He who would valiant be …

I had never seen myself as a pilgrim. I’m too low church to do saints and martyrs: for me it’s the boss man or nothing, which really limits the range of pilgrimage activity to Israel. (Or the Americas if you’re Mormon, but alas, what can I say?) But even if I went to Israel, I thought, what wouId do when I got there? I understood (correctly) that very little survives of anything Jesus might have seen or touched. Even if it’s a confirmed Jesus location – and I have severe doubts about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – it’s all either about 30 feet below present day street level, or buried beneath a church (or in extreme cases an entire religious community). So it came as quite a surprise to find myself not only going to Israel on a pilgrimage, but going for a good cause as well.

Damascus gate

A case in point about Jerusalem street levels: the Damascus Gate. At bottom left you can just see the top of the NT era gateway.

What changed? One was reading about the Western Wall Tunnel, a tour you can take of the very foundations of the Temple Mount, including the blocked-up Warren’s Gate. Jesus may or may not have been born on the site of the Church of the Nativity; the church suspended over the ruins of Capernaum may or may not be bang over the home of Peter’s mother in law. These things are unknowable. But, unless he levitated into the Temple (and the gospels are pretty silent on the subject if he did), Jesus walked through that gate. I wanted to see it.

Another was learning about McCabe Pilgrimages, who do an all-in trip at a very reasonable rate. And we were making holiday plans for 2014. And … Anyway, a pilgrimage to Israel it was.

There was another reason too, which I’ll come to in a later post.

Stepson asked if every day would include readings from The Pilgrim’s Progress. I said no, and asked why he thought it might. He replied that it was the only book he could think of about pilgrims.

“What about The Canterbury Tales?”

“Is that about pilgrims? But it’s got rude bits …”

The Golan Heights across the Sea of Galilee, 6am on our first morning from our room

The Golan Heights across the Sea of Galilee, 6am on our first morning from our room

Anyway. And so it came to pass that we spent two nights in Tiberias, at the wonderful 4-star Ron Beach Hotel, and five in Jerusalem, travelling with a group to explore Biblical sites, which is the best way to do pilgrimage. Unless you’re inclined to solitary meditation, you need the fellowship. Sharing communion and singing hymns on top of the (possible) Mount of the Beatitudes is a powerful experience. Our time in Galilee incorporated the Mount, Capernaum, Magdala (where we were pleased to see a church is under construction dedicated to Mary Magdalene and all the women of the Bible) and the Church of Multiplication, the (possible) location of the miracle of loaves and fishes.

(Typing “possible”, “alleged” or “traditional” will become wearisome after a while. From here on, I’ll take a page from our guide’s book and mostly present everything as fact, leaving it to you to work out what I actually believe, what is commonly held by many to be true though I disagree, and what I dismiss as utter nonsense.)

Walking around the Sea of Galilee

Walking around the Sea of Galilee

But it also included a walk of a couple of miles along the lake shore, through the kind of scrubby, sun-dried landscape that the original crowds would have known, and that was when the pilgrimage really began to sink in. I should have said that very little manmade survives of Jesus’s times. Well, what does survive very definitely is the geography. The gospel writers never mention – possibly because they knew it so well that it was hardly worth mentioning – that the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by high ground which plunges down into the water. Every lakeside scene would have had the land rising sharply behind it, and the rising land lends itself wonderfully to acoustics. In places you can clearly hear a normal speaking voice some 50 metres away; you can understand how Jesus preached to multitudes there.

And here we see a small flock of nuns in their natural habitat, sunning themselves on the rocks.

And here we see a small flock of nuns in their natural habitat, sunning themselves on the rocks.

And I felt I could understand why Jesus spent so much of his ministry in this place. Even for a hard working fisherman, Galilee on a quiet day is marvellously serene and quiet. Jesus needed somewhere to start introducing his life- and world-changing ministry where he wouldn’t immediately be drowned out by the next loud voice. He chose an environment where fresh ideas can quietly settle into people’s heads, soaking in and refreshing like the morning dew.

The Judean Wilderness, or the Wilderness of Judea, take your pick

The Judean Wilderness, or the Wilderness of Judea, take your pick

Geography also cut in later on in the trip, when we ventured east past Jerusalem into the Judean wilderness. Beyond the watershed of the Judean mountains, where moisture from the Mediterranean no longer blows, the land turns suddenly harsh and dry, arid and sunbaked, pure geology in front of your eyes. It’s land that would burn away the irrelevancies from the life of anyone who spent time there.

It’s the geography of the Holy Land that will stay with me for a long time, and that alone is worth a pilgrimage for.

Sebaste, on the Hill of Samaria

Sebaste, on the Hill of Samaria

After Tiberias we travelled south over the fertile plains and hills of the West Bank to Jerusalem, stopping at Sebaste (capital of Samaria, where Herod Antipas enjoyed the dancing) and Shechem (location of Jacob’s Well and Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman).

