As our bus bumped and swung our way home to our hotel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem this evening, I was trying to think of a place to start with my reflections.
I thought, on a day I’ve been up the Mount of Olives, sat in the Garden of Gethsemane, sung aloud in a church at Bethesda, wound my way through the streets of Old Jerusalem and tried to soak it all in, I couldn’t imagine how to blog.
But this evening we welcomed a guest, Sami from the Holy Land Trust to speak. He had a lot to say, and even though the room was warm and my brain full, his words moved me and helped me make sense of my day.
Specifically, Sami said this to us: As pilgrims, you have more access and more rights to access the land than anyone who lives here. Anyone, that is, from any background who truly considers this their home.
And that crystallised a thought that had been in my mind all day. From the moment our bus sailed through the checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, I felt my privilege strongly.
Here I am, a tourist with a camera and a guidebook, passing unhindered across visible and invisible barriers that are anything but invisible to so many. They are life limiting and in some cases fatal.
Today, I stood in the Garden of Gethsemane, next to olive trees, thousands of years old, one of which may well have been the tree against which Jesus leant as he wept and yet for so many people, completely tied to land, this place is out of reach. This place as well as their own homes and worse, their families are on the other side of walls. Out of reach, permanently in many minds, because hope for the future is incredibly limited.
My overriding memory of today is likely to be that of just how beautiful, tired, diverse and muddled Jerusalem is.
Settlers flying flags in the middle of areas of Jerusalem where so many believe they shouldn’t be. Beautiful smells of za’atar, Turkish coffee, potent musky incense mixed with traffic and sewage fumes. The calls to prayer coming from many towers, in many voices. The gnarled lanes of traffic. Kids dashing about on bikes and babies in pushchairs being heaved up and down deep stone steps along the Via Delarosa. Shopkeepers in the souk asking me: English? How is the Queen today? Israeli soldiers, leaning against the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, standing behind railings to imply some sort of division, resting their weapons on their steel toe-capped boots.
This place hums with life and bristles with tension.
Yet, there are pockets of peace everywhere. The underground Lithostratos, the ruins of pools at Bethesda and the underground chamber in a church on the site where many believe Mary was born.
I am looking forward to another day in the city later in the week where all of this won’t be assaulting my senses for the first time. I want to wander slowly and not be counting 29 guests! But I have already begun to fall in love with this place and that love is already bringing despair.
Tomorrow is very close already. It’s been a very long day. I’ve just joined my new friends for Compline again and I look forward to my bed. I have prayed that God will let us all sleep deeply and be refreshed because if today is anything to go by I need to be ready for another day that will be brilliant and hard. The assault on my senses, the weariness of my legs, the tugs on my heart. I’m a tired Heather May.
Surprised: My friend and colleague Kerensa knocking my door just now with a piece of cake. I left dinner early to write and the waiter didn’t want me to miss out on pudding!
Delighted: The awesome and uplifting sound of Eritrean Christians singing glorious worship songs which drowned out our futile attempts at reflection in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Upset: Many things, but the hardness of my own heart at the conclusions I jumped to when seeing settler flags in the centre of the city.