a romantic notion that it would be devoid of traffic, its sanctity disturbed by nothing more than the sound of birds singing and the soft gurgling of running streams. Was I ever wrong.

IMG_7851 (800x600)Think Blackpool and add some religion. Hotels flaunting unimaginative names like the Manger Hotel Square or the Holy Family Hotel compete with stylized versions of American stalwarts. Souvenir shops offer all three grades of Olive wood – A (dried for at least a year), B (just dried – time not stated), C (not dried at all). Nativity sets are ten a penny, and as for the Baby Jesus… well, rabbits come to mind.

IMG_7854 (600x800)But what Bethlehem lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in friendliness. Everyone is in a good mood. Even the pairs of eyes peering out from the myriad black burkas seem to be smiling. The chap in shop we visited gave us coffee (all 27 of us!) and a rundown on what to look out for when making our purchases. Stallholders had that ubiquitous enthusiasm about their wares yet there was never pressure to buy. A car pulled up. The driver got out. He asked where we were all from. He then went on a good-natured rant for five minutes in which he showed how well versed he was in European politics, the religious beliefs of various American presidents, and the state of the universe in general. It seems that no one wants for an opinion. And he didn’t seem too bothered that we didn’t buy anything from the boot of his car.

IMG_7842 (800x600)IMG_7846 (600x800)It’s people-watching heaven. With so many tour groups from all over the world mingling with locals from all sorts of cultures and creeds, it’s in stark contrast with the monochrome palette I’d witnessed on the drive in to Jerusalem from the airport. And while the hustle and bustle would be welcome in other cities, it seems strangely out of place here. Perhaps my mother was right when she first introduced me to the ninth beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed.

As I write I’m trying to decide whether I’m glad I’ve seen it for what it is or whether, given the chance, I’d turn back the clock and keep the vision intact. But, given the week of revelations that I’ve had, I’m grateful that this is all that’s on my mind right now.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

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