Jacob's Well, naturally enough in the basement of a church

Jacob’s Well, naturally enough in the basement of a church

I drank from Jacob’s Well and, in accordance with scriptural prophecy, felt thirsty again. In the church there is a relic of St Photini, the woman Jesus spoke to at the well. Opinion is divided on whether it’s a bit of skull or kneecap but, hey, relic.

In Jerusalem we stayed at the Palestinian-owned Golden Walls Hotel, just outside the north wall close to the Damascus Gate. This has its own pilgrimage significance as it is where General Charles Gordon was sitting one day when he noticed that a nearby rock face – now at the back of a bus station – looked roughly skull-like, and of course Golgotha was the Place of the Skull. Being a decisive man of action (and as Generals will do, once they get an idea into their heads) he decided that QED this must be the place where Christ was crucified, not the seething, Crusader-blingtastic tastefail of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. More on that later.

Jacob's Well

Unspecified body fragment of St Photini. Poor Photini, I knew her well. Geddit?

As well as all the expected religious sites I particularly wanted to see the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum. Oh my. You know the saying that before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes? (That way, when you criticise them they’re a mile away and you’ve got their shoes …) Yad Vashem lets you walk 2000 years in the shoes of the Israelis. And yes, you can still criticise them, because they should be criticised – but you can start to see where they’re coming from too.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem. The triangular thing is one end of the subterranean museum.

It doesn’t just throw you into the Holocaust – oh no. You would walk straight into that with all your defences on full and miss half the impact. You need to be softened up first. And so our guide, a sweet Jewish lady from the ancient tribe of Mancunian, started centuries ago with church-sponsored anti-semitism, then a whistlestop tour up to the 1930s, and then it hits you, from the first anti-Jew laws and the gradual erosion of rights up to the mass deportations and industrial-scale exterminations. And of course, nothing was magically cured just because the war ended, so we get the unhappy experiences of the British Mandate before finally, we reach 1948 and the foundation of the state.

The penultimate stop is the hall of records. Yad Vashem is mandated by law to give a name and identity to every Jewish victim of the Holocaust. They are pretty sure they won’t make it; too many have died, taking their memories with them. But they’ve got to >4m out of 6m, which ain’t bad, and they intend to keep going.

Yad Vashem

The light at the end of the tunnel

All this, I should have said, involves working your way along a not overly bright subterranean tunnel. Finally you emerge into the light and onto a balcony overlooking Jerusalem. Symbolism? What symbolism?

I wasn’t expecting sweetness and light, but I also wasn’t expecting to be moved to tears. Two items came damn close. The first was the story of a talented teenage artist called Petr Ginz, born 1928. One of his paintings was a moonscape and you can see it by following the link: this boy dreamed of going into space. He died in Auschwitz aged 16, but his painting did make it into space, taken there by an Israeli astronaut. And that was the point where I nearly lost it, because I know my space shuttle history, and I knew the only mission to take an Israeli astronaut was Columbia’s last. Sure enough, our guide said, both picture and astronaut were lost when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.

The second item was the Children’s Memorial. A circular passageway takes you around a handful of lit candles, only 3 or 4, but the passageway is lined with mirrors in near pitch dark. The reflections of the flames above and below and all around you make it like you’re walking through the firmament. Meanwhile a disembodied voice reads the name, age and place of dying of every known child victim of the Holocaust.

This is turning into a long post so I’ll deal with what actually brought us to Jerusalem in another one. But Yad Vashem is a bum note to end on, so: that evening at the hotel we were treated to a “traditional” Arab feast, Leilat Sultan. Everyone got given a cardboard crown to wear and one of them had SULTAN written inside the rim. The lucky man was Sultan for the evening, and guess who that turned out to be?

Fezzes are cool!

Fezzes are cool!

Perks of being Sultan were to be first in line for the food and leading off the dancing, and choosing my Queen for the evening. Of course there could be only one contender for that vacancy and she looked beautiful in her Queenly robes and jewels. As for me. I wore a fez, and fezzes are, as everyone knows, cool.

Watch this space for part 2 …

A necessary correction

I’ve met a few reasonably well known and/or important people in my time. Most of them are of an authorial persuasion. I have been recognised by Philip Pullman and I’ve sat opposite Terry Pratchett at dinner. Of a non-authorial nature, the great and the good of Northern Ireland used to pass through our dinner parties with monotonous regularity. One I particularly remember included the Northern Ireland Minister and the Chief Constable of the RUC, whose jokes were judged so off colour by Mrs Minister that she threw a wobbly and demanded to be taken home (whereupon Chief Constable apologised profusely to my mother, who said that’s okay and could he possibly finish the joke?).

But all this was as a clanging bell on Saturday when I got to meet Michael Green. Michael Green! One of the greatest Christian apologists of all time! (And no, that doesn’t mean he keeps saying sorry for it.) I was reading his books when I was a kid. I can’t remember anything about them, mind you, but I know they’re there. They’re like the hidden foundations of a mighty building. You don’t need to know what they look like.

