Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Pilgrim's Christmas in Jerusalem - Pt 1

We are all pilgrims. Temporary resident aliens passing through this world; exiles on a homeward journey of discovery, questing for meaning and truth.  Life-long, sometimes it feels like merely aimless wandering, seeking empty self-fulfillment, or is it responding to some greater call and purpose to worship and reach beyond ourselves?
We’re all on this journey, but at different stages of place and time, sharing seasons of gratification and breaking, resting and awakening, accumulating and giving, mystery and revelation. 
Many just don’t realize who or where they are, but lie trapped in contentment or fear to venture beyond their comfortable horizon.
The question is: are we a Don Juan, Don Quixote or Donald Trump?
The choice is: ours to leave the comfortable for the unknown, embrace the tension between the secure and the adventurous, follow the open road of destiny or settle, satisfied with what we’ve always known and been.
The answer lies: somewhere out there … beyond… within.
Amazing things happen en route: destinations realized inevitably become incomplete forms of our original vision. Something remarkable transpires while pursuing vision: not only do goals change, but we are changed also. Pilgrimage is that journey of the soul where personal transformation experienced along the way actually becomes more vital than the physical destination secured. On attainment, our goals are often not all we initially hoped  they would be. Indeed, what is there left to conquer after you’ve summited Mount Everest?
Robert Frost touched on this in The Road not Taken.
A modern proverb puts it: Life’s a journey, enjoy the ride.
TS Eliot revealed this phenomenon for me many years ago in Little Gidding:
  ‘We shall not cease from exploration
   And the end of all our exploring
   Will be to arrive where we started, 
   And know that place for the first time.'
My destiny road was elusive, confusing and even frustrating for me as a young man in the 60s.
My Baby- Boomer generation called everything into question; nothing was either sacred or off-limits.
The Vietnam War, Watergate and drugs turned our world’s roller coaster ride upside down and inside out. Disillusioned with both my university education’s empty textbook answers and the counter-culture’s invitation to simply ‘Tune in, turn on and drop out,’ I determined to find out for myself what validity the status quo or its alternatives actually held. I didn’t see myself as an idealist and I definitely wasn’t very practical; I just knew I needed to discover the basics of this life and how things actually work: either in justice, mechanics, love... whatever.
I realized I had to search these out for myself and I wasn’t going to get my answers from a book, sitting at a desk.
So I picked up a packsack, stuck out my thumb and started hitchhiking…to see firsthand the differences between what was real and only wannabee.
First, I travelled through Eastern Europe. The Cold War got hot at times and I wanted to know if those communist ideologues who’d confronted me so often on the UBC Library steps about class struggle really had it right.
It didn’t take long to see through their red mask. In all my travels, I’d never seen so many miserable, unhappy people as under communist rule and concluded it would only be a matter of time before that empty system collapsed from within. 
Then I bought a Qu’ran, read it while hitching across North Africa and tried to discern Islam’s answers to my quest. But it was very confusing and I in turn became even more confused. I read it straight then, surmising that I was the problem, I read it stoned. But that didn’t help either. Like… why doesn’t the Sura (chapter) entitled The Cow even mention a cow and how does that relate to anything in general anyways? I was baffled.
But these were only preliminary steps towards my real destination: Israel.
I remembered my old Sunday School stories and wanted to find out if they were indeed for real.
A previous trip a couple years earlier had ended prematurely.  I’d come oh so close, but never reached Jerusalem. Now I was close again and planned to be spend Christmas in Jerusalem… even in Bethlehem!
I stopped a couple weeks in Greece, my home-away-from-home. Now that I styled myself a pilgrim, I figured I needed to act like one and so I had to take up my cross… whatever that meant?
Didn’t Jesus say that in one of those Sunday School stories?
So I shopped around Athens.  I didn’t want a big flashy fashion-statement cross that people hang on their outside.I figured somewhat more of a small, discreet, subtle symbol - tangibly spiritual, but not religious, would do.  I found it in the Plaka – a maze of streets and shops strung around the base of the Acropolis. It was lightweight, a very simple Orthodox crucifix, silver with inlaid lapis lazuli on its right and left points. The shopkeeper said it was Russian and that bit of information sealed the deal for this student of all things Russian! Its tooling was simple and delicate, tastefully precise yet not ostentatious: its blue inlay well-worn, authentically antique, even chipped in spots.
I was now ready for the next step. I took up my cross and flew off to Israel.
And a few days before Christmas there I stood, right at the road’s intersection from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem.
But I ran into my first obstacle when I got into a hitching battle with an army of Israeli soldiers wanting rides in the same direction and their countrymen seemed more apt to pick up one of their own than this lone Canuck. I watched as wave after wave came and went: reinforcements appeared out of nowhere; their line was never-ending and, like all their other adversaries, I felt I didn’t stand much of a chance.
But an old pickup eventually pulled over, I threw my pack in the back and I was off on my journey’s final stage: only 61 kilometers till I reached this life goal!  
