Thursday, March 18, 2010

O Lord, save your people...

It's Thursday morning. The team is working on clearing out yet another storage room before we depart this afternoon for Jerusalem. Much as I'd like to be out there with them, my shoulder to the wheel, I have to update this blog. I hope they can forgive me someday for leaving the heavy lifting to them...

Before bringing you up to speed on what happened yesterday, a word about last night. As I mentioned in the first of these posts, our team is staying at The Four Homes of Mercy; we pray, work, eat and sleep here. I'm the only member of the group with a private room, which is on the far side of the rooms where the others sleep. That means that I am not awoken at 4:00 each morning, as the rest are, by the amplified call to prayer. I am, however, on the windier side of the complex, and the wind roars past my windows with ferocious force all night long. I also share a wall, on my left, with one of the most troubled of the residents, a young woman with a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for screaming. Last night, the poor soul was at her blood-curdling worst. The sounds from her room were hellish. The staff, however, is used to her. This is simply how she is. Her screams may not have anything to do with pain. Screaming is simply what she does, as it were, to pass the time. Whatever the case, may God take pity on her.

Yesterday morning, the team left by bus at 7:00 for Jerusalem, to participate in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts at the Orthodox Cathedral of St James (or Iakovos), the Brother of the Lord and first bishop of the church in the Holy City. (Again, this used to be a ten-minute car ride from here; it took more than an hour, because of the new reality of the dividing wall and checkpoints and rush hour traffic.) Before leaving, I met a few more of the men who work here, as it was a shift change. One of them, named Mohammed (easily the most common name for men in these parts), was from Bethlehem, and like just about every Palestinian I've met these past days, very affable. I mistook him for the bus driver and asked when exactly we'd be heading out. He smiled and shook his head: "I wish I could go with you, but I cannot. I don't have the proper papers." Androwas informed me later that, as Mohammed is a member of Hamas who recently spent three years in prison, he would never be allowed to enter Jerusalem under the current conditions. I reacted as most Americans probably would, by thinking to myself, "And with good reason!" In fact, the day turned out to be one in which issues of justice regarding the Israeli government's treatment of displaced peoples confronted us everywhere, and my own thinking on the subject was challenged at practically every turn.

Fr Nicholas and I had been to Jerusalem the day before, to meet with Patriarch Theophilos, and Androwas, of course, was born and raised there, but for the rest of the team (with the exception of Lisa, Fr Nicholas' administrative assistant in Flagstaff, AZ, who had been here twice before, as an Evangelical Protestant), it was their first experience of it. We read en route the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120 to 134 (or 119 to 133 in the Greek numbering), sacred songs which pilgrims to the Holy City have sung for more than two millennia. Jesus and his family and his disciples would have sung them as they traveled uphill from their homes in Galilee to celebrate the Feasts of Passover or Pentecost or Tabernacles. Orthodox Christians familiar with the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts will know these psalms as they are read in three groups of five in the first part of the service, but they take on a whole new life when prayed in the Holy Land, when traveling through the hills so often referred to in them. I've been including a few minutes on one of these fifteen psalms whenever we've come together for morning or evening prayer, to help instill in us a sense of ourselves as the New Israel.

I recorded a video of our entry into the Old City by one of its seven active portals, the Damascus Gate, so called because the road that ran through it connected the two cities. I kept the camera running from our approach to the Gate until our arrival at the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around eight minutes later. Those of you not bothered by bouncy camera work can watch it on Note: we did not enter the Holy Sepulchre - that's our destination today - but turned left a few yards from the entrance, into a narrow passage leading to the Church of St James. We were met in the courtyard by Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia who introduced us to the parish priest, Fr Fanos, as well as the President of the Parish Council and the Sexton, both of whom serve as chantors and altar servers, and asked them to accommodate our group's desire for some English in the service, something they happily did. I stood in the altar for the service while Fr Nicholas contributed a good helping of English from the chantor's stand. (By the way, we found out afterwards that Mr George Kamar, the Sexton or Neokoros, who assisted the priest from within the sanctuary, is also the Mukhtar or Mayor of the Palestinian Christian community of Jerusalem!) The church itself dates back to the time of St Helena, and includes a chapel dedicated to the Myrrhbearing Women, who according to tradition watched the Crucifixion of Christ from the spot where the chapel now stands, and one dedicated to the Forty Martys of Sebastea (not the Sebastia in Northern Palestine of which Theodosios is hierarch, but a place in Armenia), which houses a large reliquary in which are contained the remains of many, if not most, of the past Patriarchs of Jerusalem.

Following coffee with the parishioners of St James and a tour of the church by the Muhta, we brunched at a little shop specializing in hummus. (We had, I'm told, half-a-dozen varieties of the stuff, but I don't have a discriminating enough palette to know how - or even if! - they differed from each other. I'm pretty sure none of them were mesquite or teriyaki.) We then returned to our bus outside the walls of the Old City, where we were joined by Nora Carmi, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian who works with Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center ( Nora took us to several sites in greater Jerusalem which bear witness to the unjust and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, by the state of Israeli throughout the past several decades. This was easily the most challenging part of the trip for me, as I kept arguing (for the most part, within myself) that the Jewish story was being misrepresented, even distorted and the responsibilities of Palestinian Arabs for much of the current state of affairs were being minimized or ignored. The cumulative weight of the injustices and outrages perpetrated by the most fanatic Zionists and Israelis over the past century eventually, however, cannot but overwhelm any person of conscience. Perhaps the most unsettling experience of the trip so far involved a visit to a Palestinian family that had been evicted from their East Jerusalem home of over fifty because their paperwork (from the time the property was part of Jordan) didn't satisfy current Israeli requirements. Members of the ousted family keep a daily vigil across the street from their home, which is currently occupied by a very threatening group of Israeli settlers. While we were talking to some of the homeless women, a burly man of about thirty burst out of the house armed with a video camera with which he recorded, in a manner clearly intended to intimidate, all of our faces. Members of our team responded by video recording his actions. The Palestinian (Muslim) women who are the principal onjects of his wrath maintained their dignity and merely waved peace signs at him. A Norwegian man working for the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel ( who was also present to express solidarity with the women smiled sadly and told me that the settlers had blasted a song out of their new home the night before which sang the praises of a Jewish settler who had recently killed 29 Palestinians singlehandedly. It was, all in all, an unnerving experience, and one we will certainly carry around in our hearts for a long time to come.

We returned to The Homes for prayer, dinner, and a final session for the day: a talk by Revd David M. Neuhaus, SJ, a Latin Catholic (as Roman Catholics are called here), the son of German Jewish parents who had escaped to South Africa before the outbreak of the Second World War, and who had been sent by them came to study in Hebrew in Israel a little over thirty years ago. He converted to Christianity and has since become fluent in Arabic as well. His loving but critical perspective of the behavior of his fellow Jews was fascinating, and offered a much appreciated counterpoint to the talks we had heard so far from Palestinian Arabs themselves.

This will have to do for now, as we are about to leave for an afternoon in Jerusalem. We will begin today's pilgrimage at Gethsemane and proceed from there to Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre.


Agape said...

Thank you for the update! I really, really think you need to look into having your own podcast. Everyone else does! Why not you?

Sophia Niarchos said...

I take it this was your final post on this blog. I noticed the blog title in the "footnotes" of your Facebook page tonight. Having just recently returned from the Holy Land (my first trip, taken with Fr. John Lardas and 28 others), I was especially moved by your reference to the reading of the Psalms of Ascent. Perhaps next time, I'll convince the spiritual leader of my trip to do the same.