On my Knees … Not

Bad knees in Jerusalem are bad news. The holy city, built on legendary hills, with a million stairs and steep slopes, is a daunting challenge for the able-bodied, let alone for anyone coming with aches and pains. But I wasn’t going to be left behind; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So I grit my teeth and went.

Every day we followed Jesus to original sites (as much as can be verified), up and down slopes and stairs, pondering the Scriptures, navigating rough terrain, learning from tradition and archaeology. The Gospel stories took on new life. I gained deeper understanding why, for example, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes in two different places. The places were symbolic for his coming for the Jews and for the Gentiles. I began to see more clearly how everything he said and did was meant to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. Distances between places became concrete. It took two hours of travel time by bus heading north from Jerusalem to Nazareth. Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem. Imagine traveling this distance on foot as Mary and Joseph did from Nazareth, through Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

I understand a bit more why this land is considered Holy. All land, of course, is holy as it reflects the Creator. But the Holy Land is a unique geographical convergence of three continents, each with its own civilizations and cultures. It is no surprise then that this geographical location became the birthplace of the world’s three monotheistic religions. There, in deserts and cities, in mountain ranges and fertile valleys, ancient stones tell stories, bestowing identity and purpose on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In those caves and valleys, in the wilderness and desolation, God grabbed hold of the human spirit. One God and Father of all. No wonder the Word became flesh in this cultural and spiritual epicenter.

I learnt about the relationship between Scripture, tradition and archaeology. I admit my skepticism at the onset: how can anyone establish what really happened 2000 years ago and where the exact spot is? But in this land of the Holy One, layers and layers of remains reveal worlds and societies from centuries past, explaining us to ourselves today. The older a church or site of significance, the greater its probable connection with original events. Once I understood this connection, and the rigorous archaeological research that goes into the verification process, it truly did take my breath away – oh my …

Back to the knees. Entering church after church, sanctuary after holy site, excavated caves and ruins, my body and spirit yearned to kneel in prayer and adoration. I shivered in so many places where Jesus walked and talked, where our faith tradition was born. Alas, my knees would have screamed if I had followed my spirit’s desires. I shivered not only because it was overwhelming to be in those spots, but I shivered at the sight of every steep slope, every set of stairs, every alley of uneven ground, especially the ones with no railings or other holds.

Confronted with these humbling limitations, how to respond? I could allow the knees to spoil the entire experience and be totally justified in soliciting lots of pity. I could grit my teeth even harder and pretend I was all right, in no need of support or help, only to suffer in my room at night. I could remove myself from the physical challenges, and play it safe, most likely resulting in missing most of the important sites and group experiences. I could allow my physical need to feed anger and resentment towards my body, and frustration at getting on in age (hmm … yes …). Or, I could communicate my need in the group — really?!

Slowly, frustration turned a page. Slowly, surrendering to the reality of weak knees revealed deeper invitations, unearthing a spirit-type archaeology. Noting my cautious steps, an elbow would appear, unbidden, saying: lean on me. Leaning into vulnerability and dependence with grace opened others to the call to make sure I would not cast my foot against a stone (Psalm 91).

Walking the Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa) through the small alleys and countless steps in the Old City was especially challenging. At first I thought well, that’s what it was like for Jesus, I can suffer through this. But then a faithful strong elbow accompanied me all the way, patiently matching my pace of movement — my own Simon of Cyrene. Upon completing the Way of the Cross a big grin thanked me for the blessing experienced in the task of supporting me.

My physical need for support called forth compassion and concrete action, including in some who I knew less well or with whom differences of opinions would make a friendship a prickly undertaking. Walking arm in arm allowed for some unique grace-filled sharing first with one, then another and another. Separation lines began to blur in the common task of shouldering the burden of my bad knees. Whereas relational tension might keep us apart in other settings, my knees gave rise to communion and reconciliation, softening hearts and adorning them with a smile.

The ancient stones tell stories, bestow an identity and explain us to ourselves today. Living this truth in my knees became the window of learning to be vulnerable, to lean into trust and to grow the grace to accept help. Then God indeed produces miracles in the hearts of us all.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Advertisements

Sackcloth and Ashes

So I’m told that I’m very fortunate to go on a two-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem with my bishop and about 17 clergy colleagues. I have never been to the Holy Land. I wasn’t particularly keen to sign up; I’ve become a really content homebody. Even though I am deeply committed to my Christian faith and my priestly ministry, going to the Holy Land was really not on my bucket list (there’s in fact very little on that list). But the offer was too good to pass up, so here I am on the eve of our departure.

