Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A swirl of religious sounds

It was noon on Friday in the Old City of Jerusalem. As we walked near the beginning of the Via Dolorosa -- the spots marking Jesus' journey from Pilate's headquarters to the cross -- the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the city.

We were in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and soon every street was filled with Muslims headed toward the various mosques in this area, including the al-Aqsa Mosque near the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims believe that Mohammed was transported in a night journey from Mecca to this site.

At the same time, bells were ringing from the churches in the Christian sector marking some of the holiest places in Jesus' life -- the hill where he died, the tomb where he was laid and from which he rose.

Inside some of these churches were Russian Orthodox carrying candles down to a spot commemorating the prison cell where Jesus held while awaiting his appearance before Pilate, the Roman governor of this area. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims knelt quietly to kiss the slab on stone which legend says is the place Jesus' body rested after being removed from the cross.

There were scenes of deep piety like this all across the land that is holy to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even when the expressions of piety did not reflect the styles of those of us liberal Protestants traveling across the centuries in these places, we were moved by the depth of feelings that we witnessed.

Occasionally, we had chance to experience the depth of spirituality in these places as well. For me, one such moment was in the village of Capernaum in the Galilee region of northern Israel. There is a banyan tree between the excavations in this village that Jesus used as his headquarters and the seashore where he walked with his followers. I sat there in silence, contemplating the links across the centuries.

Another day, we gathered in a church in Abu Ghosh, nine miles out of Jerusalem, marking one of the traditional places of Emmaus (there are three other possibilities) where Jesus met two followers on the road after his resurrection. Inside the Gothic church, we sang "Let Us Break Together" as our voices echoes off the stone walls covered with aging frescoes.

In the Mea Shearim neighborhood -- just across the line that used to divide Jerusalem from East Jerusalem when it was controlled by Jordan before the 1967 war -- we saw ultra-conservative Haredi Jews gathering for Shabbat services on a Friday evening. These are followers of the most theologically conservative branch of Orthodox Judaism, living in one of the oldest neighborhoods of west Jerusalem. It is a 19th century Eastern European enclave in a modern city, a place suspicious and not particularly welcoming of visitors.
On this night, as we walked past one of the buildings, we could hear the prayer chants of those inside, we could see the men bowing repeatedly in prayer.

We could see how beliefs affected the commercial life in the places we would visit. Muslim shops would be closed on Friday, Jewish shops would be closed on Saturday, Christian shops would be closed on Sunday.

In the early morning in Bethlehem, we would be wakened shortly before 4 a.m. by church bells calling Christians to the pre-dawn time of prayer known as Matins. A few minutes later, the first call to prayer of the day would start emerging from multiple mosques around the city.
Outside August Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, a lone man knelt on his coat outside the entrance to the hospital at noon, fulfilling his obligation as a Muslim to pray five times daily.

On the plateau of Masada, where Jewish rebels in the first century killed themselves rather than surrender to Rome, new Israeli soldiers come to swear a sacred oath. At the Western Wall of the old temple in Jerusalem -- the one destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, Jews from around the world come to place their prayers on slips of paper into the cracks in the wall.
And so it goes in this land.

The wars, the on-going tensions dominate the landscape. But every day, people from many sectors of these three great faiths find places where they can connect to the divine being.

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