My ride was a Jewish soldier-farmer plus another ‘auto-stopper’: Ferdie, a California surfer-type with a black-and-white-checkered Arab kaffiyeh wrapped around his head. He was unique, not your average tourist or kibbutznik. He’d been in Israel 8 months, working in a hostel, learning Evrite-Hebrew so he could deliver a John the Baptist –type ‘prophetic’ message to the nation in its own tongue. Our driver, doubling as a tour guide, kept pointing out the passing scenes: burned- out tanks, wrecked army trucks, memorials to past battles. But not understanding Evrite, I was missing a lot of  his meaning. He then tried a smattering of German –which I understood a bit more; so between  Ferdie and  me in English, Ferdie and  the driver in Hebrew, and the driver and me in broken German,  we somehow got more of each other’s picture, and made our way to Jerusalem, 3 of us tightly jammed together in his small cab.
And clear communication became crucial when I explained to Ferdie how I only wanted to drive within a few kilometers of the city and then walk. No one, I contended, can drive into Jerusalem, the holy city, on his first entry! Even centuries of conquerors had shown at least this respect: Allenby humbled himself, got off his horse and walked through Jaffa Gate! And that was the least that I, if I was a real pilgrim, could do! Ferdie seemed to understand my desire perfectly, but when he conveyed this to our driver, he thought me crazy to walk when he could drive me all the way. 
But I insisted on entering Jerusalem ‘im rege’, Hebrew: ‘on foot’, and finally, after much insisting, he finally consented.
Not long and city-looking apartment houses appeared; we were getting closer to the city and our driver let me out.
A final ‘todaraba’ –Thank you, I adjusted my packsack and headed in what I figured was the right direction, excitedly apprehensive what my next turn might open up: my first glimpse of the Holy City’s golden dome!
But I hadn’t gone far, just turned a corner… and suddenly there stood Ferdie, waiting for me! He’d persuaded the driver to let him off  too so he could join me and walk that last stage together. It was like meeting an old friend!
We headed south, from where I strategized we could circle around and view the old city unobstructed.
But my pack was growing heavy: very heavy!  And my burden grew even heavier as we continued up and down a series of hills and valleys. I hadn’t thought Jerusalem was built on so many hills! But we must be getting close: the buildings were now made of stone and looked older. Everything, even the people, exuded an air that this was no ordinary city, but one with history, character, culture, and purpose – a timeless city that had withstood men’s ravaging over millennia and would continue to withstand every future antagonist!
Then suddenly, there it was! A part of the wall off in the distance, and then a gate – the Jaffa Gate!? 
and in a few minutes,  I  was walking through what I’d seen before only in pictures! My legs walked on their own; my eyes drank in more than they could swallow; my hands clasped together tightly to only suddenly collapse loosely at my side. Mind racing and heart in awe, I entered almost unconsciously, absorbing and caught up with so much that I don’t remember many details, but I soaked in the Big Picture… all at once. And I liked it and drank in its life!
People seemed easy-going; even the Arab shopkeepers weren’t obnoxiously in-your-face like in North Africa.
Herod’s Gate, Damascus Gate – their very names seemed timeless and sacred and suddenly, here I was, walking down the Via Dolorosa. I rid myself of my burdensome pack and continued exploring!  I was hungry and devoured my first of many falafels as well as some sesame seed-peanut-honey dessert… heavenly sweet!  
But I was really hungering for something more: food for the spirit was in the air + life was everywhere!
I cut through a maze of streets to the Wailing Wall: the Jewish rallying point; separate men + women sections; head coverings mandatory for all, but even me, a Gentile, could put on a little black paper beanie, approach and  touch the timeless wall.  I didn’t feel a bolt of electricity hit me, but I did sense more what this Wall that’s stood for so long through so much means to so many.  I gazed on its craggy face, heard its cries of lamentation, felt its tears of joy and sorrow, smelled its profundity, touched and was touched in my inner being.
It was getting late and I wanted to see for real what before I’d only seen in pictures: the Old City from the Mount of Olives. So I rushed through Dung Gate and crossed the Kidron just in time to catch Jerusalem in her sunset splendor. She looked and even tasted mellow – mellow yellow, as her stones absorbed and reflected the sun’s last rays. Together they joined in an ancient wall, circled the hilltop, crowned with a golden Dome.
Many times cast down, but not destroyed. Many have wept for you and bewailed your destructions, but you stand:
a city secure, eternal, and no matter how often beaten, you have  risen again and again to still stand 3000 years later! Triumphant in glory amid the thirsty mountain wilderness; encroached upon by modern technology, yet unbeaten; confident that what men desire and strive for within your mysterious walls will only overcome them in the end.
You hold close your mysteries and disclose them to only those who seek and find their peace in you.
Truly, you are even more than your name: Here is Peace! David’s City, creation of both God and man on earth.
So silent at sunset, she lies now, preparing for sleep so she may awake again come the morning sun.
She glowed brilliant and I felt I had come home!

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