In order to increase my appreciation for this unique opportunity I decided to read two books: Jesus — A Pilgrimage by James Martin SJ and Jerusalem — One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong. Martin’s book is an eloquent account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Israel, woven together with the relevant Scripture passages, mostly from the New Testament, and vignettes from his own spiritual journey. It is the type of book that makes me long for a similar experience, showing me how to experience this upcoming trip as a real retreat that could feed my soul long after returning home. Martin spoke my language and appealed to my spirit. My heart was engaged and my mind told my body in no uncertain terms to get in shape to walk the cobble-stone streets of the Holy City and the dusty roads of the ancient country-side.

After reading Martin’s idyllic prose, Karen Armstrong’s book delivered a serious jolt. Now Armstrong is no debutante when it comes to religious history; in fact, this outstanding scholar is widely respected and in great demand across the world. Delving into her book Jerusalem opened up the centuries-old history of the sacred land and its Holy City, causing spiritual and emotional heart tremors. I am wondering now if Jerusalem is the one tortured city in the world that has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions by adherents of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In her now famously meticulous, subversively dispassionate yet passionate style, Armstrong lets the historical facts speak for themselves. Beginning with King David in 1000 BCE, the three religions of a loving and compassionate God which lay claim to Jerusalem certainly knew fleeting times of truly reflecting that divine love, mercy and respect with each other. However, more often than not their adherents slaughtered with glee all who stood in the way of claiming the Holy City for themselves (maybe with the exception of the first groups of Muslims who arrived there in 637 CE, showing much greater respect and restraint). The command to love one’s neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love one’s enemy, all of that conveniently went out the window when it came to imposing one’s exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem.

Time and again the Jews ousted the original inhabitants — still today. In turn we Christians persecuted the Jews, then the Muslims, then the Jews again, through social and legal oppression. When that failed, we killed them by the hundreds of thousands in the name of the Prince of Peace: the blood ran knee-deep through the streets, writes Armstrong. Knee-deep, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ summons about loving our enemies and showing mercy to offenders: If respect for the sacred rights of their predecessors is a test of integrity of any monotheistic conqueror of Jerusalem, the Crusaders must come at the bottom of anybody’s list. (page 275) The more subtly Armstrong inserted the tried and true dictum that tests the authenticity of all religious paths, the more it pierced my heart: its capacity for respect and peace, justice and compassion.  Sad to say that in Jerusalem, we have failed the test, countless times — miserably.

We did all that in order to safeguard the Holy City for our own devotional practices. Armstrong notes that this was a most peculiar development. The Christians of the first three centuries focused on worshiping God “in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24) manifested primarily in their ethical and relational righteousness instead of through devotional practices in a particular geographical location. But ever since the “miraculous” discovery of the Tomb of Christ (around 325 CE), where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, Christians began to develop their own sacred geography. Yet, by the late 1800’s, writes Armstrong, many Europeans had become repelled by the Holy Sepulchre Church, finding this musty building filled with angry, rebarbative monks and clerics impossible to associate with the limpid mysteries of their faith. (p. 365)

I read on in shock. This book too gripped my heart, albeit in a radically different way. Despair, shame, and embarrassment pushed the peaceful longing for an enjoyable and inspiring pilgrimage out the door. In Armstrong’s graphic historic account, something very insidious emerged with embarrassing clarity:

By the 1800’s, The city of peace was seething with frustration and resentment, and the old ideal of integration seemed a vanished dream. (p. 347) Almost every new development in Jerusalem seemed doomed to increase the sectarianism and (religious) rivalry that now seemed endemic. (p. 351)

When a religion makes exclusive truth claims (Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life), it can easily breed suspicion, contempt and hatred towards those with different beliefs and devotional practices. According to Armstrong’s historical accounts, Christians fought a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms had their genesis in these ancient competitions over Jerusalem with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy  to own and confess, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus (e.g. residential school policies in Canada).

I was now feeling that the only posture to don upon my arrival in the Holy City would need to be one of atonement and repentance, humility and silence. I get it now. I get the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and ashes. I also get the disdain with which countless people turn away from organized religion; we haven’t exactly showcased our best selves, either in the past or even today, and done our founder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, proper homage. I feel the need to live the upcoming pilgrimage as an intense and extended Ash Wednesday.

As I pack my bags, preparing to board the flight to Tel Aviv, these unsettling thoughts and feelings mix with the genuine spiritual longing to grow more deeply my bond with God through Jesus, my Lord and Saviour. This is not the type of preparation I expected — blame it on the Holy Spirit? What will the result be? Stay tuned …

Lord, have mercy on us all. Help us to bring peace to all your holy people in the Holy City of Jerusalem … forgive us and heal us. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”