And I was bursting with pride, not because of meeting him, but because he came into the church, and he greeted my lovely wife by name, and she introduced him to me.

And then …

He was leading a seminar on the general topic of “how to share your faith without sounding stupid or putting people off”. Well, that might as well have been the title. Someone asks why you’re a believer? He suggested a number of non-jargony, non-judgemental responses. One of which was to cite the fact (his word, not mine) thefact of intelligent design in creation.

Oh, Michael, what went wrong?

You could cite the fact of a widespread perception of intelligent design. That would present no problem. Others may disagree but you’ve got your talking point. And I must hasten to add he’s of an entirely different intellectual order to the Sarah Palin brigade; I don’t see him raising any controversy about whether or not to teach it alongside evolution in science classes.

But, fact? No. It was like he was ticking Richard Dawkins’s boxes. “Something as complex as an eye …” St Dawkins has shown, quite convincingly, in his epistles unto The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, that actually something as complex as an eye can evolve. And to show that the Blessed Richard isn’t just mouthing theory, St David of Attenborough the other day on TV actually showed examples of animals with light-sensing organs that are, we could say, eyes at different stages of evolution.

My position? Well, we’re working our way through the final series of The West Wing on DVD. To quote Congressman Santos, “I believe in God and I believe he’s intelligent”. Later in the same episode he defines his position with a few well chosen words that wouldn’t be news to any Christian at my church but which apparently takes the American media by storm:

“Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It’s a religious belief and our constitution does not allow for the teaching of religion in our public schools…. Evolution is not perfect, It doesn’t answer every question but it is based on scientific facts. Facts that can be predicted, tested and proven. Intelligent Design asks theological questions. I’m sure that many of us would agree that at the beginning of all that begetting something begun. What was that something?”

(quote half-inched from The West Wing wiki)

No, my faith isn’t left in tattered shreds. The Blessed Richard is impeccable on biology but in areas outside his self-taught expertise, including the whole vast arena of theological discourse, he is so gloriously, wonderfully wrong that Mr Green still wins by several thousand points.

I just dock a few.

Rites and wrongs

I came across this link on Liz Williams’s Diary of a Witchcraft Shop in Avalon (i.e. Glastonbury): “Dysfunctional Behaviour and the Pagan Scene”. I’d like to be able to quote from it here, in a number of places, but the owner specifically asks that people ask permission before quoting and hasn’t replied to my request. So I’ll just have to recommend you look at it, and make the following points. The author says (my interpretation):

  1. People too often join a pagan circle hoping to find it full of superior types rather than normal, doing-their-best types just like them. Depending on the level of dysfunctionality of the circle and/or the newcomers, at best this can lead to disillusion, at worst to active abuse.
  2. By a strange paradox, dysfunctional groups don’t have to try as hard as functional ones to succeed and therefore last longer. By being permanently in crisis and not having to work hard to ride out storms, deal with conflict etc. they survive where much better groups fail.
  3. Newcomers are drawn in by a misunderstanding of what is on offer. They want a love spell but don’t want to be more loveable. They want a spell to make them rich without having to work harder or be better at their work.
  4. The right (or rather, wrong) mentality can quite easily take a good, healthy proposition like “Love your neighbour” and corrupt it – vide the Inquisition. Thus even the positive, life affirming ideals of a good pagan circle can be twisted to justify obnoxious, anti-social behaviour.

… and it strikes me that all of these can apply just as much to churches. Just do a find-and-replace on the terminology and it matches. In fact it quite possibly fits even more belief systems than just our two but these are the two I’ll concentrate on at the moment. Unrealistic expectations on both sides, unwillingness to take the rough with the smooth …

Let’s just say they’re problems to look out for.

One area where we see completely eye to eye is the notion that to do it properly it must have meaning. It must be relevant to your life. That also means you must be free to ask questions and you must accept that just because person X does thing Y in way Z, that doesn’t mean everyone does, or should. You can be trapped in the form and the ritual.

There are several testimonies on this site from young pagans who were raised as Christians, or at least contemplated it, but found what they were getting in church couldn’t hold a candle to what they got from a simple walk in the woods. In many cases that could be because the church was in fact doing it properly, and good for it: they wanted power and all the church could offer was humility, so they went somewhere with comforting rituals that at least give the impression of being in charge. See point 3 above. But I’ve also been in some churches which have as much to offer the modern world as King Herod had to offer the youth ministry, when they should be able to offer so much more. Could it be, I dare ask myself, that they’re trapped in their own rituals and therefore don’t have anything to offer a genuine seeker? It’s not just the pagans who have rituals, y’know. A ritual may be jumping naked backwards over a bonfire while the moon shines above the Eye Stone or it may be singing a chorus in a key that makes dogs in nearby villages bark, and then shifts after the bridge to a key that actively knocks bats out of the sky, and that’s before you even reach the fifth repetition.

Nor does it help if the automatic response of the church in question is to threaten such notions with eternal punishment in Hell …

Just saying.