Saturday, January 26, 2019

At home among strangers #Pilgrimage5

An afternoon trip to Bethany, where we don't, if I'm honest, find much to draw us into the mystery in the church that marks the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, meant that we found ourselves arriving back in Jerusalem just after sunset. Not, normally, a big deal - but in this case not entirely welcome news as it is Friday, Shabbat has begun, and we are due to visit the Western Wall.
It is impressed on us that we are only able to be there if we take nothing with us - no cameras, no pen and paper (though if we wish we may carry pre-written prayers to leave at the Wall).

We are joining a community at prayer, and this is neither the time nor the place for tourism. 
As we pass through the turn stile and approach the square in front of the Wall, we hear singing...And, surely, yes...there are a group dancing - a joyous circle dance that makes me long to join in.
There is so much activity all around us. A father is briefing his small son on what to do, what to expect..
Suddenly, I'm desperate to be part of this family, a daughter of Sarah, to be bound by cultural obligations that would, I imagine, hold me steady in faith through the framework of tradition and praxis, no matter where my feelings might be.
I cover my head and begin to make my way timidly towards that part of the Wall where women are permitted to pray.
I wonder how obvious it is that I am not a Jew...Whether I may be recognised and denounced as an interloper by one of those devout grandmothers pouring over their prayers, or that group of shiney young American Jews whose group arrived just before us  ("I didn't really want to come here but now we're here, it's so cool..." said one to her friend).
Right now I want, more than anything else, to belong.
I watch a girl, maybe 12 or 13, seriously working her way through her prayers, black dress, dark hair tied back with a velvet ribbon that, I imagine, gives her an air of Ann Frank.
This was the day when we had driven past Yad Vashem, not included in our programme, and my sense of guilt that we could choose not to engage with that dark moment in human history only increased my longing to be at home, an insider here.

I watched the comings and goings at the Wall, realising gradually that if I wanted to touch the stones at all, I would have to be be brave and determined and push myself forward through the crowds. There didn't seem to be a system, a queue...(how very English of me to even half expect one!)...
Careful manoeuvring gained me a space and again I found myself somewhat unexpectedly kissing ancient stone, because it felt like absolutely the right and only thing to do.
I pushed my folded prayer as deep as I could into a crack, to join the countless others, thinking about the impact of so many devout and desperate cries to God...about all those who were praying around me now, and all those who had prayed before me, and would pray here long after I'd gone.

It seems, after all, that against the odds I am at home here, and I whisper a quiet thanksgiving..

Around me the singing from the men's part of the wall continued, - the music of a community set on worshipping God in this space no matter what. We had been told very firmly that at the moment there was absolutely no chance that we could scale Temple Mount. Tensions in the city were running too high...
From England it seems madness, this squabbling over holy places...but here it all makes sense. There are ancient roots here, which you overlook at your peril. I'm reminded of words from The Lord of the Rings, which have always resonated with me beyond their immediate context, as Galadriel, the Elf-Queen, empathises with the dwarf Gimli at his longing to visit Moria, though it is fraught with dangers
“If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothl√≥rien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?

The peace of Jerusalem is, I fear, beyond any human ingenuity to win...but that longing to be able to rest here, to return time and again to pray, to join the crowds and whisper petitions to the God who though not confined to any Holy of Holies, has been worshipped here for so long, wrings at my heart and becomes my longing too.
As I reverse inexpertly away from the Wall, I find my thoughts filled with the Bairstow Lamentations that belong so wonderfully to Holy Week Tenebrae
"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations, how is she become tributary?
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God"

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