After a long flight, surprisingly easy passport check, quick bus ride across the width of Israel (it’s a small country), and great first lunch together at Tantur, the ecumenical institute that we’re staying at during the majority of our stay, we started our time as pilgrims in the Holy Land. It’s hard to know just how many millions or billions of people have walked through this land before us, but it’s humbling to be here and to be asking some of the same questions that many throughout history have asked before us. Seeking some sense of clarity and wisdom in the same great mysteries. Wondering about our origins. Finding ourselves as we find others.
To ease into our time here, and to begin to get historical and geographical contexts, we took a bus tour of the city. Before we started the drive, we looked out from the roof of Tantur, which proved to be a unique and appropriate place to begin. We’re on the southern side of Jerusalem, just near Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank – Palestinian territory. This means that there’s an enormous cement wall along the border of the towns. Even from the very first moments of our pilgrimage, it’s clear that it’s going to be a time of both great joy and division – feeling connected to the countless descendants of Abraham who have come before us, but also seeing the multitude of gulfs that we have since created among us.
We went all over the city to spots where important stories in the Hebrew Bible might have happened and many pilgrims have walked ever since, seeking deeper understanding and connection to God, others, and themselves. Why do I say “might have,” if many religious people of all faiths think that the holy texts are infallible? Sometimes, the scripture simply doesn’t match the archeological findings – or there are no findings at all. This is hugely uncomfortable. Upsetting. Perhaps even shaking to the core. But, as our first of many teachers in the land (an American-born Jewish man named Jared who has now lived in Jerusalem for the last 20 years) told us, “There are questions we need to ask and answers we need to seek” – even when both are perplexing.
If we seek to know all the answers and will drop our beliefs if we cannot corroborate every last detail, why is faith necessary? But at the same time, when do we loosen our grips on steadfast beliefs? Having a narrative that you hold onto strongly can get in the way of even acknowledging that other narratives exist. Doesn’t that sound like a bit of a one-sentence summary of tensions among the 3 Abrahamic faiths, especially in the last century in the context of these coordinates that are said to be holy?
We’ve been warned: This trip will be beautiful, difficult, and confusing. According to Jared, many people with strong faith backgrounds – whose very identities are based on what did (or, perhaps, did not) happen here – can find the experience of coming to the Holy Land a letdown. Here’s to trying to enter each day without expectations, and instead with a sense of open-handed humility and faith (something that seeks trust rather than certainty).
“He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
– Psalm 46:9-11 (ESV)