One of the aims of the pilgrimage is to bring together the narratives of our faith and the narratives of the landscape in order to put our faith into context. Our faith tradition has handed us many stories that inform us on how we are to live and be in relationship with others. The land also has stories to share, whether it be the Holy Land or even Lancaster, PA. It is all too easy to live in a vacuum where we are surrounded by those who think like us, act like us, and even believe like us. When the narrative of the landscape coincides with the narratives of our faith then it only reinforces the idea that our way is the only way and anything that goes against the grain is viewed as bad. Because of the deep and rich history of this land no one faith narrative can dominate, no matter how hard they may try. The voice of the other narratives will ring forth and be heard.
Today we had the opportunity to visit a monastery on the outskirts of the old city. This specific monastery, Beit Abraham or House of Abraham, was chosen because the view from the rooftop is unparalleled. (Well it is rivaled by another view from atop the Mount of Olives but that site is often crowded and filled with vendors pushing their wares; where as the monastery is often quiet and empty, save for the nuns and monks who live and work there.) Rodney, our course director and leader, loves to bring groups here because it is a great way to see the topography of the land and to see how the holy sites are connected. We looked out to the southeastern end of the roof and we had an unobstructed view of the Old City and the surrounding landscape. It was absolutely beautiful and amazing. It is hard to understand distance between holy sites solely based on scripture, but once I saw that view I could see that the Old City is much smaller than I originally thought.
The city of Jerusalem is situated on three hills and three valleys. To the east of the city there is the mount of Olives that is outside of the walls and upon it are many cemeteries that lead up to several different churches that rest stop the mount. (It is really a hill more than a mount, but as Randy said it is all about perspective.) The Mount of Olives is important to our tradition because it is where Jesus ascended to heaven. Randy went on to explain that there are three different churches (Roman, Russian Orthodox, and German Lutheran) that are all dedicated to the Ascension. Now if we were looking at the narrative through a purely historical lens then we might be disappointed because all three lay claim to the Ascension and yet we do not know which is “the actual spot.” Rodney remarked that as we travel to the holy sites in our tradition we may not be in the actual spot, but close to it. Instead of strictly adhering to pure history we must experience these sites through the eyes of faith. The Mount of Olives is just one example where history and tradition do not necessarily coincide. Randy went on to explain why the different hills and valleys were important. He gave us a few examples of the familiar stories and where our tradition says they took place. It was a great overview and preview of what we would experience in the days to come.
If we are to bring both the landscapes and the narratives together then we must not forget to look how the recent changes in the landscape have changed and affected the narratives of the people today. The most striking image of this can be seen on the exact opposite end of that monastery roof. Far off to the east, in between a break in the hills and trees one could see a grey wall that makes its way across the landscape. At first one may not think anything of it until you realize that it is not only relatively new but it is also causing a major division in the lives of those who live there. Those who are without power and authority are stuck on one side while the others continue to build the wall to keep them out. It is easy for me to react immediately and condemn those who are building this wall but I have to remind myself that I do not know the whole story. The danger of coming to the Holy Land is to witness how the narrative of this land has played out over the last 80 years and quickly come to judge and condemn whole groups of people. However, we are called to hear both sides of the story, to hold those experiences in tension and come to understand just how complicated the situation really is in this contested land. We cannot ignore the cries of the oppressed and we cannot forget the narratives of our past. So as we continue to explore this land, meet the people who call this home, and interact with faiths that are different from our own tradition, we would do well to remember the words of Jesus, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV) this is of course easier said than done and I know first hand that praying for those who have wronged me is a long and slow process. As I continue along on this spiritual journey I pray that I continue to have an open mind and an open heart; and when the narrative of the land and my experience of faith rub against each other I hope that I will grow deeper in my understanding of the world around me.