Despite its religious significance, despite the hoards of pilgrims of all faiths who besiege it with a fervour 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 epitomised 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 for 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.